Jonathan Fryer

Avi Shlaim, 9/11 and the Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th September, 2012

Professor Avi Shlaim is one of the most learned and liberal Jewish commentators on the history and reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict so it was a pleasure to share a platform with him yesterday at a seminar put on by the Forum for International Relations Development (FIRD) in North Cheam to mark the anniversary of 9/11. Dr Shlaim’s central argument was that George W Bush’s response to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, launching a “War on Terror”, was disastrously misguided. Terror is a tactic not an entity, and one cannot have a war against a tactic. Moreover, demonising Osama bin Laden — whom the Americans had funded when he was fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan —  fuelled the new global divide that Samuel P Huntington had simplisticly described as the Clash of Civilizations. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, indeed the Iraqi Ba’ath Party was hostile to Al Qaeda’s ideology, yet that did not stop Bush invading Iraq. That war was clearly illegal, Prof Shlaim declared, and he endorsed Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s call for Tony Blair to be brought before the International Criminal Court for war crimes. But the major part of Dr Shlaim’s talk focused on the way that the failure to resolve the Palestinian question — a situation made even worse by ongoing Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — prevents a normalisation of relations between the West and the Arab world, as well as contributing to the sort of extreme radicalism against which FIRD campaigns. Not surprisingly, the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came in for some withering criticism, as did Israel’s threats to bomb Iran. My own brief remarks at the seminar were in a sense a warm-up act for Dr Shlaim, but I recalled flying to Beirut the morning after 9/11 on a Middle East Airways plane, most of whose passengers had decided not to turn up for the flight. Those of us who did were welcomed warmly on arrival in Lebanon, but the Lebanese were nervous that they might be attacked because of 9/11. So often in the Middle East it is people who have nothing to do with violent acts who find themselves at the receiving end of retaliation.

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