Avraham (Avi) Shlaim was born to wealthy Jewish parents in Baghdad, Iraq. The family lived in a mansion with ten servants. His father was an importer of building materials with ties to the Iraqi leadership, including then-prime minister Nuri al-Said. After a grenade was thrown into the central synagogue in Baghdad in 1951, Shlaim's father was one of 100,000 Jews who registered to leave the country and surrender their citizenship. A subsequent law ruled that all those who left forfeited all rights, including property rights. The Shlaim family lost all their assets. His father crossed the border illegally on a mule, while Shlaim, his mother and sisters flew to Cyprus, reuniting in Israel.
Shlaim left Israel for England at the age of 16 to study at a Jewish school. He returned to Israel in the mid-1960s to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, then moved back to England in 1966 to read history at Jesus College, Cambridge. He obtained his MA and married the great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George, who was the British prime minister at the time of the Balfour Declaration. He has lived in England ever since, and holds dual British and Israeli nationality.
Shlaim taught International Relations at Reading University, specialising in European issues. His academic interest in the history of Israel began in 1982, when Israeli government archives about the 1948 Arab–Israeli War were opened, an interest that deepened when he became a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford in 1987. He was the Alastair Buchan Reader in International Relations at Oxford from 1987 to 1996, and the Director of Graduate Studies in that subject in 1993–1995 and 1998–2001. In 1995–97, he held a British Academy Research Readership in 1995–97, a Research Professorship in 2003–2006. In 2006, he was elected Fellow of the British Academy.
Shlaim served as an outside examiner on the doctoral thesis of Ilan Pappé, another notable New Historian. Shlaim's approach to the study of history is informed by his belief that, "[t]he job of the historian is to judge."
He is a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper, and signed an open letter to that paper in January 2009 condemning Israel's role in the Gaza War.
Josef Heller and Yehoshua Porath have stated that Shlaim "misleads his readers with arguments that Israel had missed the opportunity for peace while the Arabs are strictly peace seekers".
According to Gelber, Shlaim 's claim that there was a deliberate and pre-meditated anti-Palestinian “collusion” between the Jewish Agency and King Abdullah, is unequivocally refuted by the documentary evidence on the development of contacts between Israel and Jordan before, during and after the war.Marc Lynch however wrote that "the voluminous evidence in [Gelber's] book does not allow so conclusive a verdict".
Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine (winner of the 1988 Political Studies Association's W. J. M. Mackenzie Prize)
The Politics of Partition (1990 and 1998)
War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History (1995)
The Cold War and the Middle East (co-editor, 1997)
The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001)
Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace (London: Allen Lane, 2007)
Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (London: Verso, 2009)
^Joseph Heller (2000). The Birth of Israel, 1945–1949: Ben-Gurion and His Critics. University Press of Florida. p. 306. ISBN0813017327.
^"'The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man': Historical Fabrication and an Anti-Zionist Myth", Shai Afsai, Shofar, Vol. 30, No. 3; 2012, pp. 35–61
^Yoav Gelber (July 2009). "The Israeli-Arab War of 1948 : The Collusion That Never Was". http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org. "Shlaim’s conjecture of a deliberate and pre-meditated anti-Palestinian “collusion” does not stand up to a critical examination. The documentary evidence on the development of contacts between Israel and Jordan before, during and after the war unequivocally refutes Shlaim’s conclusions. If there was any collusion against the Palestinians in 1948, it was not concocted by Israel and Abdullah but rather, by Britain and Transjordan. The outcomes reveal that the British acquiescence to a Transjordanian takeover of Arab Palestine was merely a choice by default rather than a plot. "