Efraim Karsh was for many years professor of Middle East studies at Kings College London, and is now professor of political studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. He has the striking ability to render a dense and complex subject, such as the politics of the post-Ottoman Middle East, in readable prose. But even more laudable has been his success at challenging the conventional interpretations of Arab and Islamic history.
Though Islam was a conquering political religion that dominated vast sections of the globe for 1,000 years, Arab intellectuals and their allies in Western universities write of Islam as if it has been a timeless victim of Western imperialism. Reading the likes of Rashid Khalidi, Malise Ruthven, and Juan Cole, you might think that—in the long run—the Christians actually won the Crusades. Whatever the topic—from the creation of the modern Middle East to the origins of Israel to the sources of terrorism—these writers maintain that the Arab and Islamic world has always been the hapless victim of Western wiles.
Among the prolific Karsh’s notable books have been his Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (1999), Islamic Imperialism: A History (2006), Palestine Betrayed (2010), and The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East (2015). The title of his last book captures a counterintuitive theme running through Karsh’s work. He argues that the Arabs and Islam haven’t been mere corks on the international political ocean. Rather, as with the Arab Spring, they’ve played an active role in creating the waves that all the players—the big powers included—have had to respond to. Karsh understands better than anyone the local conditions and local interests that have created the currents of Middle East politics.
In the fall 2016 issue of Middle East Quarterly, Karsh put his incisive style to good use in an essay titled, “Why the Oslo Process Doomed Peace.” The nearly quarter-century-old Oslo Accords have done nothing to reduce the frequency of terror attacks inspired by the Islamist hate-filled diatribes of Fatah and Hamas. Israel has been forced to fight the full-fledged terror war known as the “al-Aqsa Intifada” (set off because Jews were supposedly defiling the Jerusalem mosque of the same name) and three short lived wars with Hamas. Oslo did nothing to prevent the economic decline of the West Bank due to Fatah’s corrupt and inept rule, or the birth of “a new generation of Palestinians brought up on vile anti-Jewish (and anti-Israel) incitement unparalleled in scope and intensity since Nazi Germany.”
The agreement’s failure—gauzy rhetoric aside—was apparent from the start. “The greatest test of the accord will not be in the intellectual sphere. Rather, it will be a test of blood,” said Yossi Beilin, the chief Israeli architect of Oslo, shortly after the “peace process” was initiated. It quickly failed that test. In just three years—from the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993 to the fall of the Labor government in 1996—the number of Israelis killed by Palestinians tripled. By the time of Arafat’s death in 2004—four years after he rejected Ehud Barak’s peace offer—the al-Aqsa war had become “the bloodiest and most destructive confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians since 1948,” writes Karsh. The intifada “had exacted 1,028 Israeli lives in some 5,760 attacks—nine times the average death toll of the pre-Oslo era. Of these, about 450 people (or 43.8 percent of victims) were killed in suicide bombings—a practically unheard of tactic in the Palestinian-Israeli context prior to Oslo.”
Karsh’s explanation is that Oslo displaced the “inside Palestinians,” the West Bankers and Gazans who experienced both economic growth and the workings of Israeli democracy. In the 1970s, “the West Bank and Gaza were the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world, ahead of such wonders as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea,” Karsh notes. “Israel’s prolonged rule had given the ‘inside’ Palestinians a far more realistic and less extreme perspective.” Israel should have elevated and empowered these Palestinians. Instead, just as the PLO was being shunned in the Sunni Arab world because of “its support for Iraq’s brutal occupation of Kuwait,” Israel turned power over to the ideologically driven meld of Islamist and Third Worldist “outsiders” camped out in Tunis. The outsiders “upheld the extremist dream of returning to their 1948 dwellings at the cost of Israel’s destruction.” Arafat’s vision was to turn the West Bank and Gaza into springboards of “a popular armed revolution” that would “force the Zionists to realize that it is impossible for them to live in Israel.”
“Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership viewed the Oslo process not as a springboard to peace but as a ‘Trojan Horse’ . . . designed to promote the organization’s strategic goal of ‘Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea’—that is, a Palestine in place of Israel,” writes Karsh. Even as Arafat engaged in the performance art of shaking hands with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a pre-recorded Arabic-language Arafat was telling the Palestinians that the agreement was merely an implementation of the organization’s “phased strategy” of June 1974. This stipulated that the Palestinians would use whatever territory Israel surrendered to them to achieve further territorial gains in service of the ultimate goal: “complete liberation of Palestine.”
Thanks to the foolishness of his Western interlocutors, Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas were able to play this double game for nearly a quarter century. Thanks to Efraim Karsh, anyone who is interested can understand why the game has had tragic results for the Palestinians. For their part, the vast majority of Israelis have ceased to be amused by the self-destructive Arab antics.
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