Efraim Karsh is a scholar of Middle Eastern history who has published 15 books and dozens of articles on various aspects of the region. A controversial figure for challenging what he called “the Arabist establishment,” Karsh takes issue with the view that much of the Middle East’s plight is the result of western involvement, arguing that the people of the Middle East are primarily responsible for their own societies and policies. Karsh serves as a director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, professor emeritus of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College London and as professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. He was in Canada recently to address an audience at the University of Toronto.
Your address at the University of Toronto is titled “Back to Basic: Rethinking the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” What is the premise behind that title?
My premise is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not inevitable. My argument is that the Palestinians and the Jews have been betrayed by the Palestinian Arab leadership, by the Arab states and by the international community.
First and foremost, Great Britain didn’t keep up to the terms of the mandate it got in 1922 to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. If it behaved differently, the conflict might have been averted, because most of the Palestinian Arabs were not interested in confronting Jews and would have readily coexisted with them despite all the problems around.
So is it your position that there wasn’t popular Palestinian support for the conflict against Israel?
Yes. If you look at the violence that was there when the mandate began and in 1948, we see that most Palestinian Arabs were not involved. It was a small minority who perpetrated the violence, led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, who headed the supreme religious council created by the British on the promise he would mediate and lead to a peaceful relationship between the Jews and the Arabs. But, of course, he did the opposite.
In the 1936-39 mass riots, you had a good number of Arabs who hid Jews who were under threat. You had Jews hiding Arabs that had to flee because the Arab gangs were enforcing rule over the Palestinian Arabs. If you look at 1936-39 – what some Arab historians call the first intifada – you see that 10 times as many Palestinian Arabs were killed by their brothers than Jews. They killed a few hundred Jews, they killed a few thousand Arabs.
Why was the Palestinian leadership so intent on starting a conflict?
Because of corruption. It was power-hungry, it was anti-Semitic. I don’t say that the ordinary Palestinians didn’t have biases and prejudices against Jews going back to the Qur’an. But they benefited a lot from the Jewish presence in Palestine. Their standard of living went up several times. Their life expectancy went up. On the eve of the First World War, and even after, the life expectancy was about 34 years. In 1942, it was already 52, and it’s largely because of the Jewish infrastructure, the health infrastructure and the other infrastructure that allowed it.
The Jews drained the marshes. In the late 1920s, you have fewer Arabs dying in one small province than 10 years earlier, when there were 20 times as many dying.
In places where the Jews lived – in the big cities like Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem – you had a huge increase in Arab Palestinian people moving there in the 1920s and ‘30s. In Haifa, it was 80 per cent growth, in Jaffa it was 60 per cent, Jerusalem was 34 per cent. In purely Arab areas, like Gaza, Nablus and so on, you had a decline.
Did they come from other parts of the country or did they come from outside?
In the 1820s and ’30s, you had a large migration from Egypt when Muhammad Ali, the governor, occupied Palestine and tried to overthrow the Ottoman Empire. You had tens of thousands of Egyptian
fellahin, or peasants, go there to live. These are the people who live today in Gaza and other places, even in Jaffa.
Then you had a good number of people who migrated from North Africa when the French came. You have all these people with the name Mughrabi, which is from the Maghreb (Northwest Africa).
And then, of course, you have all these people coming in the early 1920s from the Haran, from the Golan. Then you had a large migration over the ages, who came with the Arab invasion. Then you had a certain number of Jews who converted to Islam over time.
So they were definitely not there from biblical times. It is only the Palestinian Authority who are saying it. Palestinian national identity is recent. Even in 1948 it didn’t exist. Had it existed, they wouldn’t have lost so decisively. They just took their things and left.
You say they took their things and left, but there are historians, including Israeli historians, who say they were pushed out in 1948.
In my book, I set out to the village level – where they left, how they left. The overriding majority just fled. You have a small amount of people who were expelled from certain places. Lydda was a famous story.
You have this five to 10 per cent, then you have 20 to 30 per cent who were expelled by themselves. Haifa was a famous case. The Jews pleaded with them to stay and their leadership said “No, you leave.”
Similar things happened in Tiberias and in Jaffa, in Jerusalem, and then you had a lot of villages. You had a pan-Arab force coming to help them, and they took over a lot of villages and kicked them out because they wanted to turn them into military strongholds.
Seventy per cent fled, 20 to 25 per cent were expelled by Arabs and five per cent were expelled by Jews.
That’s contrary to the narrative that’s out there right now, promoted even by many Israelis. Why would Israelis adopt it if the facts say differently?
They think people will like them and they will get foreign invitations to speak, foreign sabbaticals and so forth.
I wrote a book 20-something years ago that created a big debate. I called it Fabricating Israeli History. I found out by chance that they are fabricating documents in order to prove this point.
Who are you talking about?
The so-called new historians. Ben Gurion said we don’t have to expel the Arabs. They write, we have to expel the Arabs. And no one put them on the line, before me, on this issue.
I don’t have a political agenda. I want what they want – peace, a two-state solution – but you can’t falsify your history in order to be liked by others. What they did, basically, was adopt the Arab narrative, and the Arab narrative won.
You said in 1948 the average Arab didn’t want war with the Jews. But given the barrage of anti-Israel propaganda they experience on a daily basis, has that changed?
Look, I was a supporter of Oslo. I didn’t realize it was a hoax at the beginning. At a certain point, I did, and then I wrote a book – I called it Arafat’s War – in which I examined how Yasser Arafat saw the war, not what we think he wanted.
When Oslo came, there was huge support for peace in the West Bank. They were opposed to terror attacks for several years. They were opposed to the right of return. So if Arafat took the mandate and established what Israel wanted him to do, a decent Palestinian state or entity, I think we might have had peace today. But, of course, he never intended to do that and he started brainwashing them, and it continues to this very day.
Did the U.S. embassy move affect the prospects for peace in any way?
I don’t think Trump will leave an impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In the final account, it is beyond America and all the great powers. It boils down to the Palestinians, who are not interested in making peace. And so, as long as you don’t change their minds, there won’t be peace.
So how do you see the future evolving?
Basically, you have to do conflict management. You have to survive until more decent Palestinian leadership comes about.
In the last few years, it looks like some of the Sunni countries, like Saudi Arabia, are less hostile to Israel than before. Is that tactical, because they share the same enemy, Iran, or is it something more long-lasting?
It is tactical, in a way. But in a final account, it goes back to the betrayal of the Palestinians. The Arab world never cared about the Palestinians. All the wars were not to support the Palestinians, they were against Israel.
Now, they are threatened by Iran, and it’s tactical. Hopefully it continues and develops and we see more benefits from this alliance. But I wouldn’t bet my neck on it. In certain circumstances, it could be reversed.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.