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IA-Forum Interview: Professor Efraim Karsh
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IA-Forum discusses current Middle East issues with Efraim Karsh, Professor and Head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King's College, University of London. By Bobby Bazemore. (IA-Forum, 03/21/2007) Prof. Karsh has held various academic posts at Harvard and Columbia universities, the Sorbonne, the London School of Economics, Helsinki University, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington D.C., and the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel-Aviv University. Professor Karsh has published extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, Soviet foreign policy, and European neutrality. Professor Karsh is a regular commentator to the media, has appeared on all the main radio and television networks in the United Kingdom and the United States, and has contributed articles to leading newspapers, including The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The London Times, The Sunday Times, and The Daily Telegraph. International Affairs-Forum: First of all welcome, and thank you for taking the time to meet with us. Professor Efraim Karsh: You’re very welcome. IA-Forum: Following on the heels of the Mecca Agreement, Hamas and Fatah have recently established a unity government. What do you think its chances of success are? Professor Karsh: Well that depends on how you judge success. The Mecca Agreement is basically an internal Palestinian agreement, designed to stop the bloodshed amongst the rival Palestinian factions – in this respect it has been temporarily successful. Secondly, it was signed to create the appearance of a national unity government in order to break the international blockade of the Hamas-led government. This too may prove to be temporarily successful, but over the long run Hamas and Fatah are rivals for leadership, and since the Palestinian political system is a far cry from democracy, violence will eventually be resumed, much in the way Iraqis are settling their domestic affairs at the moment. But I suppose one of your underlying questions is whether this agreement can lead to some kind of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement? I don’t think it will. You must remember that Hamas does not accept Israel’s right to exist. The problem is of course that, under Arafat and Abu Mazen, Fatah has managed to mislead the international community into believing that its principle interest lies in peace and the problem is limited to Hamas; but in practical terms there is not much difference between the two groups. To return to your original question, one must bear in mind that there is a violent jockeying for national power between these two factions and they are going to maintain this rivalry for the foreseeable future, which means that sooner or later violence will return. But I suppose that temporarily the Mecca Agreement has been successful in the sense that it has stopped the present round of violence. It has also managed to mislead part of the European community into believing that this national unity government will be more moderate, hence is a legitimate partner for a political dialogue. But I do not think there is much more to it than that. IA-Forum: When analyzing Hamas’s political victory during the 2006 Palestinian elections, some view their success as a result of Fatah’s inability to make meaningful progress with Israel… Professor Karsh: This is of course the inversion of the truth, first and foremost because Hamas is opposed to peace with Israel. If you go back to the 1990’s and the suicide bombings that began in 1994 that were led by Hamas, they were designed to stop peace, not promote it. Tell me, how conceivably can suicide bombings promote an environment of peace? The notion that Hamas has gained any political ground as a result of Fatah’s inability to promote peace is ridiculous. The Palestinians who voted for Hamas do not expect it to promote peace; they expect Hamas to stop the peace process dead in its tracks, so the entire premise behind this argument is complete nonsense. Hamas succeeded at the polls because it has been a better political player than Fatah and because it is seen to be less corrupt. Going back to 1994, Arafat made a mistake by not fighting Hamas or attempting to reduce their political power. Instead he allowed it to carry out attacks against Israel because Arafat thrived on anarchy and mayhem. It’s like riding the tiger’s back – eventually you are devoured by the tiger. That is exactly what happened to Fatah. It has nothing to do with the peace process. As I said, the Palestinians did not vote Hamas into power to promote peace, they voted for Hamas to continue what it has been doing for years. IA-Forum: How do you respond to opinions that Hamas’s success at the polls was directly related to Hamas’s own decision to assume a “legitimate” role in Palestinian politics? Professor Karsh: Hamas has been involved in Palestinians politics for nearly 50 years as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. They became more politically active during the intifada of the late 1980’s, but in one way or another Hamas has always been involved in Palestinian politics. So no, I don’t subscribe to this argument either. IA-Forum: Do you think Hamas could play any positive role in Palestinian politics? Professor Karsh: As I said, Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel and it is not going to stop fighting Israel until this goal is achieved. Since this goal will not be achieved in the foreseeable future, Hamas condemns Palestinian society to misery and statelessness. This recalcitrance is the reason why the Palestinians have been stateless for 100 years. In the 1920’s when the Arab-Israeli conflict began, the leading Palestinian figure was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who in fact was the most influential Palestinian leader of the 20th century. The burden of placing the Palestinians on this course of uncompromising collision with the Zionist movement lies squarely on his shoulders, and it is Husseini who has transformed the Arab-Jewish conflict into a religious, and not only a national or territorial, dispute. As a result of this the Palestinians have failed to obtain their own state in 1937, 1947/48, 1978, 2000, and so on and so forth. The same is true of Hamas now. So no, I do not think it is playing a positive role from the Palestinian point of view because it will continue to condemn them to misery and statelessness. Whether the Palestinians will be able to destroy the state of Israel in 100 or 200 years I don’t know; we are not going to be around to witness this. But until then the Palestinians will remain stateless as they have been over the last 100 years. To recap, I do not believe Hamas can play any positive role in Palestinian politics. On the contrary, I think the movement is highly detrimental to the Palestinian national cause. IA-Forum: And what about the Palestinians getting their own domestic house in order, do you think Fatah and Hamas can work together to achieve any semblance of progress? Professor Karsh: No. After all, this is not a democratic society. More often than not people fail to realize this. They look at the Palestinian territories and they treat them as if this they were Europe or some other western liberal democracy; but they are not. This is a paternal society riven by deep schisms, a society where the law of the gun reigns supreme. One must bear in mind that Hamas is not a political party – call it what you will, a terrorist or guerilla organization, but this is an armed militia. Can you imagine elections here in Britain where Labour and Conservative are armed to the teeth and roam the streets of London executing political opponents? Whether you accept it or not this is the reality of Palestinian politics. These groups have to be disarmed to make way for a viable Palestinian state. And this, by the way, was the basis for the Oslo accords of September 1993. Arafat was committed to do it, and there were several follow-up agreements signed in the 1990’s where this obligation to disarm the Palestinian militias was repeated time and again, but he didn’t do it. Arafat wanted anarchy, and he got it. It’s like I said before, Arafat thrived on anarchy, and the repercussions of this are very clear. So before Hamas and Fatah disarm and submit to the rule of law, I think any “success” will remain speculative. IA-Forum: Touching on Oslo, it has been argued that Hamas has stopped military actions against Israeli civilians, publicly declared twice in the last two years they are willing to move forward with Oslo and backed a resolution that will provide the Palestinians with a state according to 1967 borders. Your response? Professor Karsh: Well Hamas did occasionally stop fighting. They stopped fighting because they often went over the top and murdered too many Israelis and Arafat was forced to rein them in. But these measures were only temporary – after a short time Arafat would release these criminals back into Palestinian society. Second, they stopped whenever Israel was effectively clamping down on them and driving them underground. They were willing to accept these ceasefires, but of course only temporarily, in order to rearm and resume fighting at their convenience. Then there is the issue of a longer ceasefire, or a hudna, as they call it, an armistice. This is a Qur’anic concept going back to the days of the Prophet Muhammad. It is based on temporary agreements he made with the infidels, only to renege on them at a moment of his choosing, and this is precisely what Hamas is referring to when stating its readiness to move forward with Oslo. In fact Arafat himself described the Oslo accords as a hudna, a temporary arrangement, and Hamas is no different. Hamas has never said that it would accept Oslo as a final agreement! And it is of course willing to establish a state within the 1967 borders, but only as a first step towards the destruction of Israel. IA-Forum: Theoretically speaking, let’s say the Palestinians did establish a state along the 1967 borders, a bridge is built to link Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem is equally divided amongst Israel and Palestine, do you think everyone will then be able to live happily ever after? Could such an agreement finally bring the confrontation to an end? Professor Karsh: No, of course not. The Palestinians are not willing to live happily ever after under such an agreement. If this actually was the will of the Palestinian people, then perhaps it could be successful. I am not supportive of Israel’s presence in the territories, but during the years of Israel’s occupation, which, contrary to appearances, if you look at the statistics, Palestinian general wellbeing - per capita income, health services, level of education, affluence and standard of living - was much better than in other Arab countries like Syria or Egypt. After the Israelis withdraw, Arafat moved in and set about establishing his corrupt and repressive regime and terrorist infrastructure throughout the territories. The low standard of living currently affecting the Palestinian territories is but one of Arafat’s perverted legacies. What I’m saying is that at the end of the day the Palestinians must make their own strategic choice: should they be willing to live in peace next to Israel, then yes, I think they could happily live in the West Bank and Gaza. Unfortunately I do not forsee this happening. Hamas does not accept Israel’s right to exist and neither does the PLO, or Fatah, its largest constituent organization, regardless of what they might say on CNN or the BBC. Unfortunately, we are in for many more years of confrontation. It’s not as if I am happy about this, I would be the happiest man if one day I would be proven wrong. IA-Forum: Moving back to the newly unified Palestinian government and something you touched on earlier, do you think the UN, EU and Russia will break from Washington and reestablish relations with the Palestinian Authority? Professor Karsh: Could be, but maybe not in a collective fashion. Some EU countries may begin to renew dialogue with the PA, but I’m not sure. Every player acts according to its own interests, so we will see where that leads them. IA-Forum: Condoleezza Rice has recently been shuttling back and forth between Israel and the Palestinian territories spearheading the Bush administrations efforts breathe new life into the road map and lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state. How would you grade the current administrations efforts to forge peace between the two parties? Professor Karsh: In the final analysis, I believe that what happens in the region depends first and foremost on the local parties. Everyone places enormous pressure on the Americans to intervene and pressurize Israel, but what about pressuring the Palestinians to accept Israel’s existence? The Americans cannot achieve it. Look at the mess in Iraq – they are powerless to change the situation. These are regional problems. I do not believe that the Americans will suddenly be able to make the Palestinians accept Israel. This has to come from the Palestinians. Most Israelis are ready to make peace and leave the territories, but you need two to tango. Again, the actual role of the international community is much more limited than is commonly believed. In any case there will be another President in a couple of years with an alternative US foreign policy. We will see. IA-Forum: And what about the administration’s boycott of the Hamas government – constructive strategy or failed policy? Professor Karsh: I think the boycott of Hamas is a completely legitimate action. Hamas leads the Palestinians nowhere. If you argue that you eventually want to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians, you have to promote those parties that are committed to peace: not terrorist organizations. On top of this, of course, Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, and this is an Islamist imperialist organization committed to establishing a worldwide caliphate, or ummah. That is their ultimate objective, their end game. The “liberation of Palestine” is only a first step towards spreading Islam across the globe. There are quite a lot of statements by Hamas leaders (not to mention the Hamas covenant of 1988) promoting this idea of Islamic imperialism but they do not reach Western audiences. So Hamas, on top of being a terrorist organization, is committed to the creation of a worldwide Islamic order in which Western countries would live under the shariah. Considering this I certainly think the boycott of Hamas was a constructive strategy. But even if you look at the question from the narrowest point of view, this is a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel. With this in mind Israel will not make peace and cannot make peace with any government that includes Hamas, which means that the Palestinians will unfortunately suffer for the foreseeable future. In the interest of peace I think Hamas should be removed from power. IA-Forum: Would you advocate that – the forceful removal of Hamas from government? Professor Karsh: Yes, but I do not think the Americans are in the position to do it. Israel could do it if the international community supported it. And so can Abu Mazen. IA-Forum: What if the international community did support it, even if it was only behind closed doors. Do you think Israel would take that step? Professor Karsh: I think Israel could destroy Hamas as a military force. If Hamas were to renounce terrorism and become purely a political and social welfare organization, then maybe Israel could do business with it, but then it would not be the same Hamas. But in military terms, if Israel could act without any constraints it could break Hamas. In March 2002, before Israel began taking stronger measures, you had nearly 130 Israelis deaths in one month. Every other day there was a suicide bombing, similar to what we see in Baghdad today. If Israel had not taken these measures, which have continued ever since, the level of violence could be on par with the bloodshed currently afflicting Iraq. But Israel took the initiative and broke the backs of Hamas and other terrorist groups. Suicide bombings still occur once every few months, and this is not for a lack of trying but rather because of the inability to do so. Just the other day I heard on Israeli radio of an abortive Hamas attempt to detonate a car bomb in Tel Aviv during the Passover holiday. So of course Israel can finish off Hamas, but the international community does not give it the backing, so Hamas will continue to operate and stage attacks against Israeli civilians, and the Palestinians will unfortunately continue to bear the consequences of Hamas’s murderous actions. IA-Forum: Do you think the Arab League can play any meaningful role in helping broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians? Professor Karsh: There is too much disagreement and infighting among the Arab states. The truth is that the Arabs do not like each other very much, nor do they care about the Palestinian problem. They try to present a unified front vis-à-vis the world, but the Palestinians know very well that the Arabs do not care about them. Inside the family there is incessant squabbling, but they rarely wash their dirty linen in public. So no, I do not think the Arab League can bring anything to the table – it is completely useless. IA-Forum: Thank you for your time. Professor Karsh: You’re welcome.

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