Efraim Karsh, Arafat’s War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest (New York: Grove Press, 2003).
The vehemence and influence of the left’s critique of Israel’s and America’s joint war on terrorism makes the reading of Efraim Karsh’s new book, Arafat’s War, imperative. Karsh, the Head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, University of London, and a frequent contributor to Commentary magazine, explodes many of the left’s myths regarding the modern Middle East. His book is a must read for all those interested in the possibilities for peace and democracy in a vitally important part of the world. Karsh’s writing is clear and lively, and his research is astonishing.
A close look at Karsh’s footnotes demonstrates his strong grasp of the English, Hebrew, and Arabic literature relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, there appears to be little that Karsh has not read. His book is not, however, a biography of Arafat, and readers who seek to understand the Palestinian leader on a more personal level may not be satisfied with this book. Karsh’s book is, however, a brilliant and concise analysis of Arafat’s ideology, and the policies of his PLO towards Israel. In 13 chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue, Karsh reviews Arafat’s rise to power in the 1950s and 1960s, the road the PLO took to the Oslo peace accords, the educational and media system that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has created, Arafat’s support for terrorism, and the failure to achieve peace in 2000 and 2001. At the end of the book, Karsh includes a useful, if short, bibliography of books and essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Karsh’s argument revolves around three basic and related points. His first point is that Arafat is a habitual liar. The PLO Chairman has lied about his place of birth. It was in Cairo, not Gaza or Jerusalem – a matter of no passing interest since, as Karsh writes, “the world’s most famous Palestinian does not conform even to his own definition of what a Palestinian is.” Arafat has also lied about his role during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Arafat claimed that he was a war hero and a war refugee, both ridiculous claims since he was a native and resident of Egypt, and - as the evidence demonstrates - was not involved in any of the major battles during the war. But, as Karsh points out, Arafat’s lies about his youth served a purpose. By blending his own personal history with the collective history of the Palestinian people, Arafat was able to position himself as an up-and-coming “resistance” leader. The lies, however, did not stop once Arafat became the PLO’s leader in 1969. To the present day, for instance, Arafat continues to lie about his financial mismanagement of the PLO.
Karsh points out that in May, 1997 the PA comptroller reported that nearly half of the PA’s 1996 budget of $800 million had been “wasted” on executive perks, nepotistic favors, mismanagement, and outright theft. As a result of Arafat’s corrupt and dictatorial rule of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian standard of living has fallen dramatically. Arafat, Karsh writes, has “created a two-tiered economy: the official side, which ostensibly runs the population’s daily life and is burdened with debts and deficits, and its highly lucrative informal counterpart, whose revenues never reach the Palestinian population” – because they are in PLO hands. All of this is no concern to Arafat, who is content to stockpile great personal wealth while the people he pretends to represent languish in poverty and war. Karsh’s conclusion that the PLO Chairman’s lies are so many and so intricate that even he is unlikely to know the difference appears inescapable.
Karsh’s second major point, which he rigorously demonstrates, is that Arafat has always been committed to Israel’s destruction. To Arafat, and to most Arabs, 1948 was a catastrophe. The presence of Jews in Palestine is, and has always been, an unbearable fact. Palestinian leaders, Karsh observes, “have invariably viewed the establishment of Israel as an imperialist plot to divide and weaken the ‘Arab nation’ by implanting an artificial entity in its midst.” In 1964, they established the PLO to wipe out this “artificial” entity. For the rest of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the PLO pursued its objective through outright terrorism. It made little pretense to seeking peace with Israel. Karsh writes that “Palestinian terrorists planted bombs in public places, fired at civilian vehicles, and raided villages and towns, taking hostages at will.” In February, 1970 the PLO blew up a Swiss plane in midair. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, PLO terrorists killed eleven Israeli athletes. The PLO also rebuffed international peace efforts, particularly UN Resolution 242 (approved in 1967), which recognized Israel’s right to exist and proposed land for peace as the basic framework of all future negotiations.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the PLO’s tactics changed. Karsh argues that Arafat coyly manipulated international opinion by pretending to accept Resolution 242. While he whispered valentines into the ears of western diplomats, he had his top aids assure the PLO’s Arab audiences that the acceptance of 242 was merely a tactical ploy. In 1993, after Arafat signed the Oslo accords – which granted, for a period that would not exceed five years, Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with further negotiations to work out a permanent settlement - he quickly scuttled the agreements. Karsh reports that at a 1996 meeting in Stockholm, Arafat proudly revealed that “we plan to eliminate the state of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state.” Arafat continued, “We Palestinians will take over everything, including Jerusalem” and he ended his sermon by arguing that “I have no use for Jews. They are and remain Jews.”
That Karsh is not duped by the PLO’s political chicanery is demonstrated in his excellent overview of how Arafat and the PLO have created a media and educational system that promotes and celebrates anti-Semitism. He has plumbed numerous Palestinian sources, including the PA’s largest daily newspaper, al-Hayat al-Jadida, and what he has uncovered is quite ugly. “Rather than teach Palestinians the virtues of tolerance, coexistence, and respect for the Other,” Karsh writes, Arafat indoctrinated the Palestinian people “with a hatred of Jews and Israelis unparalleled in scope and intensity since Nazi Germany.” Karsh quotes one article in al-Hayat al-Jadida that reads “corruption is a Jewish trait worldwide, to the extent that one can hardly find corruption that is not associated with Jews.”
The article continues to discuss how Jews “use the most degrading means to realize their aims, as long as the persons not involved are not Jewish.” Karsh has uncovered other articles in al-Hayat al-Jadida that routinely deny the Holocaust. One such article reads: “while it is possible that Hitler’s assault against Jews hurt them slightly, the fact is that it has done them an important service, whose fruits they are reaping to this very day….” Given such sentiments, Karsh is not surprised that Palestinian textbooks and maps regularly ignore Israel’s existence, or that radio listeners can hear poems on the PA’s official radio station that refer to Jews as “dogs” and “wolves” who should be killed.
Karsh is at his best in the last part of the book. His final five chapters provide a near definitive account of Israeli-Palestinian relations over the past four years. In particular, Karsh offers a damning indictment of Arafat’s complete unwillingness to negotiate any type of fair peace plan, as was demonstrated for the world to see by his rejection of the remarkable peace offers Israel made to him at Camp David in 2000 and at Taba in 2001. Using mostly Palestinian sources, Karsh writes that Israel offered, at a minimum, the establishment of a Palestinian state in all of the Gaza strip and 92-97% of the West Bank, shared control of Jerusalem, and the establishment of a multi-billion dollar fund for Palestinian refugees. Arafat proudly rejected these offers. At a mass rally in Gaza after the Camp David meeting, he proclaimed “We told the Israelis: not only al-Harem al-Sharif, the Holy Sepulcher, or the Armenian quarter, but the whole of Jerusalem, the whole of Jerusalem, the whole of Jerusalem.” Arafat was not going to give Israel an inch. In addition to a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, he wanted total control of Jerusalem and the right of return to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees. In other words, Arafat would not accept anything but the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
After Camp David, Arafat unleashed a wave of terror against Israel, using, as an excuse, Ariel Sharon’s planned visit (that had been coordinated with the PA) to the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000. Karsh points out, in contradistinction to the left wing mythology surrounding the second intifada, that Arafat had been organizing the terror campaign long before Sharon’s visit – by drafting attack plans, stockpiling weapons, and creating an army. The ensuing violence, Karsh writes was “neither the result of simmering frustration with the Israeli occupation, nor a spontaneous reaction to Sharon’s Temple Mount visit.” Rather, “the outbreak of hostilities was a deliberate attempt by Arafat to force Israel to top its Camp David proposals without receiving anything in return.”
The results were horrendous. Arafat gave the green light to Hamas militants and anyone else interested in carrying out attacks, including suicide bombings, within Israel. Karsh quotes a PLO senior cabinet member, Ziad Abu Ziad, as stating that the Palestinian strategy was to make the Israelis “fear going into malls or coffee shops, taking buses or trying to live normal lives.” Arafat also encouraged young Palestinians to end their own lives for the cause of “Allah and the homeland.” Thus, he waxed poetic about the individual who blew himself up – killing 21 people in the process - at a Tel Aviv disco on June 1, 2001. “The heroic martyrdom operation [of the man] who turned his body into a bomb,” Arafat gloated, “[is] the model of manhood and sacrifice….”
Karsh’s third and final point is that Israeli and American leaders must do away with the naive hope that structured much of the peace process of the 1990s and in 2000: that Arafat and the PLO can be bargained with in a fair and just manner (this hope also explains the recent creation of the “Geneva Accord” by Israeli peacenik Yossi Beilin). For many Israelis and Americans, the events of the past three years have shattered this illusion. Courageously, as Karsh notes, President Bush has called for a new, democratic, and peaceful Palestinian leadership to be followed by discussions leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Without new Palestinian leadership, Israelis and Palestinians will continue to suffer together. This is certainly true, as is Karsh’s assertion that securing a new Palestinian leadership will be a “difficult and protracted process….” President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon understand this. They understand, as well, that the answer to evil is not table-talk and compromise with the Arafats’, bin Ladans’, and Husseins’ of this world, but steadfast resistance to those intent on taking away the freedom and prosperity of an entire nation and an entire region. Let us hope they are successful.