After 17 years of leading the Mideast-focused think tank he founded, Daniel Pipes will be stepping aside as director. Efraim Karsh will take over the directorship of the Middle East Forum in June.
“Obviously it’s a big challenge to get into such big boots,” Karsh told me about taking over for Pipes. “And Daniel has made the forum, in my view, one of the foremost centers on the Middle East in the United States.”
Pipes, who will remain at the forum as president, has long been considered one of the most knowledgeable scholars on the Middle East and Islam. He established the forum in 1994, along with the Middle East Quarterly, the center’s journal of Mideast affairs, of which Karsh is currently editor. The forum has since added the Legal Project, to aid targets of Islamist “lawfare,” as well as campus programs.
Karsh is a research professor at King’s College London, and is the author of a bevy of books on the Middle East, including his most recent Palestine Betrayed, about the origins of Palestinian rejectionism of the two-state solution. Karsh spoke with me about the current state of affairs in the Middle East.
On the issue of the impending vote on the establishment or recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Karsh said it is important to place this current bid for statehood in its proper context. “The story really begins in Oslo,” he said.
The Oslo agreements set the Palestinians on the path to statehood, which was the end goal of the process. “But then it turned out that Arafat was not interested in peace,” Karsh said, adding that the process continued on its course—negotiations with the Palestinians, despite the fact that Arafat never intended to put his name on a compromise.
That process has been derailed by the Obama administration, Karsh said, which has enabled the Palestinians to avoid negotiations entirely.
“Now since Obama came to power, and he began to put pressure on Israel, so he made life easier for the Palestinian leadership—which in the first instance was not interested in negotiations,” Karsh said. “And basically he allowed them to disengage. Since Obama came to power the Palestinians haven’t negotiated with the Israelis—something they continued to do over the past seventeen years even though they didn’t intend to reach a solution, but at least they were forced to negotiate. Now they are not.”
This is an important point, because the seeming futility of negotiations between the two parties often gives the impression that there are no benefits to the actual talks. As Karsh shows, there is something worse than circular and frustrating negotiations. “Why should they negotiate if they can get what they want without giving basically anything in return?” he said.
The Israeli strategy, then, should revolve around convincing the U.S. and much of the free world of the value of negotiations, that “the only way to peace is through negotiating between the two sides and agreeing on something, and then abiding by what they agreed.”
That’s on the diplomatic front. On the security front, Karsh expects Israel to continue to show restraint in the face of rocket attacks from Gaza, including the anti-tank missile that hit a school bus recently, killing a teenager. It’s one way the Palestinian threat of unilateral declaration ties Israel’s hands.
“I don’t have any doubt that the Israeli government between now and September because of the UN vote, and because of other international constraints, is going to do its utmost to avoid conflict in Gaza,” Karsh said. “But here again you have the element of luck. If the bus wouldn’t have taken off the kids five minutes earlier, then you might have had twenty Israeli kids killed in the bus by the missile, and then the Israelis might have been involved in a deeper operation in Gaza already. So you can never know.”
This is a consideration for Hamas as well, because they know that a certain amount of violence will be tolerated by Israel, as long as it remains on the periphery. “But if it will go above this [Israel will] have to do something,” Karsh said. “But they don’t want to do it, that’s for sure.”
Israeli policymakers must also confront the shifting sands in their neighborhood. The Arab uprisings have upended a decades-old status quo, and he removal of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak has forced Israel to reconsider the stability of its southern border. Karsh said he is not nearly as nostalgic for Mubarak as some Israelis seem to be, but he does acknowledge that without Mubarak, the smuggling tunnels from Gaza to Egypt have significantly less resistance, and the Hamasniks can easily take advantage of the chaos on Egypt.
“So from a security point of view, the Egyptian development, at least in the immediate term, has had a very adverse consequence,” he said. You’d want to “think twice,” Karsh added, before signing an agreement with a divided government, one that has yet to establish itself as truly representative of its people, or one that seems temporary.
Karsh said that goes for the Palestinians as well. He said Israel is often admonished that they must strengthen Mahmoud Abbas because he is weak. “OK, he’s weak, so he may be gone tomorrow.” And if he is, and Fatah is weakened, it only increases the chances that Hamas will take control of the West Bank as well. And that would likely be the result if the uprisings sweep into the PA-controlled territory, he said—though he cautioned against expecting the uprisings to target the PA in the West Bank.
“At the moment the economic situation is relatively good in the West Bank,” Karsh said. “The world is financing them, Israel is not fighting them, and there is not much terrorism. So I don’t think that in the immediate term there is a reason for them to rise against the regime. But it might happen. Then again, the question is who is going to come [in their place]? I fear it is Hamas, which is quite strong even in the West Bank. But they haven’t made the move because politically it’s not suitable for them at the time to take over.”
Karsh also said that there has always been something of a disconnect between the Palestinian people and their leadership, but that the PA leaders have succeeded in greatly bridging this gap over time. Many Palestinians still do want peace, but he noted the anti-Semitic incitement contained in Palestinian children’s shows. Without an end to this, he said, prospects for peace are limited and growing dimmer by the day.
“What can you do, if you go to school at the age of five, six and they teach you the Jews are killers and murderers and so on and so forth?” he said. “That’s what you grow up with, so it’s very difficult to undo it. It’s exceedingly difficult. So in this respect, I am not very optimistic right now.”
Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.