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by Efraim Karsh


"To a man with a hammer," Mark Twain famously quipped, "everything looks like a nail." To a propagandist, everything looks like a poll.

No sooner had my latest New York Times op-ed piece, The Palestinians, Alone,[1] [see below] been published than my mailbox was swamped with polls of all hues aimed at proving the depth of Arab compassion for the Palestinians.

One such poll claimed that 86% percent of Arabs were "prepared for peace"[2] with Israel within the pre-June 1967 borders (these Arabs obviously forgot to consult the Palestinians, as only 21 percent of them named the "right of return" - a red line for all Palestinian factions without exception - as a most important concern). Another poll,[3] held by the Brookings Institution in conjunction with Zogby International, reported a precipitous drop in Arab confidence in Barack Obama's Middle East policy (as if Obama had not distinguished himself, in his short term in office, as the most anti-Israeli U.S. president in living memory).

James Zogby himself, among others,[4] felt compelled to attempt to rebut my article. "There are bad polls, and then there are bad interpretations of polls," he wrote in the Huffington Post.[5] "Putting them together (i.e. a bad interpretation of a bad poll) can create a mess of misinformation."

The "bad poll" in question is a recent survey for the al-Arabiya television network,[6] noted in my article, which found a staggering 71 percent of Arab respondents had no interest in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. And the "bad interpretation" is my presumed failure to recognize that this was not a fully scientific poll but rather an "online vote," which didn't refer to the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks but rather to the "Middle East peace process."

It is arguable of course that an "online-vote" by 8844 respondents (more than twice the size of the Brookings/Zogby poll), answering one straightforward question, might be more accurate and less susceptible to manipulation than "scientifically" crafted surveys purposively choosing their target audiences; or that ordinary Arabs, living as they do in one of the least democratic parts of the world, will be more candid in the relative obscurity of the web than in the presence of a pollster knocking on their front door or contacting them by phone.

Nor is there any risk of Arabs, and for that matter any other polled audience, construing the "Middle East peace process" for anything but the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks; not only because there has been no other regional "peace process" for quite some time, but because the two terms have long become synonymous.

But whatever the scientific merits and flaws of certain polling techniques, this issue has no bearing whatsoever on "The Palestinians, Alone." For, contrary to Zogby's claim, my contention that the Arab world has never had any real stake in the "liberation of Palestine" is not based on my reading of the al-Arabiya survey but on the long history of systematic Arab abuse of both the "Palestine Question" and the Palestinians themselves. A poll, even in the best of circumstances, can only give a fleeting glimpse into reality, which is what the al-Arabiya poll did; a historical survey, by contrast, can put current circumstances within their far wider and deeper context, which is precisely what my article did.

Since this point seems to have eluded Zogby and like minded critics, as has my plea that the Palestinians should be allowed to determine their own fate rather than be bossed around by their Arab "brothers," let me expand the argument and diversify the historical examples in the (admittedly slight) hope of convincing the unconvinced.

To begin with, it should be borne in mind that although the doctrine of pan-Arabism, which dominated Arab politics for most of the twentieth century, constantly flaunted the "Palestine Question" as its most celebrated cause, this had nothing to do with concern for the wellbeing of the Palestinian Arabs, let alone the protection of their national rights.

Pan-Arabism views the Palestinians not as a distinct people deserving statehood but as an integral part of a wider Arab framework stretching over substantial parts of the Middle East (e.g., "Greater Syria") or the entire region. As the eminent Arab-American historian Philip Hitti stated in 1946: "There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not." As late as September 1974, Syria's President Hafez al-Assad described Palestine as "a basic part of southern Syria."

Though anti-Zionism formed a core principle of pan-Arab solidarity since the 1920s - it is easier, after all, to unite people through a common hatred than through a shared loyalty - its invocation has almost always served as an instrument for achieving the self-interested ends of those who proclaim it.

Take Emir Faisal ibn Hussein of Mecca, the celebrated hero of the "Great Arab Revolt" against the Ottoman Empire and the effective leader of the nascent pan-Arab movement. In January 1919 he signed an agreement with Chaim Weizmann, the upcoming head of the Zionist movement, which endorsed the Balfour Declaration. Yet when the opportunity arose, he had himself crowned (on March 8, 1920) King of Syria, "within its natural boundaries, including Palestine." Had Faisal had his way, Palestine would have disappeared from the international scene already then.

Faisal's ambitions were opposed by his elder brother, Abdullah, who strove to transform the emirate of Transjordan (latterly Jordan), which he ruled since 1921, into a springboard for the creation of a vast empire comprising Syria, Palestine, and possibly Iraq and Saudi Arabia; and it was this ambition, rather than the desire to win independence for the Palestinian Arabs, that was the main catalyst of the pan-Arab invasion of the nascent state of Israel in mid-May 1948.

Had Israel lost the 1948 war, its territory would have been divided among the invading Arab forces. The name Palestine would have vanished into the dustbin of history. By surviving the pan-Arab assault, Israel has paradoxically saved the Palestinian national movement from complete oblivion.

During the decades following the war, the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian national cause to their own ends:

Such attitudes have by no means been confined to the official level. From the moment of their arrival in the neighboring Arab states in 1948, the Palestinians were seen by ordinary Arabs as an unpatriotic and cowardly lot who had shamefully abdicated their national duty while expecting others to fight on their behalf. These sentiments were also manifest within Palestine itself, where the pan-Arab volunteer force that entered the country to "protect the Palestinians" found itself at loggerheads with the community it was supposed to defend. When an Iraqi officer in Jerusalem was asked to explain his persistent refusal to greet the local populace, he angrily retorted that "one doesn't greet these dodging dogs, whose cowardice causes poor Iraqis to die."

For their part, Arab leaders repeatedly exploited the Palestinian cause to promote their personal goals:

Nor have the Arab states shrunk from massacring Palestinians on a grand scale whenever this suited their needs.

For their part, the Palestinians turned on their Arab hosts whenever given the opportunity.

It was the PLO's subversive activities against the Jordanian regime, which had allowed the use of its territory for anti-Israel attacks, that set in train the chain of events culminating in the Black September massacres.

The PLO's abuse of its growing power base in Lebanon, and its meddling in the country's domestic affairs, helped trigger the Lebanese civil war that raged for nearly two decades and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In the process, the Palestinians perpetrated numerous atrocities[7] in their adopted country. For example,

Much has been made of the Palestinian exodus of 1948. Yet during their decades of dispersal, the Palestinians have experienced no less traumatic ordeals at the hands of their Arab brothers. For example,

Indeed, even during the 1948 war, far more Palestinians were driven from their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab armed forces than by Jewish/Israeli forces. Nowhere at the time was the collapse and dispersion of Palestinian society described as a systematic dispossession of Arabs by Jews. To the contrary, as a senior British official discovered to his surprise during a fact-finding mission to Gaza in June 1949, "while [the refugees] express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves) they speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. 'We know who our enemies are,' they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes.... I even heard it said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they were to come in and take the district over."

The prevailing conviction among Palestinians that they have predominantly been the victims of their fellow Arabs has remained unabated to date. For example,

I could go on and on, but I doubt whether the historical record will induce the Zogbys to publicly acknowledge the unhappy state of Arab-Palestinian relations. Some people would simply not be bothered with the facts. Yet to judge by their hysterical response to "The Palestinians, Alone," it is clear that the article has touched a raw nerve, or to paraphrase Mark Twain, has hit the nail right on the head.



[2] 2010/08/06/new-poll-86-of-arabs-prepared-for-peace-with-israel/

[3] 2010/0805_arab_opinion_poll_telhami.aspx

[4] israel-is-not-a-very-dependable-us-ally-1.666990

[5] james-zogby/arabs-dont-care-about-pal_b_668043.html



[8] the-hell-of-israel-is-better-than-the-paradise

"The Palestinians, Alone"
by Efraim Karsh
The New York Times
August 2, 2010

It has long been conventional wisdom that the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a prerequisite to peace and stability in the Middle East. Since Arabs and Muslims are so passionate about the Palestine problem, this argument runs, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate feeds regional anger and despair, gives a larger rationale to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and to the insurgency in Iraq and obstructs the formation of a regional coalition that will help block Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.

What, then, are we to make of a recent survey for the Al Arabiya television network finding that a staggering 71 percent of the Arabic respondents have no interest in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks? "This is an alarming indicator," lamented Saleh Qallab, a columnist for the pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat. "The Arabs, people and regimes alike, have always been as interested in the peace process, its developments and particulars, as they were committed to the Palestinian cause itself."

But the truth is that Arab policies since the mid-1930s suggest otherwise. While the "Palestine question" has long been central to inter-Arab politics, Arab states have shown far less concern for the well-being of the Palestinians than for their own interests.

For example, it was common knowledge that the May 1948 pan-Arab invasion of the nascent state of Israel was more a scramble for Palestinian territory than a fight for Palestinian national rights. As the first secretary-general of the Arab League, Abdel Rahman Azzam, once admitted to a British reporter, the goal of King Abdullah of Transjordan "was to swallow up the central hill regions of Palestine, with access to the Mediterranean at Gaza. The Egyptians would get the Negev. Galilee would go to Syria, except that the coastal part as far as Acre would be added to the Lebanon."

From 1948 to 1967, when Egypt and Jordan ruled the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the Arab states failed to put these populations on the road to statehood. They also showed little interest in protecting their human rights or even in improving their quality of life — which is part of the reason why 120,000 West Bank Palestinians moved to the East Bank of the Jordan River and about 300,000 others emigrated abroad. "We couldn't care less if all the refugees die," an Egyptian diplomat once remarked. "There are enough Arabs around."

Not surprisingly, the Arab states have never hesitated to sacrifice Palestinians on a grand scale whenever it suited their needs. In 1970, when his throne came under threat from the Palestine Liberation Organization, the affable and thoroughly Westernized King Hussein of Jordan ordered the deaths of thousands of Palestinians, an event known as "Black September."

Six years later, Lebanese Christian militias, backed by the Syrian Army, massacred some 3,500 Palestinians, mostly civilians, in the Beirut refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar. These militias again slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in 1982 in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, this time under Israel's watchful eye. None of the Arab states came to the Palestinians' rescue.

Worse, in the mid-'80s, when the P.L.O. — officially designated by the Arab League as the "sole representative of the Palestinian people" — tried to re-establish its military presence in Lebanon, it was unceremoniously expelled by President Hafez al-Assad of Syria.

This history of Arab leaders manipulating the Palestinian cause for their own ends while ignoring the fate of the Palestinians goes on and on. Saddam Hussein, in an effort to ennoble his predatory designs, claimed that he wouldn't consider ending his August 1990 invasion of Kuwait without "the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israel from the occupied Arab territories in Palestine."

Shortly after the Persian Gulf War, Kuwaitis then set about punishing the P.L.O. for its support of Hussein — cutting off financial sponsorship, expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers and slaughtering thousands. Their retribution was so severe that Arafat was forced to acknowledge that "what Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the occupied territories."

Against this backdrop, it is a positive sign that so many Arabs have apparently grown so apathetic about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For if the Arab regimes' self-serving interventionism has denied Palestinians the right to determine their own fate, then the best, indeed only, hope of peace between Arabs and Israelis lies in rejecting the spurious link between this particular issue and other regional and global problems.

The sooner the Palestinians recognize that their cause is theirs alone, the sooner they are likely to make peace with the existence of the State of Israel and to understand the need for a negotiated settlement.


Professor Efraim Karsh is a leading historian of the Middle East. He was head of the Middle East and Mediterranean Studies Program at King's College, University of London for some 16 years. He is now editor of the Middle East Quarterly. His most recent book is called "Palestine Betrayed."

This article appeared August 16, 2010 in Middle East Forum justice-for-palestine. Contact them at


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