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U.S. Ambassador at Large Philip Jessup, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, and U.S. Senator from New York John Foster Dulles in conference at the Assembly Hall of the United Nations in 1949Getty Images
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How British and American Elites Failed to Stop the Jewish State

Two new books bring to life the knife-edge moment when the British Empire was being liquidated and the U.S. national security establishment tried and failed to block the birth of Israel

Mike Watson
May 03, 2022
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U.S. Ambassador at Large Philip Jessup, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, and U.S. Senator from New York John Foster Dulles in conference at the Assembly Hall of the United Nations in 1949Getty Images

The story of Israel’s creation is one of the most improbable in human history: After millennia of exile and dispersion, the Jewish people once again had a state of their own. The unlikelihood of this outcome is matched only by the dramatic events that precipitated it, and it is not surprising that nearly 75 years after the United Nations resolution that partitioned the British mandate in Palestine, scholars are still trying to make sense of it all. Two new books will help readers better understand how the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War affected Israel’s rebirth.

The first twist in the story comes early in Nick Reynold’s The 1945–1952 British Government’s Opposition to Zionism and the Emergent State of Israel. After a decade in power, Great Britain’s Tories lost the July 1945 election to the Labour Party, then led by Clement Attlee. Labour’s party platform called for abolishing restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine and reaffirmed the Balfour Declaration. Hugh Dalton, who subsequently became chancellor of the exchequer, thundered at the party conference, “It is morally wrong and politically indefensible to impose obstacles to the entry into Palestine now of any Jews who desire to go there.”

To many Zionists, the Labour Party victory looked like a godsend. David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency in Palestine, was more skeptical. He was right to be: Soon after taking over the Foreign Ministry, Ernest Bevin said to Attlee about Palestine that “according to my lads in the Office, we’ve got it wrong. We’ve got to think again.”

This abrupt change of heart has been the subject of much historical controversy. To explain it, scholars have pored over Bevin’s statements in search of traces of antisemitism. Reynold, to his credit, takes a measured approach to this debate and generally acquits Bevin of these charges. It is not likely that Bevin was motivated by racial or religious animus. For two centuries, Britain had relied on the empire to maintain high living standards at home, and Bevin had spent much of his life encouraging colonial trade unions to focus on agitating for better working conditions rather than for independence. With the loss of India all but certain, the Middle East was the most important region left for the imperial economy.

For Bevin, keeping disturbances in Palestine to a minimum was not just a challenging test of statesmanship; it was necessary to maintain what he called “the wage packets of the workers.” Reynold dismisses these concerns, however, arguing that “it is difficult to imagine any other way [than allying with the now-nonexistent Axis powers] that the Arab states could have damaged Britain’s interests,” given the British military presence in the region. But even with 100,000 troops, Britain struggled to maintain control over Palestine, and British forces in the region would have floundered in a larger regional conflagration. Bevin was keenly aware that most of the friendly Arab governments had a very loose hold on power, and he was determined to avoid any action that could destabilize them.

The British government’s opposition to Jewish aspirations ran afoul of two important actors: the Jewish defense forces and President Harry Truman. Truman, responding to Zionism’s appeal across the American political spectrum (“Mr. Republican” Robert Taft, the senator from Ohio, was a committed Zionist), at first asked Attlee to relocate 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine. For Bevin, even this was a step too far, and he tried to use joint Anglo-American committees to redirect Truman’s requests and make the Americans take some ownership of the Palestine issue. British members of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, the first of these commissions, were shocked by the depth of anti-British feeling in the United States. One later described the meetings in Washington as “a monumental indictment of Great Britain.” Each time a joint committee produced recommendations, Truman accepted the parts he liked and downplayed or remained silent on the rest. After more than a year of delays, Truman publicly reiterated his refugee demand on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1946 and torpedoed ongoing British negotiations with the Arab states, causing even the mild-mannered Attlee to lose his temper.

Despite their unhappiness with Truman, Attlee and Bevin would have preferred for the Palestinian Jews also to restrict themselves to poorly timed statements. Instead, in October 1945 the Haganah partnered with the Irgun and the Stern Gang to carry out a series of bombings and shootings across Palestine. This quickly became a very dirty small war: British forces repeatedly captured and planned to hang saboteurs, only for the Irgun to take hostages and threaten retaliatory executions. In late June 1946, British forces launched “Operation Agatha,” a massive raid that targeted, among other things, the Jewish Agency’s offices in Jerusalem. A few weeks later, the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel, killing 91 people. After more than a year of fighting and failed negotiations, Britain announced in early 1947 that it would turn Palestine over to the United Nations. It was time for someone else to try to resolve this problem.

The next twist came during the April 1947 special United Nations session on Palestine. Any resolution to enact partition required a two-thirds majority, and most observers thought this was unreachable because of Arab and communist opposition. Soviet representative Andrei Gromyko overturned these calculations when he announced that the Soviet Union would accept partition after all. As the United Nations moved toward a partition vote, Britain attempted to make the Negev desert a land bridge between its bases in Egypt and Transjordan (now Jordan), but this ambition was also frustrated by Truman.

After the November 1947 vote for partition, Britain scrambled to evacuate from Palestine without further losses. The cabinet decided that as they withdrew, British forces would quietly allow the Jewish forces more latitude in Jewish-majority areas and the Arabs to operate more freely to consolidate Arab-majority areas. This plan generally held, but British troops sporadically intervened in the inter-Palestine war that lasted from December 1947 until mid-May 1948.

During the Arab states’ invasion and scramble for territory, Britain quietly supported Transjordan and Egypt. From London’s perspective, King Abdullah was clearly a better leader for the Palestinian Arabs than was Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem who had spent World War II supporting Hitler, and a functioning Egyptian state was important for preserving British bases in Suez. After Britain enacted an arms embargo, it mostly restricted its actions to diplomacy, but managed to infuriate Washington by delaying recognition of Israel until January 1949. Bevin had not gotten his way in Palestine, but Britain’s position in the Middle East did not collapse until the Suez Crisis eight years later.

Reynold’s extensive research shines throughout his book. He also brings an admirably evenhanded approach to some fraught issues that have gotten the better of many writers. The reader may wonder why it is that Bevin was so concerned about the stability of his Arab allies, though, which in many ways is the key to understanding Britain’s Middle East policy.

In Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949, Jeffrey Herf answers this and other important questions about the international backdrop to Israel’s independence. As he sees it, much of the standard narrative about Israel’s founding needs revision: In reality, the Soviet Union provided more help to Israel than the United States did, left-leaning parties in America and Europe were the most ardent Zionists, and opposition to Israeli independence in the U.S. government extended far beyond the State Department’s Arabists. Most of these participants saw the Palestine question as a logical extension of World War II: Israel’s “supporters saw it as part of a broad movement against imperialism and racism, while its opponents outside the Arab world viewed the Zionist project as a hindrance to the British Empire and then to American power in the Middle East.”

Zionism had broad, bipartisan support by 1944, but American liberals were the most ardent advocates of Jewish statehood. Even before the war ended, the Democratic Senator from New York Robert Wagner introduced with Taft a bipartisan resolution endorsing unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine and a Jewish commonwealth. Republicans and Democrats competed to add the most pro-Zionist statement in their 1944 party platforms, and after the war liberal newspapers clamored for al-Husseini’s prosecution at Nuremberg. Britain was less eager to send him to the tribunal, but it repeatedly asked France to extradite him so he could be exiled to a remote part of the British Empire.

The mufti’s escape from France illustrates many of the themes of Herf’s book, which in part relies on French sources that have not previously been used by the English-speaking historians. France’s Interior Ministry, which initially had custody of al-Husseini, was led by social democrats who were turning a blind eye to illicit Jewish departures for Palestine from French soil. Worried that the Interior Ministry’s Zionists would hand over the mufti and damage France’s standing among the Arabs, the Quai d’Orsay arranged to move him to a villa outside Paris, from which he eventually “escaped” house arrest by flying to Cairo, where he was widely welcomed as a hero.

Herf laments that, instead of being discredited by a trial, “the leading voice of Arab extremism and radical antisemitism” was instead “welcomed home to the Middle East as a hero of an anti-imperialist struggle rather than as a disgraced collaborator with Nazism.” This development “had important consequences for the future of Jews and Arabs in Palestine after World War Two” because, among other things, the United Nations treated him and his Arab Higher Committee as the politically legitimate representative of the Palestinian Arabs. His trial and imprisonment might have widened the path to peace, but probably not enough to avoid war. The Egyptian press and other influential institutions, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, adored al-Husseini, but most of the invading Arab states did not want him to govern Palestine any more than they did Ben-Gurion.

At the United Nations, the Soviet puppet states made increasingly forceful statements denouncing British imperialism and endorsing Zionism. Polish representative Alfred Fiderkiewicz, an Auschwitz survivor, made a particularly eloquent case for Jewish statehood. During and after partition, communists in Western and Eastern Europe attempted to use the widespread sympathy for Jews as a tool to legitimate their own causes. In July 1948, communist Florimond Bonté proclaimed in the French National Assembly “the Greek partisan, the soldier in the Chinese popular army, the Spanish combatant, the democrats in Vietnam, the Indonesian patriots, the Hindu resistant are all comrades [compagnons] of the battle waged by the soldiers of the Haganah.”

The U.N. vote for partition legitimated the Jewish state for many American holdouts and emboldened the liberals, whose ideas for ending the fighting horrified the U.S. national security establishment. The New York Times editorial board announced before the vote that it “would stand ready to accept any favorable U.N. solution,” and star columnist Arthur Krock concurred with what he saw as “world opinion.” When the Jews were losing in March 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt protested the State Department’s unwillingness to endorse a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Palestine over fears that the Soviets would contribute troops. The CIA and military were already worried that they had alienated the Arabs and that the communists would take advantage of any unrest that occurred; to America’s spooks and generals, this must have sounded like madness. Herf notes the irony that these intelligence and defense departments, which were busy propping up social democratic parties in Western Europe to counter the communist parties there, did not seriously consider doing the same in Israel.

After the Arab states invaded, the Soviets continued to point to Palestine as evidence for the criminality of American and British imperialism. The Americans and British were growing increasingly alarmed as the Soviets blockaded Berlin, Soviet client states flooded the combat zone with weapons, and the French communists staged a massive strike, so they scrambled to stop the fighting, preserve the moderate Arabs’ military capabilities, and keep the Soviets out of the region. While managing this complex situation, Truman also had to win reelection, which led him to publicly overrule the State Department and his British allies at times. By January 1949, Egypt’s army faced encirclement and destruction, and only then did the Americans and British force the parties into a lasting cease-fire.

At the end of the war, Ben-Gurion adopted five principles to guide Israeli foreign policy. Among them was “friendship with all peace-loving states, especially in the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” But the Soviet Union was on the cusp of falling into the anti-Zionism, and often outright antisemitism, that distinguished its Cold War foreign policy, and the Americans were cooler toward Israel than Ben-Gurion would have preferred. Israel’s closest ally at the time was in fact France: The social democrats came out on top of the labor unrest, and for the next two decades the two countries enjoyed a close security partnership. It took Britain several years to develop a strategic relationship with Israel, and the Americans lagged further behind.

The early years of the Cold War were a dizzyingly complex period, and even the most capable statesmen struggled to keep all the different interlocking dynamics in their heads at once. Key American and British leaders lost sight of important on-the-ground realities during this time and their foreign policies suffered as a result. As the United States enters into a geopolitical struggle of indeterminate duration once again, readers will benefit from studying this period carefully.

Mike Watson is associate director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for the Future of Liberal Society.

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