Meir Zamir presents a controversial account of British intentions in the Israel War of Independence, insisting that the British were actively aiding the Arabs and obstructing the creation of the Jewish State. Though this is not accepted by most historians, it is backed by evidence presented by Ephraim Karsh and also by the role of the British in shaping the demands of the Bernadotte Plans.
It is a new dimension that is not covered in standard histories, including Benny Morris's latest book about the war (see Book Review: Benny Morris, 1948: The first Arab-Israeli War )
MEIR ZAMIR , THE JERUSALEM POST
On February 18, 1948, representatives of a Swiss company met secretly with Egyptian and Jordanian envoys in the office of Hector McNeill, the British minister of state for foreign affairs, to finalize the details of a $140 million arms deal. Considering the price of arms at the time, this was a major deal which, had it gone through, would have completely changed the military balance between the Arab states and the yet-to-be-established State of Israel. It was presented as a contract between the Swiss company Friedli and Kauffmann (Oerlikon) and the government of Ethiopia, but the true destinations of the arms were Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states.
The British Foreign Office, which mediated the deal, maintained the utmost secrecy, as its involvement contravened the UN resolution on partition and flouted the appeal by the UN Security Council for an embargo on arms sales to either Arabs or Jews. The United States, which was one of the first to comply with the UN embargo, would have undoubtedly reacted strongly if it had learned of Britain's double game.
Information on the "Swiss-Ethiopian" arms sale reached French Intelligence via the Jewish Agency. French agents subsequently followed the Swiss company's representatives on their travels between Geneva, London and Cairo and eavesdropped on their telephone conversations. The deal fell through, however, after the Swiss government learned the true destination of the arms and the Ethiopian government refused to comply so as not to re-export the arms to a third country. (On February 2, shots were fired at the Ethiopian consul general's car in Jerusalem.)
Documents on the deal, as well as on the shadow war that was going on at the time between the Hagana's secret service together with the French on the one hand, and the British on the other, were revealed during research conducted recently in archives in France. One major finding was that the French Intelligence had planted an agent in the Syrian Foreign Ministry who, from 1944 to 1949, provided it with copies of hundreds of original documents on Syria's foreign relations.
The French received copies of top-secret correspondence between the Syrian president, Shukri al-Quwatly, and the British, as well as Arab leaders, including King Farouk of Egypt, King Ibn-Saud of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan and the Iraqi regent, Abd al-Ilah. They also received copies of telegrams from the Syrian embassies in London, Washington, Moscow, Paris and Arab capitals to the Foreign Ministry in Damascus.
From the documents of the secret British-Syrian correspondence, it can be concluded that Charles de Gaulle's accusations that Britain had deliberately engineered the crisis in Syria in the summer of 1945 to oust France from its mandate states of Syria and Lebanon was indeed justified. On May 29, with his capital under fire from the French forces, Quwatly had no choice but to sign a secret agreement with the British government according it a privileged military and economic status in Syria. Only then did the British army take action against the French.
French Intelligence also placed a mole in the British Legation in Beirut, which had become a center for British political and intelligence activities in the Middle East after World War II. The agent passed on copies of top-secret documents on British intelligence operations in the region, including names of agents, copies of receipts for bribery payments to Arab leaders and secret agreements by various Arab politicians to undertake to collaborate with the British.
For example, Mohsen al-Barazi, the Syrian president's private secretary, was a British agent who later became foreign minister and prime minister. He was handled by Walter Stirling, who operated in Damascus from 1946-1949 under the guise of a journalist for The Times of London. In November 1949 Stirling was shot by an unknown assailant in Damascus and severely wounded. Another informer was Ibn Saud's private doctor, who was handled by William Smart, a diplomat in the British Embassy in Cairo. The information received gave the French ample opportunity to blackmail Arab politicians and force them to collaborate with them.
The British Legation in Beirut was also the target of a joint operation by the Hagana (The Jewish Agency Defense Force) and French Intelligence. On December 15, 1947, about 20 Hagana fighters seized a British truck north of Acre carrying half a ton of documents from the British Legation in Beirut's archives and 12 sacks of diplomatic mail en route to Haifa Port and from there to England. The documents were returned to the British only after being thoroughly examined by the Hagana and a French intelligence officer who was dispatched to Tel Aviv.
SYRIAN AND British documents in the French archives provide a rare glimpse of the modus operandi of the British diplomats and intelligence officers in the Middle East, which is seldom seen in the British archives. After the war, British intelligence formed a chain of agents and informers around each of the Arab kings or presidents, including their trusted allies, the Hashemite sovereigns in Iraq and Jordan. For instance, copies of private letters from Jordanian Crown Prince Talal to his father King Abdullah, and from the latter to his nephew, the Iraqi regent Abd al-Ilah, reached the British Legation in Beirut, and subsequently French Intelligence.
The British exerted considerable influence behind the scenes in Arab politics after securing the secret collaboration of prominent Arab nationalist leaders such as Quwatly, his prime minister Jamil Mardam, the Lebanese prime minister Riyad al-Sulh, as well as Abd al-Rahman Azzam, the secretary-general of the Arab League. The British often acted indirectly in the highly-divided Arab world, particularly in the Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine in 1947-1948, using their allies to conceal their involvement. For example, in July 1947, following a British request, Quwatly wrote to King Farouk of Egypt warning him not to collaborate with France as it was supporting the Zionists.
Sulh and Azzam were to play key roles in British covert activities in Palestine during the critical months between the UN partition resolution on November 29, 1947, and the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. At the end of April and in early May 1948, Sulh mediated in an agreement between Jordan and Iraq on the one hand and Egypt on the other, on the invasion of the Jewish state. Azzam, who, according to French and Egyptian sources, was being bribed by the British, worked closely with Brigadier Iltyd Clayton, a shadowy personality. Clayton was officially a liaison officer to the Arab League, but behind the scenes he wielded considerable influence on British policy in the Middle East after the war. Azzam was instrumental in shaping the Arab policy in Palestine as the Arab League, in the absence of a Palestinian government, represented the Palestinian cause.
BRITAIN'S ROLE in the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine in 1948 is still a subject of controversy among historians. In the 1980s, the release of documents in British archives did not dispel the controversy - on the contrary, it provoked even more. However, the documents in French archives reveal that in 1948, the British employed tactics against the Zionists similar to those they had used so successfully against the French in Syria and Lebanon three years previously. In both cases, the official policy of the cabinet in London was contradicted by the actions of the British diplomats and military and intelligence officers in the region. Whereas in London foreign minister Ernest Bevin was declaring Britain's intent to end its mandate in Palestine and maintain neutrality in the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews, in the Middle East, British officials openly supported the Arabs and sought to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state.
Until now, historians have failed to find conclusive evidence in British archives either validating de Gaulle's accusations of a British conspiracy against France in Syria and Lebanon, or David Ben-Gurion's charges that the British strove to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. (Apparently, the British are extremely efficient when it comes to concealing their dirty deeds.)
In 1947-1948, Britain's most pressing agenda in the Middle East was to conclude defense treaties with Arab states to secure its strategic position and economic interests (oil) in the region in face of the growing Soviet threat. The documents in the French archives attest to Britain's cynical use of the "communist" and "Zionist" cards to persuade reluctant Arab leaders - who were under pressure from their anti-British nationalist public - to realign themselves with the British Empire. British diplomats intentionally fanned fears of a third world war, in which the Middle East would become a battleground. Arab communist parties, they warned, were acting on Moscow's instructions to undermine the Arab regimes, just like the Soviet Union was doing in Eastern Europe.
From early 1948, British officials increasingly equated Zionism with communism. They warned that a Jewish state would become a center of communist influence, disrupting the social and economic order in the region. As the Cold War in Europe escalated, such claims had considerable impact even in the State Department and the Department of Defense in Washington.
British officials voiced these arguments at a meeting with their French counterparts in Paris in mid-February. They explained the dilemma facing their government in Palestine: Support for partition and the subsequent establishment of a Jewish state would turn the Arab world against Britain, while British endorsement of the Arab position would lead to a confrontation with the United States. (The UN resolution also envisaged a Palestinian state.) The main goal of the British policy at that time was indeed to solve this dilemma by persuading the US to realign its policy in the Middle East with that of Britain.
In an attempt to dissuade the French from supporting the Zionists, British diplomats repeatedly warned French officials of the dangers in a Jewish state becoming a center for communism in the Middle East. While admitting that Ben-Gurion was not pro-communist, they cautioned that he might be ousted by parties on the Left, whose influence in the Hagana was growing. Another argument used effectively by the British in their psychological warfare was that the Lehi - the anti-British Jewish underground group - had been infiltrated by Soviet agents.
IN THE aftermath of the UN partition resolution, the French identified two approaches toward the crisis in Palestine among British officials in the Middle East, which they termed the "Clayton" and "Glubb" approaches. The first argued that Britain should rely on an Iraqi-Syrian axis, forgoing the plan for a Greater Syria (comprising Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon, under Abdullah), which was putting Britain in direct confrontation with Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
It advocated dividing up Palestine and using its various parts to coerce the Arab leaders into acquiescing in a defense alliance with Britain. Syria would receive Galilee; Iraq would gain access to the port of Haifa, where the pipelines of the Iraqi Oil Company terminated and a refinery was located; Jordan would receive the region known today as the West Bank and most parts of the Negev; Egypt would get the adjacent Palestinian region on the Mediterranean coast.
The Glubb approach, named after John Bagot Glubb, the British commander of the Jordanian Arab Legion, argued that Britain should rely primarily on King Abdullah of Jordan and continue to promote the Greater Syria plan. Most of Palestine, therefore, would be incorporated into Jordan. In fact, both approaches envisaged either a Jewish autonomous entity within a greater Jordan, or a smaller Jewish state on the coast between Atlit (south of Haifa) and Tel Aviv that would clearly be unviable and would not endanger British or Arab interests.
Iraq's refusal to ratify its treaty with Britain in January 1948, after the regent, Abd al-Ilah, had to retreat in the face of large public demonstrations that led to hundreds of casualties, bolstered the Jordanian option. In February, the Jordanian prime minister traveled to London with Glubb, where he concluded a new Anglo-Jordanian treaty. But the Clayton formula was not dead yet. It was to be revived in the following months.
The failure of British efforts to convince the Iraqi regent to ratify the Anglo-Iraqi treaty, which was intended to serve as a precedent for treaties with other Arab countries, intensified the use the British made of the Zionist card. French reports describe in detail the repercussions of their failure in Iraq on British policy in Palestine. Ben-Gurion, who was kept well-informed by his top adviser on Arab affairs, Eliahu (Elias) Sasson, wrote in his war diary on March 7: "Clayton went to Syria - the British want to make Syria their base after failing in Iraq and Egypt. The situation in the Arab world is difficult - riots in Iraq and Britain is trying to concentrate Arab thoughts on Palestine."
Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency, and Moshe Sharett (Shertok), head of its Political Department, were well aware of the British double game. They were both receiving information not only from the Hagana's secret service, but also directly from the French. The information provided by the French in 1948, including from their agent in Damascus, was crucial for the two Zionist leaders in uncovering Britain's and the Arabs' secret plans in Palestine.
Clandestine Franco-Zionist collaboration, which began under General de Gaulle in the summer of 1945, became institutionalized and intimate under the Fourth Republic. A French memorandum on the eve of Sharett's visit to Paris in April 1946 to conclude a secret agreement defined the areas of possible collaboration with the Zionist movement, as follows: "The envisaged collaboration could operate in a very wide framework. It would be enough if there was an agreement in principle, upheld by a discrete connection, exchange of information and, at regular intervals, joint decisions on certain points of the policy to be followed. The object of this partnership, the Lebanese Christian, could be completely unaware of the understanding between his protectors.
It is clear that the Franco-Zionist collaboration could intervene in many other places besides the Levant, without ever being exposed: study of the development of political, social, cultural and economic trends in the Middle East, North African policy or international propaganda."
The memorandum reveals that one of the main goals of France's secret collaboration with the Zionists was protection of the Christians in Lebanon. In fact, in May 1946, the French were secretly involved in promoting an agreement between the Jewish Agency and the Maronite Church. The French were also involved behind the scenes in an agreement concluded that year between the Jewish Agency and the Egyptian prime minister, Ismail Sidqi, on a two-state solution in Palestine.
THE FRANCO-ZIONIST collaboration was based on shared interests. Apart from taking vengeance on the British for their role in expelling them from Syria and Lebanon, the French were extremely concerned about British subversion in North Africa. Syrian Foreign Ministry documents reveal that British officials in Cairo were directly involved in undermining France's position in North Africa and even pressed Arab leaders to act against the French there. Arab League secretary-general Azzam collaborated closely with Clayton in these activities. When French officials complained at their meeting with the British in mid-February 1948 about Clayton's subversive activities in French North Africa, the British response was evasive.
It is understandable, therefore, that in discussions in French military circles on whether France should support the establishment of a Jewish state, it was argued that an Arab victory in Palestine would strengthen Syria, the center of anti-French activity, as well as the Arab League, and threaten France's position in North Africa.
For its part, an alliance with France was essential for the Zionist movement, as it would facilitate illegal immigration and the purchase of arms, and help in the propaganda campaign, as it had in the Exodus affair.
The French, however, were extremely anxious to conceal their collaboration with the Jewish Agency in clandestine activities. France, which was undergoing acute political and economic crises and desperately needed Britain's support to regain its position as a great power, could not afford to antagonize the British by openly collaborating with the Zionists. Moreover, the French feared a reaction in the Arab world, where they still had considerable political, economic and cultural interests, as well as among the Muslims in North Africa, if their support of the Jewish cause was revealed.
The French Intelligence Service took extraordinary steps not to endanger its agent in Damascus and was extremely cautious with the information it relayed to the head of the Jewish Agency. Only a handful of people in the Jewish Agency were involved in the clandestine collaboration with the French, and even fewer were aware of the true source of the information on the Arab and British secret plans provided by the French. So far, it has been possible to establish that only Ben-Gurion; Sharett; Reuven Shiloah (Zaslany), Ben-Gurion's chief intelligence adviser; Eliahu Sasson, Ben-Gurion's top adviser on Arab affairs; Morris Fischer, the Jewish Agency representative in Paris (who was formerly an intelligence officer in de Gaulle's Free France in Syria and Lebanon); Tuvia Arazi, head of the Hagana's secret service in Haifa; and Eliahu Epstein (Elath), who served in the Jewish Agency's office in the US, were involved.
Sasson, head of the Arab Section in the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, was a key player in this secret collaboration with the French from 1946-1949. Intelligence information from the French was relayed mainly through him directly to Ben-Gurion during the critical months from December 1947 until May 1948. Born in Damascus, Sasson, who joined the Jewish Agency in 1933, was an entire intelligence organization in himself. His role in the establishment of the State of Israel is yet to be revealed, as these activities were conducted in utmost secrecy.
Reports by French officers of their meetings with him provide only a glimpse of his clandestine activities. He had intimate knowledge of the complex Arab arena and knew personally many of the Arab leaders. It was no coincidence that among Ben-Gurion's advisers on Arab affairs, he was the only one who warned early on that the Arab states would go to war and that King Abdullah, caught in a British snare, would be unable to conclude an agreement with the Jewish Agency on the partition of Palestine.
Sasson stayed in besieged Jerusalem until April 1948 to maintain his contacts with the French consulate, through which information arrived from Beirut and Paris. Only when the consulate came under constant Arab fire, which disrupted its operations, did he move to Tel Aviv. In fact, the French were convinced that the British had an inkling of what was going on and were behind the shelling of their compound, which continued throughout the war. In early May, Sasson traveled to Paris, where he had direct access to intelligence information acquired by the French from their agents in the Middle East. He remained there until 1949, renewing his contacts with Arab officials. He was also involved in the cease-fire negotiations in Rhodes.
IN DISCUSSIONS with their French counterparts in February and March 1948, British diplomats were confident that the US would withdraw its support for a Jewish state in light of the Arabs' violent resistance and military successes. Britain, they argued, would again be asked to play a central role in Palestine. On one occasion, a British diplomat remarked that the besieged Jewish city of Jerusalem, whose 100,000 inhabitants lacked food and water, might surrender to the Arabs, forcing Ben-Gurion to resign. He might be replaced by a more moderate leader such as Yehuda Magnes, president of the Hebrew University, who would accept a compromise solution such as a binational state.
British and Arab expectations were reinforced by growing opposition to the UN partition resolution in the US State Department and Department of Defense. But their hopes were dashed in April, after the Hagana's counterattack and the occupation of the mixed towns of Tiberias, Safed, Jaffa, Acre and Haifa. This was a clear message to the Arab states, Britain, the United States and the UN that the Jews in Palestine were determined to win the war and establish their own independent sovereign state.
As tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees streamed across their borders and public demands for immediate military intervention intensified, the Arab leaders were trapped between the expectations raised by their declarations of an imminent victory and the realization that their countries were ill prepared for an all-out confrontation. Egyptian army commanders warned King Farouk that they lacked sufficient arms and ammunition for a war in Palestine, while the Lebanese premier, Sulh, later admitted: "If the Jews want to take Beirut, they can take it with no difficulty."
In these critical weeks at the end of April and early May, Britain was to make its most underhanded move in its entire controversial policy in Palestine, when it deliberately manipulated and urged the Arab leaders to go to war against the Jewish state.
Asked by a French officer on his country's stand on a possible all-out confrontation between the Jews and the Arab states, a high-ranking British officer responded that Britain would not necessarily see such a conflict as a bad thing. An Arab victory would strengthen Britain's influence and prestige in the Arab world, while a defeat would weaken the Arab states, whose leaders would be have to turn to Britain for support.
Such views were prevalent at the time among many British officials in both the Middle East and the Foreign Office. Arab officials made similar charges. For example, after Golda Meir's meeting with King Abdullah on May 11, in the Jewish Agency's last attempt to persuade the Jordanian sovereign not to go to war, Muhammad al-Zubati, his private secretary, told Ezra Danin, who accompanied Meir as a translator, that "it was the British who were pushing him [the king] and involving the Iraqis too, because the Iraqis had refused to sign a treaty and the British therefore wanted to send them to the front so that they would be beaten and brought to their knees."
In fact, before the Arab invasion, the British army command was confident that the Jewish defense forces, exhausted by more than five months of civil war, would be unable to withstand an all-out offensive by the Arab states' regular armies. The British nevertheless wanted to ensure an Arab victory.
SHORTLY AFTER the Arab forces invaded the newly established State of Israel, the French ambassador and the military attaché in Cairo reported that King Farouk decided to take part in the invasion only after receiving assurances from the British that they would secretly provide arms and ammunition to the Egyptian army from their depots in the Suez Canal zone. They also reported that Azzam was instrumental in persuading the king and his reluctant prime minister, Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi, to change their stand. French diplomats in Cairo also reported that British officers stationed in Libya were helping volunteers from French North Africa to join the war in Palestine. The French documents seen so far do not clarify what the British officials in Cairo promised Farouk to obtain his agreement to go to war.
An intelligence report prepared by the French military attaché in Beirut on May 11 sheds new light on direct British involvement in the war in Palestine. The report, which was clearly based on inside information, reveals details of the discussions in the Arab League's political and military committees convened in Damascus on the eve of the invasion. For the first time, we have confirmation of British intervention in the planning of the Arab invasion, including the last-minute change of the commander of the joint Arab forces.
The report highlights the Arab leaders' hesitation to go to war and confirms that most of them were willing to endorse the last-minute American initiative to delay the British evacuation by 10 days in order to continue diplomatic efforts to prevent an all-out war. It reveals that the Arab leaders were willing to agree to this initiative, but were forced to fall in line with Abdullah's decision to go to war. The British government, in fact, which had not only rejected the American appeal but had brought forward the evacuation of its troops from Palestine to May 14, was behind Abdullah's stand.
French documents reinforce allegations made by Israeli leaders at the time that Britain had left little choice for Abdullah but to go to war. Indeed, the attack of the Arab Legion on the four Jewish settlements of the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem on the morning of May 12, upon the instructions of its British commander, Glubb Pasha, had a clear political motive: to demonstrate the Legion's military superiority to the wavering Arab leaders, including Abdullah himself. (Scores of the settlers who had surrendered were murdered and 320 of the survivors were taken as prisoners of war to Amman the following day.)
The French attache's report explains the last-minute change in the command of the Arab forces and its invasion plan. The original plan had called for the occupation of Haifa by joint Iraqi-Jordanian forces and for the Syrian forces to invade Galilee from Bint Jbail in Lebanon. In the revised plan, Tel Aviv was the main target and was to be attacked by the Egyptian army from the south. The Jordanian Arab Legion was to renew the siege on Jewish Jerusalem and advance westwards on Tel Aviv through the Arab cities of Lydda and Ramle.
The Iraqi and Syrian forces were given a secondary role. The Syrian brigade, which was already in Nabatiyeh, near Bint Jbail, was forced at the last minute to move to Kuneitra, in the Golan Heights, losing precious time. This change in the Arabs' strategy was the outcome of the British success in persuading Abdullah and Farouk to collaborate.
The first part of the report was encoded and wired from Beirut to the French consulate in Jerusalem on May 12 omitting details that could have revealed that the French had inside information. The same evening it was passed on to Shiloah, Ben-Gurion's chief intelligence adviser, with a comment added by the Israeli liaison officers: "The information on the Arab forces was sent to us by our French friends in Beirut. Their reports are usually accurate."
The information received from the French was crucial. Three days before the Arab invasion, Ben-Gurion learned of the Arab decision to attack the new state; Egypt's intention to join the attack; the size of the Arab forces involved; the directions of the attacks; the nature of the offensive; that Tel Aviv was to be the main target and was to be bombed from the air. It can be ascertained from previous occasions that on the following day a French intelligence officer was sent from Beirut to Haifa to update the Israelis face to face.
Apart from the report received from Beirut, Ben-Gurion almost certainly received information from the French through Moshe Sharett. Sharett had left New York on May 9 aboard an Air France flight to Paris, continued via Athens, and arrived in Tel Aviv late in the evening of May 11. His daughter, Yael, who accompanied him, recalls that he was met at the airport by several "familiar faces," one of whom was Sasson, who, as mentioned above, had arrived in Paris in early May to speed up the evaluation and transfer to Ben-Gurion and Sharett of the intelligence information received in Paris from Beirut. The meeting was probably used to brief Sharett on last-minute decisions taken by the Arab leaders in Damascus.
Late at night on May 12, 10 of the 13 members of the provisional Israeli government, by a majority of six to four, made the historic decision to establish an independent Jewish state, named Israel. On May 14, at a ceremony held at the Tel Aviv Museum, Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The following day, the Arab forces invaded.
On November 7, 1945, Constantine Zurayk, a diplomat in the Syrian Embassy in Washington, informed his Foreign Ministry in Damascus of a conversation he had with an American State Department official, who stressed that whereas the United States was striving for a friendly agreement between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Britain was exploiting the conflict there to secure its control over the Arab world and wouldn't stop until there was bloodshed in Palestine. Two and a half years later, his warning came true.
The writer is a professor in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
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