Commentary Magazine


The Great Powers and Israel: The Role Britain Hopes to Play

On May 15 Britain ended its twenty-five-year mandate over Palestine in an atmosphere of bitterness and mutual recrimination. The Empire had “washed its hands” of the Jewish homeland—though obviously not of the Middle East. In view of the headlines of the moment, only the rashest prophet—it would seem—could see anything but a continuing perspective of indifference—or downright hostility. Here, however, one of England’s best-informed authorities on Palestine suggests that we may be in for surprises. In any case, he indicates the permanent British needs that must continue to keep her interested in Palestine, and sketches the role which she may yet possibly play there.

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The longer I live in the world of practical politics, the more wary I become of attributing rationalistic calculation to the actions of governments and politicians. Undoubtedly, there is a pattern of historical development, moving according to a complex of causes. But these causes, which can be seen so clearly in retrospect, are seldom the conscious motives of the politician, whether he works in the Kremlin, in Washington, or in London.

Britain’s relations with Palestine illustrate with unusual sharpness this gap between historical cause and conscious motive. Looked at from outside, it is almost impossible to avoid attributing to Bevin a deliberate and well-thought-out plan, designed to defeat every effort to create a Jewish state. He looms in the Jewish mind today like a monstrous, anti-Semitic Machiavelli, complete master of himself and of the diplomacy and strategy of Great Britain. Moreover, the whole chain of events from 1945 until the end of the mandate seems to confirm this picture of his personality. Even the most cautious observer might be induced to remark, “Even if he didn’t plan it this way, at least things have gone as though he did. And that comes to the same thing.”

But does it? If I were asked to select one single reason for the whole tragedy of Anglo-Jewish relations, I would pick out and bracket together the lack of comprehension shown by the British government for the Jewish state of mind and by the Jews for the state of mind of the British government. Each has consistently over-estimated the rationality and perversity of the other. Both feel themselves the innocent victims of a wicked and carefully elaborated conspiracy. Bevin, with genuine self-righteousness, places the conspiracy’s headquarters in the offices of Rabbi Silver, and has visions of a vast network uniting the capitalist Jews of America with the Communist Jews of the Eastern bloc. He is passionately and sincerely indignant because he believes that world Jewry has intrigued and plotted to frustrate his own perfectly reasonable solution of the problem on which he once staked his career. Americans, and particularly American Jews, find it hard to grasp the vital fact that the main motive which inspires the British Foreign Secretary is a sense of injured innocence. It is this which erupts from time to time in most uncalculated indiscretions, in spasmodic orders and counter-orders, and which is effectively preventing the formulation of any coherent British policy for the Middle East. Overestimating the cunning and coolness of British diplomacy, Americans see a plan where there is in reality an emotional and confused reaction to a situation over which Britain has lost control. The real criticism of Bevin is not that he is pro-Arab and anti-Zionist (though he is certainly both these things), but that he has never been able to understand either Jew or Arab, far less the relationship of the two. His pro-Arab feelings bear as little relation to Arab realities as his anti-Jewish feelings to the facts of Zionism. When he deals with Palestine, his powerful mind moves in a murky atmosphere of myth and resentment.

In all this he accurately reflects the mood of British public opinion. Like their Foreign Secretary, the British feel ill-used in relation to Palestine. Things have gone terribly wrong, and British Tommies have had to fight a filthy campaign, in “a country of which they have scarcely heard.” To add insult to injury, Britain has been vilified by Americans, rooting from the sidelines but unwilling, when the test came, to impose the solution they themselves had pushed through the UN Assembly. There is no aspect of Ernest Bevin’s foreign policy which has received stronger support from all parties and from all classes than his Palestine policy; and this support has been given not because of the particular things he has done—most Britons dimly realize that they cannot all have been right—but because, whatever the Foreign Secretary does with regard to Palestine, he does it representing a people which feels that it has been kicked in the face by a hostile world.

It will be observed that the British and Jewish psychology are more similar than might have been expected. Indeed, they are the two sides of a single emotional shield. In the tangle of historical causation, Englishman and Jew alike attributes to himself injured innocence and to the other the diabolism of the calculating schemer.

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I realize that most readers will regard the picture I have drawn as fantastic and absurd. After all, six million Englishmen were not killed in Nazi gas chambers, and their desperate survivors are not a people without a country. It is Britain which willingly assumed the mandate and has since then permitted Palestine to slip into chaos and war. It is the Labor party, Mr. Bevin’s own party, which, after supporting Zionism for twenty-five years, repudiated its solemn pledges and openly favored the Arabs in their struggle. Objectively, there is no resemblance whatsoever between the situation of the two peoples.

Of course there isn’t. But we are dealing not with objective truth but with states of mind. However absurd it may sound to the outside world, Bevin speaks for Britain when he talks as though he were a simple fellow who has been the victim of a conspiracy. Moreover, that he and his countrymen feel and speak in this way is a fact as objective as the existence of oil in Iraq, and just as vital an element in the situation. Indeed, the British state of mind is the one fact that the Jews have most consistently underrated. Or rather, they have assumed that, because the British were wrong about Palestine, British feelings could be discounted.

Any appraisal of British policy in Palestine must start from this central point. To neglect the British state of mind, as personified in Bevin, and to concentrate on strategic and economic interests, is to distort the facts and make comprehension impossible. For the really striking characteristic of Bevin’s policy during the past year has been its disregard of diplomatic and strategic interests: its complete failure to win Arab support, its disruption of Anglo-American relations, and, most ironical of all, its objective assistance to Soviet Russia. The Foreign Secretary has achieved nothing he rationally desires. Everything he most feared has been precipitated by his own actions.

This is not the history of a cool and calculating Machiavelli, but of an honest and confused mind, lashing out in unpredictable reaction against problems it cannot understand, the victim of emotions which have overmastered cool self-interest. Such things have happened before in British history. We have only to recall British reactions to American demands for independence and to those of the Southern Irish and the South Africans. In every case the outside world has explained these tragedies in terms of “perfidious Albion,” when in reality they were examples of that insular reaction to “incomprehensible foreigners” which from time to time violates the principles of sound imperialism, on which British foreign policy has been traditionally based.

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What are the underlying British interests in the Middle East which the Foreign Office and the Chiefs of Staff have had to take into account in developing their Palestine policy? They can be summed up in two principles:

  1. The safeguarding of communications with Australia and New Zealand and the other Far Eastern portions of the British Commonwealth.
  2. The maintenance of ownership and control over the British oilfields around the Persian Gulf.

Ever since 1945 there has been a bitter controversy in Whitehall about the best method of realizing these two objectives of imperial policy. It is agreed on all sides that, in the event of war with Russia, the re-occupation of Egypt, some months before the fighting begins, will be essential to Anglo-American strategy. In any future war the Nile delta and the Suez area must once again become the main base of Middle Eastern operations. If, as is likely, the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal cannot be kept open for traffic, the trans-African air route and the Cape sea route must be used, as they were in the last war. Furthermore, air bases in Cyrenaica, Tripoli, and Crete will be required to deny the Mediterranean to the enemy. Lastly—even if the Russians were to over-run Northern Persia and part of Iraq—the Persian Gulf itself, including both the American oilfields in Saudi Arabia and the Anglo-Iranian oilfields, must be held at all costs.

It is at once apparent that in this strategic picture Palestine and the Mosul-Haifa pipeline have only a secondary value. The key points are Basra and Cairo. Palestine only became important after the British decision in the winter of 1945 to negotiate a new treaty with Egypt, based on the premise that British troops would not remain in the country in peace time. This decision was forced on Britain by the violent temper of Egyptian nationalism. But so far, owing to the stumbling-block of the Sudan question and the decline of British prestige in the Middle East, no new treaty has been negotiated. The 1936 treaty is still in force.

The problem that faced the British Chiefs of Staff when in 945 they began to regard Russia as a potential aggressor, was to find an alternative naval and military base near enough to Egypt to permit speedy reentry if ever war should become likely. One group favored a retreat to the Sudan and Kenya. As a long-term policy this had much to commend it. But North-South communications were non-existent and would take many years to construct. What, then, were the other possibilities? There were only two: Cyrenaica and Palestine. The advantages of Palestine were (a) the port of Haifa, second only to Alexandria as a naval base, and (b) the suitability of the Northern Negev as a military base to replace the vast cantonments and stores of the Suez area. On the other hand, the former Italian colonies of North Africa, though geographically convenient for a re-entry into Egypt, are desperately short of water, and Tobruk is a quite inadequate port.

The Chiefs of Staff did not take long to decide. They preferred Palestine; and in 1946 work was begun on the construction of new airfields and of barracks to the value of five million pounds near Gaza. These large-scale military plans were begun on the clear assumption that Bevin would achieve political settlement such as would permit Palestine to become the main British base in the Middle East.

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Bevin was faced with a very delicate situation. It had to be admitted that the speedy development of the Middle Eastern oilfields was only possible on the basis of large-scale American capital investment. Britain had not the financial resources available to construct either the new refineries or the new pipelines that would enable the oil to flow direct from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and so save the enormous dues payable by tankers passing through the Suez Canal. With Bevin’s encouragement, therefore, commercial treaties were negotiated between the British and American oil interests, under which Britain could sell part of the crude oil derived from the Anglo-Iranian oilfields for the dollars she so urgently needed. The oil thus acquired would then be piped and refined by the American companies.

It was well known in Britain that the American oil interests and the American Chiefs of Staff were at least as anti-Zionist as the Foreign Office. Mr. Bevin has always hoped that they would be strong enough to swing the administration behind his “realistic” policy for dealing with Zionism. That this hope was not fantastic was later proved by the administration’s about-face on partition. Reluctant to accept any political or military responsibilities in the Middle East, the administration has always secretly desired to side-step the Zionist issue and to support any British policy that seemed likely to satisfy America’s strategic requirements in the Middle East without increasing American commitments.

So far we can talk of a British policy which, whatever its morality, was at least consistent. When, in June 1946, a few weeks after the Anglo-American Report, the British Army cracked down on the Haganah and Bevin attempted to pressure the Jews into accepting the Morrison Plan, all of this merely meant that the White Paper policy of 939 was being followed to its logical conclusion. The tactic used to placate the Arabs in the event of a war against Hitler and Mussolini was again being employed under the threat—and it was a real threat, as was shown in Azerbaijan—of Russian aggression.

But this policy collapsed when the Jews did not capitulate. There is little doubt that, if some of the British generals and Irgun leaders had been permitted to wage the war they both desired, Jewish resistance could have been smashed. But when it came to the point, the Labor government balked at a war of extermination, and the Jewish Agency was able to maintain its authority and to limit resistance of the vast majority of the Yishuv to passive resistance. The result was that Bevin fell between two stools. Half-hearted enforcement of the White Paper antagonized both Jews and Arabs.

By the autumn of 1947, when the matter was finally referred to UN, British policy was bankrupt. All that the British representative at Lake Success could do was passively resist the partition proposals in every way while they were being debated, and actively prevent their being carried into effect when the Assembly had approved them. This was done in the vain hope of retaining Arab friendship by demonstrating that partition was not Britain’s fault.

Meanwhile the British Chiefs of Staff had to think again. At the end of 1947 it seemed clear to them that, whatever happened, Palestine had been rendered unsuitable for use as a British military base. Even the most prejudiced anti-Jew had to admit that a hostile Yishuv in war time would be totally unmanageable. A naval and military base needs industry and skilled workers, and only the Jews could provide them.

The decision was therefore taken to transfer the base to Cyrenaica, despite all its natural disadvantages. The gigantic piles of stores and equipment, painfully transferred to Palestine from the Suez area, were redirected back to Suez, or forwarded to Cyrenaica. Work has begun to put Tobruk in order and to build barracks in Libya. Today the British troops, as they are evacuated from Palestine, are shipped across the Mediterranean to its southern shores.

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Out of the frying pan into the fire. Britain holds Libya and Tripoli only by right of conquest. She has so antagonized the Arab world that she cannot be certain of the necessary two-thirds majority if she seeks to obtain a trusteeship over Cyrenaica and so to put her administration on a permanent basis. Moreover, her claim will certainly be opposed by the Eastern bloc; and America, anxious to secure Italy’s full attachment to the Western bloc, is wondering whether she can support the British claim to the Italian colonies. The military base in Cyrenaica, therefore, is politically insecure.

But Bevin is a very obstinate man. Come what may, he has decided to cut his losses in Palestine and to rule it out as a British military base. The policy of evacuation, interpreted by most observers outside Britain as a stalling device, is meant quite literally.

It is here that the passions analyzed in the first part of this article cut across imperial policy. Imperial policy would demand a rethinking of the Palestine situation in the light of the new balance of power revealed by the Arab-Jewish trial of strength this spring. It has always been clear to the unprejudiced observer that the basis of peace in Palestine lies in an arrangement between King Abdullah and the Jewish state, under which the Arab areas of Palestine would be incorporated in Transjordan, and the Jewish state would become a member of Greater Syria. Recommending the adoption of the Anglo-American Report as a method of achieving a few months’ breathing space, I wrote to Bevin in April 1946 that the time would come, if he was patient, when conciliation would be possible along these lines. I believe that Bartley Crum made the same suggestions to President Truman. Everything that has happened since confirms us.

But at present there is no sign that Bevin accepts this line of thought. Foiled and frustrated, he only wants to turn his back on Palestine and to find a country politically more amenable to the requirements of a British Middle Eastern base. As if to emphasize his disregard of material interests, he has summarily thrown Palestine out of the sterling bloc, despite the value to Britain of its potash, citrus crop, and refineries.

In this policy of “bag and baggage” he has public opinion solidly behind him. Indeed, if he were personally to change his mind, it is doubtful, in the present mood of public opinion, that he could propose any change of attitude that would involve the continued presence of British troops. The British public is obsessed by the idea of total evacuation, come what may. It has been taught that it has no obligations to, and no interests in Palestine, and it is in no mood to be persuaded that a single British life should be risked for either morality or expediency.

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But this does not exclude either British influence on the course of the present war or a later re-entry into Palestinian politics. After all, Abdullah’s army is officered by Glubb Pasha and his colleagues and is largely paid for by the British treasury. Low as British prestige in the Middle East has sunk, it is still potent in Amman. I do not believe that, in the present mood of the Foreign Secretary, it will be used actively to foment an Arab war against the Jews. Now that the mandate is ended, Mr. Bevin’s whole influence will be cast in the direction of insulating the conflict, with an eye to mediation when both sides are exhausted.

If the Jews are wise, and are content to hold a compact area instead of attempting prestige victories such as the capture of Jerusalem, they should be in a very strong position for negotiation in six months’ time. Unless they wish to produce what they most fear, they should not assume that in such negotiations Bevin will necessarily use his influence against them. Having triumphantly exposed the hollowness of the presumptions on which British policy was based—that Arab military strength was greater than Jewish, and Arab nuisance value correspondingly higher—they can afford to treat British policy of the last three years as an aberration, in which passion overruled reason. After all, a British base in Cyrenaica is not a second but a tenth best. With the end of the mandate and of the horrible war arising out of it, both British and Jewish resentments could rapidly cool and, with prudent statesmanship on both sides, the strong common interests which unite the British Commonwealth and the Jewish state could re-assert themselves.

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