Commentary Magazine


The U.S.-British Entente on Palestine:
The Two Powers Join to Safeguard Israel

In this article Hal Lehrman once again offers a prognosis of American and British policy in regard to Palestine, drawing upon the same high sources which enabled him to predict the course of big-power diplomacy with such accuracy. The present article endeavors to outline for our readers the terms of the settlement which the United States and Britain have joined together to implement in Palestine, and which—if Mr. Lehrman again proves correct—should insure the safeguarding by these two powers of Israel’s survival. 

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Despite surface indications of ultimate victory over the Arabs, the friends of a Jewish state in Palestine still walk in dread of some sinister diplomatic maneuver to undermine or reverse the happy ending of the first chapter in Israel’s brave new history. They are not entirely precise about the nature or the source of the anticipated hostile thrust. Perhaps, they say, it will be the State Department, sabotaging the White House by covert action in the Middle East or delaying a settlement beyond November in hope that a Republican triumph would give Washington’s “Arabists” a clean slate for fresh skullduggery. Or it might be the British, awaiting the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in September to make a combined assault with the Moslem potentates on the whole idea of partition and the very existence of Israel. Whatever the source of the blow, it is said, a blow will fall as surely as Albion is perfidious and our Division of Near Eastern and African Affairs a society for the advancement of Islam.

Such forebodings are natural in any venture whose success has been almost too good to be true. Fear of treachery is especially understandable for the Jews, whose chronicles are measured off and divided by disaster. And it would be foolhardy indeed, in the light of the Great Powers’ dismal record of twisting and turning on Palestine, to give hard and fast assurances that there will be no eleventh-hour turnabout, no last-minute conspiracy to plunder Israel of her prize. Nevertheless, there is some reason at this juncture to declare that what seems to be is real, that Israel’s prospects for internationally-ratified independence are good, that the United States government is persuaded, the British reluctantly converted, and the Arab League in full retreat. Though the Arabs may continue for a time to go through the angry motions of a fight to the death, it will be mostly hopeful sound and fury to squeeze out a better bargain.

No one would foretell, in the interim month of August, how successfully the Tel Aviv regime would emerge from the wilderness of internal factional perils, economic stresses, and Arab-Jewish antagonisms into which the achievement of clear-cut sovereignty would plunge the fledgling state. But careful conversations with persons in various important places suggested that Israel would at least be given the chance to hack her way out of that wilderness. It was now possible to believe that not only the United States, as reported in these pages three months ago, but Britain and even the Arabs were finally convinced that the State of Israel was in the Middle East to stay.

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Uncontrollable incidents and temporary recourse to violence, such as the outbreak after the Latrun explosion, might set the time-table back, but the position and the long-range forecast in mid-August (relying on informants who have not hitherto led this writer astray) could be legitimately summarized as follows:

  1. Britain and the United States were now working in harmony and steady consultation for a Palestine settlement.
  2. This settlement would have to include the perhaps unpalatable but certainly undeniable politico-military fact that a Jewish state existed.
  3. This state could not be asked to suffer any impairment of sovereignty such as limits on its rights to welcome immigrants.
  4. Certain territorial adjustments of the partition frontiers would probably be made, by mediation or preferably by direct negotiations between Israel and individual Arab states.
  5. Neither the Arab League nor the Arab community in the Middle East would be required formally to ratify or even agree to the settlement, but they would have to observe it at least by refraining from further organized warfare.
  6. In the event of refractory behavior by any Arab state, the machinery of the UN would mesh into gear to clamp an arms embargo on the offender.
  7. It was hoped, however, that such action would not be needed, and that the Arabs would ultimately recognize the futility of resisting the militarily superior Jews, to say nothing of resisting the firm decision of a world organization.
  8. Instead of a signed treaty, there would be an informal and indefinite modus vivendi, which would imperceptibly mature into a general peace.
  9. The Jews would be expected to cooperate by accepting the internationalization of Jerusalem, giving a guarantee against expansion of Israel’s final frontiers, re-admitting a manageable number of Arab refugees, and showing themselves amenable to customs unions, trade treaties, and other devices for attaining good neighborliness and rational economic connections with the bordering Arab countries in a prosperous Middle East.
  10. As for the United States and Britain, their long-term objective would be to mend their fences with Arabs and Israelis, both of whom they had rather thoroughly infuriated, and persuade and assist each of the antagonists to live productively side by side with the other—a policy designed to cement and fortify the wobbling Anglo-American defenses in a key area of world strategy.

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Though the repercussions might have been cataclysmic for their mutual and higher alliance on worldwide fronts, the British and the Americans had nevertheless come appallingly close to open rupture this spring over the Palestine dispute. Having escaped, they were now equally determined not to let it happen again. Each side had made an accommodation, since each needed the other in the Middle East.

A natural diplomatic reticence now attempted to conceal the fact that the weaker partner had yielded more than the stronger. Ostensibly, the emphasis was on “teamwork”: preliminary consultation to avoid contradicting each other in public, examination of every new problem in the light of the “common Anglo-American interest” and, above all, no major unilateral action. Everything was to be done inside and as part of the United Nations.

Actually, the Americans had imposed their main requirement—that Israel from now on must be regarded as a permanent element in the situation. The Americans would be willing to go slow, giving the British time to readjust themselves. On points of detail, such as the British protest to the Security Council in the case of the five Britons, each power would retain independence of action. But on the fundamental issue—Israel’s survival—there was to be no more contention and no more cross-purpose.

Out of joint thinking certain conclusions had crystallized. The new entente could not yet know precisely what the outlines of the final settlement would be. But on two things both powers were firmly—one might even say grimly—resolved: that the UN should not tolerate a renewed state of open war in the Holy Land, and that the Arabs had to make up their minds to accept the disagreeable reality of Israel’s presence. And, since Israel was a sovereign entity, there could be no question of requiring her to curtail her sovereign privilege of admitting to her territory as many immigrants as she desired. It was hoped, for the sake of soothing the Arab fear of Israeli expansionism, that many Jewish DP’s from Europe would find havens in countries other than Israel, and that her own limited economic absorptivity would place natural restrictions on the influx into Israel. But the right of unimpeded immigration had suddenly become so axiomatic and obvious to Anglo-American thinking that questions concerning it were received with wide-eyed surprise, as if White Papers and blockades had never been heard of.

The problem of revising the partition frontiers was frankly regarded as a simple exercise in horse-trading between Semitic peoples renowned for their skill in such matters. Fresh evidence of this talent seemed already discernible in the Arab Higher Committee’s professed scheme to set up an Arab government for the whole of Palestine, as if partition and the military abandonment of extensive territory had not occurred. On the Jewish side, the same genius was clear in Israel’s decision “permanently” to annex a land strip athwart Arab soil linking Jerusalem and the partition frontiers, and in Foreign Minister Shertok’s announcement that the boundaries set by the UN would be changed “by adding territory, not by diminishing it.” Britain and the United States would be happy to have Count Bernadotte mediate in boundary discussions. But if the two parties preferred direct talks, they would not object. UN prestige was considered as bound up with the reaching of a settlement, not with getting credit for it.

The partition frontiers, predicated on an economic unity which had not materialized, were now generally thought considerably less than sacred. The most likely modification appeared to be an exchange of Western Galilee for the Negev. By military conquest Israel already held most of the Galilee area anyway. It offered fertile farmlands and a frontier with Lebanon which the Jews had always claimed to desire. As for the Negev, which is largely desert, UN insiders recalled that addition of this territory to the Jewish portion of partitioned Palestine had been almost an afterthought. Its cession would give King Abdullah his long-coveted access to the sea via Gaza. Egypt might make a bid for a slice of the Negev, but this was not likely to cause trouble in view of the lamentable Egyptian performance in the brief Palestine war, and since Egypt’s real interests seemed to extend more logically westward toward Cyrenaica anyway.

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A formal peace treaty, it was believed, was improbable, if not impossible. The Arab potentates, who had promised their people so much and earned so little, had, so it was reasoned, become prisoners of their own propaganda. The danger was notably acute in Egypt and Syria. In more backward states like Saudi Arabia, the undeveloped condition of public opinion created less threat of organized popular reaction. But even Abdullah was not thought bold enough to show his lone hand openly. If the Arab League publicly admitted defeat, the least that was expected to happen was a bloody wave of ultra-nationalist, fanatical Moslem rioting. Apart from the ever-present worry about Soviet profit from the overthrow of any Arab government, one had to think too of the mortal risk to Christians and Westerners (not to mention Jews) adrift in the angry Moslem sea.

The best that could be asked was a sullen but decisive passivity from the Arab leaders, implemented by a gradual laying down of arms. In such a tapering-off of belligerence, the wily Abdullah was expected to be the prime mover. The most “pro-British” of all the Arab statesmen because of his dependence on the London exchequer, and the most confident among them because his Legion alone had scored any victory against Israel, Abdullah was also in line to be the heaviest, and perhaps only, Arab winner in any settlement. He would therefore be the most eager to achieve it. He had already set a precedent for his colleagues in the Arab League by declaring Transjordan’s readiness to consider “any possible compromise that secures justice and prevents unnecessary bloodshed.”

If resistance were offered, it would come not from the League but from an individual Arab country or countries. For purposes of record I was reminded that it was physically possible for the Jews also to be the aggressor. It was thought, however, that the Israeli government would be competent to keep its own extremists in hand. And nobody seriously believed that the Tel Aviv regime itself, which had played its cards so skillfully at the international poker table, would ever blunder into a position of defiant illegality vis-à-vis the UN, even if goaded by provocations like the Arab sabotage of the Latrun water station under the nose of UN observers.

In the event of resistance, small-bore orneriness such as sniping and minor raids could be augustly overlooked. But operations involving large deployment of troops or artillery would bring the Security Council swiftly into session, I was assured, and make an arms embargo against the transgressor almost a “dead certainty.”

When asked what further sanctions were envisaged if this embargo failed to halt a new war, my sources uniformly showed distress that such a question should be posed. This distress was due to the painfulness of trying to imagine what sanctions could be taken that would be effective and not harm the sanctioners more than the sanctionee. Imports of certain foodstuffs and manufactured products could be shut off, of course. But the average Arab was one of the most difficult persons in the world to bring to his knees by sanctions because he needed so little and could get along on even less. On the other hand, sanctions worked two ways, and the West still wanted oil.

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However, I was assured that the arms embargo would be quite sufficient. The Arabs knew the embargo would leave them powerless to fight and win because it would deprive them of weapons and turn the enemy camp into an arsenal.

In fact, the Arab fear of an embargo seemed to be our ace in the hole for winning of the peace. The card, I was warned, should not be played too soon. In particular, the plank in the Democratic party platform calling for immediate lifting of the embargo on Israel would be a sheer disaster if implemented. It would mean unilateral American action against the Arabs, outside the UN framework. It would upset the delicate mechanism of the present UN campaign of skillful persuasion. It would make more difficult than ever the efforts of moderate Arab leaders to restrain their aroused peoples. Aside from dispersing the last remnants of American influence in the Middle East, the argument continued, our single-handed interference at this point would disperse the hopes for peace. It was therefore not only in the national interest of the United States to refrain from going too fast, but also in the real interest of world Jewry and even of Israel herself.

The Anglo-American entente had, it felt, solid ground for believing that even a UN embargo, or any other punitive action by the world organization, might never be needed at all—because the Arab leaders were beginning to see that they were already licked. The test in battle had exposed the inadequacies of their armies. To make things worse, the Arabs had squandered the initial advantage which they enjoyed in armaments. The world may have excoriated the British for building up the first Arab stockpile for war, but wasn’t it clear now that Britain’s pledge to halt the arms flow to the Middle East had effectively starved the Arab armies in munitions while Israel had been able to overtake and pass them?

Whatever the validity of this claim of British virtue, the evidence did show that Israel had certainly outstripped her enemies in fighting power. While the Arabs were floundering under financial embarrassments and Oriental inefficiencies, a well-heeled network of Israeli agents on several continents had purchased and shipped and delivered. Field artillery and fighter planes had come in from abroad, while factories at home clicked into production of small arms, anti-tank guns, Sten guns, mortars, and even make-shift armored cars. Moreover, Israel brilliantly used the lull of the truces to train and expand her army, rationalize its structure, tighten its command, and even create a small navy. Finally, there was nothing the Arabs could do about the steady arrival of Jewish immigrants from Europe—estimated by some at 85,000 already in Israel—with 10,000 more due to enter every month hereafter under American Joint Distribution Committee auspices. These sober realities, it was felt, exposed the absurdity of such pompous pronouncements by Arab diehards as Jamal el-Husseini’s scheme for a “federal” Palestine with a grandiose irrigation and reclamation program to be financed by, of all people, the penniless Arab population of the Holy Land itself. The more clear-headed Arab leaders would recognize the impossibility of imposing their will upon independent Israel in ‘the face of the prevailing odds. They were expected to be all the more persuadable when convinced that, in addition to the Jews, stubborn Arab resistance would have to reckon with “broader” problems and “broader” forces—i.e., the displeasure and determination of a UN which, for once, was agreed and ready to act. But the Arabs would also have to hurry up if Tel Aviv was not to harden its attitude toward interminable truces and unending palaver. The explosion of Jerusalem’s water-supply pumps vastly strained Israeli patience. The sharp Jewish demand for a definite term to the truce was an ominous storm signal.

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With a modicum of Arab reasonableness, however, it was felt that Israel would hold off long enough to avoid eruption of hostilities on a scale big enough seriously to damage negotiations. After all, the Jews had enormous gains to make by biding their time. Undisputed statehood and the right of unlimited immigration constituted their two inflexible objectives. And both these requirements were already implicitly guaranteed to them in advance by the new joint Anglo-American policy.

In exchange, a major concession to peace would be Israeli agreement to an international trusteeship over Jerusalem. The Jews now held most of the city by force of arms, with a Jewish military governor and a police force integrated into the Israeli defense command. It was argued that relinquishment of authority would not be too large a surrender, since the Jews had already yielded Jerusalem under the original partition plan. The muscular talk from Tel Aviv could be written off as mostly bargaining tactics to prepare the way for a grand gesture of conciliation when Israel, at the proper moment, gave up a claim to Jerusalem which she had not actually intended to push. It was highly unlikely that she would risk alienating world opinion by insisting that Jerusalem, sacred to three religions, be under the domination of one.

The energetic stand already taken against Irgun and other extremist tendencies indicated that Israel would also be agreeable to quieting the Arab concern about future Jewish aggression by guaranteeing whatever frontiers emerged from the peace talks. And once the main issues were regulated, Israeli objections to taking back the Arab refugees—their menace as a fifth column and as a drain on the resources of a Jewish state at war-would lose their cogency, although it was clear that much fewer would return to Israel than had fled.

As for good neighborliness: toward the Arab countries beyond the borders, any objective observer would have to admit that the organized Jewish community in Palestine had long demonstrated its desire for the opportunity to establish business-like and mutually profitable economic relations with the Arab world. In the past, unquestionably, the Jews had done overwhelmingly more for the Arab economy than the Arabs for the Jewish. There had been indication even in the middle of war that Israel was ready to give free port facilities to the Arabs in Haifa and captured Jaffa when peace came. There was a genuine Israeli desire for any and all trade arrangements which would be of common benefit in the massive postwar task of reconstruction and stabilization.

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The optimism of the Western powers did not stretch to the point of hoping that more than an uneasy peace, punctuated with intermittent harassments by both sides, could arise from the heat and bitterness of the conflict. But the best prescription was the balm of prosperity, and Anglo-American policy could be expected to encourage economic collaboration to the maximum between the recent antagonists. Only so could Israel avoid isolation and contribute her full potential to tranquillity in the Eastern Mediterranean. And only by the achievement of working relations between Jew and Arab could the West look for improvement of its own ties with both, for otherwise a gesture of rapprochement toward one would be taken as unfriendly by the other.

That relations with the Arabs were at low ebb could be seen in the almost pathetic British efforts to win favor by small tokens, wherever it was possible to do so without disturbing the general line of the new Anglo-American policy. Thus London, while inwardly reconciled to the inevitability of extending recognition to Israel, was decidedly not rushing to do so a moment sooner than necessary. Some seven thousand Jews of fighting age sat wearily under British guard in Cyprus until their release to Israel could no longer be resented by the Arabs. And at Lake Success, Sir Alexander Cadogan, who had remained fairly calm before the spectacle of two hundred and fifty thousand Jews languishing for years in European DP camps, now suffered publicly and eloquently over the hardships of a slightly larger number of Arabs made into refugees a few months ago chiefly through the bellicose ambitions of their leaders. Similarly, the United States felt under compelling need to make what amends it could for the “betrayal” which the Arabs had already laid at Washington’s door. As one American official plantively put it to me, “ we hope the Jews will appreciate that we have to get along with the Arabs too.”

But the democracies would also have to devise some way of “getting along” with Israel. Israel nursed too many dour memories of Allied coldness, and too many sentimental memories of Soviet aid in her recent travail, for her to be counted entirely within the Western camp in any future global alignment.

Not that there was any present danger of Israel’s taking on the complexion of a Poland or Bulgaria. There were too many genuine democrats and realists in high Israeli councils for that. But there were also factions of considerable weight which leaned toward Moscow out of a mixture of ideology, gratitude, and the habit of being anti-British. The best that could be awaited from Israel for the moment was the assumption of a middle or “neutral” position. Considering the Soviet adroitness in profiting from such situations, Allied policy could scarcely regard this arrangement as eminently satisfactory.

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The Kremlin, however, had considerably larger reason to contemplate with relish its new status in the Middle East. Only in one phase of policy had the Soviets met complete frustration. The UN last Winter had been lugubriously contemplating the distasteful subject of military intervention in Palestine, and the Russians, although never really close to seeing a Red Army contingent in an international police force, did get a brief glimpse of its possibility. In the end, by a combination of dexterity and accident, this bogy had been exorcised. The Palestine “mediator” was a Swede accompanied mainly by Swedes. The UN Truce Commission, an emergency outfit based on the available consuls in Jerusalem, was composed of the American, French, and Belgian consuls. There was no Russian consul. If the extra observers and police for whom Count Bernadotte had been clamoring were recruited, conceivably some Russians might be selected on the basis of equitable geographical distribution. But, barring the unlikely resurgence of the need for a large international force in Palestine, the possibility of a Red Army detachment there in the near future was ended.

Nevertheless, Moscow had plucked substantial benefits from the Sturm und Drang attendant on the birth of Israel. Once upon a—time the Eastern Mediterranean had been ruled by a Pax Britannica. This control had been a troubled one, but it had kept the area in a degree of stability. Now the area was in upheaval, the future chaotic and uncertain. Soviet Russia could now angle for the Jews, for the Arabs, or for both. The greater the unrest, the larger and more tempting her assortment of bait. Russia had also seen the Marshall Plan set back by interruption of oil shipments to the thirsty West and by serious delays in the exploitation of the area’s oilproducing potential. Russia’s reversal of policy toward a Jewish state—her championing of the cause at Lake Success, her help to the “underground” of immigrants and armaments—had given her more good will among Zionists and in Israel than a decade of propaganda. When Moscow’s minister Pavel Yershov reached Tel Aviv in early August to open the first Soviet diplomatic mission there, the Hebrew press resounded with salutes to the “great event in the life of our young state.”

Had Moscow not elected to abandon its anti-Zionist line, the outlook would have been black for a Jewish state in the Security Council debate before partition and in the dangerous months following. Israel certainly was grateful. Yet the men who led Israel’s councils also knew that the Soviet change of line had come, not because of a sudden passion for Jewish freedom, but because of cold calculation on distant objectives. And Israel proudly felt that, though Russia had given her the opportunity, it was Israel who had grasped that opportunity and by her vigorous use of it had been able to turn a dream into a reality.

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If the UN now seemed at last determined to fulfill its function of safeguarding peace with justice, the Israelis considered that they deserved the credit for it. Israel, not the UN, had implemented the UN’s decision on partition. Because of her resolution and sacrifice, Israel now occupied the level in the UN’s scale of values which the Arabs formerly had enjoyed. Once it had been the Arabs who needed to be accommodated, the Arabs whose rights in Palestine were an international obligation, the Arabs whose presence in Palestine was a factor limiting Jewish claims. Now, thanks to the valor of Jewish resistance, it was the other way around. Now it was Israel whose presence in Palestine was viewed by the UN (and by Anglo-American policy) as a limit on Arab claims. It was now up to the Arabs to adjust themselves to Israel and the UN.

This agreeable reversal, the Israelis believed, had not been inspired by abstract reasoning but by Israel’s unremitting capture of one political and military position after another in a bloody test of strength. In particular, it was said, the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force had been astonished, impressed, and convinced by the clear evidence of Arab impotence and Jewish power. According to report, Defense Secretary Forrestal was now busy explaining that he had been deceived by his advisors.

Under the circumstances, Israel’s appreciation of the new American benevolence was seasoned with a dash of cynicism. And, although the friendly attitude of the American delegation in recent UN debates was a matter of deep satisfaction, the Israelis still found several harsh irritants in Washington policy: the delay in de jure recognition, the slowness of a loan to Israel, and the behavior of certain officials in the Middle East.

According to an American view, de facto recognition of the provisional government had been swift and effective, and there was no need for the further step until the regime had been endorsed by admission into the UN or, better still, by a regular election in Israel. But Israel wanted to know why the United States had lately become such a stickler for formalities. Hadn’t the United States frequently given full recognition in the past to provisional governments, such as Kerensky’s and de Gaulle’s? Wasn’t the present reticence a sign of a lingering pro-Arabism?

Israel urgently needed funds to finance her vast program of immigration. I was authoritatively told that when a detailed loan project had been submitted by Israel to the Export-Import Bank, the Bank had replied that nothing could be done about it “for the time being.” It was not true, as asserted in the press, that a Marshall-Truman break loomed over the loan question, but it did appear—or at least so the White House privately indicated—that the Bank had taken its goslow decision without the President’s knowledge. The President, having reacted promptly, as soon as the facts were disclosed to him, the Bank once more took the hundred million dollar project “under consideration.”

Finally, the Israelis were complaining that the Arabs were deriving comfort and encouragement, not only from Washington’s “legalistic” attitude on recognition and the loan, but from the strange conduct of American representatives in the field. There was a dangerous tendency abroad to give the Arabs “private” assurances that the United States really did not care much about the preservation of Israel, whatever might be said to the contrary at Lake Success. One of the most vocal in this campaign reportedly was George Wadsworth, who is to be our new ambassador to Turkey and who is a long-time outstanding “Arabist” in the State Department. The campaign was counteracted by the hard facts of American declarations at the UN, but it was feared that out in the Oriental deserts, where politics is traditionally devious, the Arabs might nevertheless be misled into further resistance by the delusion that our pro-Israel policy was merely a trick to win a domestic election.

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These were some of the inconsistencies, as Israel saw them, between the public and “secret” diplomacy of the United States. Nor did Israel hope for noticeable improvement if and when a Republican President took office. A new administration, to be sure, could start life without the embarrassments of the present administration’s old pro-Arab dossier and, in that limited sense, might feel free to act with brisker imagination. But pronouncements on Palestine by Republican spokesmen had been no less “political” than those of Democratic orators. It was asserted that the first Philadelphia version of the Republican platform plank on Palestine, drafted by Senator Vandenberg, had been cautiously cold and formalistic toward Israel. Israel expected that a change of administration would merely prolong the existing so-called “bipartisan” policy with its disturbing brew of friendship above and intrigue below.

More neutral observers, however, might draw somewhat different conclusions from the general American attitude. No matter how slender a reed pan-Arabism had demonstrated itself to be, the Middle East was still predominantly peopled by Arabs. This was a phenomenon which American diplomacy, however resolved in support of Israel, could not safely ignore, it was contended. A loan and full recognition of Israel would come in good time. Meanwhile, prudence dictated avoidance of large pro-Israeli gestures except when these were not only opportune but decisive. In addition, whether tactically right or wrong, delay in granting urgently desired favors to the Jews could be useful in bargaining, and might render the Israelis more pliable to a settlement which would let the Arabs off as easily as possible. If the United States gave away too much too soon, there would be little left to trade for generous terms from a triumphant Israel toward her scattered and dispersed enemies. The United States had two clients in the Middle East, the argument went on. Her future status there depended in large measure on her success in persuading these two to live amicably with one another on the basis of a reasonable peace settlement.

Yes, the great and historic fact was that now there were indeed two clients. Formerly it was the Arabs who needed to be cajoled while the Jews sat outside, hat in hand. Now the hat had been replaced by a rifle. Once only a supplicant for benefits on grounds of justice and humanity, Palestine Jewry had grown able to demand and obtain its due on the strength of its achievement as an army, as a state, and as a new and pivotal element of power in the vital Eastern Mediterranean.

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