Will the Arab states choose the path of war in Palestine—or will they move toward a settlement? There is hardly a question of international politics about which there is more speculation—and less reliable first-hand information. In large part, John Marlowe suggests here, the answer to this question of peace-or-war depends upon the wisdom—or lack of it—that will be displayed in coming months by the governments of England, the United States, and Israel.
At this writing there appears to be little danger of the renewal of large-scale fighting in Palestine during the next few weeks. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the present state of armed truce, which, directly and indirectly, costs the combatants almost as much as actual war, can be prolonged indefinitely.
At this juncture, what is the likely course of the Arab states? First a brief review of the march of events since May 15, when the British mandate came to an end. By the beginning of May it had become apparent that King Abdullah of Transjordan was only waiting for the British departure to invade Palestine. The collapse of the Palestine Arab resistance movement had utterly discredited the ex-Mufti and any other Palestine Arab leaders who might have disputed Abdullah’s claim to be the champion of Arab Palestine. Geographically and militarily, Transjordan’s British-trained-and-equipped Arab Legion was the best situated of the Arab armies for the Palestine invasion. Diplomatically, Abdullah’s venture, which he regarded as a first step towards the attainment of his dream of a Greater Syria under Hashemite rule, had the support of the British government.
The other Arab states were not prepared to leave the invasion of Palestine to Abdullah, since a successful occupation of Palestine by Transjordan would have completely altered the delicate balance of power within the Arab League. Moreover, the other Arab leaders distrusted Abdullah in his attitude towards both the British and the Zionists, believing him capable of making a deal with either at the expense of the Arab League.
In these circumstances, the end of the British mandate was followed by an impressive display of Arab unity in action when Transjordanian, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Iraqi forces marched simultaneously into Palestine. A notable absentee from this embattled array was Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, who had also been very careful not to join in the confident prognostications of victory of the other Arab leaders.
The three weeks of fighting before the first truce nevertheless disposed of any possibility of a quick military decision. There was a real danger that a war by proxy might develop in Palestine between Great Britain, which was openly supporting the Arabs, and the United States, which after swerving away from partition recognized the Israeli state five minutes after its birth. This, combined with the growing certainty that the Arab states were not capable of the anticipated victory, caused the British government to revise its views sufficiently to put pressure on the Arabs to accept the UN truce proposals. Nobody was deceived by Arab protests to the effect that the UN’s intervention had robbed the Arabs of a triumph of arms.
During the truce the Arab states were mainly employed in staging a series of demonstrations of political solidarity. This had become necessary since it was already abundantly clear that the battle of Palestine would be won or lost not on the fields of the Holy Land but in the Council chamber at Lake Success. The main objects of these demonstrations were (a) to try to align Saudi Arabia more definitely with the rest of the Arab states in relation to Palestine; and (b) to try to impress Great Britain and the United States with the possibility of oil sanctions against them. With these objects in view, King Abdullah paid a state visit to King ibn Saud in an attempt to show that the long-standing feud between Hashemite and Saudite was at an end and that the two houses were united in a common determination to vindicate the policy of the Arab League.
Ibn Saud, however, was very careful not to commit himself on the subject of oil, and, apart from a few “token” troops which were attached to the Egyptian Army, made no move to reinforce the Arab front in Palestine from his own forces.
Since neither Great Britain nor the United States was prepared to enforce Count Bernadotte’s partition scheme or any other solution—in this respect the position remained the same as it had been since the summer of 1945, when Great Britain had first invited American cooperation in the settlement of the Palestine problem—fighting was resumed on July 8 at the end of the month’s truce. Shortage of arms and ammunition on both sides effectively limited the scope of the fighting. The Arab armies, which had been unnecessarily prodigal in their use of ammunition, were probably even shorter than the Zionists, and such fighting as followed went all in favor of the Zionists. In these circumstances, the Arabs needed little persuasion from Great Britain to agree to a renewal of the truce.
As matters stand today, the following probably represents a fair summary of the chief factors that the Arabs must take into account as they contemplate a settlement:
- The State of Israel has come to stay. The Arab states are unlikely to be able to deploy any greater military resources than those which have so far failed to overcome Israel. No other state or combination of states is likely to assist the Arabs to do what they are unable to do for themselves.
- Ibn Saud, who is not deeply committed to the Palestine struggle, is probably not ill pleased at the spectacle of King Abdullah burning his fingers, and is not likely to assist him in pulling his chestnuts out of the fire.
- The opposition in Egypt, which refrained from embarrassing the government during the first few weeks of the war, is again becoming clamorous, alleging, inter alia, that the government has mishandled the Palestine question, and allowed itself to become much too deeply committed without sufficient resources to sustain its commitments.
- King Abdullah, who is far more deeply committed over Palestine than any other Arab leader, is clear-sighted enough to realize his own military limitations and those of his allies on the one hand, and the strength of the Zionists on the other. He also knows that some at least of his Arab allies would be by no means averse to using the Palestine episode as a means of weakening Transjordan’s influence in the Arab League.
As for the British government, it may be depended on to continue its diplomatic rearguard action on behalf of the Arabs, scoring as many debating points as possible, in the hope that the inner conflicts at work within the Arab League, combined with such moderating influences as may be brought to bear on Israel and its American supporters, may eventually narrow the gap between the two sides sufficiently to enable the imposition of a solution which would not be violently resisted by either.
Those who have been exasperated by the British government’s Palestine policy over the last ten years may be inclined to underrate the statesmanship of a “wait and see” policy which, in the last resort with the veto up their sleeves, the British are in a position to impose upon the UN. (They have so far had no difficulty in managing the UN without the use of the veto; it is not the UN but the Arabs themselves who have made nonsense of British policy in Palestine.)
Since 1937 the British government has consistently held undesirable the enforcement of partition (or of any other solution requiring force) either by Great Britain alone or by the UN, declaring that such action would not only leave a permanent legacy of bitterness in the Arab states but would also involve the application of more force than any of the powers concerned would be prepared jointly or singly to provide. As an alternative to partition the British government deliberately left the Arabs and Zionists to fight it out between themselves in the belief that the Arab armies would be sufficiently successful to ensure American and Zionist acquiescence in some such settlement as the one adumbrated by King Abdullah, under which the Zionists would “enjoy” local self-government within the boundaries of an Arab Palestine.
Having seriously miscalculated the relative strength of the Arabs and Zionists, the British government did not make the mistake either of continuing to assist the Arab states to accomplish what they had been unable to accomplish with such aid as had already been given to them, or of stiffening Zionist demands by a sudden cessation of all diplomatic support to the Arabs. Neither of these moves would, at the present stage, have contributed to a peaceful settlement. Instead the British government proceeded to create a diplomatic smoke-screen with the object of giving the Arab states time to adjust themselves to the new scale of realities brought into being by the events of May-July 1948.
Much depends on the British government’s ability to choose the correct psychological moment for the recognition of Israel. They have to wait long enough to insure that such recognition will act as a lead to the Arab states; if they recognize Israel too soon, the Arab states, whose peoples are still keyed up to a dangerous pitch of emotion on the subject of Palestine, will react with an outburst of xenophobia, disguised as “Arab unity,” which will be impervious to any sense of reality or to any gleam of reason. On the other hand, they have to recognize Israel soon enough to retain some measure of control over events in the Middle East and to avoid being placed in the position of formally acquiescing in a fait accompli brought about in opposition to their wishes. Failure to recognize the psychological moment would make nonsense of Great Britain’s elaborate efforts to keep the Arab states harnessed to the vital requirements of Anglo-American world policy.
There is a reasonable possibility that British policy will end by justifying itself. But there are a great many “ifs.” First and foremost, it is necessary that Russia should continue her present impeccable policy of non-interference. Second, it is necessary that the provisional government of Israel should keep the wild men of the Irgun and other terrorist groups under control.1 Third, it is necessary that King Abdullah should become sufficiently detached from the Arab League to be able eventually to follow the British lead and seek an accommodation with Israel.
The first “if” is quite unpredictable. The second is dependent both on the extent to which American public opinion is able and willing to suppress the activities of Irgun supporters in the United States and on the extent to which the provisional government of Israel can be made to realize that the existence of the terrorists is the greatest single barrier to British recognition of and eventual Arab acquiescence in the existence of a Jewish state.
During the British occupation the Jewish Agency consistently refused to assist the British administration in the suppression of the Irgun on the grounds (a) that its existence was a direct result of the unreasonableness of British policy, and (b) that it was impossible to cooperate with the British in its suppression and at the same time to retain the confidence of the Yishuv, where public opinion was moving toward the belief that terrorist methods were “the only thing that the British could understand.” But the Executive of the Jewish Agency, now that it has become the provisional government of Israel, can no longer evade its responsibilty for dealing with Irgun. However, the Irgun are doughty fighters and, so long as there is a prospect of the resumption of war, it is understandably difficult for the provisional government to weaken itself militarily by any drastic action against them. But Irgun is an unmitigated political liability. A decision to suppress Irgun undoubtedly involves a risk, possibly a very grave risk, of civil war and consequent military weakness in face of the Arab armies. But it is a risk that must be taken, and taken soon. In all national and revolutionary movements there comes a time when it becomes necessary to eliminate that element (usually very valuable in the early days of struggle) which regards fighting as an end in itself and not as a means to a peaceful end. Here, too, ultimate success depends on the timing and resolution of the process of eliminination.
The rulers of Israel might well ponder the example of one of their opponents, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, whose courageous elimination of his “Ikhwan” changed him from a desert chieftain into a responsible sovereign.
The third “if” is dependent on keeping the Palestine question at a sufficiently low temperature to enable the processes of dissolution at work within the Arab League to proceed without interruption.
Up to a few weeks before the outbreak of war in Palestine, King Abdullah was definitely the “bad boy” of the Arab League. His Greater Syria ambitions made him equally unpopular in Riadh, in Damascus, in Cairo, and in Beirut. He was at loggerheads with the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem who, before the collapse of the Palestine Arab resistance movement, was still influential in Arab League circles. He was regarded as a British puppet, and the Transjordan treaty with Great Britain was severely critized as being contrary to the principles of the Arab League. He was considered quite capable of betraying the Arab cause to the Zionists in return for an accession of territory in Arab Palestine. Even his traditional dynastic friendship with Iraq had been shaken by the Iraqi Parliament’s rejection of the Treaty of Portsmouth. But, after the collapse of the Palestine Arab resistance movement, it was realized that effective action in Palestine necessitated a temporary acceptance of Abdullah’s leadership. The Transjordan Arab Legion was the most effective armed force at the disposal of the Arab League. The prospect of British support for the Arab cause was mainly dependent on Abdullah’s leadership of the invasion. And so Abdullah was promoted from the bottom of the class to the top. The reluctance with which he was promoted is today reflected in the extent to which he is now being blamed for Arab military and diplomatic failure.
It is significant that the complaint accompanying the first truce to the effect that the UN had stepped in to avert an Arab victory are conspicuously absent from Arab comment on the second truce. Disappointment at the results of the invasion, long since secretly felt, is now being openly expressed. Although the blame is still being put on the mediating efforts of the UN, it is realized that the UN’s attitude would have been very different if the Arabs had been militarily successful. The UN, like the Almighty, helps those who help themselves.
The Arab states are also beginning once more to contemplate their domestic affairs. Their mood is not unlike that of Great Britain and France at the end of 1935 when the ineffectiveness of partial sanctions against Italy had become apparent, and they faced the alternatives of imposing oil sanctions or of making nonsense of the League. But, as in the case of Great Britain and France on that occasion, no sudden volte-face can be expected. Any premature conciliatory move by an Arab statesman would be immediately repudiated both by his political opponents and by public opinion. Recognition of the inevitable is like a recovery from a dangerous illness: it is a slow process, during which quiet is essential; any sudden disturbance may cause a relapse.
Yet undeniably, the pressure of hard facts is beginning to operate in favor of a progressive disengagement from Palestine. The continuing expenses of the armed truce are heavy, and the maintenance of the Arab refugees from Palestine is also a considerable additional burden on states which are mostly poor and which all have indigenous problems of destitution to deal with. Parliamentary oppositions are becoming restless and critical. Tales of military glory are wearing thin. A policy that has proved so unrewarding cannot be pursued indefinitely, and the Arab states are beginning to realize that diplomatic success is unlikely to redeem military failure. Ultimately they will either have to increase their military resources or to accept their losses. There can be little doubt which of these two courses will finally be taken.
However, a sullen and precarious peace, purchased at the cost of the economic exhaustion of both sides, is going to serve neither the ends of Anglo-American policy, nor those of world peace. A satisfactory settlement is one that can be accepted, possibly with reluctance but without lasting bitterness, by men of good will on both sides. The vital Anglo-American interest in such a settlement is too obvious to need underlining. Briefly, it is necessary to insure that Palestine does not become another Macedonia leading to the Balkanization of the Middle East, with all its funereal consequences.
More immediately and specifically, it is necessary (a) to resettle the Arab refugees in their homes; (b) to resume the flow of oil from Iraq to Haifa, since this oil is an essential element in the ERP program; (c) to prevent both Israel and the Arab states from becoming financial derelicts as a result of prolonged war and economic dislocation; (d) to release the creative potentialities of the Zionist state for work towards the economic rehabilitation of the Middle East; (e) to remove a standing invitation to Russian interference in the Middle East; and (f) to eliminate a potentially serious source of Anglo-American discord.
The Arab refugee problem has serious implications. Their return to their homes can only take place as part of a general settlement of the whole Palestine question, since Israel cannot be expected to readmit a large potential fifth column into its territory so long as there is a risk of more fighting. On the other hand, neither the Arab states nor the UN can be expected to acquiesce in any Zionist refusal to readmit the refugees to their territory as part of a general settlement.
The responsibility for achieving a satisfactory settlement still lies, willy-nilly, with Great Britain and the United States. Mistakes have been made which must not be perpetuated. Personal predilections have influenced policy. Indignation has overruled judgment. Since neither Arabs nor Zionists can be expected to take a long or a calm view, it is all the more necessary that the Foreign Office and the State Department should do so. To use the Palestine problem for vote-catching, either in Great Britain or in the United States, is to discredit democracy.
At the same time, any sudden access of impartiality on the part of either Great Britain or the United States—of a kind which, if practiced earlier, might have avoided most of the present trouble—would now do more harm than good in that it would inflame the heightened susceptibilities of their respective proteges. There must be the closest consultation between the British and the American governments, each agreeing with the other on the exact bias and on the exact timing of their respective policies. Matters must not be hurried, but neither can they be too long delayed. It is encouraging that neither the British nor the American governments have, during the last few weeks, made any definite move in the wrong direction.
At the time of writing, it appears likely that the question of the Arab refugees is about to become a major factor in the international implications of the Palestine problem. This question can either assist towards or militate against a settlement of the whole dispute, according to the way in which it is treated. It may either inflame Arab opinion against Zionism and against Jews generally to a dangerous pitch of intensity or it may help to induce in the Arab states a desire to arrive at a peaceful solution. Israel would do well to avoid making the refugee question a matter of bargaining, and to remember Gladstone’s dictum that what is morally wrong can never be politically right. The British government would do well to appreciate the military difficulties of resettling the refugees except as part of a general peace settlement. The Arab states would do well to avoid the temptation of using the refugee question to excite popular anti-Zionist feeling. The United States government would do well to urge upon Israel the necessity for conciliatory behavior. One of the lessons of history is that there are few things more destructive of world peace than humanitarianism prostituted to political opportunism.
The Arab states, in dealing with the refugee problem, find themselves in this dilemma. They are unable, by defeating the Zionists in war, forcibly to insist on a resettlement of the Arab refugees. And they are unwilling, by direct negotiation with the Zionists, to try and arrange for their return as part of a general settlement of the Palestine question. It is obvious that the UN will be unprepared, and in fact unable, to persuade the Zionists to a settlement which would include the return of the refugees without at the same time recognizing and supporting the existence of the Zionist state. Arab activity over the refugee question has therefore been mainly confined to seconding the UN mediator’s efforts to obtain international assistance for the relief of the refugees. It is to be hoped that this relief will be forthcoming in generous measure, not only for the sake of the wretched refugees themselves, but also in order to enable Arab leaders to continue adjusting themselves to realities about Palestine without being harried by a revival of popular nationalist sentiment.
Meanwhile the inescapable alternatives of total mobilization for war on the one hand and the recognition of Israel on the other are beginning to impress themselves on the minds of Arab leaders. The Arab war effort has so far not been sufficiently expensive either in money, materials, or men seriously to affect the economy of the Arab countries. But signs of strain are already beginning to make themselves felt.
The Iraqi finance minister has already drawn public attention to the disastrous effect of the stoppage of oil exports2 on the country’s revenue. The resultant mitigation of Iraqi chauvinism, which had been so apparent since the abortive treaty of Portsmouth, has been signalized by a rapprochement with Transjordan; this rapprochement has been officially expressed in terms of plans for a combined general staff. Its real significance, however, probably consists in the conversion of the Iraqi government to Abdullah’s views about the desirability of a compromise settlement in Palestine. The precarious finances of Lebanon are similarly affected by the cost of maintaining the influx of refugees from Galilee.
Egypt, which is financially the best able of the Arab countries to bear the burdens imposed upon her by the war, would like to liquidate her interest in Palestine in return for an accession of territory in southern Palestine, and to turn her attention to ambitions which might possibly prove more rewarding, and certainly less expensive, in the Sudan and North Africa. Ibn Saud, who has no intention of foregoing the revenue he derives from American oil interests, is using his momentarily improved relations with King Abdullah discreetly to encourage him in his moderate courses.
Only Syria, which has contributed less than any other Arab country to the war, and is less burdened with Arab refugees than any other Arab country adjacent to Palestine, remains obstinately chauvinistic. The politics of the national bloc government in Syria are largely governed by fear and dislike of the Hashemites, who are regarded as the royalist pretenders to the Syrian republic; Syria’s present attitude on Palestine derives from the knowledge that Abdullah will be the principal Arab beneficiary of any settlement embodying recognition of Israel. Damascus is the Oxford of the Arab world: civilized, arrogant, and the home of lost causes.
In fact, there is no practicable alternative to a recognition of the Zionist state. Total mobilization for war by the Arab League is, at this time of day, wildly impracticable on every ground. The only practicable policy for the Arabs is to negotiate for a restriction of the boundaries of the Zionist state to the smallest possible area and to try to secure some sort of international control over Zionist immigration and military strength. The process of public recognition of this fact is inevitably slow, as we have indicated, but any diplomatic victories which may result from prolonged intransigence will be dearly bought at the cost of increasing social, economic, and political dislocation arising from the costs of the war.
But if time is fighting against the Arabs, it is fighting against the Zionists too. Israel is no more able than the Arab states to support a prolonged continuance of the present armed truce. Psychologically, of course, it is easier for Israel to be conciliatory than it is for the Arab states, since for the new state it is not so much a matter of surrendering claims as of modifying demands.
The Israeli provisional government has already offered direct negotiations with the Arab states. But this expressed willingness to negotiate has been nullified by extremely provocative statements of Zionist claims put forward by Israeli representatives both in Tel Aviv and at Lake Success. As has unfortunately been too often the case with them whenever they have been in a favorable position, the Zionists have been overplaying their hand. Their claim to the inclusion of Jerusalem in the Zionist state, which would mean driving a deep salient into purely Arab territory, is unlikely to command support from any non-Zionist, if only for the reason that it would constitute a permanent future source of friction reminiscent of the Polish corridor. And a great diplomatic opportunity was missed when the Israeli provisional government neglected to guarantee resettlement of the Arab refugees in their original homes in return for a settlement embodying recognition of the Zionist state within boundaries not less favorable than, although preferably different from, the partition approved in November by the Security Council. Apart from these official gaucheries, there have of course been various irresponsible acts of violence. Presumably these may be ascribed to the Irgun, but that cannot relieve the Israeli provisional government of responsibility for the acts of citizens under its jurisdiction.
The principal effect of these Zionist extravagances has been to put a premium on prolonged Arab intransigence, both by making it more difficult for Arab leaders to carry popular opinion with them in the pursuance of a more realistic, moderate policy and by raising Arab hopes of an anti-Zionist reaction among the great powers.
But, in spite of everything, the political temperature is cooling down towards a point at which Anglo-American diplomacy should be able to negotiate a settlement. Many things may occur to reverse this process, but they are all within human control, and, in particular, within Zionist control, if the Zionists are able and willing to exercise restraint.
It is an unfortunate possibility that the specific and understandable feelings of anti-Zionism that now exist in the Arab countries may broaden out into an endemic and unreasoning anti-Semitism (insofar as the term can be used in describing the feelings of one Semitic people for another) that might persist long after the achievement of a settlement in Palestine.
Such a development, apart from being a major human tragedy, would impose an additional and serious strain on relations between Israel and its Arab neigbors. It is not impossible that eventual enforced recognition of Israel should be followed by discriminatory legislation in the neighboring Arab states with the object of compelling their Jewish populations to emigrate to Israel, leaving the bulk of their capital behind them. Such a move would not benefit the Arab states, but it would hardly be the first time that states with a real or an imagined grievance have cut off their noses to spite their faces.
In the circumstances the Zionists must realize that it is futile to do victory dances upon the diplomatic battlefield now, only to find themselves in two or three years appealing to world opinion against the persecution of Jews in the Arab countries.
On the whole, and by our barbaric 20th Century standards, Arab opinion towards the Jews in their midst has remained fairly calm. There has been nothing in the nature of a pogrom and for the moment there is not likely to be, unless provoked by another Deir Yassin. Generally speaking, both governments and peoples have appreciated the distinction between Jews and Zionists. However little the Zionists may at the moment wish to take account of the interests of their co-religionists domiciled in the Arab states, they would be foolish indeed to minimize the possibility of both legal and popular anti-Jewish discrimination in the Arab countries, which would inevitably endanger the prosperity and even the existence of Israel.
The extent of this possibility will be determined, in part, by the statesmanship—or lack of it—displayed by the representatives of the Israeli provisional government during the next few weeks.
1 This article was written before the assassination of Count Bernadotte—ED.
2 This temporary loss of the revenue from royalties on crude oil produced by the IPC and pumped down the Haifa pipeline, and which cannot be exported through any other channel, is a factor that will operate with increasing force on the policy of the Iraqi. Now that the military occupation of Haifa by the Arabs has ceased to be a practical possibility, the Iraqi government is unlikely indefinitely to sacrifice its principal source of revenue in the cause of Arab unity. Properly handled, the prospect of resuming oil exports through Haifa should go a long way towards narrowing the gap between Arabs and Zionists, especially since the prospective revenue from the oil refinery at Haifa is equally important for Israel.