My Israel, Right or Wrong

Ian Gilmour

  • War and Peace in the Middle East: A Critique of American Policy by Avi Shlaim
    Viking, 147 pp, $17.95, June 1994, ISBN 0 670 85330 5

The foreign policy record of the Clinton Administration has been dismal. Even when the United States has shown more sensible and decent inclinations than Europe, as over Bosnia, the White House has failed to evolve and stick to a consistent policy, leaving an impression of bungling vacillation. In one area, however, the Administration has not only claimed credit for success but has sometimes been awarded it; astonishingly enough, that area is the Middle East. This book enables us to examine that claim and much else besides, because War and Peace in the Middle East is a critique of American policy from the end of the Second World War. Avi Shlaim is well known to readers of this journal, who will be aware that nobody is better fitted for the task. A member of the revisionist school of Israeli historians, he is a rigorous and fearless scholar who follows the truth where it leads him. A few years ago Shlaim wrote a massive classic, Collusion Across the Jordan; here he shows himself to be equally skilled as a miniaturist. His book is a masterpiece of compression, which should now have a British publisher.

Shlaim is kind about the root of the trouble, the Balfour Declaration, merely saying that what the British failed to consider was the inevitability of a clash between Jewish and Arab nationalism. Since Balfour and Lloyd George had had intimate experience of the clash of nationalisms and religions in Ireland, that was a pretty remarkable fit of absent-mindedness, particularly as they were warned by Curzon of the likely consequences of imposing heavy Jewish immigration on a country already populated by Arabs. Shlaim believes that the British Government issued the Declaration in order to gain support for the war in America and Central Europe. Yet by the time it was issued, America had already been in the war for six months and the Jews in Central Europe could do little to help the Allied war effort.

The Balfour Declaration was surely even more irrational than the conventional view suggests. Its architect, the Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, was nearer the mark when he said that two thousand interviews had gone to its making. The Zionists had long brushed aside the presence of a predominantly Arab population in Palestine, and they now managed to make the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary do the same. In one historian’s words, Balfour took up Zionism as a kind of hobby, and the Declaration that bears his name was less the outcome of a serious examination of British or Allied interests than of his own uninformed infatuation – he did not think the Arab problem was serious or that Zionism would hurt the Arabs.

Coming to 1948, Shlaim believes that America played ‘a marginal role in the birth of Israel’, a judgment which is perhaps true in the sense that the main role was played by the Zionists themselves, but not one that would have been shared by the British Government of the day nor, probably, by the US Defence Secretary, James Forrestal, nor by many high officials in the State Department who deplored the activities of President Truman and the Zionist lobby. If America’s role was marginal, it was also appreciable. Shlaim’s treatment of 1948 is, indeed, slightly idiosyncratic. ‘There can be no doubt,’ he writes, ‘that the Arabs would have destroyed the Israeli intruders had they had the power.’ That speculation is doubtless well-founded, but highly academic. As Shlaim and others have shown, the distances involved were so great and the Arab armies, with the exception of Transjordan’s Arab Legion, so inefficient and ill-equipped that they had difficulty even getting to Palestine, let alone doing anything drastic when they got there. In his memoirs, Sir Alec Kirkbride, the British Minister to Transjordan, gives a better flavour of Arab attitudes. At a meeting of the Arab heads of government in autumn 1948, the Transjordanian Prime Minister, after outlining how the Arab Legion in Jerusalem was being heavily pressed by the Israelis, asked the Egyptians, whose forces nearby were not engaged in active fighting, to lessen the pressure by staging an attack. This request caused consternation. ‘Good God no,’ replied the Egyptian representative, ‘we cannot attack; the Jews might attack us in turn.’ In his memoirs, Sir John Glubb tells a rather similar anecdote. When the first independent Syrian government was formed after the 1939-45 war, the President asked for an estimate of the cost of a tank regiment. A British officer included a sum for a workshop. This was immediately struck out, and when the officer remonstrated that the tanks would not remain long in the field without a workshop, the President countered: ‘I don’t want them in the field. I want them to drive down the Boulevard on Independence Day.’

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