Foreign Affairs

The Arab Betrayal of the Palestinians

In four decades of reading about international affairs and Middle Eastern geopolitics, I do not think I have come across a work of history that more fully illuminated the true sources of Palestinian terrorism and irresolvable conflict with the realities of Israel than does Efraim Karsh’s Palestine Betrayed. If ever a book merited the description tour de force, this is it. The pity of it is that only those who are already favourably disposed to the state of Israel are likely to so much as read it—and most of those will probably skim it, not really absorbing the subtle power of its detailed argument.

Karsh is Professor and Head of the Middle East and Mediterranean Studies Programme at King’s College, London. He is the author of Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography (1991); Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East 1789–1923 (1999); The Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Palestine War 1948 (2002) and Islamic Imperialism: A History (2006). In this latest book, he is attempting to correct the historical perspective of those, whether Israeli, Arab or Western, who believe that Zionism is to blame for the relentless cycle of violent conflict in the Middle East and that the chief reason for this is Zionist ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arabs in the war of 1948. Israeli revisionist historians like Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim are among those with whom he is taking issue; but primarily he seeks to establish an historical account that will counter the relentless and pernicious propaganda of the Arabs and their Western supporters regarding the events of the 1940s and what the Arabs call El Nakba, “The Catastrophe”, in which they lost Palestine to the Jews.

This is important historical work and Karsh has delivered what should surely be the new benchmark for understanding the origins of the Palestinian conflict. That benchmark is that the root cause of both the conflict and the flight of Palestinian Arabs from their homes in 1948 was not Zionism, but the refusal of the Arab leadership to accept a deal on any terms with the Jews about the existence of a Jewish state of any kind in Palestine. Unless one starts from the groundless assumption that Palestine naturally belongs exclusively to Arabs (and Muslim Arabs at that), there can be no basis for the consistent and violent rejection by the Arabs of the idea of a Jewish state. After all, there had been Jews in “Palestine” long before there were any Arabs and there had never been an Arab state of Palestine. Moreover, the Jews were keen to help the Arabs achieve modernisation, freedom and prosperity. Yet outright rejection of any form of self-determination for the Jews of Palestine was the response of the Arab world and of the leaders of the Palestinian Arabs to the Balfour Declaration (1917), the League of Nations mandate (1920), the Peel Partition Plan of 1937 and the United Nations Partition Resolution (November 1947); to say nothing of the tireless efforts of the Zionist movement, from the late nineteenth century all the way through to the 1940s and even beyond to persuade the Arab leaders to form a co-operative and constructive partnership with the Jewish state for the greater good of the Middle East. Karsh’s book demonstrates all of this with what can only be called—looking at Arab behaviour—damning lucidity.

Nothing is more striking or more carefully and copiously documented by Karsh than the patient and persistent efforts of the Zionist leadership to persuade the leaders of the Arabs, Palestinian and other, to work with them for the common good on the basis of a small, non-imperial Jewish state and good will towards their Semitic brothers the Arabs. The language of the Zionists, in their own internal deliberations and in their overtures to the Arab leaders, stands in stark contrast with the language of the Arab leaders themselves, which was relentlessly rejectionist, uncompromising and all too often violent, racist and even genocidal. The prevalence of vicious anti-Jewish racism and conspiracy theory in Arab thinking, even in the 1930s, is a grave indictment of the moral character of the Arab leadership. The open sympathy of notable Arab leaders, not least the Hajj Amin Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, for Hitler and Nazi persecution of the Jews should, surely, have led to his disqualification from any role in a Middle East settlement under the British Mandate. Certainly, it goes much further towards explaining the irrationality and brutality of Arab policy towards Israel in 1948 than any act of the Zionist movement.

The first and most fundamental historical fact that Karsh establishes is that Zionism was in no sense predatory and was by no means the tool of “Crusaders” or Western imperialists intent on colonising the Arab world. He shows, in fact, that both the British and American defence and foreign policy establishments were not at all inclined to support the idea of a state for the Jews, lest the oil-rich Arab states of the Middle East take offence. As Karsh observes, when American defence secretary James Forrestal reminded President Truman of the importance of Arab oil for US strategic interests, the president responded that “he would handle the situation in the light of justice, not oil”. The British, who exercised the League of Nations mandate in Palestine between 1920 and 1948, were decidedly inclined to favour the Arabs, not the Jews, in the conflict over land in Palestine; not for any honourable or principled reason, but purely for reasons of expediency. In the pursuit of their muddled geopolitical aims, the British authorities succeeded only in making a mess in the Middle East, as they had at the same time in the Indian sub-continent, with another scheme for partition.

The attitude of David Ben-Gurion to Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine is the touchstone for understanding the debate about the intentions of the Zionists. “As early as 1918,” Karsh writes, “Ben-Gurion argued that ‘had Zionism desired to evict the inhabitants of Palestine it would have been a dangerous utopia and a harmful, reactionary mirage’.” In 1926, Ben-Gurion underscored this, stating:

the Arab community is an organic, inextricable part of Palestine; it is embedded in the country, where it toils and where it will stay. It is not to disinherit this community or to thrive on its destruction that Zionism came into being. 

He still held this view in 1947. Even Ze-ev Jabotinsky, famous for his 1923 article “The Iron Wall”, in which he argued that the Arabs would never accept a Jewish state until they came to realise that they had no choice, wrote in the very same article of the ideal of guarantees against Arab displacement, equal rights for Arab citizens in a Jewish state and the prospect “that both peoples can live together in peace like good neighbours”. He foresaw a thriving state in which Jewish immigration, energy and education would generate a prosperity “in which the Arabs will be happy”. And Jabotinsky was the leader of the “militant” Zionists.

The real predators, Karsh shows, were the Arab states themselves, not least among them the Hashemites, in both Transjordan and Iraq, who scarcely had any historical claim to the lands of Palestine, but nourished overweening ambitions to build a pan-Arab empire where the Ottomans had ruled for centuries. The Syrians and Egyptians, similarly, harboured ambitions for grabbing pieces of Palestine as the League of Nations mandate expired and the British withdrew. None of them exhibited the least intelligence or humanity as regards the likely fate of the Palestinian Arabs in the event of a war to the death with the Jews. This is the thrust of Karsh’s title—Palestine was betrayed, not by the British (though they did badly), not by the United Nations, not by the Zionists, but by the Arab leaders and especially the leaders of the Palestinian Arabs.

When the United Nations Partition Resolution was passed, on November 29, 1947, Jews danced in the streets throughout Palestine and Golda Meir, then a prominent Zionist official who later, of course, became prime minister of Israel, declared to thousands of them in Jerusalem, “Our hands are extended in peace to our neighbours. Both states can live in peace with one another and co-operate for the welfare of their inhabitants.” That this did not happen is exclusively the responsibility of the Arab leaders, whose response to the UN Resolution was to launch all-out war on the nascent and very small state of Israel. Meir knew, as did the other Zionist leaders, that neither the Palestinian leaders nor the Hashemites, nor the Egyptian and Syrian leaders, intended to accept the hand of peace; but it did not stop them from extending it. Perhaps the greatest service Karsh renders as an historian is in patiently documenting the record of their attempts, over decades, to gain Arab acceptance of Jewish autonomy on peaceful terms.

But perhaps the most insidious myth propagated by anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sources for decades since 1948 has been the notion that the Jews engaged in systematic and premeditated ethnic cleansing in 1948, driving out hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs to make way for a pure Jewish state on Arab lands. I had, until I read Karsh’s book, given a degree of credence to this tale, though tending still, in all the circumstances, to feel sympathy for the Jewish cause. The single most potent piece of evidence in this version of events has long been the massacre at Deir Yasin carried out by the Irgun, on April 9, 1948. Karsh shows, however, that Deir Yasin was altogether the exception and was not an act of official Zionist policy at all. Elsewhere, the premeditated and systematic policy was an effort to encourage the Arabs to (1) accept the partition plan; (2) remain within the borders of the Jewish state if they so desired and on equal terms with its Jewish citizens; and (3) stay especially in their own villages and cities as the conflict began, while withholding support from those who were truly intent on ethnic cleansing—the Arab Higher Committee and the Arab Legion.

The real heart of Karsh’s book consists of chapters six, seven and eight, in which he explores in detail the circumstances under which the Arabs fled from Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1948. It is here that he shows the appalling and unmistakable contrast between the Jewish desire for conciliation and co-operation with the Arabs and the reckless determination of the Arab League and the Arab Higher Committee to destroy the Jewish state regardless of the cost to their own people. There are countless details in these chapters which should be absorbed into the common understanding of these epochal events, but few are more eloquent than the episode at Haifa in May 1948. The Arab leadership declared that they would urge all Arabs to flee the city, but the elderly Jewish mayor of the city, Shabtai Levy, pleaded with them to stay, telling them that they were committing “a cruel crime against their own people”. Karsh adds:

Yaacov Solomon, a prominent Haifa lawyer and the Hagana’s chief liaison officer in the city, followed suit, assuring the Arab delegates that he “had the instructions of the commander of the zone … that if they stayed on they would enjoy equality and peace and that we, the Jews, were interested in their staying on and the maintenance of harmonious relations” … But the Arabs were unmoved.

They refused to sign a truce agreement, saying they would rather all their people were killed than sign such a document. What was one to do with such people? Even phlegmatic British observers, like General Hugh Stockwell, who was on the spot, were exasperated and incredulous at the Arab leadership’s attitude.

One of the beauties of Karsh’s book is that he provides a set of five maps which show the successive evolutions of the territorial division of Palestine. These maps show: the British administrative divisions of Palestine under the League of Nations mandate; the administrative divisions of the Levant under late Ottoman rule; the Peel Commission Plan for the partition of Palestine, of July 1937; the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947; and the armistice lines in Palestine at the end of the Arab war to destroy Israel in 1948–49. The final three of these maps show that, had the Palestinians—or their reckless and territorially ambitious Arab overlords—accepted partition in 1937, Israel would have been a tiny state extending only about twenty-five miles to the south of Tel Aviv, excluding Jaffa and confined to the old Galilee, Haifa and Lydda Districts and the Tulkarm Sub-District of the Samaria District of the old British mandate. The Arab state would have included the whole of the present West Bank, most of the Jerusalem District, the Beersheba Sub-District, the Gaza District and the Negev. Had they accepted partition in 1947, they would have no longer had the Beersheba Sub-District or the Negev, but would have gained a good deal of the Galilee District. Having been goaded and led to war, they ended up with no state of Palestine at all. And that is how things still stand, since they still stubbornly refuse to accept the right of the state of Israel to exist.

The tragedy of the Palestinian Arabs is not that Israel was established, but that their benighted leaders insisted on refusing any accommodation with Israel and betrayed them to defeat and dispossession. As Karsh shows, the Palestinians fled because the Arab leaders either fled themselves, or urged them to leave, or cleared them out of the way in anticipation of a genocidal pan-Arab onslaught against the Jews. His accounts of how all this unfolded in Haifa and Jaffa are particularly detailed and impressive. The result was that hundreds of thousands fled and the obdurate refusal of the Arab leaders to come to terms with the legitimacy of the state of Israel made it entirely impossible for Israel to allow a “right of return” after the armistice. In short, showing a criminal disregard for the well-being of the Palestinian Arabs, Arab leaders treated them as expendable pawns in an irrational campaign to annihilate Israel. The Secretary General of the Arab League, Abdel Rahman Azzam, irresponsibly declared in the midst of negotiations over a settlement to the 1948 war that sooner or later the state of Israel would be destroyed and that, in the event of repatriation, Israel would, fortunately, be placed in an impossible situation by the sabotage its Arab inhabitants would be well-placed to carry out against it.

Until I read Efraim Karsh’s book, I was inclined, while partisan to the cause of the democratic state of Israel, to see the long conflict between it and the Palestinians as a tragedy of irreconcilable territorial claims. That is no longer the case. Karsh has caused the scales to fall from my eyes. I no longer see any excuse whatsoever for the violence of the Palestinian “militants” or the anti-Israeli rhetoric of the Arab states and their allies elsewhere in the world. These things are nothing but the stubborn continuation of irrational and counter-productive strategies that have long since betrayed the best hopes of Palestinian Arabs and forced Israel to adopt often condign measures for self-defence.

Until or unless the Palestinians finally renounce their avowed aim to annihilate the state of Israel and embrace it as a partner for peace and development in the Levant, there cannot be a peaceful settlement of the conflict. And the responsibility for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the Arab leaders; nowhere else.

The responsibility of those who wish to at least understand these tragic matters is to read such books as this attentively and come to grips with the impossible position in which the irrational obduracy of the Arab world has placed the Jews both before and ever since the creation of the state of Israel. 

Paul Monk’s article “Why Should We Study History?” appeared in the June issue. His most recent book is The West in a Nutshell: Foundations, Fragilities, Futures (Barrallier Books)


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