Churchill, Palestine and the State of Israel, Part 2: 1945-1951

Churchill, Palestine and the State of Israel, Part 2: 1945-1951

Con­tin­ued from Part 1: Remarks to Churchillians by the Bay, Rich­mond Cal­i­for­nia, 10 Feb­ru­ary 2024. This text lacks end­notes. For these, see my two Time­lines on Pales­tine and the State of Israel for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project: Part 1 (1945-46) and Part 2 (1947-49). Anoth­er ver­sion appears in The Amer­can Spec­ta­tor.

Click to enlarge: West Pales­tine over time. (איתמראשפר Cre­ative Commons)

1945: Churchill out, Labour in

Churchill’s respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Pales­tine Man­date end­ed with the Labour Par­ty land­slide vic­to­ry in July 1945. The new For­eign Sec­re­tary, Ernest Bevin, denied 100,000 Holo­caust sur­vivors entry into Pales­tine and reject­ed the idea of a Jew­ish state.

In ear­ly 1946, Jew­ish para­mil­i­taries robbed a British pay­roll train and attacked RAF air­fields. In April and May, Lebanon, Syr­ia and Jor­dan achieved inde­pen­dence. On June 29th, the “Black Sab­bath,” Britain arrest­ed 800 Jews and con­fis­cat­ed arms caches in Jerusalem and Haifa. Retal­i­at­ing, the para­mil­i­tary Irgun bombed Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, killing 91 Arabs, Jews and Britons.

An infu­ri­at­ed Stafford Cripps told Par­lia­ment that West Pales­tine had pro­duced noth­ing but mis­ery since 1922. Churchill retort­ed: “…it would hard­ly be pos­si­ble to state the oppo­site of the truth more com­pen­dious­ly.” He called the years between the wars the  “bright­est most hope­ful” West Pales­tine knew. Mean­while, Britain had treat­ed the Arabs “very well.”  Iraq, Syr­ia, Lebanon and Jor­dan (East Pales­tine) were all 100% Arab.

“Deep and bitter resentment”

Churchill then defend­ed the Jews, whom the Labour gov­ern­ment had ignored. The “months slipped by…. a deep and bit­ter resent­ment spread through­out the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty…. He acknowl­edged, “the dark and dead­ly crimes [by] fanat­i­cal extrem­ists…. It is quite clear, how­ev­er, that this crude idea of let­ting all the Jews of Europe go into Pales­tine” was a mistake.

A Jew­ish MP, Syd­ney Sil­ver­man, inter­rupt­ed. Should “any Jew who regard­ed a coun­try in Europe as noth­ing but the grave­yard and ceme­tery of all his rel­a­tives, friends and hopes be com­pelled to stay there if he did not want to do so?” Churchill replied:

I am against pre­vent­ing Jews from doing any­thing which oth­er peo­ple are allowed to do. I am against that, and I have the strongest abhor­rence of the idea of anti-Semit­ic lines of prej­u­dice. We have nev­er sought or got any­thing out of Pales­tine. We have dis­charged a thank­less, painful, cost­ly, labo­ri­ous, incon­ve­nient task for more than a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry with a very great mea­sure of suc­cess…. [It is] Great Britain alone, which has stead­fast­ly car­ried that cause for­ward across a whole gen­er­a­tion to its present actu­al posi­tion, and the Jews all over the world ought not to be in a hur­ry to for­get that.

Sixth Two-State Solution

State of Israel
Click to enlarge: The Mor­ri­son-Grady Plan. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

In 1946 Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Her­bert Mor­ri­son and U.S. diplo­mat Hen­ry Grady pro­posed the sixth Two-State Solu­tion: an Anglo-Amer­i­can Trustee­ship of West Pales­tine with autonomous Arab and Jew­ish areas. The bound­aries were sim­i­lar to pre­war schemes. The Jew­ish Agency, by now deter­mined on a State of Israel, reject­ed it. Now Pres­i­dent Tru­man became frus­trat­ed. He wrote in his diary:

The Jews, I find, are very, very self­ish. They care not how many Esto­ni­ans, Lat­vians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get mur­dered or mis­treat­ed as Dis­placed Per­sons, as long as the Jews get spe­cial treat­ment. Yet when they have pow­er, phys­i­cal, finan­cial or polit­i­cal, nei­ther Hitler nor Stal­in has any­thing on them for cru­el­ty or mis­treat­ment to the underdog.

Quot­ing this, the fair-mind­ed Mar­tin Gilbert added: “Truman’s cru­el com­ments were not lim­it­ed to Jews. ‘Put an under­dog on top,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘and it makes no dif­fer­ence whether his name is Russ­ian, Jew­ish, Negro, Man­age­ment, Labor, Mor­mon, Bap­tist, he goes hay­wire. I’ve found very, very few who remem­ber their past con­di­tion when pros­per­i­ty comes.’”

Churchill blast­ed the Labour gov­ern­ment, which had also reject­ed Morrison-Grady:

This absence of any pol­i­cy or deci­sion on these matters…has allowed hav­oc and hatred to flare and run rife through­out Pales­tine… [N]o one knows where we are today….

[I]f we can­not ful­fil our promis­es to the Zion­ists, we should with­out delay place our Man­date for Pales­tine at the feet of the Unit­ed Nations, and give due notice of our impend­ing evac­u­a­tion of that country…..

To have a war with the Jews in order to give Pales­tine to the Arabs amid the exe­cra­tion of the world, appears to car­ry incon­gruity of thought and pol­i­cy to lev­els which have rarely been attained in human history.

Toward a State of Israel

State of Israel
Click to enlarge: The 1947 UN Par­ti­tion plan, the most equable yet, was accept­ed by the Jews and reject­ed by the Arabs. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Vio­lence mount­ed in 1947. In Feb­ru­ary Ernest Bevin announced that Britain would hand its Man­date to the Unit­ed Nations  and evac­u­ate West Pales­tine on 15 May 1948. The fixed date was as bad a mis­take as the fixed date set for leav­ing India. All the con­tend­ing sides had to do now was arm and wait. Churchill react­ed in March:

£82 mil­lion since the Social­ist Gov­ern­ment came into pow­er squan­dered in Pales­tine, and 100,000 Eng­lish­men now kept away from their homes and work, for the sake of a sense­less squalid war with the Jews in order to give Pales­tine to the Arabs, or God knows who.

‘Scut­tle,’ every­where, is the order of the day—Egypt, India, Bur­ma. One thing at all costs we must pre­serve: the right to get our­selves world-mocked and world-hat­ed over Pales­tine, at a cost of £82 million.

Seventh Two-State Solution

The Unit­ed Nations, pressed by the pend­ing British depar­ture, now offered the sev­enth Two-State Solution—the most bal­anced yet. It award­ed both sides equal coast­lines on the Mediter­ranean, includ­ing Arab Gaza in the south and Arab Acre in the north. The Arab state, 99% Arab, would hold most of the West Bank and a sub­stan­tial bor­der with Sinai. The State of Israel, 55% Jew­ish, would include most of the Negev and the Red Sea port of Aka­ba, as Churchill had hoped. Jerusalem, with equal num­bers of Arabs and Jews, would be a UN-admin­is­tered inter­na­tion­al city. An eco­nom­ic union would enable com­merce between the three.

On Novem­ber 29th the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly adopt­ed the Plan 33-13. The Unit­ed States and Sovi­et Union vot­ed yes, nine Arab or Mus­lim states vot­ed no, while Britain abstained. The next day, Churchill’s birth­day, the Jew­ish Agency accepted.

The Arab League reject­ed the plan, claim­ing it left half of West Pales­tine to a State of Israel with only a third of the total pop­u­la­tion. (Iron­i­cal­ly, at the Camp David Sum­mit in 2000, the Pales­tin­ian del­e­ga­tion said they would be hap­py with 22% of the land.)

By ear­ly 1948, West Pales­tine was aflame. On May 14th Britain end­ed its West Pales­tine Man­date and David Ben-Guri­on declared the inde­pen­dent State of Israel. The next day, Iraq, Egypt, Jor­dan and Syr­ia invad­ed. To the Arab League, Azzam Pasha declared, “We will sweep them [the Jews] into the sea.”

War and aftermath

State of Israel
Click to enlarge: Israel attacked on all sides, May 1948. (Edward Kras­nobors­ki & Frank Mar­ti­ni, U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy)

We lack time to recount the ups and downs of that war. You can find them on the Hills­dale Time­lines. The State of Israel absorbed Acre, Jor­dan the West Bank & East Jerusalem, while Gaza went to Egypt. That last­ed until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel occu­pied the West Bank and Gaza. Israel evac­u­at­ed Gaza in 2006, the Gazans vot­ed for Hamas, and the rest is history.

Some 711,000 Arabs left West Pales­tine. That’s a big number—but there were big­ger num­bers. To put this into per­spec­tive, con­sid­er the his­to­ri­an Andrew Roberts, report­ing on the late 1940s:

In India, 16 mil­lion Sikhs, Mus­lims and Hin­dus left their homes tak­ing only what they could car­ry. Over 800,000 Jews from Ara­bia, who’d lived there for cen­turies, depart­ed. Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingush and Balkars were all ‘relo­cat­ed’ (as Stal­in called it). New­com­ers eject­ed the Japan­ese and Kore­an Kuril and Sakhalin islanders and Ital­ians of Istria. Three mil­lion eth­nic Ger­mans left Sile­sia and the Sude­ten­land. More recent were the Greeks of Turkey and Cyprus and the Viet­namese boat people.

Many of these refugees built new lives and a high­er stan­dard of liv­ing than in the lands they left. None are today active­ly demand­ing the right to mur­der peo­ple who have now lived in their for­mer lands for over sev­en decades. The sole excep­tion is Pales­tin­ian Arabs, whose lead­ers again and again chose to embrace fanat­i­cal irre­den­tism and recur­rent intifadas regard­less of the inter­ests of their peo­ple. The rub­ble seen in Gaza today is all they have to show for it.

The end of Britain’s role

Britain, which had mil­i­tary agree­ments with Egypt and Jor­dan, near­ly went to war with the State of Israel dur­ing 1948. When Lon­don final­ly rec­og­nized Israel in Jan­u­ary 1949, Churchill was mag­nan­i­mous. “[T]he com­ing into being of a Jew­ish State in Pales­tine,” he said. “is an event in world his­to­ry to be viewed in the per­spec­tive, not of a gen­er­a­tion or a cen­tu­ry, but in the per­spec­tive of a thou­sand two thou­sand or even three thou­sand years.”

But he was deeply crit­i­cal of the post­war Labour Gov­ern­ment. His daugh­ter Mary always mocked claims that he was a man­ic depres­sive. She once said to me, “The things he went through would depress any­body.” Cer­tain­ly West Pales­tine was one of those.

In mid-1946 Churchill had told the Gov­ern­ment that if they could not solve the prob­lem they should turn it over to the UN. It took them two years to do that, and a war result­ed. He thought he could have done better:

We had the pow­er and the chance to impose and enforce—I must use that word—a par­ti­tion set­tle­ment in Pales­tine by which the Jews would have secured the Nation­al Home [while tak­ing] into account the legit­i­mate rights of the Arabs….

I always had in my mind…an Arab Con­fed­er­a­tion,  com­pris­ing three or four Arab States…however grouped…and one Jew­ish State…which would have giv­en peace and uni­ty through­out the whole vast scene.

Churchill’s verdict

“The idea that only a lim­it­ed num­ber of peo­ple can live in a coun­try is a pro­found illu­sion,” Churchill went on. “It all depends on their coop­er­a­tive and inven­tive pow­er. There are more peo­ple today liv­ing twen­ty storeys above the ground in New York than were liv­ing on the ground in New York 100 years ago. There is no lim­it to the inge­nu­ity of man if it is prop­er­ly and vig­or­ous­ly applied under con­di­tions of peace and justice.”

Alas, peace and jus­tice were not to be. Churchill returned pow­er in 1951, too late to affect any­thing. He could only reflect sad­ly on the mis­takes of the past:

The decline of our influ­ence and pow­er through­out the Mid­dle East is due to sev­er­al caus­es. First, the loss of our Ori­en­tal Empire and of the well-placed and for­mi­da­ble of the Impe­r­i­al armies in India.

Sec­ond, it is due to the impres­sion which has become wide­spread through­out the Mid­dle East that Great Britain has only to be pressed suf­fi­cient­ly by one method or anoth­er to aban­don her rights or inter­ests in that, or indeed any oth­er, part of the world.

A third cause is the mis­takes and mis­cal­cu­la­tions in pol­i­cy which led to the wind­ing up of our affairs in Pales­tine in such a way as to earn almost in equal degree the hatred of the Arabs and the Jews.

Q&A: Why the two kings?

Why in 1921 did the Cairo Con­fer­ence put for­eign kings in charge of Iraq and Jor­dan? David Fromkin offered the best reply I’ve heard:

Because, in the world in which Churchill grew up, that’s what you did. When it was decid­ed, just before the First World War, to cre­ate an inde­pen­dent state of Alba­nia, an intrin­sic part of the thing was to find it a king. In the Mid­dle East in 1921, the same think­ing applied.

Remem­ber, the Ottoman Empire had no nation­al­i­ty. It was a Turk­ish-speak­ing Mus­lim empire. It was very dif­fi­cult to estab­lish eth­nic­i­ty and loy­al­ty since it was only based on reli­gion. Thus, any Mus­lim gov­ern­ment was pret­ty much accept­able to peo­ple of the area.

The Hashemites were broth­ers, but very dif­fer­ent. Abdul­lah was part of the prob­lem, so they made him part of the solu­tion. He was already in Jor­dan. He had armed fol­low­ers. For all the British knew, he might upset their ten­u­ous rule.

It’s like dep­u­tiz­ing a thief to sher­iff because there aren’t any oth­er deputies. It was log­i­cal to ask Abdul­lah to take charge—temporarily, they thought.” And as we now know, his descen­dant rules as King of Jor­dan today.

The King of Iraq was Faisal. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell were fond of him, and the British felt they owed him some­thing. Faisal had fought the Turks.

It seemed like a very neat solu­tion. By the way, they imme­di­ate­ly repent­ed of it. Faisal, once in office, became a nation­al­ist. and Churchill feared that Faisal had betrayed them.

 Q&A: The Churchill solution?

What would Churchill do? We can­not spec­u­late. He is not here to speak. He last spoke on this top­ic in 1958, after the depo­si­tion and exe­cu­tion of Faisal II in Iraq. Is there some­thing here?

The Mid­dle East is one of the hard­est-heart­ed areas in the world. It has always been fought over, and peace has only reigned when a major pow­er has estab­lished firm influ­ence and shown that it would main­tain its will.

Your friends must be sup­port­ed with every vigour and if nec­es­sary they must be avenged. Force, or per­haps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected.

It is very sad, but we had all bet­ter recog­nise it. At present our friend­ship is not val­ued, and our enmi­ty is not feared.

Sure­ly it is clear that the eight Two-State Solu­tions that have nev­er sat­is­fied the sides. What about a Three-State Solu­tion? Gaza to Egypt, West Bank to Jordan—the 1967 bor­ders before that Arab-Israeli war?

Peo­ple will say, “But Egypt and Jor­dan don’t want them back!” That’s where Churchill’s idea comes in: force and bribery. The cost of bribery in lives and trea­sure is less than the cost of war. Back the deal with force through air power—and maybe Churchill was on to something.

Bet­ter yet, the words of a friend in a dis­cus­sion on the woes of the British auto indus­try. “Go back to 1945 and start all over again.”


One thought on “Churchill, Palestine and the State of Israel, Part 2: 1945-1951

  1. Thank you, Richard, for such a com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry. I hope a gov­ern­ment con­sid­ers your (Winston’s) suggestion.

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