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Palestine and the Great Powers, 1945-1948

Palestine and the Great Powers, 1945-1948

by Michael J. Cohen

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Cohen examines the struggle leading to the creation of the state of Israel, placing British evacuation of Palestine in the context of Britain's postwar weakness. The author describes the policies and character of each of the major actors in his story—Bevin. Truman. Ben-Gurion, and the Mufti of Jerusalem.

Originally published in 1982.

The Princeton


Cohen examines the struggle leading to the creation of the state of Israel, placing British evacuation of Palestine in the context of Britain's postwar weakness. The author describes the policies and character of each of the major actors in his story—Bevin. Truman. Ben-Gurion, and the Mufti of Jerusalem.

Originally published in 1982.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Palestine and the Great Powers, 1945-1948

By Michael J. Cohen


Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05371-4



Churchill and Zionism

As prime minister, Churchill had taken a pro-Zionist stand on every issue connected with Palestine during the war — from the Land Transfers Bill promulgated in February 1940, to the various schemes for a Jewish fighting force, to the renewed discussion of partition itself from 1943. Yet apart from his success in pushing through the decision to raise a Jewish brigade in September 1944 (this was a belated emasculated version of the Jewish division plan agreed to by Churchill's cabinet in October 1940), Churchill did not press to a positive conclusion any pro-Zionist measure. Neither did he seriously contemplate the dismissal of any cabinet appointee because of differences over Zionism.

During the war, Churchill's solemn commitments to the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann had retained for Britain the support of the "moderate" Zionists, valuable in that that support had blunted the anti-British campaigns waged by some sections of American Jewry. Yet Churchill ended his historic ministry "with the White Paper unabrogated, no commitment on record and Weizmann left high and dry, standing before the Jewish people baffled, enraged, undermined and empty-handed." It is not easy to reconcile all this with the accepted view of Churchill as a pro-Zionist.

Occasional references in Churchill's war memoirs hint at controversies between him and his colleagues regarding the Holocaust, both before and after the scale of the slaughter became generally known. They show that he was trying to live up to his sympathies for the Jewish people. But no contemporary statement of his can be found either to justify his stand or to explain his attitude to what for European Jewry was quite literally a matter of life and death. As prime minister during the war, Churchill must take the major blame for British inaction in the face of Nazi crimes.

After 1944, Jewish terrorism seems to have alienated Churchill from Zionism permanently. The assassination of Lord Moyne (a close friend) in November 1944, not only brought a strong warning from him in the Commons to the Zionist movement as a whole, but caused him also to shelve the new partition scheme which had already been placed on the cabinet's agenda. On August 1, 1946, nine days after the King David Hotel tragedy (see Chapter Four) Churchill endorsed the Labour Party doctrine which divorced Palestine from the Jewish refugee problem: "No one can imagine that there is room in Palestine for the great masses of Jews who wish to leave Europe, or that they could be absorbed in any period which it is now useful to contemplate." Referring to the King David Hotel explosion, he added: "It is perfectly clear that Jewish warfare directed against the British in Palestine will, if protracted, automatically release us from all obligations to persevere, as well as destroy the inclination to make further efforts in British hearts."

Wartime Proposals for a Solution

From the spring of 1945, two long-term proposals had held the field. The first was the partition plan proposed by the Cabinet Committee on Palestine in September 1944. At the time of its inception, it had enjoyed the support of High Commissioner Harold MacMichael, and of the minister of state resident in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, who together with the greater part of Churchill's cabinet had overcome the opposition of the Foreign Office and the Middle Eastern ambassadors. This balance had been broken when the successors to these two keys offices (Lord Gort in Palestine, from September 1944, and Sir Edward Grigg in Cairo, from November 1944) went on record against partition. A conference of Middle East diplomatic and military personnel held in Cairo in April 1945 unanimously condemned and buried the idea.

The second proposal was put forward by Grigg himself, in April 1945. His scheme, for an international trusteeship over Palestine, would have ended Britain's exclusive responsibility for the thorny problem of Jewish immigration; instead, immigration quotas would have been determined by an international body composed of representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Britain herself, together with two Jews and two Arabs; the functions and status of the Jewish Agency would have been curtailed drastically, and a legislative council, in which neither community disposed of a majority, would have been established.

But Grigg's scheme, while disposing admirably of some of the anomalies inherent in the Palestine Mandate, itself suffered from obvious defects. It conceded to others the final decision on immigration (perhaps against British advice) while leaving British troops alone to face the consequences; the constitutional proposals, while maintaining parity between the two peoples, would in practice have led to paralysis of the administration; and last, the scheme would have provoked Arab opposition, since it represented a serious regression from the 1939 White Paper, which had stipulated an Arab veto on Jewish immigration after 1944, the appointment of Palestinian ministers, and the establishment of an independent Palestine state by 1949 at the latest.

Among the Middle Eastern ambassadors there was a general consensus that the White Paper policy presented the only feasible course for the short term. However, it was appreciated that the plight of the Jewish refugees in Europe necessitated a breach in the White Paper immigration regulations. It was felt that conflict in Palestine might be averted if Jews and Arabs alike were informed that the continuation of immigration at the present rate was intended only as an interim arrangement, in order to facilitate proper discussion of Palestine's future under the new trusteeship clauses of the UN Charter.

From Washington, Ambassador Halifax reported on the widely held opinion that Britain, by its strict adherence to the White Paper during the war, had impeded the salvation of many more Jews from Nazi persecution. Thus the Jews, who in any case could exert considerable pressure on the administration, in Congress, and through the mass media, would also be able to carry with them both liberal humanitarians and many anti-Jews on this issue. Halifax made an assertion that some months later would receive a public airing from Bevin himself: "The average citizen does not want them [the Jews] in the United States, and salves his conscience by advocating their admission into Palestine." Whereas the State Department, mindful of American economic interests in the Middle East, might be more favorable to the Arab than to the Zionist cause, there was of course no Arab constituency in the United States to counter the Jewish vote there.

Halifax proposed that London offer the United States a share in its mandatorial responsibility, or at least attempt to associate another great power with Palestine, on the lines suggested by Grigg. Failing this, the next best, though much less acceptable course, would be the continuation of immigration with Arab consent. Halifax summed up wryly: "For the Americans to be able thus to criticise and influence without responsibility is the most favourable and agreeable situation for them, and, I must suppose, the exact converse for us."

Churchill took Halifax's proposal in all seriousness, writing to the Colonial Office and to the Chiefs of Staff: "I do not think that we should take the responsibility upon ourselves of managing this very difficult place while the Americans sit back and criticize. ... I am not aware of the slightest advantage which has ever accrued to Great Britain from this painful and thankless task. Somebody else should have their turn now."

These were revealing thoughts from one who yet enjoyed the universal reputation of being a fervent supporter of Zionism. Those to whom the query was put were evidently still laboring under the conviction that Britain had fought the war (successfully) in order to maintain and continue in its great-power status. Oliver Stanley, colonial secretary for the previous two and a half years, concurred with Churchill's profit and loss account, but he stressed the wider political and military importance of the country: "From the Colonial Office point of view it is hard to see what advantage has ever accrued to Great Britain from the Palestine Mandate which has proved a continual drain on resources of material and manpower. I realise, however, that the effects both upon the Arab world and upon our strategic position in the Middle East might be serious, but these matters are more for the Foreign Office and the Chiefs of Staff."

But it was precisely those "wider" British interests, rather than any sense of obligation to either community in Palestine itself, that were of concern to Britain at the end of the war. Harold Beeley, soon to be appointed a secretary to the Anglo-American committee on Palestine, wrote that Churchill's proposal would be but the thin edge of the wedge: "Abdication in Palestine would be regarded in the Middle East as symptomatic of our abdication as a Great Power, and might set in motion a process which would result in the crumbling away of our influence throughout this region."

The military were still further behind the politicians in their assessment of the new world order that would emerge after the war. The Chief of Staffs' rejection of Churchill's trial balloon might have been written ten or even twenty years before:

The abandonment in favour of the Americans of our present position in Palestine will adversely affect our position, not in that country only, but throughout the Moslem world ... main advantage ... [would be that the United States] will be directly concerned in the maintenance of peace in the Middle East and thus more concerned in the peace of Europe. ... On the other hand, this area will remain of prime importance to the British Empire and we should become dependent to a considerable extent, on another country for our security in an area in which we have the major interest. ... Handing over the mandate [would lead to a loss of] our predominant position in the Middle East. The psychological effects of this on world opinion are incalculable.

Bevin and Zionism

During Ernest Bevin's tenure at the Foreign Office, the Palestine problem often baffled and absorbed the attention of the cabinet, and on occasion even threw that normally harmonious body into discord and argument. "But at no point did Palestine constitute a matter of life and death for the United Kingdom balance of payments or standard of living, or for British military security or Commonwealth relations, as did, in 1947, the convertibility crisis" or the siege of Berlin in 1948. Palestine's principal, vital impact was in its influence on Anglo-American relations "at a time when Britain could not survive without American financial and strategic support."

Ernest Bevin was without doubt the dominant figure in Attlee's cabinet, and the one who most influenced its Palestine policy. However, his place in history, as British foreign secretary from 1945 to 1951, will stand or fall not on the Palestine issue, but on the grand design to which he devoted himself as soon as it became clear to him, at the Potsdam conference in August 1945, that Soviet hostility to the West must for the time being be accepted as the major factor in international relations. Bevin sought, in full partnership with the United States, the means with which to ensure world stability, in view of the clear indications of Soviet ambitions to dominate Europe.

Bevin had emerged from the wartime coalition (in which he had sat as minister of labor in the inner war cabinet with an uninterrupted membership equaled only by Churchill, Eden, and Anderson) with a reputation second only to that of Churchill himself, and a standing as a national leader accepted by all. Churchill had at once recognized in Bevin a toughness of mind, self-confidence, and strength of will to match his own. Like Churchill himself, Bevin had the temperament of a born fighter, one who would not crack, whose power of decision would not falter in the storms that lay ahead. In short, Bevin could be relied upon.

Reversing the normal course of events, Bevin had made his name as a minister before establishing himself in Parliament. Bevin had none of Churchill's magnetic qualities, his power of captivating men, or his literary talents. His power was that of an earthly common sense. Yet in Churchill's cabinet, Bevin was the one man (as Churchill himself realized) who could stand up to him on equal terms. However different the expression of their qualities, both were men of determination and temperament, self-educated, pragmatic, proceeding by intuition rather than by logic, with strong pugnacious instincts, strong prejudices, and equally strong loyalties.

The often-voiced assertion that Bevin's Middle East policies were imposed upon him by his officials does not hold up under close examination. No minister who fails to come to terms with his civil servants is likely to run his department successfully. If mutual confidence was established at the Foreign Office, there was accommodation on both sides, and no one ever doubted that Bevin was master in his own house. Bevin quickly grasped the proper division of functions between a minister and his officials. They were there to brief him, to advise and if necessary to warn him before a decision was taken. Once a decision was made, Bevin could rely on them to carry it out not only efficiently but loyally. What they wanted from him was the decision itself, which suited Bevin well. A man with none of the subordinate virtues, Bevin worked best at the top, a location for which he was suited by temperament as well as ability.

Foreign Office officials who had viewed his appointment with misgivings came virtually to idolize him. They soon discovered that he was quick to read and comprehend what was significant in the immense documentation, firm in his judgment, and of a strength and integrity upon which they knew they could rely absolutely. The highly trained, experienced professionals at the Foreign Office saw the weaknesses that emanated from Bevin's lack of that type of formal education they themselves had received. But they never doubted the quality or originality of his mind. Bevin's weaknesses showed up most in Parliament, where he rarely succeeded in making the most of his case. But what impressed his officials far more was his ability to get their policies through the cabinet and its committees, the acid test of a minister in the eyes of the civil service.

Bevin was not in fact a stranger to foreign affairs when he arrived at the Foreign Office in August 1945. Since the 1930s, in his capacity as an executive of the International Labor Organization at Geneva, and of the International Transport Workers' Federation, his many trips abroad had afforded him a grasp of international, in particular European, affairs that was unusual in a trade union official. During the war, he had befriended the aristocratic Eden, whom he sat next to in the cabinet. Eden had chosen Bevin as the man to whom he might confide his problems. At the end of the war, Eden was eager to see Bevin succeed him at the Foreign Office, in the event of a Labour election victory. Throughout Bevin's tenure as foreign secretary, he worked closely with Eden in the implementation of a bipartisan foreign policy.

Bevin was a sick man when he arrived at the Foreign Office, suffering "alarming attacks of heart-block, in which he would lose consciousness." He was admired by those who worked closely with him, for his "guts and determination." But he suffered recurrent heart attacks and was often reduced by the constant international conferences to a state of complete exhaustion. The great strains imposed on Bevin's infirm health go a long way to explain his frequent outbursts of pith and anger, especially, but not only, on the Zionist issue.

Bevin combined to an unusual degree an unlimited self-confidence with a great sensitivity to criticism, which he was inclined to treat as a personal attack. This would erect a brick wall between him and anyone he took against, such as the Zionists. Bevin would make no effort to placate his critics. Whenever he felt strongly on an issue, he expressed himself forcefully and refused to abide by the parliamentary tradition of separating what was said in debate from the everyday civilities of social intercourse. Even those who agreed with him or at least admired his independence and integrity often found him difficult to approach. He was reserved in private life, suspicious and slow to give his trust or admit anyone as a friend. He was respected or feared rather than loved. His position in the Labour movement, although powerful, left him personally isolated.

His spontaneous cruelty at times obscured the kindly side of his character. His occasional outbursts against the Jews have come to overshadow the totality of his Middle East policy, even the obvious respect and awe in which Zionist leaders held him at the time. His quasi-anti-Semitic outbursts were the results of extempore departures from prepared texts, the off-the-cuff reactions of a man not given to the diplomatic double talk of the well-polished intellect. His fault was to repeat in public what others (including the Americans) reserved for closed circles. Most of his associates suffered from his temper — but when he attacked Jewish actions, it was labeled anti-Semitism. If anything, Bevin was guilty of gross insensitivity and an inability to comprehend the trauma of the Holocaust — but not anti-Semitism.


Excerpted from Palestine and the Great Powers, 1945-1948 by Michael J. Cohen. Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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