Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part VI: WWII

The nub of the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews was clear. The Arabs did not recognize the collective rights to Jewish self-determination in Palestine. In service to that strenuous disagreement, they opposed both Jewish immigration to Palestine and the purchase of land by the Jewish Agency and other Zionist organizations. On the other hand, the Zionists were backed by both Britain and the international community through the League of Nations. The latter did not recognize the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and refused to block Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestine.

However, in the face of Palestinian willingness to die for their beliefs as well as the terrible economic plight of the peasants and the danger that this revolt posed to British imperial interests, Britain switched positions and was not only willing to restrict Jewish immigration and limit land purchases, but Britain had initially moved to deny Jews the right to self-determination in 83% of the Mandate. By 1938, British policy favoured the partition of Palestine. At the same time, Britain still never accepted the right of the Palestinian Arabs to self-determination.

Of three alternatives proposed, the Woodhead Commission (formally the Palestine Partition Commission) charged with working out the details of the Peel Commission Report to partition Palestine, but really to bury the Peel recommendations, in its 8 November 1938 Report, the Commission recommended Option C. The Woodhead Commission explicitly rejected the Peel Commission recommendation on the transfer of 225,000 Arabs. It modified the partition to further greatly decrease the territory allocated to the Zionists (from 17% to less than 5% or 1,258 sq. km. of 25,625 sq. km.) and to increase the two other portions, especially the Jerusalem-Jaffa enclave to be retained by Britain (a territory expanded by including the entire Galilee). The large balance of the territory would be joined to Transjordan. The Arab portion annexed to Transjordan would consist of 7,393 sq. km. or slightly less than 25% of the territory. The Jewish state would be lodged in a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean Coast. The Galilee and the Negev reverted to the British controlled enclave and the territory south of Jaffa went to the land allocated to Abdullah.  

The Jewish state would have a population of about a quarter million Jews and 55,000 Arabs. About 9,000 Jews would remain in the Transjordanian portion and 77,300 Jews from the Galilee and 80,000 from the Jerusalem-Lydda corridor would remain in the very much enlarged British enclave. As well as being reduced to a tiny slice of the original mandate promised, the Jewish state would leave out 40% of the Yishuv Jewish population.

The Arabs in Palestine were not much better off. They would get about 25% of the territory, but within a British satrap. And the population would be divided with 55,000 allocated to the Jewish state, about half a million to remain in the British mandate enclave and 444,000 to the territory annexed to Transjordan. It was clear to almost everyone that the proposal was a non-starter for both Jews and Arabs.

Note the following:

  1. A single state was no longer under consideration;
  2. The proposal is the inverse of the current situation in which the Zionists control most of the territory de jure and are in the process of de facto annexation of 30% of the remaining 22% (almost 7% more for a total of 85% of the Palestinian Mandate);
  3. The Palestinians currently are left with about 15% of the territory for half the present population in the area, whereas, even in the worst case scenario in 1938, they received 25% of the territory, though never in a way that recognized their right to self-determination;
  4. The Woodhead Commission set the precedent for proposing one map of division after another over the next eighty-plus years that became the main model for resolving the conflict;
  5. As we shall see, as one diplomatic solution after another was proposed, after one division of territory after another was approved, instead of a de jure settlement in accordance with legal, moral or political principles, each stage concluded in a new de facto reality indifferent to the diplomatic chess game;
  6. Further, after each successive plan, as actual changes on the ground took place, the Palestinians received less and less at every stage along the way, except in the period discussed in this blog;
  7. Even in 1938, the repatriation and restoration to their land of the forcefully displaced Palestinians (peasants and fedayin then) remained at the core of the conflict as did which side, if any, was allocated Jerusalem.

But a number of things have changed over the last eighty plus years. Then, “Socially, Palestine was still heavily rural with a predominantly patriarchal, hierarchical nature, as it largely remained until 1948.” This is Khalidi’s description of Arab Palestine, but not of Jewish Palestine that constituted almost one-third of the population by that time. Jews had universal access to education and widespread literacy. The Arabs did not. The latter society was dominated by narrow urban elites led by a few families, even though most of the Arab population was rural. Nevertheless, in Haifa and Jaffa, there were more opportunities for upward mobility and advancement for Arabs.

Arab society since the turn of the century, like the rest of the world at different stages, underwent a series of rapid and accelerating transitions. In contrast, the Yishuv was dominated by an elite group of rural socialist pioneers on kibbutzim, even though most Jews lived an urban life. Further, the age-old religious Jewish population was mostly Orthodox or Mitnagdim rather than ultra-Orthodox as Khalidi claimed.

Jewish population increases were fostered by in-migration while the Arabs of Palestine lacked both an organized military and the institutions of a para-state. However, thirty years after the creation of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 1901, which by the thirties annually raised in the order of $3.5 million, the Palestinians created the Arab National Fund which raised $700,000 in 1947. A day after that latter sum was proudly announced by the Arab High Committee (AHC), a wealthy Jewish woman in South Africa donated $4 million to the JNF, making its intake ten times that of the Palestinian revenues.

Very recently, that $700,000 had three ironic echoes:

  • It was the amount Turkey offered in November 2919 as a bounty on Palestinian leader Mohmmed Dahlan who had proposed a single state with equal rights for both Jews and Arabs;
  • With respect to compensation for lost land, it was the amount of compensation that Constantine Salameh accepted for his extensive holdings in upscale Talbiya Jerusalem (where the Jerusalem Theatre, the President’s residence and the Van Leer Institute are located) when he was absent from Palestine in 1947; he accepted what was considered a very low token amount, better than the nothing that Arabs received who fled in 1947, because he became convinced that the Israeli High Court would not make a fair settlement lest a precedent be set;
  • Between 2018 and 2020, it was the amount Switzerland gave to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) founded in 1995 to pay the court costs for suing Israel at The Hague.

But these apparent injustices were a long way off. Palestinians were not capable of such action in the late thirties. Khalidi describes in detail the disorganization and in-fighting that plagued the Palestinian organizations riven by deep political and personal differences and exacerbated by the rivalries among the newly independent Arab states, already fraught with rancorous disunity from within and the patriarchal approach of much of the leadership. But there was one constant – the role of the imperium. But the imperium changed after WWII, as it did following the end of WWI. In contrast to the British, American hegemony was in the process of displacing British rule and setting aside immigration and land purchase restrictions on Jews.  With that imperial shift, the balance of power internationally then shifted in a major way in favour of the Zionist cause, especially as Israel subsequently developed in turn into a regional power in its own right.

However, for Khalidi, the main culprits are Zionists and only then the imperial powers that supported them. When the Americans displaced the British, “every US administration since Harry Truman’s has been staffed by people making policy on Palestine whose views indicate that they believe Palestinians, whether or not they exist, are lesser beings than Israelis.” I do not recognize this depiction at all from the American historians that I have read. Truman became a strong supporter of Israel and the first to recognize Israeli independence, even as his State Department under Secretary of State George Marshall pushed reversing the move towards partition and an independent Jewish sovereign state in Palestine, all of which Khalidi acknowledges. But Truman did not start out as a strong supporter of Zionsim.

Further, other than a concern with treating everyone, whatever their religion or their ethnicity, equally, Truman held no bias against the Palestinians. Admittedly, Marshall was more enamored by Gulf oil than the Palestinians – “senior officials at State and other departments argued that support for the new Jewish state would harm American strategic, economic and oil interests in the Middle East” –  but if Marshall had prevailed over his boss, it is far less likely that Israel would exist today. In any case, I have never read any evidence that Truman, or his State Department officials, viewed Palestinians as lesser beings. Nor is there much truth in the widespread belief that State Department officials were antisemitic. They just wanted to avoid war and agreed with Jabotinsky and Khalidi that a military clash between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine was inevitable.

Harry Truman was the essential kingpin in this transition. He had been first elected to office in Missouri as part of the corrupt Pendergast political machine, but, with the exception of patronage, he built a reputation as an honest reformer when elected to the Senate in his own right in 1940. Loyal to old friends and supporters, no matter what their history, he was also intransigent in guarding and insisting on his own independence. This attitude would have an impact on the Zionist cause in both propelling his support as well as undercutting it for the Zionist cause. But whatever his ambivalence towards Jewish self-determination, there is no indication that he was contemptuous of the Palestinian Arabs or their ambitions.

He did get involved with Jewish refugees, not as a general cause for he never criticized Roosevelt for his procrastination or the State Department’s view that nothing should be done to jeopardize the primary emphasis on the war effort. Truman’s efforts were personal rather than a matter of political policy; he helped gain entry to the United States for individual family members of Jewish constituents that helped him in his campaign or shared in introducing efforts to benefit Missouri’s infrastructure development.

Truman’s more general policy approach emerged in his initial criticism of the 1939 British White Paper that went even further than the Whitehead Commission in reversing the direction and principles of the Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations. That White Paper recommended:

  • Creating an independent democratic Arab state in Palestine within ten years
  • Restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine to a total of 75,0000 spread over the next five years, thereafter, totals to be determined only with Arab consent;
  • Land sale to Jews in Palestine would be forbidden in most areas and restricted in others.

Rashid Khalidi interpreted the White Paper as an insincere fig leaf to derail the Palestinian cause since he claimed that representative institutions and self-determination were contingent on all parties, including Zionist approval. But other commentators have suggested that Zionists would be invited in working out the details, not that they would be in a position to veto the principles. Nevertheless, Khalidi viewed the Palestinian failure to accept the White Paper as a missed chance to gain an advantage even though the proposal did not exactly align with the Palestinian position. It was the mufti who insisted on outright refusal at the St. James Palace conference.

Harry Truman had a newspaper article included as an appendix in the Congressional Record dated 18 May 1939 by Barnet Nover in The Washington Post entitled, “British Surrender – A Munich for the Holy Land.” The article was an explicit rejection of the terms of the British White Paper. Otherwise, Truman endorsed “the politics of gestures” of the Roosevelt administration and opposed American support for a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine. When in January 1944, the Taft-Wagner Senate Resolution was tabled that repudiated the British 1939 White Paper, Truman temporized and offered the standard reason for his non-support – that is, an unwillingness to tie the hands of the diplomats focused on winning the war.

With a federal election pending, a shift took place in 1944. Instead of a primacy placed on not upsetting either thee Arabs or their British allies, because of the desire of both parties to court the American Jewish vote, the Republican Party platform endorsed a “free and democratic commonwealth in Palestine” while the Democratic Party of the United States endorsed a “free and democratic Jewish commonwealth in Palestine.” Dewey and Roosevelt both endorsed their respective party’s Palestine platforms. Truman was the vice-presidential candidate.

However, party platforms did not translate into policy as the State Department once again sidelined the positions by arguing that it would undermine American interests in the Middle East, alienate Arabs and advance the USSR efforts to win favour with the Arab states. Unequivocally, both British and American imperial interests favoured the Arabs and not the Jews, precisely contrary to Khalidi’s thesis.

Further, when Harry Truman assumed the presidency upon the death of Roosevelt on 12 April 1945, his Reform Jewish supporters in Missouri abjured from the idea of a “Jewish” commonwealth in Palestine as too “racial and theocratic.” The support was for opening the doors to immigration and creating Palestine as a free and democratic commonwealth. Truman then was adamantly opposed to a “Jewish” commonwealth that he saw would require a half million soldiers to impose on the Arabs. Palestine as a Jewish refuge – good. Palestine as a Jewish commonwealth – premature at best and at worst undermined American geo-political interests.

Following a visit of prime Minister Clement Atlee of Great Britain to Washington, Truman and he agreed on a joint Anglo-American committee to look into Palestine as a refuge for Jewish refugees. Truman favoured a Palestine state for all peoples and not a Jewish state in Palestine. The passage of two separate resolutions in Congress supporting a Jewish commonwealth had no effect in changing his mind. But he strongly favoured Palestine as a refuge for what some referred to as the detritus left after the war.

To that end, Truman accepted the proposition of using Palestine to elevate the migration issue to a humanitarian one beyond self-interest while being consistent with American national interests. Hence, both the Zionists and the British had contempt for his stance, embittering Truman with them both. But not with the moderate Zionists (Weizmann, Nahum Goldmann) or his White House advisors, David Niles and Max Lowenthal, or Clark Clifford in the State Department charged with deflecting the pro-Arab pushing of Loy Henderson. Truman was especially enraged by a critical speech of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver that insisted he favoured the Arabs. He was extremely sensitive that his decisions were and be viewed as independent of any pressure or self-interest concerns.

Nor, as David Niles noted, was Truman in any way motivated by any guilt over the Holocaust. However, he was very grateful to the Jewish donors who saved his campaign for re-election in September 1948 when that effort was broke and on the verge of collapse. But we are getting ahead of our story.  

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