The Palestine Triangle

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The proclamation of the State of Israel, on May 14, 1948, marked the end of more than thirty years of British rule over Palestine, that strife-torn land claimed by both Arab and Jew. In The Palestine Triangle, Lord Nicholas Bethell, the British Parliamentarian and journalist, has written a comprehensive, scholarly, and readable account of the last fourteen years of the British Mandate. This book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the historical background of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In writing The Palestine Triangle, Bethell has consulted archival materials in London, Washington, and Jerusalem. He has made full use of recently opened papers of the British Cabinet, War Office, Foreign Office, and Colonial Office. In addition, he has interviewed surviving British, Jewish, and Arab participants in the events of those years, including Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. With the use of all these new sources, Bethell has been able to shed new light on the reasons for Britain’s humiliating failure in Palestine.

On May 14, 1948, British military and civilian authorities carried out a pell-mell withdrawal from their Mandatory responsibilities. They did not formally hand over power to any single recognized authority; instead, they simply ran away. Britain, exhausted by the exertions of World War II, had been forced out by its inability to deal with massive Jewish resistance to its rule in Palestine and with the anger of world Jewry over its policies there.

The Jews had not always hated Britain. In 1917, Great Britain had, by the terms of the Balfour Declaration, promised to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, while at the same time pledging herself to protect the rights of the “non-Jewish inhabitants” of that country. By making both promises, Britain had, Bethell concludes, set herself a “Sisyphean task.” The claims of Arab nationalists and Jewish Zionists to exclusive possession of the Holy Land ultimately proved to be irreconcilable.

Yet at first, as Bethell shows in Chapter One, the difficulties of ruling Palestine hardly seemed as insuperable as they would later on. When Britain conquered the territory from the Ottoman Empire in 1919, she was one of the mightiest imperial powers in history. The Jews comprised barely ten percent of the population of Palestine, while the Arabs, who had been living in the country for more than a thousand years, constituted ninety percent of the total population. The Zionist movement, whose most articulate spokesman in Britain was the Polish-born Chaim Weizmann, had done its best to promote a Jewish return to the Holy Land. Despite the success of the early Zionist settlements, however, a massive influx of Jews from the Diaspora had not taken place. Palestine had not been a predominantly Jewish country since the second century A.D., when the Jews had been expelled from the Holy Land by the Romans.

By the 1930’s, however, large numbers of European Jews were migrating to Palestine, fleeing both the traditional anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe and the new racist variety introduced into Germany by the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler. Infuriated by this Jewish influx, the Arabs of Palestine, led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, launched a full-scale armed rebellion against British rule. It was not until 1939 that this rebellion was finally crushed and its leader forced to flee into exile.

Although Britain defeated the Arab rebels militarily, she concluded by conceding to some of their key political demands. With the threat of war hanging over Europe, British officials feared that Nazi Germany might succeed in winning over the sympathies of the Arabs in Palestine and in Britain’s Middle Eastern client states. Thus, on May 17, 1939, less than four months before the outbreak of World War II, the youthful British Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, issued the so-called “White Paper.” This document imposed strict limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine and repudiated the goal of a Jewish national state.

By issuing the White Paper, Britain had, indeed, partially placated the Arabs; but she had, Bethell points out, also earned the “hatred” of the Jews. During World War II, the common danger of Nazi Germany would keep many Palestinian Jews loyal to Britain. After 1945, however, Jewish animosity to Britain would take the form of open rebellion, in which 338 British subjects would lose their lives.

Bethell shows that there were opportunities for the British government to avoid this tragic conflict with Zionism. As early as July 7, 1937, the Peel Commission had issued a report recommending the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The moderate Zionists, although they had reservations about the report’s assignment of Jerusalem to continued British Mandatory rule, were at least willing to negotiate over it. The issuance of the White Paper in 1939, however, formally buried this partition scheme.

In May, 1940, another opportunity for British-Zionist reconciliation appeared. Sir Winston Churchill, who had condemned the White Paper as a betrayal of Britain’s most solemn promises to the Jews, became Prime Minister of Great Britain. In February, 1941, Malcolm MacDonald left the Colonial Office, and Zionists expected that British policy would now be changed.

Yet there was no immediate change in Britain’s policies toward the Jews. The British government continued to maintain strict limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine, at a time when millions of European Jews were being persecuted by Nazi Germany. Bethell explains that Churchill, although he was pro-Zionist, saw British victory over Germany as the one...

(The entire section is 2359 words.)