Did the Arabs have a “coordinated invasion plan” to “launch a blitzkrieg” on Israel in 1948? Bob Bowker Responds to Meir Zamir

May 27, 2020 for Syria Comment

BOB BOWKER
is a former Australian ambassador Egypt (2005-08), Jordan (1989-92), and also served in Saudi Arabia (1974-76) and Syria (1979-81). He is the author of: Australia, Menzies and Suez: Australian Policy-Making on the Middle East Before, During and After the Suez Crisis.

Meir Zamir has done us a great service in his presentation of archival evidence of French intelligence reports and French perceptions of the British role in regard to the outbreak of war in Palestine in 1948. To the extent that such reports affected the responses of Ben Gurion to the emerging situation facing the Zionist movement they are obviously an important part of the historical record. 

I have reservations, however, first about the extent to which it may be argued that the French reports accurately reflected the British approach; and second, whether those reports pay due regard to the agency of the Arab state actors in the conflict.

On the first concern, Zamir appears to believe that there was a single, coherent, British position as the Palestinian imbroglio unfolded. Moreover, he argues that the UK attempted, accordingly, to translate that position into a series of coordinated actions by British officials and agents intending to manipulate Azam, Farouq and others into getting the Arab states to join the conflict.

That perception of British intentions may have resonated with the French, and, as Zamir observes, with Ben Gurion. However it seems improbable that the British, who had made an art form of muddling their way into and out of Palestine for three decades, would, in the midst of the crisis, have reversed that record and arrived at the government level at both a clear strategic vision and consensus on the way forward, and devised operational plans to boot.

If, against the odds, the UK had done so, moreover, they singularly failed to coordinate their tasking of those upon whom they would need to rely. I recall (without being able to access the book at present) that in his memoirs, A Soldier with the Arabs, Glubb recounts being summoned by Emir Abdullah to be told that Jordan would go to war because no deal had been reached with the Jewish side, mainly in regard to Jerusalem. Glubb immediately went to see the Minister of Finance, who informed him that there was no provision for war in the government budget. According to Glubb, the Arab Legion entered the conflict with the British officers Christmas party funds as its cash reserves.   

I have no knowledge of what British officials may have offered or provided to Egypt on the eve of the conflict, with whose authority, and for what purpose. Perhaps more important, though, is that given Glubb’s well-known contempt for the Egyptians, and reservations (to put it mildly) about Syrians and others with whom coordination would be essential, as well as Nuri al-Said’s concerns about Abdullah’s ambitions toward Syria, it is almost inconceivable that Abdullah and Glubb would have been excluded from any serious British planning to instigate a conflict. The claim that the British supplied Egypt with weaponry from its Suez Canal base to undertake the conflict is remarkable, but it also sits rather oddly with the fact the Egyptians were left turning in the wind when Jordan accepted the UN-sponsored ceasefire with Israel in July 1948.

Finally, writing as a former consumer of intelligence from all manner of sources over four decades, it is striking how the French reports appear well-attuned to the predispositions and prejudices of French officials where the British were concerned. In my experience, whereas raw intelligence almost never changes perceptions and pre-conceived notions among those to whom it is presented, on those occasions where it sits comfortably with such preconceptions it can powerfully reinforce the thinking among decision-makers seeking validation of their personal prejudices and policy preferences. I doubt the French in 1948 were any different to the rest of us on that score.

On the second reservation, regarding giving proper weight to the agency of Arab leaders and personalities, I am reminded how often, even in the present era, external parties for whatever reason see themselves and others like them as capable of shaping, or even determining the direction of regional events. I am willing to accept that, as an outsider, Ben Gurion was also susceptible to that notion, although he was robust and courageous in responding to it. But there is ample evidence, as Joshua Landis has clearly demonstrated, that the prime movers of the 1947-48 conflict were the Arab leaders themselves. Leaving aside whatever prompting or support they may or may not have been offered, Quwatly, Abdullah, Farouq, Nuri al-Said and others were driven to launch the war with Israel by their own concerns, ranging from historical ambitions to domestic political needs. Ben Gurion and others in the Zionist movement had long anticipated, correctly, that a conflict would be almost inevitable, and had prepared themselves militarily, and had positioned themselves to best effect in western political circles, for that situation.   

Comments (2)


Pr Marc Lavergne said:

After checking in Glubbs Pasha’memoirs, there was indeed no financial provisions for war in the budget prepared in August 1947.Glubb had to use the 4000 pounds taken from the Arab legion’s canteen. But the day before the end of the british mandate Abdul Rahman pasha secretary general of the Arab League, promised him a support of around 3 millions pounds with an immediate advance of 250 000 pounds.

May 27th, 2020, 4:23 pm

 

Joshua said:

Thanks for this, Marc.

May 28th, 2020, 10:37 am

 

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