Israel and the Arab Coalition in 1948

Avi Shlaim

in Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine: Rewriting the The United States and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict History of 1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 79-103.

‘A nation,’ said the French philosopher Ernest Renan, ‘is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.’ Throughout the ages, the use of myths about the past has been a potent instrument of forging a nation. The Zionist movement is not unique in propagating a simplified and varnished version of the past in the process of nation-building. But it does provide a strikingly successful example of the use of myths for the dual purpose of promoting internal unity and enlisting international sympathy and support for the State of Israel.

The traditional Zionist version of the Arab-Israeli conflict places the responsibility on the Arab side. Israel is portrayed as the innocent victim of unremitting Arab hostility and Arab aggression. In this respect, traditional Zionist accounts of the emergence of Israel form a natural sequel to the history of the Jewish people, with its emphasis on the weakness, vulnerability, and numerical inferiority in relation to their adversaries. The American Jewish historian Salo Baron once referred to this as the lachrymose view of Jewish history. This view tends to present Jewish history as a long series of trials and tribulations culminating in the Holocaust.

The Military Balance

The War of Independence constituted a glorious contrast to the centuries of powerlessness, persecution, and humiliation. Yet the traditional Zionist narrative of the events surrounding the birth of the State of Israel was still constructed around the notion of the Jews as the victims. This narrative presents the 1948 war as a simple, bipolar no-holds-barred struggle between a monolithic and malevolent Arab adversary and a tiny peace-loving Jewish community. The biblical image of David and Goliath is frequently evoked in this narrative. Little Israel is portrayed as fighting with its back to the wall against a huge, well-armed and overbearing Arab adversary. Israel’s victory in this war is treated as verging on the miraculous, and as resulting from the determination and heroism of the Jewish fighters rather than from disunity and disarray on the Arab side. This heroic version of the War of Independence has proved so enduring and resistant to revision precisely because it corresponds to the collective memory of the generation of 1948. It is also the version of history that Israeli children are taught at school. Consequently, few ideas are as deeply ingrained in the mind of the Israeli public as that summed up by the Hebrew phrase, me’atim mul rabim, or ‘the few against the many.’

One of the most persistent myths surrounding the birth of the State of Israel is that in 1948 the newly-born state faced a monolithic and implacably hostile Arab coalition. This coalition was believed to be united behind one central aim: the destruction of the infant Jewish state. As there is no commonly accepted term for the liquidation of a state, Yehoshafat Harkabi, a leading Israeli student of the Arab-Israeli conflict, proposed calling it ‘politicide’ – the murder of the politeia, the political entity. The aim of the Arabs, Harkabi asserted, was politicidal. Linked to this aim, according to Harkabi, was a second aim, that of genocide – ‘to throw the Jews into the sea’ as the popular phrase put it.[1]  Harkabi is just one example of the widely held belief that in 1948 the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, faced not just verbal threats but a real danger of annihilation from the regular armies of the neighbouring Arab states. The true story of the first Arab-Israeli war, as the ‘new historians’ who emerged on the scene in the late 1980s tried to show, was considerably more complicated.[2]

The argument advanced in this chapter, in a nutshell, is that the Arab coalition facing Israel in 1947-49 was far from monolithic; that within this coalition there was no agreement on war aims; that the inability of the Arabs to coordinate their diplomatic and military moves was partly responsible for their defeat; that throughout the conflict Israel had the military edge over its Arab adversaries; and, finally, and most importantly, that Israel’s leaders were aware of the divisions inside the Arab coalition and that they exploited these divisions to the full in waging the war and in extending the borders of their state.

As far as the military balance is concerned, it was always assumed that the Arabs enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority. The war was accordingly depicted as one between the few against the many, as a desperate, tenacious, and heroic struggle for survival against horrifyingly heavy odds. The desperate plight and the heroism of the Jewish fighters are not in question. Nor is the fact that they had inferior military hardware at their disposal, at least until the first truce, when illicit arms supplies from Czechoslovakia decisively tipped the scales in their favour. But in mid-May 1948 the total number of Arab troops, both regular and irregular, operating in the Palestine theatre was under 25,000, whereas the Israel Defence Force (IDF) fielded over 35,000 troops. By mid-July the IDF mobilized 65,000 men under arms, and be December its numbers had reached a peak of 96,441. The Arab states also reinforced their armies, but they could not match this rate of increase. Thus, at each stage of the war, the IDF outnumbered all the Arab forces arrayed against it, and, after the first round of fighting, it outgunned them too. The final outcome of the war was therefore not a miracle but a faithful reflection of the underlying military balance in the Palestine theatre. In this war, as in most wars, the stronger side prevailed.[3]

The Arab forces, both regular and irregular, mobilized to do battle against the emergent Jewish state were nowhere as powerful or united as they appeared to be in Arab and Jewish propaganda. In the first phase of the conflict, from the passage of the United Nations partition resolution on 29 November 1947 until the proclamation of statehood on 14 May 1948, the Yishuv had to defend itself against attacks from Palestinian irregulars and volunteers from the Arab world. Following the proclamation of the State of Israel, however, the neighbouring Arab states and Iraq, committed their regular armies to the battle against the Jewish state. Contact with regular armies undoubtedly came as a shock to the Haganah, the paramilitary organisation of the Yishuv which was in the process of being transformed into the IDF. Yet, the Jewish propaganda machine greatly exaggerated the size and quality of the invading forces. A typical account of the war of independence, by a prominent Israeli diplomat, goes as follows: ‘Five Arab armies and contingents from two more, equipped with modern tanks, artillery, and warplanes … invaded Israel from north, east, and south. Total war was forces on the Yishuv under the most difficult conditions.’[4]

The five Arab states who joined in the invasion of Palestine were Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq; while the two contingents came from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. All these states, however, only sent an expeditionary force to Palestine, keeping the bulk of their army at home. The expeditionary forces were hampered by long lines of communication, the absence of reliable intelligence about their enemy, poor leadership, poor coordination, and very poor planning for the campaign that lay ahead of them. The Palestinian irregulars, known as the Holy War Army, were led by Hassan Salameh Abdel Qadir al-Husayni. The Arab Liberation Army consisted of around 4,000 Arab volunteers for the Holy War in Palestine. They were funded by the Arab League, trained in bases in southern Syria, and led by the Syrian adventurer Fawzi al-Qawukji. Qawukji’s strong points were politics and public relations rather than military leadership. The Arab politicians who appointed him valued him more as a known enemy and therefore potential counter-weight to the Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, than as the most promising military leader to lead the fight against the Jews. The mufti certainly saw this appointment as an attempt by his rivals in the League to undermine his influence over the future of Palestine.[5]

The Arab coalition was beset by profound internal political differences. The Arab League, since its foundation in 1945, was the highest forum for the making of pan-Arab policy on Palestine. But the Arab League was divided between a Hashemite bloc consisting of Transjordan and Iraq and an anti-Hashemite bloc led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Dynastic rivalries played a major part in shaping Arab approaches to Palestine. King Abdullah of Transjordan was driven by a long-standing ambition to make himself the master of Greater Syria which included, in addition to Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. King Farouq saw Abdullah’s ambition as a direct threat to Egypt’s leadership in the Arab world. The rulers of Syria and Lebanon saw in King Abdullah a threat to the independence of their countries and they also suspected him of being in cahoots with the enemy. Each Arab state was moved by its own dynastic or national interests. Arab rulers were as concerned with curbing each other as they were in fighting the common enemy. Under these circumstances it was virtually impossible to reach any real consensus on the means and ends of the Arab intervention in Palestine. Consequently, far from confronting a single enemy with a clear purpose and a clear plan of action, the Yishuv faced a loose coalition consisting of the Arab League, independent Arab states, irregular Palestinian forces, and an assortment of volunteers. The Arab coalition was one of the most divided, disorganized, and ramshackle coalitions in the entire history of warfare.

Separate and conflicting national interests were hidden behind the fig-leaf of securing Palestine for the Palestinians. The Palestine problem was the first major test of the Arab League and the Arab League failed it miserably. The actions of the League were taken ostensibly in support of the Palestinian claim for independence in the whole of Palestine. But the League remained curiously unwilling to allow the Palestinians to assume control over their own destiny. For Abd al-Rahman Azzam,  the secretary-general of the Arab League, the mufti was ‘the Menachem Begin of the Arabs.’ Azzam Pasha told a British journalist (who relayed it to a Jewish official), that the Arab League’s policy ‘was intended to squeeze the mufti out.’[6]

At Arab League meetings, the mufti argued against intervention in Palestine by the regular Arab armies, but his pleas were ignored.[7]   All the mufti asked for was financial support and arms and these were promised to him but delivered only in negligible quantities. It is misleading, therefore, to claim that all the resources of the Arab League were placed at the disposal of the Palestinians. On the contrary, the Arab League let the Palestinians down in their hour of greatest need. As Yezid Sayigh, the distinguished historian of the Palestinian armed struggle, put it: ‘Reluctance to commit major resources to the conflict and mutual distrust provoked constant disputes over diplomacy and strategy, leading to incessant behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, half-hearted and poorly conceived military intervention, and, ultimately, defeat on the battlefield.’[8]

The Hashemite Connection

The weakest link in the chain of hostile Arab states that surrounded the Yishuv on all sides was Transjordan. Even since the creation of the amirate of Transjordan by Britain in 1921, the Jewish Agency strove to cultivate friendly relations with its Hashemite ruler, Abdullah ibn Husayn. The irreconcilable conflict between the Jewish and Arab national movements in Palestine provided the setting for the emergence of the special relations between the Zionists and Abdullah who became king in 1946 when Transjordan gained formal independence. Failure to reach an understanding with their neighbours spurred the Zionist leaders to seek a counterweight to local hostility in better relations with the neighbouring Arab countries. Indeed, the attempt to bypass the Palestine Arabs and forge links with the rulers of the Arab states became a central feature of Zionist diplomacy in the 1930s and 1940s.

The friendship between the Hashemite ruler and the Zionist movement was cemented by a common enemy in the shape of the Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the leader of the Palestinian national movement. For the mufti had not only put his forces on a collision course with the Jews; he was also Abdullah’s principal rival for control over Palestine. Both sides perceived Palestinian nationalism as a threat and therefore had a common interest in suppressing it.[9]  From the Zionist point of view, Abdullah was an immensely valuable ally. First and foremost, he was the only Arab ruler who was prepared to accept the partition of Palestine and to live in peace with a Jewish state after the conflict had been settled. Second, his small army, the Arab Legion, was the best trained and most professional of the armies of the Arab states. Third, Abdullah and his aides and agents were a source of information about the other Arab countries involved in the Palestine problem. Last but not least, through Abdullah the Zionists could generate mistrust, foment rivalry, and leak poison to weaken the coalition of their Arab adversaries.

In 1947, as the conflict over Palestine entered the crucial stage, the contacts between the Jewish side and King Abdullah intensified. Golda Meir of the Jewish Agency had a secret meeting with Abdullah in Naharayim on 17 November 1947. At this meeting they reached a preliminary agreement to coordinate their diplomatic and military strategies, to forestall the mufti, and to endeavour to prevent the other Arab states from intervening directly in Palestine.[10]  Twelve days later, on 29 November, the United Nations pronounced its verdict in favour of dividing the area of the British mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. This made it possible to firm up the tentative understanding reached at Naharayim. In return for Abdullah’s promise not to enter the area assigned by the UN to the Jewish state, the Jewish Agency agreed to the annexation by Transjordan of most of the area earmarked for the Arab state. Precise borders were not drawn and Jerusalem was not even discussed as under the UN plan it was to remain a corpus separatum under international control. Nor was the agreement ever put down in writing. The Jewish Agency tried to tie Abdullah down to a written agreement but he was evasive. Yet, according to Yaacov Shimoni, a senior official in the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, despite Abdullah’s evasions, the understanding with him was:

entirely clear in its general spirit. We would agree to the conquest of the Arab part of Palestine by Abdullah. We would not stand in his way. We would not help him, would not seize it and hand it over to him. He would have to take it by his own means and stratagems but we would not disturb him. He, for his part, would not prevent us from establishing the state of Israel, from dividing the country, taking our share and establishing a state in it. Now his vagueness, his ambiguity, consisted of declining to write anything, to draft anything which would bind him. To this he did not agree. But to the end, until the last minute, he always said again and again: ‘perhaps you would settle for less than complete independence and statehood, for full autonomy, or a Jewish canton under the roof of the Hashemite crown.’ He did try to raise this idea every now and again and, of course, always met with a blank wall. We told him we were talking about complete, full, and total independence and are not prepared to discuss anything else. And to this he seemed resigned but without ever saying: ‘OK, an independent state.’ He did not say that, he did not commit himself, he was not precise. But such was the spirit of the agreement and it was totally unambiguous.

Incidentally, the agreement included a provision that if Abdullah succeeded in capturing Syria, and realized his dream of Greater Syria – something we did not think he had the power to do – we would not disturb him. We did not believe either in the strength of his faction in Syria. But the agreement included a provision that if he did accomplish it, we would not stand in his way. But regarding the Arab part of Palestine, we did think it was serious and that he had every chance of taking it, all the more so since the Arabs of Palestine, with their official leadership, did not want to establish a state at all. That meant that we were not interfering with anybody. It was they who refused. Had they accepted a state, we might not have entered into the conspiracy. I do not know. But the fact was that they refused, so there was a complete power vacuum here and we agreed that he will go in and take the Arab part, provided he consented to the establishment of our state and to a joint declaration that there will be peaceful relations between us and him after the dust settles. That was the spirit of the agreement. A text did not exist.[11]

Neutralizing the Arab Liberation Army

King Abdullah was the Zionists’ principal vehicle for fomenting further tension and antagonism within the ranks of the conflict-ridden Arab coalition, but he was not the only one. Fawzi al-Qawukji, the commander of the Arab Liberation Army, was another weak link in the chain of hostile Arab forces. The first companies of the ALA started infiltrating into Palestine in January 1948 while Qawukji himself did not arrive until March. Qawukji’s anti-Husayni political orientation provided an opportunity for a dialogue across the battle lines that were rapidly taking shape in Palestine as the British mandate was approaching its inglorious end.

Yehoshua (‘Josh’) Palmon was one of the Haganah’s ablest intelligence officers and a fluent Arabic speaker. From close observation of factional Arab politics, Palmon was aware of the bitter grudge which Qawukji bore the mufti. In 1947 Palmon discovered wartime German documents bearing on this feud and he passed them on to Qawukji. These documents confirmed Qawukji’s suspicion that it was the mufti who had instigated his arrest and incarceration by the German authorities. Qawukji expressed a desire to meet Palmon but, on being appointed to command the ALA, he dropped the idea. From officers who arrived in Palestine before their chief, however, Palmon learnt that Qawukji was not hell-bent on fighting the Jews. He apparently realized that such a war would be neither short nor easy and he was said to be open to suggestions for averting it.[12]

David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, approved Palmon’s plan for a secret meeting to try and persuade Qawukji to keep out of the fight between the Haganah and the mufti’s forces provided no promises were made to limit their own freedom of action to retaliate against any armed gangs.[13] Palmon went to see Qawukji at the latter’s headquarters in the village of Nur al-Shams on 1 April. After a great deal of beating about the bush, Palmon got down to the real business of the meeting which was to turn inter-Arab rivalries to the advantage of his side. A solution could have been found to the problem of Palestine, he said, had it not been for the mufti. Qawukji launched into a diatribe against the mufti’s wicked ambitions, violent methods, and selfish lieutenants. When Palmon mentioned Abdel Qadir al-Husayni, the mufti’s cousin, and Hassan Salameh, Qawukji interjected that they could not count on any help from him and, indeed, he hoped that the Jews would teach them a good lesson. Palmon then suggested that the Haganah and the ALA should refrain from attacking each other and plan instead to negotiate following the departure of the British. Qawukji agreed but explained frankly that he needed to score one military victory in order to establish his credentials. Palmon could not promise to hand him a victory on a silver plate. If Jews were attacked, he said, they would fight back. Nevertheless, he went away with a clear impression that Qawukji would remain neutral in the event of a Jewish attack on the mufti’s forces in Palestine.[14]

The extent of Palmon’s success in neutralizing the ALA became clear only as events unfolded. On 4 April the Haganah launched Operation Nahshon to open the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road which had been blocked by the Palestinian irregulars. First, Hassan Salameh’s headquarters in Ramla was blown up. Although an ALA contingent with heavy guns was present in the neighbourhood, it did not go to the rescue. Qawukji was as good (or as bad) as his word to Palmon. Next was the battle for the Kastel, a strategic point overlooking the road to Jerusalem, which changed hands several times amid fierce fighting. Abdel Qadir al-Husayni telephoned Qawukji to ask for an urgent supply of arms and ammunition to beat off the Jewish offensive. Thanks to the Arab League, Qawukji had large stocks of war material but, according to the Haganah listening post which monitored the call, he replied that he had none.[15]  Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni himself was killed in the battle for the Kastel on 9 April. He was by far the ablest and most charismatic of the mufti’s military commanders and his death marked the collapse of the Husayni forces in Palestine.

The Road to War

The tide now turned decisively in favour of the Jewish forces. The mixed towns of Tiberias, Haifa, Safad, and Jaffa fell into Jewish hands in rapid succession and the first waves of Palestinian refugees were set in motion. With the collapse of Palestinian resistance, the Arab governments, and especially that of Transjordan, were subjected to mounting popular pressure to send their armies to Palestine to check the Jewish military offensive. King Abdullah was unable to withstand this pressure. The flood of refugees reaching Transjordan pushed the Arab Legion towards greater participation in the affairs of Palestine. The tacit agreement that Abdullah had reached with the Jewish Agency enabled him to pose as the protector of the Arabs in Palestine while keeping his army out of the areas that the UN had earmarked for the Jewish state. This balancing act, however, became increasingly difficult to maintain. Suspecting Abdullah of collaboration with the Zionists, the anti-Hashemite states in the Arab League began to lean towards intervention with regular armies in Palestine, if only to curb Abdullah’s territorial ambition and stall his bid for hegemony in the region. On 30 April the Political Committee of the Arab League decided that all the Arab states must prepare their armies for the invasion of Palestine on 15 May, the day after expiry of the British mandate. Under pressure from Transjordan and Iraq, King Abdullah was appointed as commander-in-chief of the invading forces.[16]  

To the Jewish leaders it looked as if Abdullah was about to throw in his lot with the rest of the Arab world. So Golda Meir was sent on 10 May on a secret mission to Amman to warn the king against doing that. Abdullah looked depressed and nervous. Meir flatly rejected his offer of autonomy for the Jewish parts under his crown and insisted that they adhere to their original plan for an independent Jewish state and the annexation of the Arab part to Transjordan. Abdullah did not deny that this was the agreement but the situation in Palestine changed radically, he explained, and now he was one of five; he had no choice but to join with the other Arab states in the invasion of Palestine. Meir was adamant: if Abdullah was going back on their agreement and if he wanted war, then they would meet after the war and after the Jewish state had been established. The meeting ended on a frosty note but Abdullah’s parting words to Ezra Danin, who accompanied and translated for Golda Meir, were a plea not to break off contact, come what may. It was nearly midnight when Mrs Meir and her escort set off on the dangerous journey back home to report the failure of her mission and the inevitability of an invasion.[17]

In Zionist historiography the meeting of 10 May is usually presented as proof of the unreliability of Israel’s only friend among the Arabs and as confirmation that Israel stood alone against an all-out offensive by a united Arab world. Golda Meir herself helped to propagate the view that King Abdullah broke his work to her; that the meeting ended in total disagreement; and that they parted as enemies.[18]  The king’s explanation of the constraints that forced him to intervene were seized upon as evidence of treachery and betrayal on his part. In essence, the Zionist charge against Abdullah is that when the moment of truth arrived, he revoked his pledge not to attack the Jewish state and threw in his lot with the rest of the Arab world.[19]  This charge helped to sustain he legend that grew up around the outbreak of war as a carefully orchestrated all-Arab invasion plan directed at strangling the Jewish state at birth.

The truth about the second Abdullah-Golda meeting is rather more nuanced than this self-serving Zionist account would have us believe. A more balanced assessment of Abdullah’s position was presented by Yaacov Shimoni at the meeting of the Arab Section of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency on 13 May in Jerusalem: ‘His Majesty has not entirely betrayed the agreement, nor is he entirely loyal to it, but something in the middle.’[20]  Even Meir’s own account of her mission, given to her colleagues on the Provisional State Council shortly after her return from Amman, was nowhere as unsympathetic or unflattering as the account she included much later in her memoirs. From her own contemporary report on her mission, a number of important, but frequently overlooked points, emerge. First, Abdullah did not go back on his word: he only stressed that circumstances had changed. Second, Abdullah did not say he wanted war: it was Golda Meir who threatened him with dire consequences in the event of war. Third, they did not part as enemies. On the contrary, Abdullah seemed anxious to maintain contact with the Jewish side even after the outbreak of hostilities. Abdullah needed to send his army across the River Jordan in order to gain control over the Arab part of Palestine contiguous with his kingdom.  He did not say anything about attacking the Jewish forces in their own territory.  The distinction was a subtle one and Golda Meir was not renowned for her subtlety.

Part of the problem was that Abdullah had to pretend to be going along with the other members of the Arab League who had unanimously rejected the UN partition plan and were bitterly opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state.  What is more, the military experts of the Arab League had worked out a unified plan for invasion.  This plan was all the more dangerous because it was geared to the real capabilities of the regular Arab armies rather than to the wild rhetoric about throwing the Jews into the sea.  But the forces actually made available by the Arab states for the campaign in Palestine were well below the level demanded by the Military Committee of the Arab League. Moreover, King Abdullah wrecked the invasion plan by making last-minute changes.  His objective in ordering his army across the River Jordan was not to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state but to make himself master of the Arab part of Palestine.  Abdullah never wanted the other Arab armies to intervene in Palestine.  Their plan was to prevent partition; his plan was to effect partition.  His plan assumed an even required a Jewish presence in Palestine although his preference was for Jewish autonomy under his crown. By concentrating his forces on the West Bank, Abdullah intended to eliminate once and for all any possibility of an independent Palestinian state and to present his Arab partners with annexation as a fait accompli.

As the troops marched into Palestine, the politicians of the Arab League continued their backstage manoeuvres,labyrinthine intrigues, and sordid attempts to stab each other in the back – all in the name of the highest pan-Arab ideals.  Politics did not end when the war started but was inextricably mixed with it from the moment the first shot was fired until the guns finally fell silent and beyond.[21]   On 15 May, the day of the invasion, an event took place which presaged much of what was to follow and exposed the lengths to which the Arab politicians were prepared to go in their attempts to outwit their partners.  Syrian President Shukri al-Quwwatti sent a message to King Abdullah saying it was necessary to halt the advance into Palestine and to provide the Palestinians instead with all possible arms and funds.  Abdullah suspected that this was a ploy to find out his true intentions.  His answer was a flat rejection of this proposal.[22]   His army had already been given its marching orders.  The die was cast.

If King Abdullah’s relations with his fellow Arab leaders had sank to one of their lowest points, his contact with the Jewish Agency had been severed altogether.  The momentum generated by popular Arab pressure for the liberation of Palestine was unstoppable.  The Jews were in a similarly truculent and uncompromising mood: they had proclaimed their state and they were determined to fight for it, whatever the cost.  It was an ultimatum that Mrs Meir had gone to give King Abdullah, not sympathy or help in dealing with his inter-Arab problems.  The Hashemite-Zionist accord, which had been thirty years in the making, looked about to unravel amid bitter recriminations.  Five Arab armies were on the move, dashing the hope of a peaceful partition of Palestine that lay at the heart of this accord.  As the soldiers took charge on both sides, the prospects of salvaging anything from the ruins of the Zionist-Hashemite accord looked at best uncertain.

The Invasion

The first round of fighting, from 15 May until 11 June, was a critical period during which the fate of the newly-born Jewish state seemed to hang in the balance.  During this period the Jewish community suffered heavy causalities, civilian as well as military; it reeled from the shock of contact with regular Arab armies; and it suffered an ordeal which left indelible marks on the national psyche.  For the people who lived through this ordeal, the sense of being me’atim mul rabim, the few against the many, could not have been more real.  During this period, the IDF was locked in a battle on all fronts, against the five invading armies.  The IDF had numerical superiority in manpower over all the Arab expeditionary forces put together, but it suffered from a chronic weakness in firepower, a weakness that was not rectified until the arrival of illicit arms shipments from the Eastern bloc during the first truce.  The sense of isolation and vulnerability was overwhelming.  And it was during this relatively brief but deeply traumatic period that the collective Israeli memory of the 1948 War was formed.[23]

Israel’s political and military leaders, however, had a more realistic picture of the intentions and capabilities of their adversaries.  David Ben-Gurion, who became prime minister and defence minister after independence, expected Abdullah  to take over the Arab part of Palestine in accordance with the tacit agreement that Golda Meir had reached with him in November 1947.  So he could not have been altogether surprised to learn from Mrs Meir in May 1948 that Abdullah intended to invade Palestine.  The real question was whether Abdullah’s bid to capture Arab Palestine would involve him in an armed clash with the Israeli forces.

Ben-Gurion did not have to wait long for an answer to this question.  No sooner had the Arab armies marched into Palestine, when the Arab Legion and the IDF came to blows. Some of the fiercest battles of the entire war were fought between these two armies in and around Jerusalem.  Even before the end of the British mandate, an incident took place which cast a long shadow over the relations between the Yishuv and Transjordan.  An Arab Legion detachment launched an all out attack, with armoured cars and canons, on Gush Etzion, a bloc of four Jewish settlements astride the Jerusalem Hebron road.  After the defenders surrendered, some were massacred by Arab villagers from the Hebron area and the rest were taken captive by the Arab Legion.[24]   The Etzion bloc was an enclave in the middle of a purely Arab area which had been assigned to the Arab state by the UN.  Nevertheless, this ferocious assault could not be easily reconciled with Abdullah’s earlier protestations of friendship or professed desire to avert military hostilities.

In Jerusalem the initiative was seized by the Jewish side.  As soon as the British evacuated the city, a vigorous offensive was launched to capture the Arab and mixed quarters of the city and form a solid area going all the way to the Old City walls.  Glubb Pasha, the British commander of the Arab Legion, adopted a defensive strategy which was intended to avert a head-on collision with the Jewish forces.  According to his account, the Arab Legion crossed the Jordan on 15 May to help the Arabs defend the area of Judea and Samaria allocated to them.  They were strictly forbidden to enter Jerusalem or to enter any area allotted to the Jewish state in the partition plan.  But on 16 May the Jewish forces tried to break into the Old City,  prompting urgent calls for help from the Arab defenders.  On 17 May, King Abdullah  ordered Glubb Pasha to send a force to defend the Old City.[25]  Fierce fighting ensued.  The legionnaires inflicted very heavy damage and civilian casualties by shelling the New City, the Jewish quarters of Jerusalem.  On 28 May, the Jewish Quarter inside the Old City finally surrendered to the Arab Legion.

After the Jewish offensive in Jerusalem had been halted, the focal point of the battle moved to Latrun, a hill spur with fortifications, that dominated the main route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Like Gush Etzion, Latrun lay in the area allotted by the UN to the Arab state.  But Latrun’s strategic importance was such that Ben-Gurion was determined to capture it.  Against the advice of his generals, he ordered three frontal attacks on Latrun, on 25 and 30 May and on 9 June.  The Arab Legion beat off all these attacks and inflicted very heavy losses on the hastily improvized and ill-equipped Jewish forces.

Any lingering hope that Transjordan would act differently to the rest of the Arab countries went up in smoke as a result of the costly clashes in and around Jerusalem. Yigael Yadin, the IDF chief of operations, roundly rejected the claim that there had ever been any collusion between the Jewish Agency and the ruler of Transjordan, let alone collusion during the 1948 War:

Contrary to the view of many historians, I do not believe that there was an agreement or even an understanding between Ben-Gurion and Abdullah.  He may have had wishful thoughts... but until 15 May 1948, he did not build on it and did not assume that an agreement with Abdullah would neutralize the Arab Legion. On the contrary, his estimate was that the clash with the Legion was inevitable.  Even if Ben-Gurion had an understanding or hopes, they evaporated the moment Abdullah marched on Jerusalem.  First there was the assault on Kfar Etzion, then the capture of positions in Latrun in order to dominate the road to Jerusalem, and then there was the entry into Jerusalem.  From these moves it was clear that Abdullah intended to capture Jerusalem.  

If there had indeed been an agreement between Ben-Gurion and Abdullah, it was violated and it was Abdullah who violated it.  That was the turning point in Abdullah’s policy.  He cancelled any agreement and any understanding.  His armies entered the battle and the clash was unavoidable.  The contact with Abdullah was severed and it was not renewed at any level until September.

After May 15, Ben-Gurion saw the Legion as the number one enemy.  He strove towards a showdown with the Legion.  For Ben-Gurion Jerusalem was the focal point of the entire War of Independence and he concentrated all the forces in order to gain the upper hand over the Legion in Jerusalem.  I, for military reasons, saw Egypt as the number one enemy.  But Ben-Gurion did not want to clash with Egypt.  It was with difficulty that he was persuaded to divert forces to the southern front when the war broke out.[26]  

Yadin’s testimony cannot be dismissed lightly for it reflected the unanimous view of the IDF General Staff that the link with Transjordan had no influence on Israel’s military conduct during the War of Independence.  As Major-General Moshe Carmel, the commander of the northern front, put it: ‘All of us felt that ‘à la guerre come à la guerre and that we had to act against all the Arab forces that had invaded the country.’[27]   What may be questioned is the assumption of Israel’s military leaders that Abdullah intended to capture Jerusalem.

One of the many paradoxes of the 1948 War was that the greatest understanding – that between Israel and Transjordan – was followed upon the outbreak of war by the bloodiest battles.  One explanation of this paradox is that within the context of the tacit understanding between the two sides, there was plenty of scope for misunderstandings.  Jerusalem was the most likely area for misunderstandings to arise both because of its symbolic and strategic importance, and because the fact that it was to form a separate enclave under an international regime permitted both sides to keep their fears and their hopes to themselves.  In the first round of fighting, which ended when the UN-decreed truce took effect on 11 June, Transjordan and Israel looked like the worst of enemies.  During the rest of the war, however, they were, in the apt phrase of one Israeli writer, ‘the best of enemies.’[28]

The other Arab armies were not as effective as the Arab Legion in the first round of fighting.  There was little coordination between the invading armies and virtually no cooperation.  Although there was one headquarters for all the invading armies, headed by an Iraqi general, Nur al-Din Mahmud, it had no effective control over those armies, and the military operations did not follow the agreed plan.  Having accomplished the initial thrust into Palestine, each army feared that it would be cut off by the enemy from the rear.  Consequently, one after the other, the Arab armies took up defensive positions.  The Egyptian army sent two columns from their forward bases in Sinai.  One advanced north along the coastal road in the direction of Tel Aviv.  Its advance was slowed down by its attempts, mostly abortive, to capture Jewish settlements scattered in the northern Negev.  It continued its advance, by-passing these settlements, until it was stopped on 29 May by the Negev Brigade in Ashdod, 20 miles from Tel Aviv.  The second column, which included volunteers from the Muslim Brotherhood, proceeded towards Jerusalem through Beersheba, Hebron and Bethlehem.  It was stopped at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel at the southern edge of Jerusalem on 24 May.  An Arab Legion unit was stationed nearby but it extended no assistance to the Egyptian fighters.  Thus, after only 10 days of fighting, the Egyptian advance was halted.

The Iraqi army, despite considerable logistical difficulties, managed to assemble a sizeable force, with tanks and artillery, for the invasion of Palestine.  In the first three days following the end of the mandate, the Iraqi army launched attacks on three Jewish settlements, all of which were repulsed.  Having given up the attempt to capture Jewish settlements, the Iraqi army retreated, regrouped, and took up defensive positions in ‘the triangle’ defined by the large Arab cities of Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarem.  When attacked by  IDF units, in Jenin for example, it held its ground.  It also launched occasional forays into Jewish territory, but none of them lasted more than a few hours.  Although its westernmost point was less than ten miles from the Mediterranean, the Iraqi army made no attempt to push to the sea and cut Israel in two.  One reason for the relative passivity of the Iraqi military leaders was the fear of being cut off by the enemy.  Another reason was their mistrust of the Arab Legion or, more precisely, of its foreign commander Glubb Pasha.  Salih Sa’ib al-Jubury, the Iraqi chief of staff, claimed that it was the failure of the Arab Legion to carry out the mission assigned to it in the overall invasion plan that exposed his own army to attacks from the Israelis and prevented it from achieving its aims.  According to al-Jubury, the Legion acted independently throughout, with terrible results for the general Arab war effort.[29]

In the north, the Syrians crossed into Israel just south of the Sea of Galilee and captured Zemah, Sha’ar ha-Golan, and Massadah before being stopped at Degania.  They retreated, regrouped, and launched another offensive a week later north of the Sea of Galilee.  This time they captured Mishmar Hayardem, establishing a foothold on the Israeli side of the Jordan river, from which the IDF was unable to dislodge them.  While the Syrians were fighting in the Jordan Valley, the Lebanese forces broke through the eastern gateway from Lebanon to Israel and captured Malkiya and Kadesh.  IDF operations behind the lines and against villages inside Lebanon succeeded in halting the Lebanese offensive.  By the end of May the IDF recaptured Malkiya and Kadesh and forced the Lebanese army on the defensive.

All in all, the combined and simultaneous Arab invasion turned out to be less well-coordinated, less determined, and less effective than Israel’s leaders had feared.  Success in withstanding the Arab invasion greatly enhanced Israel’s self-confidence.  Ben-Gurion was particularly anxious to exploit the IDF’s initial successes in order to move on to the offensive and go beyond the UN partition lines.  On 24 May, only ten days after the declaration of independence, Ben-Gurion asked the General Staff to prepare an offensive directed at crushing Lebanon, Transjordan, and Syria.  In his diary he wrote:

The weak link in the Arab coalition is Lebanon.  Muslim rule is artificial and easy to undermine.  A Christian state should be established whose southern border would be the Litani.  We shall sign a treaty with it.  By breaking the power of the Legion and bombing Amman, we shall also finish off Transjordan and then Syria will fall.  If Egypt still dares to fight – we shall bomb Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo.[30]

These plans were over-ambitious.  By the end of the first week in June a clear stalemate had developed on the central front and a similarly inconclusive situation prevailed on all the other fronts.  The UN truce came into force on 11 June.  To the Israelis it came, in Moshe Carmel’s words, like dew from heaven.  Though they had succeeded in halting the Arab invasion, their fighting forces were stretched to the limit and badly needed a respite to rest, reorganize, and train new recruits.  On the Israeli side, the four weeks’ truce was also used to bring in large shipments of arms from abroad in contravention of the UN embargo – tanks, armoured cars, artillery, and aircraft.  On the Arab side, the truce was largely wasted.  No serious preparations were made by any of the Arab countries to reorganize and re-equip their armies so that they would be better placed in the event of hostilities being resumed.  The UN arms embargo applied in theory to all the combatants but in practice it hurt the Arabs and helped Israel because the Western powers observed it whereas the Soviet bloc did not..[31]   Consequently, the first truce was a turning-point in the history of the war.  It witnessed a decisive shift in the balance of forces in favour of Israel.

The Second Round of Fighting

Inter-Arab rivalries re-emerged with renewed vigour during the truce.  As far as King Abdullah  was concerned, the war was over.  He began to lobby in the Arab world for the incorporation of what was left of Arab Palestine into his kingdom.  He made no secret of his view that the resumption of the war would be disastrous to the Arabs.  His solution, however, was unacceptable to any of the other members of the Arab coalition.  Syria and Lebanon saw Abdullah as a permanent threat to their independence, while King Farouq saw him as a growing menace to Egypt’s hegemony in the Arab world.  Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator, omitted all reference to the UN partition plan, and proposed the partition of mandatory Palestine between Israel and Transjordan.  Abdullah  could have hardly asked for more but since the Arab League and Israel rejected Bernadotte’s proposals out of hand, he saw no point in going out on a limb by publicly accepting them.

Having failed to promote a settlement of the Palestine problem, Bernadotte proposed the extension of the truce that was due to expire on 9 July.  Once again, Transjordan found itself in a minority of one in the Arab League.  All the Arab military leaders pointed to the gravity of their supply positions but the politicians voted not to renew the truce.  To deal with the difficulty of resuming hostilities when their arsenals were depleted, the Arab politicians settled on a defensive strategy of holding on to existing positions.  Abdullah suspected that the decision was taken with the sinister intention of undermining his diplomatic strategy and embroiling his army in a potentially disastrous war with the Israelis.  He therefore summoned Count Bernadotte to Amman to express his extreme unease at the prospect of war breaking out afresh and to urge him to use the full power of the UN to bring about a reversal of the Arab League’s warlike decision.[32]    But the Egyptians pre-empted by attacking on 8 July, thereby ending the truce and committing the Arab side irreversibly to a second round of fighting.

If Abdullah was against a second round of fighting, Glubb Pasha was even more reluctant to be drawn in as his army had only four contact days’ worth of ammunition and no replenishments in sight.  Indeed, in the second round, the Arab Legion only reacted when it was attacked.  When hostilities were resumed, the IDF quickly seized the initiative on the central front with Operation Danny.  In the first phase the objective was to capture Lydda and Ramla; in the second it was to open a wide corridor to Jerusalem by capturing Latrun and Ramallah.  All these towns had been assigned to the Arab state and fell within the perimeter held by the Arab Legion.  On 12 July, Israeli forces captured Lydda and Ramla and forced their inhabitants to flee eastwards.  In Latrun, on the other hand, the Israeli offensive was repulsed as was the last minute attempt to capture the Old City of Jerusalem.  

The ALA, the Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese armies all suffered some reverses in the course of the second round of fighting.  The IDF offensive in the north culminated in the capture of Nazareth and in freeing the entire Lower Galilee from enemy forces.  On the other hand, the attempt to eject the Syrians from the salient at Mishmar Hayarden was not successful and the fighting ended in stalemate.  Israel’s overall position improved appreciably as a result of the ten days’ fighting.  Israel seized the initiative and was to retain it until the end of the war.

The second UN truce came into force on 18 July and, unlike the first truce, it was of indefinite duration.  As soon as the guns fell silent, Arab politicians resumed the war of words against one another.  The line that the Arab Legion was being prevented from using its full strength against the Jews, both through the treachery of the British officers and the withholding of supplies by the British government, was actively propagated by the Syrian and Iraqi officers and by Azzam Pasha.  The Iraqi army officers operating in Transjordan were particularly hostile to the British who served in the Arab Legion.[33]   The suspicion that Glubb was secretly working to impose on the Arabs London’s policy of partition accounted for the virtual breakdown of the relations between the two Hashemite armies and for the Iraqi branch jealously guarding its freedom of action.[34]

Lull in the Storm

During the lull in the storm Abdullah  kept flirting with the idea of bilateral negotiations with Israel to settle the Palestine problem.  Though it did not go as planned, the war had served its basic purpose in enabling him to occupy the central areas of Arab Palestine.  Not only was there nothing else to be gained from an appeal to arms, but such an appeal could jeopardize both his territorial gains and his army, the mainstay of his regime and his only defence against his Arab opponents.  Accordingly, he shifted his attention from the military to the political arena.

The Israelis had their own reason for wanting to resume direct contact with their old friend.  Disunity in the Arab camp gave them considerable room for manoeuvre.  The Arabs had marched into Palestine together but as they sustained military reverses, each country looked increasingly to its own needs.  Each country was licking its wounds and was in no position and in no mood to help the others or to subordinate its interests to the common cause.  Under these circumstances, anyone looking for cracks in the wall of Arab unity could easily find them.  Israel, with the memory of its military victories still fresh in everybody’s mind, was well placed to play off the Arabs against one another.[35]   This was the background of the renewal of contact with King Abdullah’s emissaries in September 1948.

Rumours that Abdullah was once again in contact with the Jewish leaders further damaged his standing in the Arab world.  His many critics suggested that he was prepared to compromise the Arab claim to the whole of Palestine as long as he could acquire part of Palestine for himself.  ‘The internecine struggles of the Arabs,’ reported Glubb, ‘are more in the minds of the Arab politicians than the struggle against the Jews.  Azzam Pasha, the Mufti and the Syrian Government would sooner see the Jews get the whole of Palestine than that King Abdullah  should benefit.’[36]

To thwart Abdullah’s ambition, the other members of the Arab League, led by Egypt, decided in Alexandria on 6 September to approve the establishment of an Arab government for the whole of Palestine with a seat in Gaza.  This was too little and too late.  The desire to placate public opinion, critical of the Arab governments for failing to protect the Palestinians, was a major consideration.  The decision to form the Government of All-Palestine in Gaza, and the feeble attempt to create armed forces under its control, furnished the members of the Arab League with the means of divesting themselves of direct responsibility for the persecution of the war and of withdrawing their armies from Palesitne with some protection against popular outcry.  Whatever the long-term future of the Arab Government of Palestine, its immediate purpose, as conceived by its Egyptian sponsors, was to provide a focal point of opposition to Abdullah  and serve as an instrument for frustrating his ambition to federate the Arab regions with Transjordan.

But the contrast between the pretensions of the All-Palestine Government and its capability quickly reduced it to the level of farce.  It claimed jurisdiction over the whole of Palestine, yet it had no administration, no civil service, no money, and no real army of its own.  Even in the small enclave around the town of Gaza its writ ran only by the grace of the Egyptian authorities.  Taking advantage of the new government’s dependence on them for funds and protection, the Egyptian paymasters manipulated it to undermine Abdullah’s claim to represent the Palestinians in the Arab League and in international forums.  Ostensibly the embryo for an independent Palestinian state, the new government, from the moment of its inception, was thus reduced to the unhappy role of a shuttlecock in the ongoing power struggle between Cairo and Amman.[37]

Israel was content to see the rift develop inside the Arab League but prudently refrained from expressing any opinion in public for or against the All-Palestine Government.  Before the Provisional State Council, on 23 September 1948, foreign minister Moshe Sharett described what remained of Arab Palestine as a ‘geographical expression’ rather than a political entity.  There were two candidates for ruling this part of Palestine: the mufti and King Abdullah.  In principle, said Sharett, Israel had to prefer a separate government in the Arab part to a merger with Transjordan; in practice, they preferred a merger with Transjordan though their public posture was one of neutrality.[38]   In practice, Israel also took advantage of the renewed contacts with Abdullah in order to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state and expand the territory of the Jewish state.  As Yaacov Shimoni, the deputy head of the Middle East department in foreign ministry, candidly confessed:

Sharett knew that we had agreed with Abdullah that he will take and annex the Arab part of Palestine and Sharett could not support this ludicrous, impotent, and abortive attempt made by the Egyptians against Abdullah.  This attempt had nothing to do with us.  It was a tactical move by Abdullah’s enemies to interject something against his creeping annexation.  At that time there was no annexation.  Formal annexation only occurred in April 1950.  But he had started taking an preparing for annexation.  So they tried, without any success, to build a countervailing force.

The second point is that at that time Sharett and our men knew what the powerful State of Israel has forgotten in recent years.  He understood the meaning of diplomacy and knew how to conduct it.  Sharett was definitely aware that publicly we were obliged to accept the Palestinian Arab state and could not say that we were opposed to the establishment of such a state.  In the first place, we had accepted the UN resolution which included a Palestinian Arab state. Secondly, this was the right, fair, and decent course and we were obliged to agree to it.  The fact that below the surface, behind the curtain, by diplomatic efforts, we reached and agreement with Abdullah  – an agreement which had not been uncovered but was kept secret at that time – was entirely legitimate but we did not have to talk about it.  Sharett knew that our official line had to be in favour of a Palestinian state if the Palestinians could create it.  We could not create it for them.  But if they could create it, certainly, by all means, we would agree.  The fact that he made a deal with Abdullah on the side to prevent the creation of such a state, that is diplomacy, that is alright.  Sharett behaved in accordance with the rules of diplomacy and politics that are accepted throughout the world.[39]

The War against Egypt

The rivalries among the Arab states that gave rise to the so-called Government of All-Palestine complicated Israel’s diplomacy but simplified its strategy.  David Ben-Gurion, the man in charge of grand strategy, was constantly on the look out for divisions and fissures in the enemy camp that might be used to extent Israel’s territorial gains.  Arab disunity provided the strategic luxury of fighting a war on only one front at a time and the front Ben-Gurion chose to renew the war was the southern front.  In early October he asked the General Staff to concentrate the bulk of its forces in the south and to prepare a major offensive to expel the Egyptian army from the Negev.  In view of the worsening relations between Egypt and Abdullah, he thought it unlikely that the Arab Legion would intervene in such a war.[40]

On 15 October, the IDF broke the truce and launched Operation Yoav to expel the Egyptian forces from the Negev.  In a week of fighting, the Israelis captured Beersheba and Bayt Jibrin, and surrounded an Egyptian brigade (which included Major Gamal Abdel Nasser) in Faluja.  As Ben-Gurion expected, Transjordan remained neutral in the war between Israel and Egypt.  The Arab Legion was in a position to intervene to help the Egyptian brigade trapped in the Faluja pocket but it was directed instead to take Bethlehem and Hebron, which had previously been occupied by the Egyptians.  Abdullah and Glubb were apparently happy to see the Egyptian army defeated and humiliated.

The formation of the Government of All-Palestine revived the mufti’s Holy War Army – Jaish al-Jihad al-Muqaddas.  This irregular army endangered Transjordan’s control in Arab Palestine.  The Transjordan government therefore decided to nip in the bud the challenge posed by this army to its authority.  On 3 October, the minister of defence laid down that all armed bodies operating in the areas controlled by the Arab Legion were either to be under its orders or disbanded.[41]   Glubb carried out this order promptly and ruthlessly.  Suspecting that Arab officers would balk at performing such an unpatriotic task, he sent British officers to surround and forcibly disband the Holy War Army.  The operation brought the Arabs to the brink of internecine war when they were supposed to be cooperating against the common enemy.  But it effectively neutralized the military power of Abdullah’s Palestinian rivals.  Against this background, the Israeli attack on the Egyptian army was not altogether unwelcome.  Glubb privately expressed the hope that the Jewish offensive ‘may finally knock out the Gaza government and give the gyppies [sic] a lesson!’  In a letter to Colonel Desmond Goldie, the British commander of the First Brigade, Glubb explained that ‘if the Jews are going to have a private war with the Egyptians and the Gaza government, we do not want to get involved.  The gyppies and the Gaza government are almost as hostile to us as the Jews!’[42]

The Israelis followed up their ‘private war’ in the south by launching a major offensive in the north.  Israel’s enemies were now being picked off one by one.  On 29 October, Operation Hiram unfolded, resulting in the capture of central Galilee and in the displacement of many more Arabs.  The ‘cleansing of the Galilee’ was the result of high-level policy rather a random by-product of the war.  Central Galilee contained a large number of Arab residents, including refugees from western and eastern Galilee.  On 26 September, Ben-Gurion had told the cabinet that, should the fighting be renewed in the north, the Galilee would become ‘clean’ and ‘empty’ of Arabs.[43]   In the event, it was Israel that renewed the fighting, and it was the IDF that carried out the expulsions.  Four brigades were concentrated  in the north for Operation Hiram.  In four days of fighting they pushed the Syrians further east, caught Qawukji’s Arab Liberation Army in a pincer movement and knocked it out of the fight, and banished the Lebanese army from the Galilee.  In hot pursuit of the retreating forces, the Carmeli Brigade crossed into Lebanon and captured 14 villages which were later relinquished when the armistice agreement was signed.  Thus, on the northern front, too, the tide turned dramatically and menacingly against the Arabs.

The third UN truce came into force on 31 October.  On 22 December Israel once again broke the truce by launching a second offensive in the south.  The objective of Operation Horev was to complete the destruction of the Egyptian forces, to drive them out of Palestine, and to compel the Egyptian government to negotiate an armistice.  Conflict between the Arab states and lack of coordination between their armies in Palestine gave Israel the freedom to choose the time and place of the second offensive.  Egypt appealed to her Arab allies for help but its appeals fell on deaf ears.  Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the Yemen all promised assistance but failed to honour their promises.  The Iraqis shelled a few Israeli villages near their front line as a token of solidarity with their embattled ally.  Without exception the Arab states were either afraid to intervene or did not wish to intervene.  The Israeli troops surged forward, expelled the Egyptians from the south-western flank of the Negev, and penetrated into Sinai to the outskirts of El-Arish.  Operation Horev succeeded in compelling Egypt, the strongest Arab state with the best claim to lead the others, to open armistice negotiations with the State of Israel and thus to bring the war to an end.  On 7 January 1949, the UN-decreed cease-fire went into force marking the formal end of the first Arab-Israeli war.


This survey of Israel’s strategy and tactics in dealing with the Arab coalition in 1948 is not intended to belittle Israel’s victory but to place it in its proper political and military contest.  And when one probes the politics of the war and not merely at the military operations, the picture that emerges is not the familiar one of Israel standing alone against the combined might of the entire Arab world but rather one of a remarkable convergence between the interests of Israel and those of Transjordan against the other members of the Arab coalition, and especially against the Palestinians.

My purpose in writing this survey was not to pass moral judgement on Israel’s conduct in 1948 or to delegitimize Zionism but to suggest that the traditional Zionist narrative of the birth of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli war is deeply flawed.  The Zionist narrative, like all nationalist versions of history, is a curious mixture of fact and fiction.  The new historiography has been denounced by its critics for being driven not by the scholarly search for truth about the past but by an anti-Israeli political agenda.  Despite these criticisms, which are themselves politically inspired, the new historiography is essentially a cool attempt to use official documents in order to expose some of the fictions that have come to surround the birth of Israel.  It offers a different perspective, an alternative way of looking at the momentous events of 1948.  History is a process of demystification and the new historiography helps to demystify the birth of Israel, to give a fuller, more nuanced, and more honest picture of what is undoubtedly of the great success stories of the twentieth century.  That the debate between the traditional, pro-Zionist and the ‘new historians’ should be so heated is hardly surprising.  For the debate about the 1948 war cuts to the very core of Israel’s image of itself.

[1] Y. Harkabi, Arab Attitudes to Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1972), 37-38.
[2] See Avi Shlaim, ‘The Debate about 1948,’ International Journal of Middle East Studies 27, no. 3 (August 1995).
[3] Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem Until 1948 (Beirut: Institute for Palestinian Studies, 1971), 858-71; Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (London: Croom Helm, 1987), 187-99; and Benny Morris, 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 13-16.
[4] Jacob Tsur, Zionism: The Saga of a National Liberation Movement (New York, 1977), 88-89.
[5] Zvi Elpeleg, The Grand Mufti: Hajj Amin al-Hussaini, Founder of the Palestinian National Movement (London: Frank Cass, 1993), 86.
[6] Flapan, The Birth of Israel, 130, quoting from a report by Michael Comay of a conversation with the British journalist Claire Hollingworth.
[7] Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, Haqa’iq an Qadiyyat Filastin [Facts about the Palestine Question] (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, 1956), 22.
[8] Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 14.
[9] On the relations between Abdullah and the Zionists see Mary C. Wilson, King Abdullah, Britain and the Making of Jordan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Joseph Nevo, King Abdullah and Palestine: A Territorial Ambition (London: Macmillan, 1996); Yoav Gelber, Jewish-Transjordan Relations, 1921-1948 (London: Frank Cass, 1997); and Avi Shlaim, Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).
[10] Ezra Danin, ‘Talk with Abdullah, 17 Nov. 1947,’ S25/4004, and Elias Sasson to Moshe Shertok, 20 November 1947, S25/1699, Central Zionist Archives (CZA), Jerusalem. See also Shlaim, Collusion across the Jordan, 110-17.
[11] Interview with Yaacov Shimoni, 26 August 1982, Jerusalem.
[12] Unsigned report, 16 March 1948, S25/3569, CZA.
[13] David Ben-Gurion, Yoman Ha-milhama [War Diary: The War of Independence, 1948-1949], 3 vols., ed. Gershon Rivlin and Elhanan Orren (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defence, 1982), 1:330.
[14] Interview with Yehoshua Palmon, 31 May 1982, Jerusalem. See also Dan Kurzman, Genesis 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1972), 67-69; and Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem (New York: Pocket Books, 1972), 269-70.
[15] Kurzman, Genesis 1948, 137.
[16] Iraqi Parliament, Taqrir Lajnat at-Tahqiq al-Niyabiyya fi Qadiyyat Filastin [Report of the Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry into the Palestine Question]  (Baghdad: Government Press, 1949).
[17] Golda Meir’s verbal report to the 13-member Provisional State Council. Israel State Archives, Provisional State Council: Protocols, 18 April – 13 May 1948 (Jerusalem, 1978), 40-44. See also Shlaim, Collusion across the Jordan, 205-14.
[18] Golda Meir, My Life (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), 176-80.
[19] For a comprehensive review of the literature and the debate see Avraham Sela, ‘Transjordan, Israel and the 1948 War: Myth, Historiography and Reality,’ Middle Eastern Studies 28, No.4 (October 1992).
[20] State of Israel, Political and Diplomatic Documents, December 1947-May 1948 (Jerusalem: Israel State Archives, 1979), 789-91.
[21] Among the more revealing Arabic sources on the discord and deception inside the Arab coalition are Iraqi Parliament, Taqrir Lajnat al-Tahqiq; Abdullah al-Tall, Karithat Filastin [The Palestine Catastrophe] (Cairo: Dar al-Qalam, 1959); Salih Sa’ib al-Jubury, Mihnat Filastin wa-Asraruha al-Siyasiyya wa al-Askariyya [The Palestine Disaster and its Political and Military Secrets] (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub, 1979); and Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Al-Urush wa al-Jiush: Kazalik Infajara al-Sira’ fi Filastin [The Thrones and the Armies: Thus Erupted the Struggle for Palestine] (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1999).  For two excellent reviews of Arabic sources and Arab historiography on the 1948 war, see Walid Khalidi, “The Arab Perspective”, in Wm. Roger Louis and Robert W. Stookey, eds., The End of the Palestine Mandate (London: I.B. Tauris,1986), 104-36: and Avraham Sela, “Arab Historiography of the 1948 War: The Quest for Legitimacy”, in Laurence J. Silberstein, ed., New Perspectives on Israeli History: The Early Years of the State (New York: New York University Press, 1991), 124-54.
[22] King Abdullah of Jordan, My Memoirs Completed: ‘Al-Takmilah’, translated from the Arabic by Harold W. Glidden (London: Longman, 1978), 20-21.
[23] Anita Shapira, ‘Politics and Collective Memory: The Debate over the “New Historians” in Israel,’ History and Memory 7, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1995), 9-40.
[24] Major Abdullah al-Tall, who led the attack, reveals in his memoirs that he tricked Glubb Pasha into allowing him to rush reinforcements to another unit which was falsely reported to have fallen into a Jewish ambush in Kfar Etzion.  See al-Tall, Karithat Filastin, 31-34
[25] Sir John Bagot Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1957), 110.
[26] Interview with Lieutenant-General Yigael Yadin, 19 August 1982, Jerusalem.
[27] Interview with Major-General Moshe Carmel, 1 September 1983, Tel Aviv.
[28] Uri Bar-Joseph, The Best of Enemies: Israel and Transjordan in the War of 1948 (London: Frank Cass, 1987).
[29] Al-Jubury, Mihnat filastin, 189-90.
[30] Ben-Gurion, Yoman Ha-milhama, 2: 453-54.
[31] Amitzur Ilan, The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Arms Race: Arms, Embargo, Military Power and Decision in the 1948 Palestine War (Basingstoke: St Antony’s/Macmillan series, 1996); and Robert Danin, ‘The Rise and Fall of Arms Control in the Middle East, 1947-1955: Great Power Consultation, Coordination, and Competition’ (Oxford: unpublished D.Phil. thesis, 1999).
[32] Folke Bernadotte, To Jerusalem, translated from Swedish by Joan Bulman (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951), 163-64; Arif al-Arif Al-Nakba [The Disaster] 6 vols. (Beirut and Sidon: Al-Maktaba al-Asriya, 1956-60), 3: 593; and C.M. Pirie-Gordon to B.A.B. Burrows, 25 July 1948, FO 371/68822, Public Record Office (PRO), London.
[33] Sir Alec Kirkbride to FO, 6 August 1948, FO 371/68830, PRO.
[34] Muhammad Mahdi Kubba, Mudhakirati [My Memoirs] (Beirut: Dar al-Talia, 1965), 261-67.
[35] Interview with Yehoshua Palmon, 31 May 1982, Jerusalem.
[36] Glubb to Burrows, Secret and Personal, 22 September 1948, FO 371/68861, PRO.
[37] Avi Shlaim, ‘The Rise and Fall of the All-Palestine Goverment in Gaza,’ Journal of Palestine Studies, 20/1, No. 77 (Autumn 1990), 37-53.
[38] Moshe Sharett, Besha’ar Ha-umot, 1946-1949 [At the Gate of the Nations, 1946-1949] (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1958), 307-9.
[39] Interview with Yaacov Shimoni, 26 August 1982, Jerusalem.
[40] Ben-Gurion, Yoman Ha-milhama, 3: 737, diary entry for 7 October 1948.
[41] Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs, 192.
[42] Glubb to Goldie, 16 October 1948. I am grateful to Colonel Goldie for giving me access to this letter.
[43] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 218.