Israel and the Arab Coalition in 1948


Session 3: 

The Road to War

The tide now turned decisively in favor 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 toward 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.

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 had 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.

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 word to her; that the meeting ended in total disagreement; and that they parted as enemies. 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. This charge helped to sustain the 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." 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 and 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 manoeuvers, 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. 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-Quwwatli 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. His army had already been given its marching orders. The die was cast.

If King ‘Abdullah's relations with his fellow Arab leaders had sunk 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 casualties, 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.

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 defense 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 relations between the Yishuv and Transjordan. An Arab Legion detachment launched an all-out attack, with armored 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. 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. 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.

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 comme à la guerre and that we had to act against all the Arab forces that had invaded the country." 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."

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 10 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.

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 had 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 10 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.

These plans were overambitious. 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, armored 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. 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 favor of Israel.

Session 2                                                                                                                        back to seminar series                                                                                                                   Session 4