In a recent interview that appeared on the Jewish Web site Tablet, Israeli President Shimon Peres made several comments about the British. “In England there has always been something deeply pro-Arab,” he said.
Peres gave several examples of this historical pro-Arab, anti-Israel bias, noting how England had abstained in the 1947 U.N. Partition Resolution, had maintained an arms embargo against Israel in the 1950s and a defense treaty with Jordan. “They always worked against us,” Peres said.
Prompted by the interviewer, Benny Morris, about the possibility of anti-Semitism playing a role, Peres agreed, “Yes, there is also anti-Semitism. There is in England a saying that an anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jews more than is necessary.”
These statements were remarkable on a number of levels, first of all, for being true. Peres does not have a reputation for speaking sense (see “Shimon Says”), which is probably why Israeli cabinet minister Benny Begin, whose father, Menachem Begin, led the fight against the British as the head of the Irgun, responded incredulously to a news reporter seeking a comment by saying, “Peres? I simply can’t believe he said that.”
Given the obscure source, it took time for the British to become aware of what Peres said. But when the interview did come to light, the reaction of British press and politicians was over the top. The Sunday Telegraph ran the headline: “Fury as Israel president claims English are ‘anti-semitic’”. The Daily Mail put their headline in still more incendiary terms: “Israel accuses UK of anti-Semitism”. It quoted a Conservative parliamentarian who said Peres’s remarks were “wholly inaccurate” and “inappropriate”.
Shmuel would have considered the comments neither “inaccurate” nor “inappropriate” but exactly right. In his seminal work Battleground: Fact & Fantasy in Palestine (Bantam Books, 1973), he found British actions were key to fomenting Arab opposition against the Jewish State.
When and how were the Jewish rights, historic and recognized, “transferred” to the Arabs?
The key to this question is reflected in the behavior of the British in 1947. When, in that year, the Arabs rejected the partition of Palestine and refused to set up the projected Arab state, the British administration, then still governing Palestine under the Mandate, refused to carry out the recommendations of the United Nations to implement the partition plan.
The British government made it plain that it would do all in its power to prevent the birth of the Jewish state. Britain announced that she would not — and indeed, she did not — carry out the orderly transfer of any functions to the Jewish authorities in the interim before the end of the Mandate on May 15, 1948. Everything was left in a state of disorder. This was Britain’s first contribution to the burden of the nascent state.
When, immediately after the United Nations Assembly decision, the Palestine Arabs launched their preliminary onslaught on the Jewish community, the British Army gave them considerable cover and aid. It obstructed Jewish defense on the ground; it blocked the movement of Jewish reinforcements and supplies to outlying settlements; it opened the land frontiers for the entry of Arab soldiers from the neighboring Arab states; it maintained a blockade in the Mediterranean and sealed the coast and ports through which alone the outnumbered Jews could expect reinforcements; it handed over arms dumps to the Arabs. When Jaffa was on the point of falling to a Jewish counterattack, it sent in forces from Malta to bomb and shell the Jewish force. Meanwhile, it continued to supply the Arab states preparing to invade across the borders with all they asked for and made no secret of it.
The British government was privy to the Arab plans for invasion; and on every diplomatic front, and especially in the United Nations and in the United States, it pursued a vigorous campaign of pressure and obstruction to hinder and prevent help to the embattled Zionists and to achieve the abandonment of the plan to set up a Jewish state.
When the state was declared nevertheless, the British government exerted every effort to bring about its defeat by the invading armies. It was not by chance that one of the last operations in the war between Israel and the Arab states in January 1949 was the shooting down on the Sinai front of five British RAF planes that had flown across the battle lines into Israeli-held territory.
This was the culmination of a policy developed and pursued by the British throughout their administration of the Mandate — surely not the least of the great betrayals of the weak by the strong in the twentieth century.
The policy of Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, who was severely criticized, was not more than the logical, if extreme, evolution of the policies of Anthony Eden, who inspired the creation of the Arab League in 1945; of Malcolm MacDonald, the Colonial Secretary who presided over the declaration of death to Zionism in the White Paper of 1939, and of their predecessors who shaped the “Arab Revolt” of 1936, who made possible the “disturbances” of 1929, and who were responsible for the pogrom in Jerusalem in 1920.
It is impossible and, indeed, pointless and misleading to explain, analyze, or trace the development of Arab hostility to Zionism and the origins of Arab claims in Palestine without examining the policy of the British rulers of the country between 1919 and 1948.
One of the great objects of British diplomacy as the conflict in Palestine deepened during the Mandate period was to create the image of Britain as an honest arbiter striving only for the best for all concerned and for justice. In fact, Britain was an active participant in the confrontation. She was indeed more than a party. The Arab “case” in Palestine was a British conception. It took shape and was given direction by the British military administration after the First World War. The release in recent years of even a part of the confidential official documents of the time has strengthened the long-held suspicion that the Arab attack on Zionism would never have begun had it not been for British inspiration, tutelage and guidance.
In the end, it is true, British sympathy, assistance, and cooperation came to be auxiliary to Arab attitudes and actions. Those attitudes, however, had their beginnings and their original motive power as a function of British imperial ambitions and policy.
British media and politicians lashed out at Peres for his frankly tame remarks given England’s disgraceful behavior in Mandate Palestine, not least of which was its morally reprehensible policy of blocking Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust from entering its gates. But as much as the British may wish to deny their historic guilt, the facts speak for themselves and the story will be told again and again until, one day, even they may listen.
Unfortunately, Peres makes it easier for them not to listen. His remarkable foray into truth-telling didn’t last. In a statement issued by his spokesman following the brouhaha, Peres backtracked on the quotes attributed to him in the interview.
With Peres having reverted to form, it will fall to another to expose Britain’s perfidy. The truth is there, and not hard to find. Indeed, it’s easily discoverable through a simple search of Shmuel’s writings on our site.