The following is an extract from Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Yale University Press, forthcoming February 2014).
JERRY: Well here’s your chance to try the opposite. Instead of tuna salad and being intimidated by women, chicken salad and going right up to them.
GEORGE: Yeah, I should do the opposite, I should.
JERRY: If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.
GEORGE: Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something! – Seinfeld “The Opposite”
In 1939 a World War loomed in Europe. The British–which ruled Palestine as a mandate–were desperate to soothe Arab views and keep them on their side during the impending war. It did not care what the Jewish Zionists said; it was going to dictate- as the Americans want to today- the parameters of a peace agreement. Note the similarity to today, but with Iran in the place of Germany. Here is now why its diplomacy will not work. The Arab states had rejected the British concessions, hence the foreign minister Ramsay MacDonald embarked on another round of concessions to them.
Warning signals of coming war multiplied daily. The London Conference had been planned as Britain was appeasing Hitler. The Nazis occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia during its sessions. The opening day, February 7, 1939, was marked by Italian threats to attack Egypt from Libya, coupled with a German general’s touring fortifications near the Libya-Egypt border.58 In this context, the Middle East’s immense strategic significance was at the center of British policymakers’ thoughts. This meant making the Arabs happy. British forces in the area, no matter how strong, would be insufficient if local populations revolted. But once Palestine was amicably resolved, they reasoned, they need not fear a pro-German Arab fifth column or Islamist rebellion.59
Yet the Arab stance made any solution impossible. During pre-conference Arab consultations in Cairo, the states agreed that Palestine’s Arabs would have the decisive voice in the London talks and governments would support whatever they–that is, al-Husaini–wanted. That enabled al-Husaini to set the guidelines to ensure that the talks failed. He demanded a total ban on Jewish immigration and land purchases plus rapid creation of an independent Arab Palestine under his rule. For al-Husaini, and thus for all of the Arab leaders, it would be all or nothing.60
In London, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, and MacDonald shuttled between Zionist and Arab delegations, which met separately except on three occasions. Making no secret of his desperation for appeasement, Chamberlain assured Arab delegations of Britain’s desire to maintain and strengthen friendship with them, while MacDonald noted that trouble in Palestine would echo throughout the region.
MacDonald frankly presented the reasons behind British policy. The likelihood of war necessitated surrender to Arab demands as long as such concessions made London feel more secure. Halifax was blunt: “Gentlemen, there are times when the most ethical consideration must give way to administrative necessity.” MacDonald gave the details. Egypt commanded the Suez Canal route to Asia; Alexandria was the only naval base suitable for defending the eastern Mediterranean. Iraq controlled air and land passage to Asia and was Britain’s main source of oil. A hostile Saudi Arabia would threaten British strategic routes. In the event of war, all of these places must be on Great Britain’s side.61
Moshe Sharett, a Zionist leader, tried to counter these arguments. If the Palestine question were settled, he said, Arab governments would merely raise more demands. In the event of war with Germany, Jewish support would be more reliable than Arab pledges. Ben-Gurion added that whatever happened in Palestine, Arab governments would follow their own interests. The Jewish leaders dismissed promises of being protected in an Arab-ruled Palestine, pointing out that the regimes did not even protect Jews in their own countries and insisting that events in Europe made it impossible for them to abandon demands for Jewish immigration.62
The British didn’t care.63 Instead, the British government, believing war would begin within months, offered to accept virtually all the Arab governments’ demands. It proposed a Palestine constitutional conference be held in six months followed by the creation of a Palestine executive council on which Arabs would have 60 percent of the seats. In addition, the council could stop all Jewish immigration in five years.64
While the Zionists considered walking out, Arabs celebrated this news, but that didn’t last long. The Palestine Arab delegation quickly rejected this plan. Instead it demanded the immediate establishment of a Palestine government and a ban on all Jewish immigration or land purchases, with full independence to follow within three years. The Arab states were frustrated, and even some of the grand mufti’s followers wanted to accept, but al-Husaini wouldn’t budge. Trapped by their earlier promises, Arab government delegations fell into line. Indeed, not trusting as-Said to concur, Iraq’s government recalled him and sent radical Foreign Minister Taufiq as-Suwaidi instead.65
In response to the Arab rejection, MacDonald embarked on another round of concessions to them. Not only would Jewish immigration be under Arab veto after five years, but even before that time it would be limited to a total of seventy-five thousand people. The proportion of Arabs on the executive council would be raised from 60 to 66 percent. There could be no doubt that the result would be an Arab-ruled Palestine. At this point, Ben-Gurion whispered to a colleague, “They have called this meeting . . . to tell us to give up.”66
The Arab side was on the verge of victory; no Jewish state could ever be created. Yet again the Arabs stood firm on rejection.67 On March 15, Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, marking another step toward international confrontation. Two days later the London Conference ended in failure.
Still, the European crisis, wrote British High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Miles Lampson on March 23, “makes it all the more essential that [a] rapid end should be put to disturbances in Palestine.” The Arab states, except for Iraq, also still wanted a quick deal.68 So despite the breakdown, Arab delegations again met in Cairo to propose a new basis for agreement. Arab leaders were still optimistic. How could such a favorable offer be turned down? Egypt’s ambassador assured the British Foreign Office that with his country endorsing this plan, the grand mufti Amin al Husaini, the leader of the Palestinians, could not interfere.
The Arab states proposed some changes in the British plan intended to assure that the result would be an Arab-ruled Palestine as soon as possible. According to this counteroffer, a Palestinian state would be established within ten years and consultations with Arab governments would be held if this schedule could not be met. Jewish immigration would be reduced and the Jewish population of Palestine would be frozen at 33 percent. Palestinian ministers would be chosen to prepare for independence.
The British gave in on almost every point. Chamberlain explained, “We are now compelled to consider the Palestine problem mainly from the point of view of its effect on the international situation. . . . If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.”69 It seemed as if al-Husaini’s radical policy and move toward Germany had succeeded in generating enough leverage to make the British surrender. But London wanted a long interim period. What would be the point of turning over Palestine immediately to al-Husaini only to see him support the Germans? So they wanted to make al-Husaini wait until the European crisis would be resolved. At that point, if he became the head of an independent Arab Palestine there would be little harm to British strategic interests.
On April 28, after talking with Arab negotiators, Lampson reported that the exchanges “are going more favorably than expected.”70 The main point still blocking a deal was the Arab side’s demand–which the British knew came from the grand mufti–that an Arab government would start running the country within three years.71
C. W. Baxter, head of the Foreign Office’s Eastern Department, wrote that the Arab states had come to terms “on all the most difficult outstanding points.”72 Lampson agreed that there was ‘“substantial agreement . . . on all the main issues.” But, both men explained, the Arab states must persuade the Palestine Arabs to agree. The Egyptians were confident of success, with Prime Minister Mahmud claiming he would simply invite the grand mufti to Cairo and “make him toe the line.”73
On May 17, 1939, Mahmud and Ali Mahir, soon to be his successor, met the Palestinian Arab delegation to talk them into agreeing. Mahir told them that they should accept the British plan. The reason the Jews were so much against it was that it so favored the Arab side. This was a tremendous opportunity; the best deal the Arabs could ever obtain. Cooperation with Britain was better than being “at the mercy of the Jews.” Once the Palestine Arabs had a state, sympathetic Arab regimes would help ensure their total control.74
Winning an independent state, Mahir continued, required training administrators, preparing for defense, and achieving international “legitimacy.” A transitional period, Mahir suggested, was an advantage, not a trap. The best way to triumph was to advance step by step, as in a war in which “One army is vacating some of its front trenches. Would you refrain from jumping into them and occupying them?”
But the Palestine Arab leaders retorted, “If we accept, the revolution will end.”
So Mahir tried again to explain reality to them. “Do you believe,” he asked, “that Great Britain is unable to crush your revolution, with all its modern satanic war inventions?” Mahmud and Mahir knew the Arab revolt in Palestine had been defeated by the British. “Is it not better for you, Mahir continued, to come nearer to the British authorities and get them to forsake the Jews?” Then the Arabs wouldn’t have to ask London to stop Jewish immigration, they’d control it themselves and not even a single Jew could enter the country. Next Mahmud weighed in with a prophetic warning. If the Palestinian Arabs agreed right now, he insisted, they could have their way. But soon there would be a war that would put them in a weaker position. Britain would lose patience and invoke martial law. Arab countries would be too involved with their own problems to help.
Again the Palestine Arabs refused: “When the revolt started, we had aims in view to attain. We cannot now tell our people, ‘Stop the revolution because we got some high posts. . . .’”
“You can tell your people,” Mahir answered, “that you shall be able to control your country’s government; to stop [British] persecution, deportations, and harsh measures. You could set Palestine’s budget, limit the Jewish population to one-third, and justify accepting the deal on the basis of the Arab governments ‘ advice.” The Palestine Arabs would not even have to sign anything, but merely to agree verbally to cooperate with a British government White Paper setting the new policy. None of his arguments made any headway.
Mahir and Mahmud were right. The British wanted to satisfy Arab demands as much as possible and thus a little temporary compromise and patience would have achieved a total victory for the Arab side. Under these conditions, an Arab Palestine would have obtained independence within a decade, by 1949 and would have ruled the entire country from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.75 Once Palestine was independent, the Arabs could do whatever they wanted to Jews there including–as al-Husaini had made clear–killing them all. If the Palestine Arabs had accepted the British proposal, taken over the government, and worked with the British, Israel never would have existed.
Instead, the Palestine Arab leaders rejected the White Paper, sought total victory, collaborated with the Germans against the British, and in the end received nothing. This orientation made inevitable the Arab rejection of partition and a Palestinian Arab state in 1947; Israel’s creation in 1948; five wars; the delay of Israel-Palestinian negotiations for forty-five years; and the absence of a Palestinian state well into the twenty-first century, generations after the rejection of the 1939 deal.
But in 1939 it was possible to believe history would take a different course. A like-minded regime in Germany seemed the world’s strongest power, supported the radical Arabs, and might soon destroy all of the Arabs’ and Muslims’ enemies. The growing radical movement believed that millions of Arabs and other Muslims were about to revolt under its leadership, that soon it would seize control of Iraq and Egypt, Palestine and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Believing total victory imminent, why should Palestine’s Arabs make any deal with the British, even one requiring the smallest compromise? Al-Husaini was set on a revolutionary approach depending on Germany. Already he was for all practical purposes the Arab world’s strongest leader. Such was the power of saying “no,” a lesson that would be fully absorbed by postwar Arab leaders.
While Arab governments generally understood that Britain’s offer was a great opportunity, they also knew that radicals would exploit any sign of compromise to inflame their own people against them. Moreover, they were trapped by their decision to grant al-Husaini total veto power. Indeed, many wondered whether the grand mufti might be right. Perhaps the Nazis were the wave of the future and a more useful ally than the British.76 As a result, even though all the Arab governments except Iraq wanted a deal with the British, al-Husaini’s men walked out of the talks, certain that their ambitions would be met more quickly and fully by violent Arab revolts combined with Axis victory in the coming war.
At long last, it was London’s turn to dig in its heels. It told the Arab states that unless further progress in negotiations was made, it would set its own policy. On May 17 the White Paper proposed that a united Palestine–which everyone knew meant an Arab-dominated Palestine–would be established in ten years. Jews could only buy land in a few areas; Jewish immigration would be strictly limited for five years, after which the Arabs would decide how many would be admitted, which meant none. Yet on the Arab side only Transjordan and the an-Nashashibi faction publicly said anything favorable about the White Paper.77
The Jewish Agency strongly protested the White Paper as contrary to the mandate’s provisions. Even the Soviets accused Britain of selling out the Jews for its own benefit. Despite the refusal of any Arab state to approve it, the British White Paper became the governing document for Palestine during the next six years. The restrictions on immigration would cost hundreds of thousands of Jews their lives.
Instead of making a deal with Britain, by the summer of 1939 virtually every Arab leader except Abdallah of Transjordan had secretly contacted Germany to offer cooperation. Most enthusiastic were the radicals in Iraq. When the relatively moderate Iraqi politician Rustum Haidar said British policy didn’t give the Arab side everything from fear of international Jewish financial power, a radical politician responded that it didn’t matter. Might made right. Force rather than more talk was the answer.78
Egypt’s government, the most ardent advocate for accepting the White Paper, was the first to denounce it. In line with the new Arab style of outbidding rivals in militancy, the Wafd Party–even more moderate and pro-British than the government–attacked its rejection as being too mild. The fascist Young Egypt Party started a bombing campaign against Jewish stores.79
Iraq and Saudi Arabia also rejected the White Paper. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ali Jawdat neatly showed the Arab governments’ ambiguity on the issue. On the one hand, he denounced the White Paper, claiming the transition period was too long and restrictions on Jewish immigration too mild. On the other hand, he called the White Paper a great Arab victory, and confided privately that he and as-Said had tried to convince Jamal al-Husaini to accept it.80 The Iraqi regime also tried to calm the passions the radicals were fomenting. Instructions were issued to newspapers not to publish anything that might damage Anglo-Iraqi relations. Still, Baghdad would not cooperate with a request from the moderate Palestinian Auni Abd al-Hadi to support a pro–White Paper group of Palestine Arabs.81 Only al-Husaini and his hardline stance would ever be allowed to represent the Palestine Arabs.
Blinded by bitterness toward the British and overestimating German power, the grand mufti had already taken the road to Berlin. In mid-1939, al-Husaini made his first request to Canaris to visit the German capital.82 When the grand mufti left Lebanon for Iraq in October 1939, his triumphalism was enhanced by his reception in Baghdad, where he was granted refuge and acclaimed a national hero. Every politician from the prime minister down, as well as all the political clubs and groups, threw parties in his honor, events that turned into Pan-Arab, anti-British demonstrations.83
Nor was this support expressed only in words. Iraq’s parliament granted the grand mufti £18,000 a month plus £1,000 a month from secret service funds and a 2 percent tax on government officials’ salaries. More contributions came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Although he promised as-Said not to engage in political activity, the grand mufti played political kingmaker in Iraq, helping first Taha al-Hashimi and then al-Kailani become prime minister. He strengthened the radical faction by placing militant Palestinians and Syrians in teaching jobs and in the government bureaucracy.84
The difference between radicals and moderates was well represented by the remark of the Palestinian Arab delegates in their May 1939 meeting with Egypt’s leaders, “We cannot now tell our people, ‘Stop the revolution because we got some high posts. . . .’”But that was precisely what moderate Arab politicians wanted: not a revolution in Palestine but a solution to Palestine. And they viewed that as having been achieved in the London negotiations because Palestinian Arabs would obtain “high posts” and thus would be running the country.
The story of al-Husaini and the 1939 London Conference would be reenacted by Arafat at the Camp David meeting in 2000, when Arafat rejected getting a Palestinian state through negotiations because he preferred the illusory hope of getting it all by violence.
Now, the moment had come for each Arab leader to choose between the Anglo-French alliance and the German-Italian Axis. The radical faction had already decided on Berlin; even moderate leaders sought to hedge their bets in case the Axis emerged triumphant. It seems as if the time of von Oppenheim’s old plan had truly come. But once again a world war would determine the outcome.
Which is why instead of Palestine celebrating 65 years of an Arab-Palestinian state in 2014 it was facing occupation, war, and no prospect of anything being changed.