1948 Debate Introduction

The following is a critique of Avi Shlaim’s Historiography of the 1948 war, “The Debate About 1948” first published in The International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 27, No.3, (August 1995) p. 287-304 and more recently in “The Israel/Palestine Question: Rewriting histories, edited by Ilan Pappe, Routledge, 1999, which this article uses as its reference.

In the 1948 debate, after spending some time outlining what Shliam calls the “old” history and briefly summarizing the litany of 1980s publications exposing Israeli myths and counter myths about the country’s hallowed beginnings,  he cites six “bones of contention” that traditional and “New Historian” researchers fundamentally disagree on. They are  (1)“Britain’s policy at the end of the mandate, (2) The Arab-Israeli military balance in 1948, (3) the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem, (4) the nature of the Israeli-Jordanian relations during the war, (5) Arab war aims, and(6) the reasons for the continuing political deadlock after the guns fell silent.

It is these bones of contention Shlaim concludes that divide the world of Zionist historiography into those that know and those that think they know. Why Shlaim chose those particular six is curious. As “bones of contention” many more issues can be debated than what is listed here. How about Israel’s settlement policy, it’s claim to water in the Levant’s tributaries, racist policies against Palestinian Israeli citizens, the claim to Jerusalem and all the conflict that has caused over the decades, and Jewish interests in general colliding with Palestinian interests. In a conflict this old, brewing with hatreds and long time scores not settled there are too many “bones of contention” to settle on only six. One has only to take his pick, and that is what it seems that Avi Shlaim has done in “The Debate.”

The six bones of contention will be discussed here. But first a little background on Avi Shliam’s position and then at the end a concluding statement which will sum up my polemic.

While admitting indirectly to such playful managing of the historical evidence (p. 174*)  he concludes that  earlier historians were not qualified to write the history of the 1948 war because “Most of the voluminous literature on the war was written not by professional historians but by participants, by politicians, soldiers, official historians, and a large host of sympathetic chroniclers, journalists, biographers, and hagiographers” and should therefore be rejected. (P. 173). There is good reason for Dr. Shlaim to reject this kind of evidence which will be argued throughout this piece because most of it is diametrically opposed to what Dr. Shlaim is promoting here.

It is interesting that Shlaim’s quote above about the Israeli favored histories on the war of 1948 is not too different from Avraham Sela’s description of the literature coming from the Arab side of that war in those first few years after the establishment of the State of Israel. The Arab history of 1948 according to Sela who revels in it, is almost exclusively the kind of history that Shlaim wants to reject.  Sela describes it as a “large number of first-person  accounts, textbooks, memoirs, diaries and polemics.”[1] This can only suggest that most primary source material on both sides during that time came from these kinds of sources. Without it we would have almost no history at all.  Does Shlaim suggest that we should disregard Walid Khalidi’s work on “The Fall of Haifa” or his “Documents of the ’48 Conflict” published in The Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 27, No.3,(Spring, 1998) p. 60-105? I doubt that even Shlaim’s admitted Marxist leanings  (p. 189-190) would allow him to disregard such important historical information on the Arab perspective of 1948. It is precisely the Arab history of this time that Schlaim and others draw on to indict Israel’s founders of fabricating Israel’s early history.

Could there be a double standard here?

Historical accounts after the war are “not  history in the proper sense of the word.” P.172-173. I would argue against professor Shlaim’s assertion here. They are most certainly proper historical accounts, if for no other reason than they are the only sources of that war coming from that time period. That in itself makes them primary and vital to the historical record. Because they were decidedly Israeli or Arab centric, depending on the source you are reading, does not preclude they are not valid. To reject any written material on any historical event even if it happened yesterday, simply because there are no official documents on which to draw the history, is absurd.

The opening of Israeli political and military documents in the 1980s does not invalidate these sources, they only add another important dimension to the debate. Personal histories, eyewitness accounts or even partisan evaluations which lead to “sacred texts” of nations’ beginnings are every bit as important as released military documents in the 1980s.

Ben Gurion’s memoirs for example, offer a partisan view of the leader of Israel’s arguments and justifications for Israeli actions during the war. As the author, he has the inherent right to exclude or include any material that he wished. Is Ben Gurion’s point of view of no importance to the history? Under Shlaim’s present argument it would appear that it is.

Another avenue of history that often seems to be forgotten about this war is the British contribution. Shlaim is not the only historian guilty of this. This seems to follow the

New Historian pattern of rewriting Israel’s beginning history.

There were many British anti-Zionist apologies for the Arab disaster of 1948. However, they are rarely if ever referred to in modern historiographies on the war. And, that methodological tactic is present in this Shlaim piece.  I can only assume that he does not because as an admitted leftist he is not comfortable with the motive of the British and its underlying imperialistic desires over the Middle East during that time, more than he is desiring to show sympathy with the underdog oppressed, persecuted Palestinians. E. O’Balance, Erskine Childers,  John Baggot Glubb and others  published a British view as to why the Arabs lost are all rejected by Shlaim as bonafied histories.[2] Shlaim does see fit however, to quote A.J.P. Taylor a British Marxist who, unencumbered by Western capitalist influences, wrote a revisionism on the causes of World War II, and is remarkably similar to Shlaim’s thesis on “the Debate”.

No matter how much Avi Shlaim remains true to his Marxist ideology it does not give him license to rewrite history. It is the job of every historian to be as honest as they can otherwise the history they write will be meaningless. With that in mind Shlaim’s bones of contention might be valid but his perspective is suspect here. To me, a more accurate statement about these bones of contention are not so much between  “old” and “new” historians, but between Marxist and the more traditional western style democratic influenced historians.


The first bone of contention: British policy at the end of the Mandate

Between November 29, 1947 and May 14, 1948 Shlaim contends that traditional Zionist historiography’s “central charge is that Britain armed and secretly encouraged her Arab allies” p.179.  Shlaim credits others like Ilan Pappe with “Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict” along with his own “Collusion across the Jordan” to smash this particular myth.

Actually the official records of State in both Great Britain and the United States show an England having a very hard time cutting loose the apron strings that held British imperial territory in the Middle East together for the previous half century. The record clearly shows that while there might have been some well founded  trepidation on the part of the Yishuv of British motives, the fears of Jewish expansionism seems to have dominated British thinking during this time almost as much as the possibility of Soviet involvement which both England and the U.S. were loathe to accept.

Shlaim’s thesis, minus the Marxist inspired psycho-babble, in “Collusion” was probably well founded. The Jews were not fools. If they could increase their chances of survival by eliminating a major military player like Abdullah, then they would do it. This is what drove Ernest Bevin, Britain’s foreign secretary, and the architect of British involvement, especially with Abdullah during that time, to push for a greater Transjordan. This in turn probably pushed the Yishuv into this victim mentality and led to a mistrust of Transjordan’s motives for an agreement.

However, Shlaim rejects any notion that England supported the Arab side even though early British apologies allude to that fact.[3] For example, John Bagot Glubb, in his memoir, “A soldier with the Arabs,”  discusses a meeting with Bevin where the secretary states categorically that he “did everything he could to help (the Arabs) them.[4]

Although Shlaim does not like to admit it, British interests in 1948 were in fact very much with the Arabs and not with the Jews. While there is no evidence to show that the British tried to stop the Jewish state from coming into existence after the UN partition vote on November 29th , one can build a very strong case that the British did financially, militarily, and politically  helped the Arabs. Although unsuccessful, this was designed to protect British interests which were perceived to be in direct conflict with nascent Israeli interests.

Bevin insisted that Abdullah’s legion not take their war into Jewish territory, as Shlaim asserts. But British soldiers fought with and commanded the legion during their entire campaign of 1948. For all intents and purposes the Jordanian legion commanded by John Bagot Glubb was a proxy British force in the Middle East and for that reason the evidence shows that Bevin was extremely concerned for its existence and the only issue preventing the Jews from infringing onto British interests in the area according to Bevin’s thinking.

The rank and file of the Legion were mostly Arabs, but the officers were British. Some were actually seconded from the British army into the legion. These men were not withdrawn from Legion duties until after May 14, 1948.[5] Weapons were still being delivered to Transjordan as late as May 28th of that year.[6] The English subverted U.N. restrictions which drew consternation against Israel for violating, by insisting that they were only fulfilling commitments made prior to the United Nations embargo to arm the Middle East. [7]

Shlaim relates the Februray 7, 1948 meeting between Abdul Huda, Transjordan’s prime minister, and Secretary Bevin which gave the green light to the legion to move into the Palestinian allotted areas and secure the land for the Kingdom. This in effect wiped out any chance for an Arab state in Palestine and creating what Bevin had labeled a “Greater Transjordan.”

“Bevin also warned Jordan not to invade the area allocated by the U.N. to the Jews” (p. 179) This shows according to Shlaim that Britain supported the idea of a Jewish State while not supporting the idea of an Arab state. What Shlaim does not tell us is that it would have been tantamount to diplomatic suicide for the British to circumvent the U.N. decision to create a Jewish state in Palestine given its tense relations over the issue with the U.S. position in respect to U.S. public opinion. England certainly did not see the creation of a Jewish State as satisfying British interests in the area and might very well have prevented a Jewish state from coming into existence had the U.S. not been so adamant to allow international law to take its course.

The British also used their forces in a failed attempt to take back Jaffa after Arab forces had been defeated by Menachem Begin’s IZL. This is a clear indication of the British fighting for Arab interests, which they viewed as similar to their own. Like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv was suffering casualties on a daily basis because of the sniping coming from Arab Jaffa. The IZL claimed that the British had colluded with the Arabs to create a corridor from Jaffa to Jerusalem to cut the proposed Jewish State in two and thereby seal its fate. Therefore, the Haganna agreed to allow the Urgun to take the city.[8] In the ceasefire agreement, between the British and Jewish forces, they both backed off to neutral areas with a no man’s land in between and faced each other down until the British left Palestine on May 14th.. The British involvement in Jaffa was a direct order coming from HMG and clearly indicated militarily supporting the Arab side in the 1948 war.

In conclusion, I pointed to several major instances where the British clearly assisted the Jordanians in their quest to defeat the Jews.  The taking of Jaffa, the arming of The Legion until May 28th, and the seconding of regular British army officers until Britain left Palestine on May 14th. There’s more with Egypt in the second bone of contention.


Second Bone of Contention: the Arab Israeli Military Balance.

In Shlaim’s next bone of contention he furthers the myth that the” Military balance” during the ’48 war was heavily tilted in favor of the Jews. This unfortunately for the “New Historians” is not exactly true. He says that Arab troops both regular and irregular operating in Palestine was between 20,000 and 25,000.” This is in comparison to a “Haganna force on May 15 of 35,000, not counting second-line troops in the settlements.”

There is no question that as the war pressed on more soldiers were put into the field, even with minimal training, but with the volunteers from overseas made Israel by the end of July the strongest and most capable force in the Middle East. A label that they have hung onto until this day, by the way. But those first few weeks of fighting were very critical. And, it seems that at least until June 1, the momentum and the drive was completely with the Arabs. If they were going to destroy the beginning state it should have been during that time.

From my study I divide that time of the beginning of the war  until the first truce into two periods. The first was from May 15 until May 25. The Israeli soldier fought bravely but being so outnumbered and outgunned they almost fell. The only thing that really saved Israel during that time was Arab incompetence on the battlefield. Even with the known incompetence of Arab operations they still held a significant edge in several important areas which could have meant victory for them in those first few weeks. On May 24th the first shipment of Czech Messerschmidts arrived in Israel.

They were in the air May 25 and dog fought the Egyptian spitfires into a standstill over the next several days. For morale this was a gift. Treated in some cases to the aerial ballet taking place above them the Israelis were heartened to watch Egyptian pilots going down burning and exploding after they had dominated the skies strafing, bombing and killing over the previous ten to twelve days. British made spitfires until that time totally dominated the skies over the theater of battle. Strafing and killing in the cities like Tel Aviv almost 2000 people were killed during this period.

This was a turning point for the IDF. After June 1st the Arabs were finally agreeing although grudgingly to a cease fire, something they would not entertain before June 1st. And, it appeared that with each passing day until the truce was declared on June 11th, the Arabs grew more anxious. I would mention that the New York Times headlines during that time has them begging for that ceasefire by the second week in June which says something about Israel’s David and Goliath ability to have turned it around in such a short period of time.


Well, as a military historian you will never hear me say that, but studying modern battles I have never come across such an about face between two enemies in such a short period of time. After that time I agree with Shliam that the war was all Jews, all the time, until the last shot was fired. But those first three weeks or so, any second rate force could have taken the Yishuv apart. The Arabs were not even that.

You won’t get Avi shlaim or any of the others writing that kind of thing. Could you imagine Rashid Khalidi or Nur Masalha admitting to the incompetence of their own forces and certainly the worst military performance in the 20th century and maybe in all of recorded history.


As already explained the British used the Jordanian government and its armed wing. The Jordanian Legion, the proxy to exercise British interests in the coming regional shift of power in 1948. The case with the British in Egypt was even more damning. When the British left Egypt they left intact a supply of heavy and light weaponry along with training advisors to teach the Egyptian army how to use them. This tilted the balance of power severely in the direction of the Arab states during the war of 1948.[9]

Egypt alone, if properly trained and with a well disciplined army could have defeated the Jews without the help of any other Arab army. The problem for the Arab states was not Israeli military dominance as historically argued. In the remaining months of 1947 until July 1948, and the end of the first truce, the Jews were severely handicapped and in a serious weakened position militarily. It was Arab incompetence that won the war for Israel not, Israeli superiority. By all customary military standards Israel should have lost the war in those first few weeks, absolutely no later than June 1.

There is the incident of Israel shooting down five British fighters at the beginning of 1949 manned by British pilots. On January 1, 1949, Egyptian war ships appeared off the coast of Tel Aviv, and fired on the city. On January 2, 1949 an enemy plane, presumably Egyptian dropped three bombs over Jewish Jerusalem.

As a result Jewish forces launched a retaliatory raid on El Arish which was the Egyptian staging point for all military operations inside Palestine. The British used the incursion into the Sinai as a pretext to invoke a 1936 agreement in which they were obligated to defend Egypt in case of invasion.  Ben Gurion was warned by the British and promptly ordered all Jewish forces removed back behind Israeli lines. By January 3, 1949, all Israeli forces had been removed from Egyptian soil[10] On January 7, Israel shot down five British flown spitfires, killing at least one pilot and taking another prisoner because their aircraft crashed inside Israeli lines.[11]


[1] United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1949. The Near East, South Asia, and Africa, Volume VI (1949), P. 850. March 18, 1948. Within the text of the FRUS document Bevin is quoted in a conversation with the U.S. Ambassador to England,  Douglas, “It will no longer be possible to refuse to send arms to the Arab Legion.” Also Note one expands on Douglas’s letter to the State Department indicating that Bevin believed that the Jews were importing arms at such an alarming rate that Britain must do something to save Western interests in the region. Arms “have continued to flow into Israel on such a scale that it is becoming more and more ‘ridiculous’ for UK to refuse Arab Legion appeals for arms and ammunition.”  See also page 1099 where the British ambassador to Amman, Kirkbride is authorized on June 8th by Bevin “to tell Abdullah that UK will supply internal security arms. Arms will begin next week along lines of Paragraph three, Embassy’s 2177, June 3.”  In note two on this page American Representative Stabler reported that “British government has decided to supply internal security arms to Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.”

I agree with Shlaim’s analysis of the Jewish side that he offers in this section.

The heroism of the Jewish fighters is not in question, nor is there any doubt about the heavy price that the Yishuv paid for its victory. Altogether there were 6,000 dead, 4,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians, or about 1 percent of the entire population…It is true that the Yishuv numbered merely 650,000 souls, compared with 1.2 million Palestinian Arabs and nearly 40 million Arabs in the surrounding states. It is true that the senior military advisors told the Political leadership on 12 May 1948 that the Hagana had only a “fifty-fifty” chance of withstanding the imminent Arab attack. It is true that the sense of weakness and vulnerability in the Jewish population was as acute as it was pervasive and that some segments of this population were gripped by a feeling of gloom and doom. And, it is true that during the three critical weeks, from the invasion of Palestine by the regular armies of the Arab states on 15 May until the start of the first truce on 11 June, this community had to struggle for its very survival.

It would be hard not to acknowledge the above truisms about the ’48 war since these are all established facts but, Shlaim sticks one sentence in this paragraph almost as if he were trying to sneak it in to invalidate that series of facts. Right after the ellipses of the above quote, Shlaim says “ Nevertheless, the Yishuv was not as hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned as the official history would have us believe.” I would argue this as hyperbole.

Military generals always think in terms of the other side’s strengths and weaknesses. It is not for them to speculate on how the enemy might utilize those strengths and weaknesses only that they possess the potential for using it. In assessing Arab strength the Hagana command had to consider that they might go up against everything the Arabs had to offer in their war of liberation.

Nobody really knows how many Arab soldiers actually fought in the war of 1948. Estimates range from 20,000 to 65,000 depending on the time period we are talking about. “The Hagana… could draw on a large reserve of Western trained and homegrown officers with military experience” (p. 181). Shlaim is talking about the 4000 or so soldiers that the British trained to fight at the end of World War II, known popularly as the Jewish Brigade and did see some action in Sicily.[12]


The Third Bone of Contention: The origins of the Palestinian refugee problem.

The origins of this problem are indeed a bone of contention. If any of these contentious issues covered in this piece by Shlaim or mentioned by myself earlier serve as an antagonism against peace between belligerents in this conflict, it is the refugee problem. What appears to have happened since Benny Morris initiated the first study in the 80s using released Israeli documents has been the rejection of any notion that the Palestinians might have been responsible in some way. After studying this issue for many years, Morris has conceded that “that the Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design Jewish or Arab, which was his original thesis. It was largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and of the protracted, bitter fighting that characterized the first Arab-Israeli war.” [13]

As to the charge that the Arabs left because their leaders told them to in speeches, radio broadcasts and announcements in the press, Shlaim asserts that “Morris found no evidence of Arab leaders issuing calls to Palestine’s Arabs to leave their homes and villages or any trace of a radio or press campaign urging them to flee” p. 182. In the case of the radio broadcasts which have been cited by the “old” historians, there is no evidence of urging Arabs over the air to flee their homes because few if any radio broadcasts were recorded in that part of the world during that time. (The first commercial radio recordings had only begun in 1947.) The technology was so knew it is doubtful that it had even been set up in the middle east radio stations at that time. It was a cumbersome, tedious process to record, file and archive daily radio broadcasts. It just wasn’t done. I know, I’ved researched it. But we do have from many nonZionist and anti-Zionist elements describing how these orders were announced.[14]  Of course, since the new historian credo does not sanction the validity of participation memoirs, I guess it cannot be used and is rejected here in Shlaim’s piece, but the evidence still remains.

I find it fascinating that Schlaim mentions the work of Marxists and other leftist leaning individuals in the Israeli government but does not explain the political tension that existed between the vacuum that Mapam found itself in after Mapai had taken power with Ben Gurion as Prime Minister. The Left wing Mapam  joined in the coalition but was never satisfied with playing a minority role in the government. Ben Gurion’s moderate vision was not theirs and they made that feeling known in whatever democratic apparatus was available.  That might be a tribute to BG more than anything else. He was a consummate politician and knew how to manipulate the democratic process. The new historians single out their opposition to practical Mapai strategies for making Israel secure in concerning the implementation of Plan Dalet and the subsequent solution to the refugee problem after the war was over. New historian revisionism comes from this political philosophy, Segev, denotes the words of Morris Czeling on his criticism during cabinet meetings but does not give the majority view of those commentaries. A lone voice does not make policy in a democracy. Only a consensus can do that. Many of these commentators used by Segev, Shlaim, Pappe, and others,  were committed Marxists, ideological equivalents to the “new historians,” who stood against the government at every turn. I am not condemning them for doing it. I am condemning the “new historians” for not explaining who these people were and what their agenda was.  (Note 13 bottom of page 174.)

One cannot help but get the feeling in reading authors like Avi shlaim of a bitterness there, a sense of failure to history that no matter how much they try to revise it, it always remains. Truth is powerful thing. Those that can touch it  know the righteousness of their cause. And, those that can’t continually reach out to grab at it like a child on the merry go round reaching for that elusive brass ring, but it always seems to remain out of reach.


Fourth Bone of contention: Israeli Jordanian relations

Based mostly on the author’s own book Shlaim argues that “in 1947 an unwritten agreement was reached between King Abdullah and the Jewish Agency to divide Palestine between themselves following the termination of the British Mandate and that this agreement laid the foundation for mutual restraint during the first Arab-Israeli war and for continuing collaboration in the aftermath of this war” (p. 183). Shlaim further argues in this piece that his “thesis detracts from the heroic version that pictures Israel as ringed by an unbroken circle of Arab hostility and having to repel a concerted all-out attack on all fronts” (p.184).

Shlaim contradicts his own thesis concerning being “ringed by an unbroken circle” of Arab armies bent on Israel’s destruction. Four pages earlier he writes, “during three critical weeks, from the invasion of Palestine by the regular armies of the Arab states on 15 May until the start of the first truce on 11 June, this community had to struggle for its very survival” (p. 180). This crucial period for Israel is splitting hairs on verbiage if Shlaim wants to argue against calling this “ringed by an unbroken circle.” If not, how would Professor Shlaim regard it?  Sela’s argument that any agreement that might have been reached was “altered so substantively during the unofficial war (December 1947-May 1948) as to render that agreement antiquated and impracticable”[15] did not convince Shlaim that he might have skewed or misinterpreted evidence. However, he does regard the Sela’s work, “valuable” (p. 185).

The “unwritten agreement” between Transjordan and Israel apparently did not apply to the real prize, Jerusalem. The battle for Jerusalem was fought hard for by both sides with both sides taking many casualties in the process.  Furthermore, with their backs up against that wall as perceived or real as Shlaim himself has maintained existed until the first truce June 11, 1948, Israel needed to do everything it could to survive. That included striking deals with possible enemies to improve their military position. There was no “collusion” here as Shlaim has argued. Israel was doing what it had to do to survive. One could also make the argument that the agreement saved lives because less killing took place between the two sides than otherwise would have been the case if no agreement had taken place. Shlaim’s critics have been relentless against his argued subterfuge scheming to prevent Palestinian Arabs from establishing their own country. And, Shlaim has re issued his book, Collusion across the Jordan,  under a different name, to The Politics of Partition, acquiescing to the criticism.


Fifth bone of contention: Arab war aims

Schlaim asserts that “the conventional Zionist answer is that the motive behind the invasion was to destroy the newly born Jewish state and to throw the Jews into the sea” (p. 186). He asserts correctly that the Arab states’ strategy participating in the war of 1948 was to destroy the nascent State of Israel. Schlaim does not deny that this was a motive. However, where traditional historians have claimed that this was the only motive, Schlaim argues that it was one small part of an overall strategy which “the reality was more complex.” The subsequent release of Israeli documents does indeed show a more complicated strategy than previously reported. Certainly, the secretive nature of the Arab governments contributed greatly to unaware strategies that brought the Arab nations to attack Israel. Whatever other reasons there might have been, the importance of destroying  Zionist sovereignty cannot be neglected since no other strategies would have taken place except for the declared independence of Israel. What is disconcerting about this line of argument is that Shlaim uses the original history as an indictment against perceived Israeli “centricism.” Even with the current spate of released Israeli documents and the meticulous nature of Arab historians finely going through available Arab evidence, it is apparent that the destruction of Israel was indeed the primary motive for invasion.

Sclaim’s “complexity” issue lies with how to divide up Palestine after the victorious Arab governments dispensed with the Jews. Shlaim incorrectly puts most of this blame on King Abdullah, the one Arab leader who, given a different set of circumstances, would not have gone to war at all. I fail to see Shlaim’s logic in this stream.

Abdullah had the best trained force in the Middle East. He saw an opportunity to take something that wasn’t his to take and tried to take it anyway. And, Abdullah was not alone in this thinking. All the Arab participants were thinking about expanding their own borders. The one thing that they did not count on, and Shlaim leaves this out of his thesis, was the tenacity of the Yishuv to survive. The Jews actually turned out better than anyone would have thought militarily.

Shlaim does not deny this and freely admits that “it is true that the invasion was accompanied by blood curdling rhetoric and threats to throw the Jews into the sea” (p. 186). However, Shlaim also argues that because the Arab rulers of that time did not maintain a relatively simple objective in Palestine, they lost, and they lost big.

Shlaim’s big villain in this story is King Abdullah of Jordan. Abdullah ruined a relatively unified plan with “limited and realistic objectives” by changing the tactics of the invasion at the last minute. Abdullah’s actions were perceived in Cairo as a move to increase his influence and power in the area. King Farouk would have none of that, so against the advice of his civilian and military advisors he sent his invasion force into Palestine mostly unprepared and without an objective other than stopping Abdullah’s gains.

The Iraqis more or less fell on the side of the Jordanians. The Lebanese, and the Syrians were more or less in the Egyptain camp. But not fighting each other these alliances were more geographic than anything else. While playing all these ends against a nonexistent middle, they forgot that their real objective was to defeat Israel and that’s why they lost. Shlaim describes it as “the inability of the Arabs to coordinate their diplomatic and military plans that was in large measure responsible for the disaster that overwhelmed them” (p. 187). A disaster it was for them, a great victory it was for the Jews.

The Jews ended up with more land than the Res. 181 called for. They started out their state on a high note. Probably that historical truth angers Shlaim as a western style democratic government aligning itself with England and the U.S instead of Joseph Stalin probably singes his left wing senses to the core.


Sixth bone of contention: The elusive peace

Shliam describes the old historian view as “Israel strove indefatigably toward a peaceful settlement of the conflict but all her efforts foundered on the rocks of Arab intransigence.” (p. 188). I don’t totally disagree with Shlaim’s assessment of those first couple of decades of Israel’s existence. Where I would part with this view is that I wouldn’t hold Israel responsible for it. That blame lies strictly in the Arab camp.

Arabs refused in the beginning to write their side of the story, at least in English. There was a pervasive attitude not to even mention Israel as a place. To do so was to somehow give de facto recognition to the Jewish state. There is much evidence for this. During the Rhodes negotiations Ralphe Bunch has described his diplomacy as comically running from room to room delivering messages because the Arab states refused to sit even in the same room with Israeli negotiators. Shlaim refuses to identify a tactic like this as “intransigent.”

The Americans, who can be considered the only non partisan party in sorting out the Levant after the 1948 war give some keen insight into what was really happening. You can’t really count on the British too much since their imperial ambitions were still the prime motive behind settling the post war dispute.

But, nevertheless Shlaim seizes on collective historical memory by not bringing up the intransigent Arab approach to discussing peace with Israel after the war. But, he doesn’t have to. The Americans have done that for him

Stuart Rockwell, American principal advisor to American members of the Palestine Conciliation Commission, sent in a letter to the Secretary of State Dean Acheson described Arab intentions as “intransigent.”

He wrote:

“Arabs have weakened their territorial position by demanding more than partition gave, basing their demands…need for territory for refugees in compensation for their lost homes, security needs and plain desire form more territory.”[16] And, they did this in lieu of the Israeli position that  didn’t want to cede any territory gained outside partitioned areas because of international law that allows a country to keep extra territory if they are not the aggressor in the war. And, Israel clearly was not.

There is much evidence to show Israel did not want to start out with enemies. But, it wasn’t going to be intimidated into accepting a treaty not in its own interests which most of the Arab States seem to base its conditions for peace.

However, Shlaim tries very hard to prove otherwise. He goes on to assert that Foreign Ministry files released from the 1980s “burst at the seams with evidence of Arab peace feelers and Arab readiness to negotiate with Israel from September 1948 onward.” Again, it is the Marxist coloring of these interpretations that shows a more “intransigent Israel than the Arabs.” I have seen some of these files and new historian interpretations based on them and non Marxists would have a totally different interpretation of the same documents.

For example, Egypt offered a return of Gaza and a “substantial strip of desert bordering Sinai.” (188) All this for a “de facto” recognition of Israel. Shlaim makes this sound like it’s a reasonable offer of peace, but to a country who just won its freedom in blood from one of the countries that drew that blood it didn’t come close to a just peace from Israel’s point of view.

Ben Gurion wanted full recognition, not “de facto” recognition especially with the Egyptians because he believed that a strong peace with Egypt would do more to stabilize the area than with any of the other belligerents. Egypt would not back away from these demands. If you look at a map of Res. 181 it shows that “substantial desert strip” that Egypt was now demanding as part of their peace offer was in actuality very close to the Arab territory partitioned in Res. 181 in 1947. In other words they wanted a return to the pre May 15th boundaries, with no penalty of being an aggressor in that war, and, with only “de facto” recognition. Obviously, that was not acceptable to the Provisional Government of Israel.

This is as absurd as if Hitler sued for peace with Stalin after the Russians entered Berlin and as the provision to go back to the 1939 boundaries. I wonder if Avi Shlaim would think that a fair deal?

As for the Israelis being “intransigent” I would offer this as one of the many pieces of evidence again from the American side.

As late as the end of ‘49, John McDonald, the American ambassador to Israel reported to the State department

Prime Minister (Ben Gurion) eagerly seized on my suggestion re(garding) possible direct talks (with) Egypt. “Peace with Egypt would mean peace and stability throughout (the) entire Middle East” he declared and was obviously desirous (of) such direct talks (at) soonest (opportunity).[17]

Direct talks never happened because Egypt would not recognize that Israel was even a real state. All efforts of the Israeli government to move beyond those unacceptable conditions were rebuffed by the Egyptian government. They settled for an armistice of hostilities in early 1949.

The case for peace with Syria during the armistice negotiations is one of the more curious stories in Middle Eastern history. Husnai Zaim, the brief ruler of Syria “offered Israel full peace with an exchange of ambassadors, normal economic relations, and the resettlement of 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria” (p.188).

Ben Gurion rejected it.

First, the Syrians still had troops on the Israeli side of the Jordan River which did two things according to Ben Gurion. One, a peace agreement with those troops drew a de facto border through that area, and Ben Gurion regarded this land as vital because of the water sources of the Jordan. Second, those troops posed a military threat if anything ever happened to Zaim or the treaty between the two countries.

From a military stand point this made the position untenable. It would be much easier to protect northern Israeli settlements if the Syrians were behind a more natural border like the Jordan River. They had situated themselves down in the Galil and had surrounded the northern most half of Lake Kinneret.

Ben Gurion, who studied military history quite thoroughly, knew that Israel’s position with hostile nations on its borders in the next few years would be hard enough without a hostile force waiting to attack at a moment’s notice without any natural encumbrances to stop them like mountains or rivers. In 1940s warfare this position was essential. From a military stand point he would have been a fool not to insist that the Syrians move their troops out.

And, the Americans apparently agreed with Ben Gurion countering Shlaim’s claims that the move was “intransigent.” John MacDonald wrote to the Secretary of State on March 8, 1949:

“The Lebanese demand that Israeli withdraw from Lebanon in the west while Syria refuses to withdraw in the east would, because of topography, squeeze (the) Israeli army into a militarily unmaneuverable area if the Syrians attacked.”

Personally I havn’t been up in that area for many years but I think what the Israelis feared here was a Agincourt type defense the Syrians had hold of and without their withdrawal Israel would find it difficult to uproot them permanently. O’balance reported in “The Arab Israeli War, 1948” that the Syrians had held that ground since May, and with all of Israel’s successes the Syrians in the north had stood their ground. Ben Gurion was right to reject any peace coming from Syria unless those forces removed themselves from Israeli territory.

The Israelis new of Zaim’s penchant for control for his self aggrandizement, and did not trust in general his ability to be able to hold onto the reins of power because of these slipshod motivations. And, apparently if Ben Gurion showed poor judgment, as implied by Shlaim in not seeing this through, he did in fact have this part right, because Zaim was assassinated a short four months into his regime.

Shlaim argues his case of “intransigence” on Ben Gurion’s part using Moshe Sharret’s memoir, Ben Gurion’s Foreign Minister, who disagreed with Ben Gurion’s decision. Shlaim does not go through the rest of Ben Gurion’s cabinet as to what they thought either. It’s a pretty good bet that the overwhelming majority agreed with Ben Gurion not to enter into a negotiation with Zaim otherwise Shlaim probably would have pointed that out also.

Against the protestations of the British and the Americans Ben Gurion seemed to have an insight that they didn’t. For the west, the solution was simple, if this leader was willing to solve at least this part of the conflict with a full fledge treaty then it was in Israel’s interest to follow through with it. For the West it did not matter that the man was not honest, like Shangkai Shek of Taiwan, Truman, and the British agreed and took the attitude, “Well he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” From Ben Gurion’s point of view, he believed he could not be so cavalier with safety of the infant state of Israel.


Avi Shlaim, like most “New historians” practice the left wing tactic of selective history. And, this is what he did in “The Debate about 1948.” What needs to be remembered in reading this peace is that while the documentation is valid, the interpretation is skewed with Avi Shlaim’s own bent on history, one that sees the west as an imperial invader and the enemy of the working class all over the world.

Time after time, he conveniently leaves out important historical evidence that shows what happened in 1948 was for the most part not the way he describes it. He totally rejects personal observations, memoirs and journalism of the time that chronicled what happened during the 18 months of that war.

He states, “This article is concerned with the old Zionist version of the first Arab-Israeli war and with the challenge to this version posed by the new historiography.” (P. 189). Actually, he doesn’t oppose it, he completely rejects it. “Most of the voluminous literature on the war was written not by professional historians but by participants, by politicians , chroniclers, journalists, biographers and hagiographers.” (p.173). He doesn’t consider this form a part of the historical record.

He then says, “second, this literature is very short on political analysis of the war and long on chronicles of military operations, especially the heroic feats of the Israeli fighters. Third, this literature maintains that Israel’s conduct during the war was governed by a higher moral standard than that of her enemies.” And, he calls this a “nationalist version.” (P. 173).

Of course, it’s a nationalist version. And, without an Arab version to stand against it, that was the prevailing narrative in the West. Furthermore, I would argue that most of what was written was true. That it might be “short on political analysis” does not disavow its relevance.

There were substantial heroic feats by Israeli fighters, the best that warriors have ever produced in history. Going up against all odds on May 15th was a calculated risk. It took courage on the part of Israeli leaders and on its population who had to fight the war.  The standoff at Yad Mordecai that finally ended on May 23, was a testament to this courage. The Jews of Jerusalem cornered for many months cut off, refused to until the very end not to give in and surrender the old city. Countless settlements, Kibbutzim and smaller hamlets were ordered by the government not to give one inch to the enemy. The fought with whatever they had, sometimes falling in battle other times somehow becoming victorious. There is no greater warrior glory than that. The Israelis did it. They deserved to win their country. Anyone who actually looks at this objectively would come to that conclusion.

Although he doesn’t reject the Arab history of the war that is also done by those who Shlaim considers not “professional historians,” only those stating the Israeli side of things. One can only conclude from this dis-ingenuousness an attempt on the part of the Marxist left, embodied this particular time by Avi Shlaim to delete any history that does not conform to the left wing narrative.

Finally, the six bones of contention discussed here raised valid points to the history but as long as we are forced into partisan lines, the argument is going to be over who is right and who is wrong rather than the honest approach to the history to understand  as much about that all important time as possible.



[1] Arab Historiography on the 1948 War: The Quest for Legitimacy” in New Prospectives on Israeli History: The Early Years of the State, ed. Lawrence J.Silberstein, New York: New York University Press, p. 126.

*The term “new historians” rather self-congratulatory and by implication dismissive of everything written before the new historians appeared on the scene as old and worthless.

[2] Edgar O’Balance, The Arab-Israeli War, 1948, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1957. Erskine Childers, The Other Exodus, The Spectator, May 12, 1961. John Bagot Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957.

[3] American Foreign relations documents also show a definite partiality of British motives toward Arab war aims which will be discussed later in this piece.

[4] Glubb, Soldier, p. 180

[5] United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1948. The Near East, South Asia, and Africa (in two parts), Volume V, Part 2 (1948), p. 1066.

[6] FRUS, Vol. V, part 2 page 1071. In this report from Lovett he mentions that Britain is supplying weapons to Egypt, Iraq as well as British proxy military force in the Middle East, the Jordanian Legion.

[7] FRUS, Vol. V, part 2, Note 4 page 563

[8]H.Boyer Bell, Terror out of Zion, London: New Brunswick Publishers, 1996, p. 302. I should point out that Boyer Bell’s sources for these accounts rely heavily on personal memoirs and interviews with participants from all sides. There is an index in the back of personal interviews and notes on the memoirs. This is what Shlaim is arguing in this piece which he claims is not valid history writing. For more on this and a Jewish view on Jaffa see, Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars, New York: Vintage Books, 1982, p.36.

[9] Kenneth M. Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991,  Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2002, p. 15. Pollack lists the Egyptian heavy armor as a battalion of British made Mark VI and Matilda tanks, sixteen 25 pounder guns, a battery of eight 6-pounder guns, a medium machine gun battalion, more than thirty British made Spitfire fighter planes, and four Hawker Hurricane fighters with twenty American C-47 transports which mechanics had made into crude bombers.  E. O’Balance pretty much confirms these figures in “The Arab and Jewish War, 1948.” The Israelis on the other hand had fewer than 900 light mortars, 85 antitank weapons, five “ancient” artillery pieces and four tanks. The Egyptians alone held a huge military advantage over the Jews in this area.

[10] FRUS. Vol VI, p. 605

[11] FRUS Vol. VI p. 627.

[12]Refer to note 9.

[13] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, New York : Cambridge University Press, 1987. P. 286.

[14]  There are many quotes from newspapers and journals over the years testifying to the Arabs telling Palestinian Arabs to leave their homes in the manner that the “old” historians have suggested. Here are a few of these quotes, Jordan daily Falastin, February 19, 1949: “The Arab States which had encouraged the Palestine Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies, have failed to keep their promises to help these refugees.” The Cairo daily Akhbar el-Yom , October 12, 1963,  “15 May 1948 arrived…on that very day the Mufti of Jerusalem appealed to the Arabs of Palestine to leave the country, because the Arab armies were about to enter and fight in their stead…” Since the Mufti was not in Palestine at the time it is highly likely that his pronouncements came in the form of radio broadcasts.  Habib Issa,  (Lebanese newspaper) Al Hoda, June 8 1951 (New York). “Brotherly advice was given to the Arabs of Palestine to leave their land, homes, and property and to stay temporarily in neighboring fraternal states, lest the guns of the invading Arab armies mow them down.”  These do not meet Dr. Schlaim’s criteria for historical evidence but when researched it screams out for historical justice.

[15] Avraham Sela, “Transjordan, Israel and the 1948 War: Myth, Historiography and Reality, “ Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 28, no. 4 (October 1992) 627.

[16] FRUS Near East 1949 p. 1355

[17] FRUS, Near East, 1949, p. 1526

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