Review of The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1947-1951, Ilan Pappe, I.B.Tauris, 2006, pp.324+ix.

Abstract: The book under review deals with the major political processes which took place in the Middle East during the crucial period of 1947 -1951, the effects of which remain with the world today. Dr Pappe focuses in detail on issues such as Jewish immigration to Palestine, the influence of the USSR in the creation of Israel, the war of 1948-49, both the military and political aspects, and the role of the British and other Arab states in it.

This book concentrates and focuses specifically upon the political aspects of the conflict. According to Dr Ilan Pappe, it has now become clear to us that the fate of the war had been decided even before the actual confrontation on the battlefield. Following Bendetto Croce, the Italian philosopher of history whose principle was that, a historian’s job is not to record but to evaluate, Pappe thus is selective in his choice of facts which constitute the history of the 1948 and 1949 war. His attempts have been to cover not all or part or provide a comprehensive history of the war; rather he addresses and focuses more on the major political processes involved in the war. This is to present to the reader the implication of these events in the development of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In the introduction Pappe mentions a few factors which led towards the early days of the conflict between the Zionists and the Arabs. The cunningness of the Zionists coupled with a weak Ottoman empire led to the establishment of the foundations for a Jewish homeland by the Zionists in Palestine. This in turn led to the problem of settlement as with the increase and expansion of Jews in Palestine, the Zionists became more vocal in their demands for land. The Balfour agreement which had been signed in 1917 had given the Jewish National Movement (Zionism) the right to build their homeland in Palestine; however it did not specifically mention the boundaries of such a homeland. With increasing Jewish immigration to Palestine, the Zionists became active in buying more land. This increase in numbers had negative effects on the indigenous Arabs. As the conflicts and more importantly attacks by Arabs upon British installations in Palestine grew, the British conceded a White Paper in 1939. In it the British agreed to repudiate the Balfour declaration and enforce restrictions on Jewish immigration and purchase of land. This was never enforced as Britain was involved in the Second World War in Europe. The Zionists continued to bring in more Jews and were buying more land illegally. During the Second World War the Zionists were colluding with the British against the Nazis and at the same time preparing themselves for a possible conflict with the British after the war. The Zionists showed their true confrontational intentions to the British in 1944. The British government, then under the new Labour administration, had entrusted their new foreign secretary Ernest Bevin to investigate and formulate Britain’s Palestine policy after 1945. In the wake of the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the US President Harry S. Truman had pressured the British into allowing a mass immigration of 100,000 Jews from Europe into Palestine. Bevin wanted the Americans to be involved in solving the issue of Palestine for the sake of lessening the influence of the Zionists in America upon the White House. The Americans on the other hand wanted to increase the Western bloc’s influence and thus the Anglo-American committee was established to investigate and formulate a solution for Palestine. The Palestinians and the Zionists had found themselves for the first time vying for world public opinion in the face of this committee. As the impact of the Holocaust was felt by the committee it was obvious who had won public opinion to their side. This, as well as the ability of the pro-Zionist Jews to provide a united front and the boycott of the Arabs, led the committee to move towards a conclusion favouring the establishment of a Jewish state. The committee’s proposals however were rejected by the Bevin and the British administration. In between the Zionist demands towards partition and the Arab demands for independence of the whole of Palestine, Bevin charted a third course of action i.e. provincial autonomy for Palestine with controlled Jewish immigration. The parties involved rejected the third way and thus Palestine became an insoluble issue for the British. The increase in deaths of British personnel by underground Zionist movements led the British to finally leave the Palestinian issue unresolved. The solution for the state of Palestine was left in the plate of the newly founded United Nations.

The United Nations established a Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in order to find a solution. Pappe includes the various roles played by the main blocs in regards to Palestine. The USSR to everyone’s surprise supported the idea of partition and subsequently the formation of a Jewish state. According to Pappe, this decision was mainly driven by USSR’s intention of limiting the influence of the Western bloc, in this case the British in the Middle East. This decision by the USSR was one of the major influences in swaying the UN to back a Jewish homeland. The other notable influences include the refusal of the Arab league to meet with UNSCOP, the heightened moral imperative felt by Europe vis a vis its Jewish population due to the Holocaust, and the refusal of the Americans to grant safe haven for the Jewish immigrants. All these led towards the realisation of the Zionist dream. When the British left in August 1948, the partition as discussed and reported by UNSCOP was in place. The United Nations Palestine Committee (UNPC) was responsible for the transition of Palestine to two independent states.

The war is treated by Pappe in chapter 4 where he deals in some detail with King Abdullah of Transjordan who, like his other counterparts amongst the Arab rulers, was more interested in “jingoistic rhetoric” and when push came to shove, was quite ambivalent. All except for Transjordan were hoping the British mandate would not end and the world would hopefully turn to support the Palestinians. Transjordan under King Abdullah however was aiming for territorial expansion with part of Palestine being part of Greater Jordan. This was in line with the agenda of British however it failed to materialize as King Abdullah had failed to convince his government to support such an agenda.

Pappe carefully weaves his narrative to present to the reader the conflict from the beginning of Jewish immigration, the various discussions regarding the solutions for Palestine, the role of the British and the roles of the different Arab states in the war of 1948. Pappe’s success lies in his ability to utilize various official materials in proving that the fate of Palestine was already decided before the war took place. The real war was not the one in the battlefield; the real war was the diplomatic war which the Zionists won convincingly. Pappe says:

“…the fate of Palestine, and hence that of the Palestinians had been determined in the session rooms and corridors of the UN, in the meetings of various international inquiry committees and inside the discussion halls of the Arab League long before even one shot had been fired. It was the Jewish success first in building the infrastructure for a state and then in winning the diplomatic campaign that decided the battle long before it started; as it was the inadequacy of the Palestinian leadership and the meandering politics of the Arab League that helped explain the consequences of this war.” (pg.271)

The book is written for the serious reader looking to understand specifically the complexities of the period (1947-51) as well as debunking some of the myths associated with the war propagated mainly by pro-Israeli (Zionist) historians. The book is divided into 10 very dense and well analysed chapters which would probably put off the more general reader. For someone who is a beginner and is looking for a general understanding of the history of Palestine, this reviewer would suggest Pappe’s other book, A History of Modern Palestine which has been reviewed in a previous edition of Palestine Internationalist.

Mohamad Nasrin Nasir

Mohamad Nasrin Nasir is a PhD student in Islamic Thought at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization in Malaysia, and a sub-editor of Palestine Internationalist.