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1949 the First Israelis

About The Book

Renowned historian Tom Segev strips away national myths to present a critical and clear-eyed chronicle of the year immediately following Israel’s foundation.

“Required reading for all who want to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict…the best analysis…of the problems of trying to integrate so many people from such diverse cultures into one political body” (The New York Times Book Review).

Historian and journalist Tom Segev stirred up controversy in Israel upon the first publication of 1949. It was a landmark book that told a different story of the country’s early years, one that wasn’t taught in schools or shown in popular culture. Rather than painting the idealized picture of the Israel’s founding in 1948, after the wreckage of the Holocaust, Segev reveals gritty underside behind the early years.

The new country of Israel faced challenges on all sides. Day-to-day life was severe, marked by austerity and food shortages; Israeli society was fractured between traditional and secular camps; Jewish immigrants from Middle-Eastern countries faced discrimination and second-class treatment; and clashes between settlers and the Arabs would set the tone for relations for the following decades, hardening attitudes and creating a violent cycle of retaliation.

Drawing on journal entries, letters, declassified government documents, and more, 1949 is a richly detailed look at the friction between the idealism of the Zionist movement and the cold realities of history. Decades after its publication in the United States, Segev’s groundbreaking book is still required reading for anyone who wants to understand Israel’s past and future.


1949 the First Israelis 1 THE GREEN LINE
ON THE EVENING of December 31, 1948, James McDonald, an American diplomat serving in Israel, dropped his preparations for the New Year’s party he was to throw the next day in Tel Aviv, and left posthaste for the Galei Kinneret Hotel in Tiberias, where David Ben-Gurion was vacationing. McDonald, subsequently America’s first Ambassador to Israel, carried an ultimatum from President Truman demanding that Israel withdraw the force which had crossed the international border with Egypt and penetrated into the Sinai Peninsula. The American initiative had come in response to a request from London and was strongly worded: if Israel refused to withdraw its forces from Sinai, the United States would “re-examine” its relations with Israel. Ben-Gurion read the letter slowly while the American envoy sat waiting for a reply. Finally the Prime Minister remarked that the tone of the communication was harsh, but he promised to pull his forces back to the Israeli side of the border, thereby forfeiting any chance of capturing the Gaza Strip.1

When word of McDonald’s visit reached his headquarters, the commander of the southern front, Yigal Allon, tried to save the operation in Sinai by rushing back to Tel Aviv to talk with Acting Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin, then with Foreign Minister Sharett, and finally with Ben-Gurion himself. Allon did manage to elicit the prime minister’s approval for one more operation—an attack on the town of Rafah—but the action failed, though they managed to cut off the Egyptian troops in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army now held the entire northern Negev, with the exception of the Gaza Strip and the so-called Faluja Pocket. A few thousand Egyptian soldiers were still trapped in that pocket, one of whom happened to be Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Israelis could not overcome them. “The Egyptians have learned to fight,” Ben-Gurion reported to the Cabinet, and that same day the ministers decided to accept a ceasefire.2 Ben-Gurion regarded this as a great accomplishment, despite the fact that Gaza and Faluja had not fallen. “This is an important stage in the achievement of peace and fortifying the position of the State of Israel,” he wrote in his diary. “If we reach an agreement with the Egyptians—and that ‘if’ is not lightly stated—it will be easier for us to reach an agreement with Transjordan and the others. . . .”3

One evening during that week, Ben-Gurion took the time to attend a showing of a Soviet war film, to which he had been invited by the Soviet minister Pavel Ivanowich Yershov. “In the midst of the bombing by the Soviet planes,” the prime minister later wrote, “an air-raid siren went off. Yershov, who was seated beside me, wanted to stop the showing. I objected, and the show went on. About half an hour later the all-clear sounded. But afterwards I learned that the airport at Lydda had been bombed and the mess hall of the 82nd Battalion was hit. One soldier was killed and two were injured. The film—pure propaganda.”4 That same week the port of Tel Aviv was shelled and Jerusalem was bombed from the air, causing the destruction of a wall of the Shaarei Tsedek Hospital and injury to a few pedestrians.5 Firing was still going on at the southern front, too, despite the government’s decision. “Yigael [Yadin] suspects our soldiers of not having stopped either, though Yigal Allon received an explicit order from him this morning,” Ben-Gurion wrote. “Yadin believes that when [Allon] got back down south, the members of the ‘clan’—[Itzhak] Rabin, Itzhak Sade, and others—told him to continue. . . .”6

But these were the last shots, and the war with the Arab states ended with two air battles in which five British planes were shot down; one British pilot was killed and two were taken prisoner. Israel claimed that the British planes had penetrated its airspace and were shot down over its territory, but that was untrue. Ben-Gurion copied into his diary the cable he received from the south stating that Allon had ordered the remains of the planes towed out of Egyptian territory and scattered over Israeli territory “for obvious reasons.”7 I

A few hours after this incident, Ben-Gurion returned to Tiberias in very good spirits. “It’s been a marvelous day,” he wrote in his diary. “Has the war ended today?”9 Four days later the Civil Defense Command cancelled the order requiring the windows and street lights in residential areas to be blacked out, and although the blackout remained in force in industrial and business establishments, the immediate danger had passed. In the Yellow Room of the Hotel des Roses in Rhodes, preparations had in the meantime been completed for the opening of armistice negotiations on the new border between Israel and Egypt, which was to become known as the Green Line.

David Ben-Gurion would have preferred to hold the armistice talks in Jerusalem, or on the Israeli-Egyptian border, or at sea, on board an American vessel flying the UN flag, rather than on the Island of Rhodes. However, he did not press the point.10 The northern cliff of the historic island still seemed to be haunted by the spirit of Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator who had been assassinated in Jerusalem four months earlier.11 The Swedish diplomat had set up his headquarters on the island, describing it as an ideal spot for peace negotiations, far removed from the hatred and gunfire, yet close enough to international lines of communication.12 Moshe Dayan, too, would one day recall it as a place where “thousands of butterflies of all sizes and colors fluttered among the bushes, as if it had been the scene for a fairy-tale. . . .”13 The Hotel des Roses was known for its rustic old-style atmosphere, an appropriate setting for journalists and diplomats, millionaires and spies to rub elbows over glasses of whisky and lemonade. Itzhak Rabin, then a Lt. Colonel who was flown to Rhodes straight from the battlefield in the Negev, would fondly recall the juicy steaks he ate there,14 and Director General of the Israel Foreign Ministry, Walter Eitan, would note the sweets which were flown in by the Egyptians from the famous confectioners, “Groppi” of Cairo.15 The UN mediator who conducted the talks was Dr. Ralph Bunche, a black American, brilliant and humane, whose achievements would later win him the Nobel Peace Prize. He and his aides occupied one wing of the hotel, while the Egyptians and the Israelis were assigned another wing, with the Egyptians occupying the floor above the Israelis. Violent winds and rainstorms greeted the visitors upon their arrival in Rhodes, Thursday, January 13.

Ben-Gurion was not in a conciliatory mood. He said during one of the discussions with his aides:

Before the founding of the state, on the eve of its creation, our main interest was self-defense. To a large extent, the creation of the state was an act of self-defense. . . . Many think that we’re still at the same stage. But now the issue at hand is conquest, not self-defense. As for setting the borders—it’s an open-ended matter. In the Bible as well as in our history there are all kinds of definitions of the country’s borders, so there’s no real limit. No border is absolute. If it’s a desert—it could just as well be the other side. If it’s a sea, it could also be across the sea. The world has always been this way. Only the terms have changed. If they should find a way of reaching other stars, well then, perhaps the whole earth will no longer suffice.16

In his diary Ben-Gurion laid down a more precise definition: “Peace is vital—but not at any price.”17

The first encounter between the Israeli and the Egyptian delegations was not very promising. At first the Egyptians tended to ignore the Israelis. Walter Eitan did notice, however, that some of them, overcome by curiosity, would turn their heads for a quick glance whenever they ran into each other in the hotel lobby. At first Bunche did not succeed in getting them to meet face to face. Finally, however, the Egyptians agreed to meet the Israelis in his suite. The mediator sat on a sofa with the delegations facing him—the Israelis to his right, the Egyptians to his left. The Egyptians made a point of addressing him, as though the Israelis were not there. Slowly but surely the atmosphere thawed as the delegates began speaking to each other in English and French, and affectionately showing one another snapshots of their families.18 Eitan headed the Israeli delegation, which included Reuven Shiloah, one of Ben-Gurion’s closest advisors and a pioneer of Israel’s Intelligence community, and Eliyahu (Elias) Sasson, director of the Middle East division at the Foreign Ministry. Sasson, a Damascus-born journalist and public figure, was one of the first diplomats of the Jewish Agency to visit Arab capitals, a regular caller at the palaces of their sultans and kings; he was both a man of peace and a dreamer. Acting Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin headed the military delegation, accompanied by Rabin and two other officers.

At the beginning Bunche alone was aware of the two delegations’ basic positions, and he would make sure to present them to each side gradually and with the utmost care. Bunche made each side believe that agreement was imminent. Thus the Israelis gained the impression that the Egyptians might be willing to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, provided the local population was not placed under Israeli rule. Later it was learned that the distance between the two parties was much greater than had been realized. Israel insisted that Egypt give up the Strip, and the Egyptians demanded that Israel give up Beersheba. This was especially important to the Egyptians, because they had never admitted that the town had fallen to the Israelis; the Egyptian public was yet to hear about it from its government. The two parties rejected each other’s counterproposals with nerve-racking stubbornness. Bunche tried everything to bring them closer. At one point he invited both delegations to his suite and showed them ceramic plates which he had especially ordered in a local factory, with the inscription, “Armistice Talks, Rhodes, 1949.” “If you come to an agreement,” he said, “you’ll each receive such a plate as a souvenir. If you don’t—I’ll smash them on your heads.” Eitan reported to Foreign Minister Sharett that “it was a most extraordinary occasion,” and promised a further report on what he termed “the comic aspect of it.” As for the Egyptians’ stubbornness, he wrote that it made him want to scream.19 II

As negotiations proceeded, the Israeli government decided to give up the demand that the Egyptians leave Gaza, but refused to give in with regard to the area around the archeological site at Auja al-Khafir, which the Israelis called Nitsana. Giving up Gaza was not easy. The army and MAPAM, the left-wing opposition, viewed it as a humiliating and dangerous concession, and so, of course, did Herut, the right-wing opposition. There had, indeed, been little hope that Egypt would willingly vacate the Strip, and the Israeli government therefore preferred to face reality rather than risk the collapse of the talks.

The next two weeks in Rhodes were taken up by haggling over details, and finally, on February 24, the agreement was signed. Ben-Gurion wrote: “After the creation of the state and our victories in battle—this is the great event of a great and marvelous year.”20

The armistice agreement with Egypt was based primarily on the existing military situation. Israel had to agree to an Egyptian military presence in the Gaza Strip, and to withdraw her own forces from the area of Beit Hanoon and the sector near the Rafah cemetery. However, she was allowed to keep seven outposts along the Strip. The Egyptian brigade which had been surrounded in Faluja was released, and the area was turned over to Israel.III Israel was obliged to agree to demilitarize the area around Nitsana, but her demand that the demilitarization extend to both sides of the border was accepted. Nitsana was to serve as the seat of the mixed armistice commission, but Israel objected to the area being placed under UN jurisdiction. The Egyptian demand that Beersheba be part of the reduced troops area was rejected; however, Revivim, a kibbutz 25 kilometers south of Beersheba, was included in it. The signing of the armistice agreement with Egypt greatly improved the prospect of signing similar agreements—and possibly even peace treaties—with other Arab states. Itzhak Rabin commented, “I believed that we were moving forward to peace. We all believed it.”21 IV

Some four weeks after the agreement with Egypt, a similar one was signed with Lebanon. The negotiations that led up to it were not difficult. Some informal talks had been held before, but the Lebanese did not want to be the first. “Reach an agreement with one of the other Arab states first,” they told the Israelis: “Lebanon will be the second.” The negotiations were held on the border between the two countries, near Rosh Hanikrah. They would meet alternately in the customs house on the Lebanese side, and in the police station on the Israeli side. The two buildings were some 500 meters apart, situated on rocky cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean—a breathtaking view; the road between the buildings wound through mine fields.

The two delegations often talked to each other in Arabic. The Israeli delegation was headed by Lt. Colonel Mordehai Makleff, later the third Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, who was accompanied by Yehoshua Felmann (Palmon) and Shabtai Rozen from the Foreign Ministry. The UN representatives, Henri Vigier and William Riley, were not called upon to intervene as much as Bunche had to in Rhodes. “The site tends to encourage personal relations between the delegations,” Rozen reported. “Since one acts as the host and the other as its guest, the talks are accompanied by lavish refreshments, as is customary in the East, and people get to know each other.”23 Rozen drew a lesson for the future from this encounter—direct talks are preferable to mediated negotiations. When alone with the Israelis, he wrote Sasson, the Lebanese would act as if they were not Arabs, and had been drawn into the war against their will. “For internal reasons—so they say—they cannot openly avow their hatred of the Syrians and their objection to the presence of a Syrian army in their country, but they are eager to have the agreement restrict the free movement of the Syrian army in Lebanon. . . . I believe that as soon as a convenient opportunity presents itself they will propose renewing trade relations with us.”24

When the negotiations began, the Israeli army was in control of a narrow strip in Lebanon, just west of the northern Galilee, which enclosed fourteen villages, the northernmost of which was not far from the Litani River. There were hardly any disagreements between the negotiating teams. The two states agreed that the international border would serve as the armistice line, and that as soon as the agreement was signed Israel would vacate the territory she had conquered. Nevertheless, it was three weeks before the agreement was signed, because Israel at first tried to link her withdrawal with a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and—even more significantly—with Syria’s withdrawal from Israeli territories Syria had occupied during the war along the Jordan River and the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee. Some of the Israeli diplomats disagreed with that plan.

This was, in effect, a dispute between the Foreign Ministry and the army. Yigael Yadin wrote Walter Eitan to say that the diplomats “do not understand” the military problems of the northern border and its importance; he demanded that they be briefed accordingly.25 Rozen reported that according to his impression, “. . . the Lebanese government is very eager to come to an agreement with us.”26 However, the negotiations had reached a dead end. Within a few hours it became apparent that there was only one way of reaching an agreement.

On March 17 Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: “In my opinion we should sign regardless of the Syrian withdrawal. 1. It strengthens our political position in general, and especially with regard to Eilat (which had just been taken). 2. It increases our pressure on the Syrians. 3. It facilitates a move onto the West Bank—if it should be necessary.”27 That evening, Chief of Staff Dori and Moshe Dayan, as well as Eitan and Rozen came to see him to sort out the disagreement between the army and the Foreign Ministry. Meanwhile, Ralph Bunche and the US government were exerting massive pressure. They warned that if the negotiations failed Israel would be blamed. It would gravely damage her international standing and might very well damage her chances of being accepted as a member of the United Nations. Ben-Gurion concluded: “I’m in favor of signing the armistice agreement with Lebanon.”28 V

Shortly after the conclusion of the agreement with Egypt and before the conclusion of the one with Lebanon, similar talks began with Transjordan. These talks, too, opened in Rhodes and were mediated by Ralph Bunche. There, at the Hotel des Roses, the agreement was signed, after little more than an opening ceremony concluding with the signing of the agreement, which lasted altogether only seven minutes. Not much happened between the Israelis and the Jordanians in Rhodes. “The main problem with the Jordanian delegation is its idiotic personnel,” wrote Moshe Dayan.31 The diplomats dispatched by King Abdullah got on his nerves: “They are bound by their instructions and will not budge from them,” he complained. Indeed, they made no decisions and Dayan did not waste time talking to them. The decisive talks had already been held in Europe and Jerusalem and in a series of top secret and lavishly catered meetings held in the King’s palaces.

Dayan had played a key role in these talks. The son of Shmuel Dayan—a member of the first Knesset—Moshe Dayan was in effect born into the labor party which gave him an important advantage in the army, many of whose commanders were leftist supporters of MAPAM, and therefore were distrusted by Ben-Gurion. Dayan kept in direct touch with the Prime Minister, going over the heads of his own superior officers, usually without informing them beforehand. Ben-Gurion regularly consulted him. The man with the black eye-patch was then 33 years old. Born in kibbutz Deganiah, Dayan, the soldier, farmer, secret poet, amateur archeologist, politician and statesman, always spoke briefly and to the point, confining himself to what needed, or did not need, to be done that day. This was an ideological age, characterized by much rhetoric, but Dayan was not inhibited by any ideology. He therefore appeared to be moved by purely practical considerations. Generally, but not always, they appeared to be correct. When he was stationed in Jerusalem, Dayan contacted Abdullah Tall, then Commander of the Transjordanian forces in the city. At first they met through the good offices of the UN, in order to solve various local problems and make everyday life in the city easier while the war still went on. In time, they began to meet face to face, just by themselves. Sometimes they met in the Assyrian convent near the Jaffa Gate, at other times in the Mandelbaum house on the outskirts of the orthodox quarter of Mea Shearim. On occasion they met standing between the front lines, amid the land mines at the foot of the Old City wall. Later they established a direct telephone line. At the end of November 1948 they agreed on a “sincere ceasefire”—along certain lines. In effect, this was the beginning of the division of Jerusalem. Concurrent with the Jerusalem meetings between Dayan and Tall, similar talks between Jordanian and Israeli representatives were held in Paris and London. All of these laid the groundwork for the direct talks to be held in the palaces of King Abdullah.

Contacts between the Zionist movement and the old Bedouin ruler, who was also Britain’s protégé, had in fact begun long before. Abdullah had known Moshe Sharett for fifteen years and had also met frequently with Zionist and later Israeli emissary Eliyahu Sasson. Shortly before the establishment of the state, Golda Meirson (Meir) went to see him, disguised as a man, hoping to come to an arrangement which would prevent the war. The King did not like her. Later, when he heard that she had been sent to Moscow as Israeli Ambassador, he commented: “Good. Leave her there.”32

The meetings in El Shuna and Amman produced multiple reports, some of them contradictory, and others closer to folk tales than history. One of the first meetings with the King after the war was arranged with the intention of bringing about the release of some 700 Israelis who had been captured by the Jordanians in the Etsion bloc and Jerusalem. The King would regale his Israeli guests with royal dinners and entertain them at great length with Oriental witticisms and Arabian legends, deep into the night. After dinner he would amuse them with all kinds of riddles and jokes. Sasson always laughed and obediently praised the King as was expected of guests. Dayan viewed the King’s talkativeness as a wearisome nuisance. Eliyahu Sasson was ten years older and intimately familiar with the ways of the East. He was having such a good time that he seemed to have forgotten all about the captives. From time to time Dayan would urge him to get on with it. It was after midnight. The agreement, complete with all the technical details—including the travel expenses for the captives—had all been settled with Tall, and according to Dayan, had also been settled between Tall and the King. But still the King had not said a word about it: “Finally, when I felt that the right time had come,” recalled Sasson, “I said to Dayan, now let’s get up. So he and I stood, and the King rose too and we all began to walk to the door. I knew that we would probably embrace before parting. That’s what had happened at our previous visits. And then, when the King came to embrace me, I quickly slipped my hand under his cummerbund and held on to him. This is an old custom in Arabia. If you manage to do it you’ll be given anything you ask for. Abdullah raised his hands and said: ‘Elias, ask only for the possible.’ That is to say, I’m in your hands, and you can ask whatever you want. I said: ‘I’ll ask only for the possible.’ Some scene it was with everyone standing around and looking on, including Dayan and Tall. I said: ‘Your Majesty, you’re holding 700 men, women and children, old men and soldiers. Your government has to spend a lot of money to feed them. What for?—Give them to us.’ And the King agreed.”33

Abdullah was known for his friendly attitude and good will toward his Israeli guests; “He kept talking Zionism,” Eitan reported to Sharett after one of the meetings with the King.34 Sometimes they read poetry together, sometimes they exchanged gifts. And at least once they raised the possibility that the Israeli air force would help the Jordanians conquer Damascus: all that needed to be done was to paint the Israeli planes with Jordanian colors.35

The Israelis would drive to the meetings with Abdullah in Tall’s armored car, dressed in UN uniforms. Dayan replaced his black eye-patch with dark sunglasses, lest he be recognized. If they were late coming back and it was already daylight, they would lie on the floor of the car and Tall would cover them with red keffiehs (Arab headgear). In their secret reports Abdullah Tall was codenamed “William,” after William Tell. King Abdullah was nicknamed Meir, an anagram of his former title of Emir. Nevertheless, those who needed to know about those clandestine diplomatic ventures knew exactly who was there and what was said. The King’s enemies received current reports from Tall, whose loyalty to his sovereign was rather dubious. Years later, when the British Foreign Office and the US State Department opened their files for research, it was learned that both the British and the American ambassadors had been able to brief their governments in detail about these contacts. Only the press, in Israel and abroad, knew nothing about them. It was probably the biggest story missed that year.VI Ben-Gurion doubted the relevance of this activity. “I doubt if there is any practical point in these talks at all,” he wrote in his diary. He thought little of Abdullah, and always wrote the word “king” in quotation marks. Once he wrote: “The old man reminds me of Nahum Sokolow when he was President of the Jewish Agency. Talks pleasantly with no control and without authority. . . .”37 Sokolow, a journalist and Zionist leader, had been known as a big talker. Sasson was more optimistic. “The King feels that we as friends will have no difficulty in finding a common language,” he wired Sharett. “I’m asking therefore that the King be treated generously, patiently, and that we explain things to him as friends with mutual interests and that we wish him well. We should not behave as statesmen who insist on their rights. This is the way we have always behaved with him, and I believe we must continue like this. I have no doubt that in the end we shall get what we want.”38

Several months before, David Ben-Gurion proposed that Israel attack the Arab Legion and occupy all of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron, where about 100,000 Arabs lived. “I presumed that most of the Arabs of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron would flee . . . and then the entire country, as far as the Jordan, north or south of Jericho, as well as all of the western bank of the Dead Sea would be ours,” he wrote. But the Cabinet rejected the proposal; years later Ben-Gurion would maintain that this rejection was a fatal error.39 VII

By the time they began negotiating, Israel and Jordan had already unofficially agreed that the territory would be divided between them, and so would the city of Jerusalem. They had also agreed in principle that the Palestinians would have no say in the matter. At the beginning of the negotiations, Abdullah suggested a settlement based on the UN Partition Resolution and the Partition Plan outlined by Count Bernadotte shortly before his assassination in Jerusalem. The Israelis wanted to base the agreement on the military status quo. Abdullah hoped to annex the southern Negev to his kingdom, but agreed to share it with Israel. While he was still talking about it, the Israeli army sent two brigades down to the Red Sea, in order to enhance their political position. On March 10 they reached an abandoned police station at Umm Rashrash, and on its flagpole raised a makeshift white sheet with two blue stripes and a Star of David—hand drawn with ink, as they had forgotten to bring a national flag with them.

Israel now controlled the entire Negev, except for the Gaza Strip; a new city would soon be built at the southern tip, which would be called Eilat. Ben-Gurion’s praise was jubilant: “This could well be the greatest event of the last few months, if not of the entire war of liberation and the conquest. And not a drop of blood was spilt.”43 Abdullah conceded his defeat and did not break off the talks. He was greatly concerned about the Gaza Strip. “Keep it,” he said to the Israelis, “or give it to the devil—so long as you don’t leave it for the Egyptians.”44 The King hoped that Israel would eventually allow him to annex the Strip to Jordan. Israel made some territorial demands of its own, such as free passage to Mount Scopus, to the Mount of Olives cemetery and to the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Eventually it was agreed that Wadi Arah, in the north, with its Hadera-Afulah road, would be turned over to Israel; this meant that Jordan had literally handed over thousands of Palestinian Arabs to Israel without ever consulting them. The armistice agreement set up a variety of arrangements in Jerusalem, including free passage to the Wailing Wall, but Jordan never kept that part of the agreement. The Negev remained in Israeli hands. Abdullah gave in on it, for fear that if he rejected Israel’s demands, she would proceed to occupy the entire region of Samaria, as she had the Negev.

Four months after the signing of the agreement with Jordan, a similar agreement was reached with Syria. The preliminary talks that led up to it were the longest and hardest of them all. In the course of the war the Syrians had managed to seize territories beyond the international border. When the negotiations opened, they were holding the area around Mishmar Hayarden, the sector between the international border and the Sea of Galilee, south of Ein Gev, and other areas. Israel demanded that Syria withdraw to the international border and the Syrians refused. Shortly before the talks began there was a military coup in Damascus. The new ruler was a colonel by the name of Husnei Zaim. Some time after he seized power, Zaim proposed a meeting with Ben-Gurion with the aim of reaching a peace agreement. Moreover, he stated that he would be willing to give permanent residence to between 300,000 and 350,000 Palestinian refugees in his country. On April 16 Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: “The Syrians have offered to make separate peace with Israel. Cooperation and a joint army. . . . But they want to change the border—to cut across the Sea of Galilee. I instructed . . . that the Syrians be told plainly—first of all, an armistice agreement based on the international border. Then talks about peace and an alliance. We’ll be willing to cooperate fully.”45 Two weeks later Ben-Gurion wrote: “It’s been agreed to meet with Zaim, and Reuven Shiloah and Yigael Yadin will be proposed [for the meeting], but Zaim may insist on the Prime Minister or the Foreign Minister. Sharett is willing to meet, but not this week.”46

Two days later, the US Ambassador in Syria, James Kiley, reported that Zaim repeated his offer to settle 350,000 or more Palestinian refugees in his country.47 That week Ben-Gurion heard from the US Ambassador in Israel, James McDonald, that Zaim and the US Ambassador in Syria were asking the State Department to urge Ben-Gurion to agree to the proposed meeting. Ben-Gurion related, “I said that if Zaim would commit himself in advance to evacuate our territory and withdraw to the international border, I’d be willing to meet with him.”48 The Americans could not believe their ears. Secretary of State Dean Acheson suspected that Zaim’s proposal had not been forwarded to Ben-Gurion. He instructed Ambassador McDonald to tell Ben-Gurion that the United States wanted the meeting to take place.49

UN Representative William Riley tried to persuade Foreign Ministry official Shabtai Rozen to press for the meeting, and Rozen reported this at length to Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion, as usual, summed things up succinctly: “Riley spoke to Rozen. Zaim wants to develop Syria and accept 300,000 refugees. Riley asks if we would agree to sign an armistice agreement now, on the basis of the existing situation [later there would be further talks on the basis of the UN Partition Resolution]. Rozen replied that our answer was negative.”50 Thus far, no one in the Israeli administration had given serious thought to Zaim’s offer to take in 300,000 refugees. Their attention was riveted on the border problem. Only Abba Eban, in the United States, wished to know “why we are unimpressed” by the prospect that Syria would absorb the refugees—the fact that the offer was made struck him as very significant.51 The American representative in Syria continued to lavish praise on Zaim, on whom he hung “the last hope,” provided Israel was willing to compromise, or at least if Ben-Gurion was willing to meet him. Everyone who has met Zaim, reported the American diplomat, was impressed by his sincerity and his open-mindedness toward Israel.52

June 1, 1949. Eban to Sharett: “. . . Bunche, Riley, still believe Zaim–Ben-Gurion meeting could produce first peace treaty between Israel and Arab state. They would be prepared to arrange meeting if we agree. . . .”53

June 2, 1949. Sharett to Eban: “. . . Ben-Gurion against meeting Zaim before Bunche . . . [submits] his proposals.”54

June 5, 1949. Sharett to Eban: “. . . Bunche beseeching we not give up meeting. . . . [His representative] freely granted [that] we have been hundred percent right procedurally but Syrians suffer unconquerable inferiority complex vis-à-vis us, therefore we should bear with them. . . .”55

After prolonged hesitations and consultations with Ben-Gurion, Sharett announced that he was willing to go to Syria to meet with Zaim and discuss two subjects with him, armistice and peace, in that order. Once an armistice agreement was achieved, including a Syrian withdrawal to the international border, it would be possible to talk about peace. The Syrians were not interested in such a discussion. Sharett hastened to conclude that the whole thing was a fraud. He commented: “Apparently they assumed . . . that we would list such subjects as medieval Arab poetry or Bedouin lore, or maybe even Cartesian philosophy or Japanese art. . . .”56 A few weeks later Zaim was deposed and executed.VIII

The armistice talks with the Syrians were held in Hirbet Warda, the no-man’s-land, between Mahanayim and Mishmar Hayarden. The Israeli delegation was led by Lt. Colonel Mordehai Makleff. As in the talks with Lebanon, UN officials Henri Vigier and William Riley were present, but the main effort was made by Ralph Bunche, operating from New York. He maneuvered as he knew best, often deceiving both parties and finally bringing them to the point of compromise. The Syrians withdrew, and the territories they vacated were demilitarized.

Ben-Gurion followed the talks closely and made many of the decisions. He rarely consulted Sharett, but instead preferred the advice of Moshe Dayan and Reuven Shiloah. Ben-Gurion felt that his Foreign Minister spent too much time talking and thinking. Sharett was a rather pathetic figure who paid much attention to both his dress and speech. He was meticulous over the pettiest of details, mostly concerned with his own dignity, and an obedient yes-man to Ben-Gurion, whom he regarded with vast admiration and awe. Sharett was more moderate than Ben-Gurion, more cautious and yielding, and often more judicious. But he rarely stood up for his own opinions; his moderation, caution, flexibility and judiciousness served him mostly in selling Ben-Gurion’s policies. This is what happened in the case of the proposed meeting with Zaim. He himself attached “tremendous importance” to the Syrian leader’s offer to take in refugees, but the decision was not his.58

Reuven Shiloah, like Moshe Dayan, was one of the most interesting people among the policy makers, and like him enjoyed free access to Ben-Gurion. His opinions were generally, though not always, listened to. In the Zaim affair they were not: he had favored the meeting.59 Shiloah too was one of the most important people at that time, but unlike Dayan, he stayed behind the scenes, far from both the media and politics. He tended to keep himself all but invisible, never saying too much, always inquisitive. At the beginning of the War of Independence he was with Ben-Gurion in the “Red House,” the headquarters at that time. He carried out any number of secret missions and was one of the founders of the Israeli Intelligence and Espionage services. He had an analytical and methodical mind and his advice, like that of Moshe Dayan, was always brief and to the point, which Ben-Gurion appreciated.

The negotiations leading up to the armistice agreements were accompanied by a public debate, which reached its climax in the election campaign for the first Knesset. “All the parties are ready to make peace,” stated Moshe Sharett (MAPAI), “and we are all equally ready to continue the war, if peace is not achieved. But the question is whether we should strive for peace on terms which we can live with, or continue to fight for the conquest of the entire country.”60 Menahem Begin (Herut) countered, “There is a peace which leads to war, and there is a true peace, a permanent peace. In Munich, too, ‘peace’ was supposedly won, yet that ‘peace’ led to the worst war of all.”61 Herut objected to giving up any part of the historical Land of Israel, and certainly any part of its western portion, west of the Jordan River. Begin’s speeches were full of nationalist rhetoric: “They have carved up not the territory,” he cried after the agreement with Egypt and before the one with Jordan, “but our very soul!”62 Other members of his party spoke in similar terms. The poet Uri Tsvi Greenberg observed:

Right now we might—without exaggeration, if we’d only been ready in time—be across the Jordan and on the slopes of Lebanon and en route to the Nile. And then, instead of a worthless armistice, we would have obtained peace on very comfortable terms to us. . . . The Rhodes talks . . . are a Jewish tragicomedy. . . . The real Jerusalem is only that which is within the walls. . . . What’s the point of a State of our own without Jerusalem? Abdullah, King of Jerusalem means an Arab Palestine with a temporary, autonomous Jewish ghetto.63

Ben-Gurion replied that it was better to have a Jewish state without all the land of Israel than all the land without a Jewish state. A Jewish state in all the land would be impossible if it wished to be a democracy, he explained—because there were more Arabs than Jews in Palestine. “Would you like in 1949 to have a democratic State of Israel throughout the land; or do you want a Jewish state throughout the land and for us to drive out all the Arabs; or do you want to have democracy in this state?” As for him, he said he preferred a democratic Jewish state, even if it did not possess all the land.64

Yet this was not his line of thinking when he proposed the conquest of the West Bank to the Cabinet. He had assumed then that the Arabs would flee or be driven out, and that Jews would come to take their place, ensuring a Jewish majority in the country. Ben-Gurion frequently adapted arguments, explanations and ideological justifications to the political situation which he had created. Herut, on the contrary, demanded to shape reality to correspond to their ideology, and so did the leftist MAPAM (an acronym of the Hebrew for the United Labor Party), which was formed as a socialist party in 1948, based mainly on the Hashomer Hatsair youth and kibbutz movement. The provisional government included two MAPAM ministers, Mordehai Bentov and Aharon Cizling. With the war going on they tried to smooth over their differences, but the minutes of the provisional government’s meetings show that the MAPAM ministers often adopted clearly oppositional postures which were often more hawkish than those of Ben-Gurion and his party, MAPAI; many of the higher-ranked officers in the army belonged to MAPAM.

MAPAM’s position in those days reflected a rather bizarre mixture of military activism, verging on expansionism, and a deep commitment to Jewish-Arab co-existence in peace. They also fostered an anti-imperialist attitude which was not yet directed against the United States, but focused on Britain, in spite of the fact that Britain’s imperial power was quickly eroding. In their opinion Israel ought to seize the West Bank, and create an independent state for the Palestinian population, which would ensure that it was ruled by “progressive elements,” who would make peace with Israel. To achieve this, the party proposed that Israel recruit Israeli-Arab fighters and help them win a state of their own.65

Ben-Gurion’s response to MAPAM was that it was none of Israel’s business to create a state for the Palestinian Arabs. “We are not contractors for the construction of an independent Arab state,” he said. “We believe it’s the business of the Arabs.”66 In his diary he set forth a simple rule: “Peace with the existing, not the imaginary, Arabs. No war for a Palestinian Arab state, no war to place a particular Arab group in power over it. If such a war is needed, let it be a war between Arabs and Arabs and not with us.”67 IX

In fact, the “existing Arab” was Abdullah, whom Ben-Gurion had little use for. “He’s a worthless man,” he noted in his diary, and once again compared him to Nahum Sokolow.68 Yet the contacts with the King went on steadily. Among other issues, there were discussions about regulation of everyday life in divided Jerusalem. This included the possibility of annexing the Jewish Quarter of the Old City to Israel, and giving Jordan an access road to the Mediterranean. In the course of these negotiations, the King received Moshe Sharett, the Foreign Minister, at his palace, and proposed to come to the Israeli side of Jerusalem to have dinner with Ben-Gurion.69 At one point they drew up a draft for a five-year non-aggression pact.70 On February 13, 1951, Ben-Gurion would write in his diary: “Transjordan is not something natural and lasting, but one man, who may die at any moment.” A week later the King came to pray on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. An assassin, waiting for him in the crowd, shot him dead.

The armistice agreements put an end to the war that had lasted over a year. Ending it was the most important achievement so far. With the signing of the agreements, Israel was in control of a greater territory than had been allotted to her in the UN Partition Resolution, with far fewer Arab inhabitants than had been projected by the Resolution. The agreement with Egypt referred only to the northwestern part of the Negev; it enabled Israel to occupy its southern part. The agreements with Jordan and Syria also enlarged the state’s territory.X

Yet the agreements left many loopholes. The border along the Gaza Strip was penetrable and permitted the infiltration of terrorists. In time this would generate retaliatory actions, leading, in turn, to renewed warfare. The partition line agreed upon between Israel and Jordan was entirely arbitrary, often in total disregard of the disrupted population on the spot. As a result of this agreement, thousands of Arab villagers found themselves living on the Israeli side of the line, while some of their lands remained on the Jordanian side. On the other hand, some lands belonging to Arabs living on the Jordanian side remained in Israeli hands. The border between the two countries, like the one with Egypt, was easily breached by infiltrators, and the settlements established along the border were exposed to constant harassment. Jerusalem was divided with barbed-wire fences and minefields and rows of windowless structures. There were frequent outbursts of gunfire across the boundary line. Mount Scopus was an isolated Israeli enclave, connected to the other side only by a fortnightly convoy. The Hebrew University buildings and the Hadassah hospital stood vacant and began to crumble. In effect, it was no longer possible to bury the Jewish dead on the Mount of Olives, nor visit the ancient cemetery or the Wailing Wall, even though article eight of the agreement was to allow for this.XI As for the Israeli-Syrian armistice agreement, no one could tell exactly what areas had been marked as demilitarized zones between the two states, and what the demilitarization entailed. In the course of the years there were many outbursts of hostility along this border, and life in the settlements along it was extremely difficult. The new status quo, then, was far from satisfactory, and the longer it continued, the deeper grew the hostility between the Israelis and the Arabs.

Shortly before the signing of the agreement with Syria, Israel and the Arab states were called upon to take part in a “Conciliation Commission,” held in Lausanne, Switzerland, under the auspices of a special UN committee, consisting of representatives from the United States, France and Turkey. The conference produced a plethora of reports, letters and telegrams containing literally tens of thousands of words, but in reality nothing much happened there. Prolonged efforts were required to induce the delegates from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria to agree to an agenda, known as the “Lausanne Protocol.” And that was the extent of it. The Arab states agreed to negotiate with Israel on the basis of the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. Israel responded with the demand that Egypt evacuate the Gaza Strip and Jordan the West Bank—since the UN Assembly had determined that no Arab armies were to remain in the country. The Arabs replied that the problem of the refugees had to be dealt with first—also in accordance with UN Resolutions. Israel maintained that the problem of the refugees had to be solved in the context of an overall peace accord. And so it went. Everybody said exactly what they were expected to say as the talks went round and round in endless circles.

One day, in the latter half of August 1949, Eliyahu Sasson and Reuven Shiloah met with the head of the Egyptian delegation to the Conciliation Commission, Abd el Monaim Moustapha. Their talks lasted seven hours. Sasson later described it in one of his regular letters to Moshe Sharett. This was not the first such meeting between Israelis and an Egyptian diplomat; its course, content and results indicated once again that there was no problem of communication between Israel and the Arab countries. The Arabs “recognized” Israel and were ready to discuss peace, but Israel did not accept the conditions.

The Egyptians demanded that the Negev, as well as the West Bank, become an independent Arab state, serving as a buffer between Egypt and Israel as well as Egypt and Transjordan. The Egyptian diplomat explained that such a buffer zone would permit the settlement of many refugees, including those who were then in Egypt and the Gaza Strip, and possibly others from other areas. The entire northern Negev could be settled, said the Egyptian. With financial aid from the United States and the Arab countries, the project was feasible. Moreover, he felt that the proposal had another advantage. It could be presented as being based on the 1947 Partition Resolution. In exchange, he offered a peace treaty.

Sasson and Shiloah pointed out to the Egyptian that the UN Partition Resolution allotted the Negev to the Jewish State. The Egyptian replied that was an issue he was aware of, but on the other hand, the Partition Resolution had allotted Galilee to the Arabs, and Israel was obviously determined not to give that up. Sasson and Shiloah replied that neither would Israel be willing to give up an inch of the Negev. “In that case,” the Egyptian diplomat responded, “there is nothing to talk about, and the two countries had better put their case before the UN General Assembly.” He promised that Egypt would abide by the Assembly’s decision and, if called upon to do so, would evacuate the Gaza Strip. But then there would be no basis for understanding, for peace and cooperation between the two countries, and war could break out. Not a war of firearms, but a cold war, a political and economic war. At this point, Sasson noted, the Egyptian became rather impassioned. “Understand me,” he said, “Egypt does not wish to have a border with Israel. Egypt would have been happy had Israel never existed. It did everything to prevent Israel’s independence. Egypt is convinced that an Israeli state, entirely alien to the Arabs, in the midst of an ocean of Arabs, would inevitably be a permanent source of conflict, complications and instability in the Middle East.

“Perhaps,” he added, “Egypt is mistaken in its assessment of Israel’s nature and her intentions. But words alone cannot, at least for the present, erase that possibly erroneous impression in Egypt. Egypt will not feel secure with three or four million educated, energetic and self-sacrificing Jews living across her Negev border.” This was why he wanted to establish a “buffer state” in the Negev.

The Israelis tried to convince him that he was mistaken. “Your fears are groundless,” they told him. The Egyptian reiterated that he might be mistaken, but that his country had to take the worst possibilities into consideration. The Israelis also told him that even if the UN Assembly resolved that she must give up the Negev, Israel would have to disregard it, because the Negev is essential to her.XII The Egyptian said: “Do as you please!” Sasson: “This argument about the Negev made it impossible for us to discuss other issues with him. When we tried to do so, he said there was no point. When we wanted to arrange another meeting, he said he was always willing to meet with us, but if that was our position, it would be better not to talk politics at all.”73 XIII

A few weeks after the UN Partition Resolution, Ben-Gurion had promised his party that “major changes” would take place in the demographic composition of the country. He was referring to the Arabs, whom he expected to leave. In his view, this was a desirable development.75 Indeed, tens of thousands of Arabs abandoned their homes during those months. A few weeks before the Declaration of Independence, Ben-Gurion said: “Now history has shown who is really attached to this country, and for whom this country is a luxury which is easily given up. So far, not a single Jewish settlement, however remote, helpless or isolated, has been abandoned. The Arabs, on the other hand, have abandoned entire cities, like Tiberias and Haifa, with the greatest of ease, after their very first defeat. Despite the fact that they did not have to fear destruction or massacre. Indeed, it has now been made amply clear which people is deeply attached to this country.”76 At the time of these statements, the chronicles of Zionist settlement had already noted several instances of abandoned Jewish settlements. The Partition Resolution had already placed several Jewish settlements outside of the area allotted to the Jews. In the course of the war several Jewish settlements could not withstand the Arab attacks and their inhabitants either fled or surrendered. The armistice agreements had also stipulated that certain places be given up.77 Many Arabs did indeed leave their homes, but not the country. They found shelter among relatives in areas which seemed more secure. Many had left their homes before the war, and yet others fled in terror after the massacre of Deir Yassin.XIV Some Arabs left, believing that they would return in a few days bringing up the rear of the victorious Arab armies. Some left despite attempts made by certain Israeli leaders who tried to persuade them to remain. Some fought against the Israeli army and fled only after they had been defeated in battle. Still others must have heard the same reports about the Israeli troops that also reached the Prime Minister. “I’m shocked by the deeds that have reached my ears,” he said to members of his party, some time after the war had reached its climax.78

During those months, he had been informed of murderous acts—or “slaughter,” as he put it—and rape, which were committed by Israeli soldiers. Such reports intensified the panic and flight of the Arabs.79 XV

Tens of thousands of Arabs remained in their homes—only to be driven out by the Israeli army.

The minutes of the Ministerial Committee for Abandoned Property record the following:

E. Kaplan reported that “the conquest of Lydda and Ramlah has now, for the first time, confronted us with the problem of possessing an area occupied by a very large number of Arabs. The total number of inhabitants in these two towns and the adjoining villages is estimated at several tens of thousands.”

B. Shitrit had “visited occupied Ramlah and observed the situation close up. The army proposed to capture all the men who are capable of bearing arms (except for those who signed the letter of surrender), take them as far as the Arab border and set them loose. Mr. Shitrit contacted the Foreign Minister and asked him to formulate a policy. The Foreign Minister’s reply was that those inhabitants who wished to remain could do so, provided the State of Israel did not have to support them. Those who wished to leave could also do so.”

E. Kaplan: “Discussed the problem of the population of Ramlah and Lydda with the Minister of Defense [Ben-Gurion] and received an answer which to a certain extent contradicts that of the Foreign Ministry. The Minister of Defense replied that the young men should be taken captive, the rest of the inhabitants ought to be encouraged to leave, but those who remain, Israel will have to provide for.”83

Two days later Ben-Gurion wrote: “The Arab Legion has wired that there are 30,000 refugees moving along the road between Lydda and Ramlah, who are infuriated with the Legion. They’re demanding bread. They should be taken across the Jordan river.”84 XVI

Hundreds of thousands of Arabs had already fled, or had been driven out of, the country when the army—following a proposal made by the Minister of Agriculture in July—issued the following order:

Except in the course of actual fighting, it is forbidden to destroy, burn or demolish Arab towns and villages, or to expel Arab inhabitants from their villages, neighborhoods and towns, or uproot inhabitants from their homes without express permission of an order from the Minister of Defense, in each and every case. Anyone violating this order will be liable to prosecution.86

Some time later, the Ministers were informed that all the inhabitants of Beersheba—women, children “and some of the men”—had been transferred “at their own request” to Egyptian territory. The Minister of Finance asked if it was true that the army had deported several hundred of the inhabitants of Ashdod who had met it with white flags. The Military Governor Elimelih Avner replied that he was in possession of a report which stated that the army found Ashdod entirely abandoned.87 In Galilee it was mainly the Moslems who were expelled. An officer from the police national headquarters, who had visited the villages of Elabun and Mrar in November 1948, reported:

All the inhabitants of Elabun were deported, except for four villagers who are Greek Orthodox, and a small number of old people and children. The total number of inhabitants left in the village is 52. The priests complained bitterly about the expulsion of the villagers and demanded their return. . . . In Mrar, most of the inhabitants remained, except for many of the Moslems.88

Ben-Gurion tended to ignore the human tragedy of the Palestinian Arabs. He viewed their plight with the same pragmatic purposefulness which generally characterized his national policy: “Land with Arabs on it and land without Arabs on it are two very different types of land,” he told his party’s central committee, as if he were a real-estate agent discussing business.89 A month later he called in his advisors to discuss the inclusion of Arab villages in Israeli territory, following the agreement with Jordan.

The minutes of that meeting record:

Ben-Gurion: “Do we want the Arabs who live in the territory ceded by Abdullah to remain or to leave?”

Sasson: “I think it’s better that they remain, for several reasons.”

Lifshitz, an aide: “I think it’s better that they leave.”

Ben-Gurion: “I want to think about it some more.”90 XVII

The Israeli policy regarding the refugees took shape gradually. Three weeks after the Declaration of Independence, while the war was still raging and the country was rapidly emptying out its Arab inhabitants, Foreign Minister Sharett had been made aware of an announcement made over the radio by the spokesman of the Jewish Agency. It was announced that Israel would be willing to take back the refugees, and even to compensate them. Sharett hastily instructed his Director General not to repeat such announcements. “We must not be understood to say that once the war is over they can return,” he warned, but added: “We’ll keep every option open.”93 Ten days later Sharett wrote Dr. Nahum Goldmann that “the most spectacular event in the contemporary history of Palestine, in a way more spectacular than the creation of the Jewish state, is the wholesale evacuation of its Arab population. . . . The opportunities opened up by the present reality for a lasting and radical solution of the most vexing problem of the Jewish state, are so far-reaching, as to take one’s breath away. The reversion to the status quo ante is unthinkable,” he declared.94

In a June session of the provisional government, Ben-Gurion said that even after the war he would oppose the return of the refugees. Sharett repeated those words to Count Bernadotte.95 “He was hard as a rock,” Bernadotte noted later.96 Yet in September Ben-Gurion still said to the US Ambassador in Israel, James McDonald, that “the door was not shut” on the possible return of refugees; “in the context of negotiations for a peace treaty, everything will be negotiable,” he promised.97

Yosef Weitz, head of the Jewish National Fund, pleaded with him to take a firm and unequivocal stand against any possibility of restoring the Palestinian refugees to their homes. In the latter half of September, Weitz proposed a series of measures which would drive the refugees far from the border areas, deep into the Arab hinterland. “They must be harassed continually,” he insisted.98 Ben-Gurion instructed him to study the subject together with Zalman Lifshitz, surveyor and cartographer, and Ezra Danin, Arabist and secret advisor. The three were described as the “Transfer Committee.” In October, they brought their findings to Ben-Gurion: “(a) The Arabs themselves are responsible for their flight; (b) They must not be allowed to come back, because they will be a fifth column and generate dissent. Their economy has been destroyed and their rehabilitation would cost the state huge sums, far beyond its means. . . .”

The committee recommended that if Israel were compelled to take back refugees, she must categorically refuse to return them to their villages—only to the towns, where they should not exceed 15 percent of the Jewish population. They estimated the number of refugees at about half a million or more.99 At the end of October, Ben-Gurion received a report from Galilee: “In all the villages where we fought the population has already fled, but many more will still flee.”100

As time went on and the number of refugees increased, opposition to their return hardened, and Israeli spokesmen began to express it in so many words. “What happened happened, and there’s no bringing back the past,” said Dov Yosef, the military governor of Jerusalem, to the UN Reconciliation Commission.101 The US delegate to that commission reported to his superiors in Washington that he kept reiterating to the Israelis that their attitude was cruel, but they remained unmoved.102 Meanwhile, the Middle East department of the Foreign Ministry was rife with speculations about the future. The department staff estimated that the refugees would “manage.” As they put it, “the most adaptable and best survivors would manage by a process of natural selection, and the others will waste away. Some will die but most will turn into human debris and social outcasts and probably join the poorest classes in the Arab countries.”103 Ben-Gurion informed the Minister for Immigration, Moshe Shapira, that the “Government line is that they may not return.”104 That was in April 1949. The “Transfer Committee” had already concluded its plans for the resettlement of the refugees in the Arab countries, when it suddenly received a new and top secret order: Foreign Minister Sharett asked that the committee prepare a plan for “the eventuality that the government will be compelled to return some of the refugees to Israel.” This plan, he told them, “must determine the maximum acceptable number of returnees, the method of selecting them and the areas and settlements in which they might be allowed to resettle.”105 Some months later Weitz wrote Sharett to say that the refugee problem was causing him “great anxiety”; he feared they were already coming back.

Every day our men encounter familiar faces, people who had been absent, and now they are walking about freely and, step by step, returning to their villages. I fear that while you are discussing the issue in Lausanne and in other places, the problem is (unfortunately) solving itself—the refugees are coming back! And our government has taken no action to stop the infiltration. There seems to be no authority, either military or civilian. We’ve loosened the rope, and the Arab, with his sly cunning, senses it and knows how to take advantage of it.

Weitz warned that the idea that the refugee problem would solve itself in time was an illusion. “The ring of embittered Arabs surrounding us with hatred and vengeance on all sides will not be loosened for many years to come, and will act as a barrier to a genuine peace between us and our neighbors.”XVIII Weitz concluded that it was necessary to issue a “firm and unequivocal” statement to the effect that not a single refugee would be allowed back, except within the framework of family reunification, but nevertheless the government of Israel would undertake a major part of the cost of resettling them in the Arab countries. “And if the Minister of Finance should ask, where is the money to come from?” Weitz went on, “the answer is obvious: the people of Israel will give! . . . If we were willing to purchase peace at the cost of many dear lives, would we refrain from purchasing it with money?!”107 XIX

Weitz knew what he was talking about. A few days after his letter to Sharett, the latter told the US Ambassador, McDonald, that in the past few months some 24,000 refugees had returned to Israel. The Ambassador interpreted this as a softening of the Israeli position.109 Six weeks later Sharett informed McDonald that Israel would be willing to take back 100,000 refugees, on the condition that return would be part of a general and final solution of the entire refugee problem. McDonald thought that this was “a step in the right direction”; the Americans held, however, that Israel should take back 250,000 refugees.110

The proposed initiative to absorb 100,000 refugeesXX was the outcome of a misunderstanding resulting from the proposal to annex the Gaza Strip to Israel as part of a peace settlement with Egypt. Israel had agreed to the proposal. Moshe Sharett told the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Knesset that the government hoped to obtain “considerable advantages” from the annexation of the Strip, such as the additional territory, the removal of the Egyptian presence from Israel’s border to the other side of the Sinai desert, and the elimination of the possibility that the Strip would be annexed by Jordan, or anyone else.111 Some time later it was learned that the government had wrongly estimated the number of refugees in the Gaza Strip. When the government had agreed to annex it, it figured that the Strip’s total population numbered no more than 180,000; later it turned out that the correct figure was 310,000, 230,000 of whom were refugees. At that point Sharett suggested that there should be no more talk about the Gaza Strip. The announcement that Israel was willing to accept 100,000 refugees had therefore in effect represented a withdrawal from its earlier willingness to accept more than twice that number.

Sharett tried to represent the entire matter as a “tactic” to the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, but he was not believed. When the issue came up in the Knesset the debate was exceptionally heated, marked by much shouting and frequent insults. Ben-Gurion employed his favorite diversionary tactic of changing the subject, and began speaking about the conduct of the Opposition on the eve of the war. Within minutes everyone was heatedly and loudly arguing about that, and the subject of the refugees seemed to be forgotten.112 The US Consul in Jerusalem reported to the Secretary of State in Washington that the fury caused by the government’s decision to permit the return of refugees was an artificial one, created purposefully by the government itself. But a few days later the US Chargé d’affaires corrected the Consul’s observation. “The fury was genuine,” he stated.113 XXI

Even inside MAPAI there was a tempestuous argument. Its Knesset members and leaders were in a state of shock, and some even proposed voting against the government. “This is a hair-raising proposal,” one of them said, and then proceeded to state that “accepting Arab refugees is a prescription for war, because the front will adjoin every house in Israel. The refugees will not be a fifth column—they will be the first column!” Another warned that public opinion was entirely opposed to the government and called for a way out of the situation. Moshe Sharett tried to reassure them. It was not a question of 100,000, but that number minus those who had already made their way back; thus it was a question of some 65,000, at the most, and it was not intended to return them to their homes, but to resettle them wherever the government saw fit, perhaps in some remote region, out of sight. “I am willing to pay sixty-five thousand Arabs for peace and a solution to the border problem,” he said, greatly agitated. His colleagues answered that the Arabs would not agree to end the conflict in return for Israel’s acceptance of 65,000 refugees. “For them it would be tantamount to a second defeat. They can divide sixty-five thousand refugees among them and they don’t need this gesture on our part.”115 “If they don’t want it, we won’t pay,” replied Sharett. And, of course, that’s how it stayed.XXII Before long the entire affair was forgotten, much like that bizarre notion “to hasten the peace” by means of a Palestinian puppet government-in-exile, to be headed by Attorney Nimer Houari.XXIII

The question then remains whether Israel ever intended to take back tens of thousands of refugees, or whether it was a mere “tactic.” There was scarcely a chance that the Arabs would have accepted the proposal, and it was similarly unlikely that public opinion in Israel would have let the government carry out its promise. In any event, there were some in the Foreign Ministry who considered the project seriously. There was the committee appointed by Sharett to study it, and there were some who hastily drafted a loyalty oath to be signed by the returning refugees: “In return for being accepted by the Government of Israel as a citizen with all the rights of citizenship,” read one of the drafts, “I hereby swear and declare that I seek peace and will be loyal to the State of Israel, abide by her laws and obey the orders of her government, be willing to fight her enemies and give my life for her.” The officials debated the exact wording of the oath. “With regard to the first sentence,” wrote one of them to the other, “I don’t think that it’s desirable to link the Arab’s declaration of loyalty as a citizen of Israel to any commitment on our part. The declaration is unilateral: not a contract between the Arab and the State of Israel.” They corresponded on the subject as if it were about to become a reality.118 Yet one day Ben-Gurion noted in his diary: “Abba Eban came. He sees no point in chasing after peace. The armistice agreement is sufficient for us. If we chase after peace the Arabs will demand a price: either territory, return of refugees, or both. It’s best to wait a few years.” The Prime Minister noted those words without making any comment of his own.119

A few weeks later, the Lausanne conference adjourned with no results. Moshe Sharett did not regret its failure: “Any bad compromise which would serve as the basis for a permanent peace accord could be a fatal error,” he wrote Abba Eban. Evidently, he did not believe in the possibility of a good compromise, because the price would have been too high.120

While still doing his best to arrange a meeting between Zaim and Ben-Gurion, the US representative in Damascus attempted to predict what would be the verdict of history: Israel may discover that she has won the war with Palestine, he wrote to his chief, the US Secretary of State, but lost the peace.121 The United States administration applied considerable pressure on Israel to show greater flexibility. Various American diplomats ascribed the deadlock to both sides, but believed that the chance for peace depended on Israel. Mark Ethridge, the US delegate to the Lausanne conference, wrote President Truman that Israel’s inclination to base her future on her military security, while forgoing the chance of making peace, seemed “unbelievable,” in view of her being such a tiny state. According to him, he had tried to explain to the Israelis that they were endangering their own future and that of the entire Western world, but his efforts had been in vain.122

By August the American Secretary of State had come to the conclusion that chances of reaching a compromise were nil. Mr. Acheson told the US ambassadors in the Middle East that Israel had finally opted for the status quo. He did add, however, that the Arab governments also preferred the existing state of affairs, having submitted to the hawkish public opinion they had themselves created—just as the government of Israel had done.123 A few weeks earlier Reuven Shiloah had explained to Ben-Gurion that President Truman was now inclined to support the Arabs, because he sympathized with the suffering of the Palestinian refugees, just as he had earlier supported the Zionist cause because he had sympathized with the Jewish refugees, survivors of the Holocaust.124 Truman had personally intervened to save the Rhodes talks. He wrote to both Ben-Gurion and Israel’s President Haim Weizmann. Ben-Gurion noted in his diary that the American President’s letter was worded in “harsh and threatening” language. Truman demanded that Israel compensate the Arabs for the loss of the territories which had not been assigned to her by the UN Partition Resolution. Ben-Gurion wrote:

The State of Israel was not established as a consequence of the UN Resolution. Neither America nor any other country saw the Resolution through, nor did they stop the Arab countries (and the British mandatory government) from declaring total war on us in violation of UN Resolutions. America did not raise a finger to save us, and moreover, imposed an arms embargo, and had we been destroyed they would not have resurrected us. Those boundaries determined in the UN Resolution were based on peace accords, the validity of international law, and the Arabs’ acceptance of them. But the Arabs rejected it. There are no refugees—there are fighters who sought to destroy us, root and branch. The Arab states came at their request, and they still refuse to make peace or to recognize us, and are openly threatening revenge. Shall we bring back the refugees so that they can exterminate us for the second time, or should we ask America to take pity on us and send an army to protect us? America is immense. We are a tiny and helpless nation. We could not withstand American might, but our self-preservation is more important to us than obedience to America. The rebuke and the threatening style [of Truman’s letter] are incomprehensible.125

Sometime during this exchange, a phrase was coined which would serve Israel countless times in the future: “International law does not require that Israel commit suicide.”126 XXIV

In time, Ben-Gurion would be accused of sacrificing opportunities for peace in order to preserve the tension which was needed to unify Israeli society and keep MAPAI in power. Some would claim that Israel missed a number of opportunities to make peace.

The minutes of the closed sessions, the secret telegrams exchanged by government leaders, as well as Ben-Gurion’s personal diary, all indicate, however, that there was genuine willingness to reach a settlement, but not at any price: “Please indicate how much political importance you ascribe to a successful conclusion of negotiations,” wired Director General Eitan to Foreign Minister Sharett, shortly after the talks with Egypt began.129 Both in the armistice agreements and at Lausanne, the Israeli delegates concentrated on the price that would have to be paid for peace. They were tough hagglers; time after time they became so involved with the minor details that they lost sight of the overall picture and were unable to distinguish between the major and lesser issues. In seeking to extract from these negotiations various territorial advantages and defense guarantees, a hill here, a road there, the suspension of the actual fighting seemed to count for little. “The armistice agreement with Lebanon gained us nothing. On the contrary, it was Lebanon who gained,” commented Ben-Gurion.130 Only Eliyahu Sasson perceived that in these negotiations lay the chance of achieving lasting Jewish-Arab coexistence. He maintained that Israel must strive to integrate into the Arab world.131 Sasson arrived in Rhodes toward the end of the talks with Egypt, and made a great contribution to their ultimate success by means of informal conversations with the Egyptians, in which he projected a sense of mutual confidence, friendliness, moderation and ease. He warned that his colleagues’ rigidity would make future relations between Israel and Egypt much more difficult. “The Egyptians kept reiterating that they regarded the armistice agreement as only the first step toward the future,” he stated in one of his telegrams, demanding greater generosity.132 “It is essential that both you and Ben-Gurion devote all your strength toward peace, just as you did toward defense,” he wrote Sharett. But he was not heeded because he was not considered to be a practical man.133

The price the Arabs wanted for peace was indeed very high. They demanded the Negev and the return of the refugees. One could interpret this hard-line position as an indication of the Arabs’ unwillingness really to negotiate. However, one could view their position as just an opening bid later to be modified during the normal course of negotiations. Israel’s position was based on several erroneous assumptions, some of which could have been recognized at the time. Ben-Gurion assumed that time was on Israel’s side. If she could hold out, grow strong and build up a deterrent force, the Arab states would have to recognize her and the armistice boundaries. In time, the refugees would become absorbed wherever they happened to be, and thus the source of conflict would completely disappear. This was an error. As far as the Arabs were concerned, the armistice lines were lines of defeat. They could never agree to make them borders of peace. It also became apparent that the longer the Palestinians felt they had been abandoned, and the longer they remained in exile, the stronger their national consciousness grew and the more diminished the chances of resettling them in Arab countries. Some warned Ben-Gurion that this would happen, but he ignored their pleas, and failed to take into account the unifying power of exile and homesickness.

Ben-Gurion also believed that the right thing to do was to obtain an accord with Egypt, the biggest Arab state, yet he gambled on the King of Jordan. That, too, was an error. The agreement with Israel was so humiliating for Jordan, that the King had tried to keep its details secret even from his own ministers, and the more he was humiliated, the harder it became for Egypt to compromise with Israel. Thus the price of peace went up as time went on. Time was not on Israel’s side.

Would the Israeli government have shown greater moderation had it been aware that its tough posture was laying the foundation for a long-standing, perhaps even eternal, enmity between Israel and the Arabs? Perhaps not. For beside the rationalist pragmatism which characterized Ben-Gurion’s government, there were the alienation and suspicion, the hostility and fear which distorted the thinking of both the government and the public. The government was generally responsive to the public. At all times it was subjected to loud and persistent criticism. The Opposition, on both Left and Right, repeatedly charged it with being soft and having a defeatist mentality. Such charges could be heard inside MAPAI, too. The last five years had been stamped by the Holocaust, Arab terror and British repression. The War of Independence had been very fierce, and had greatly deepened the hostility between the two peoples. Having been considered an unavoidable war for actual survival, it became a glorious war of conquest. All these factors promoted rigidity instead of moderation. At times the government found that the public mood was much more hawkish than that of the ministers, and the ministers could not ignore the public.

But the government also had those who thought and talked as conquerors, with their many victories heightening their ambitions. David Horowitz, of the Ministry of Finance and later Governor of the Bank of Israel, stated:

It depends largely on us, whether King Abdullah will last, because he’s primitive and backward. The standard of living is low: There are no parties, there is no democracy. There is nothing. That’s because they’re living at a pre-capitalist level. As for us, if we triple the population in a few years, our GNP will equal that of the entire Arab world put together. We shall have an industrialized country. . . . Time is on our side. In another five years we shall be a tremendous power in this region and we shall be able to absorb easily two million people. We’ll be an economic, social and military force. We shall be the major factor in the development of this area, and as a result the focus will be on us. . . . Abdullah, more than anyone else, will be dependent on us.

Horowitz favored the annexation of the West Bank to Jordan, because it would become a burden on its economy. As a result, Jordan would depend on Israel as the market for its agricultural produce, thereby becoming politically dependent as well. Yigael Yadin warned against letting Jordan annex strategic territories, but Horowitz thought in different terms: “It is known that in a modern state military potential is a function of industry and men. Our men are on a completely different cultural and moral level. The immigration is causing us to grow at great speed, and even if the Arabs should develop at an incredibly feverish pace they will be unable to keep up with us. . . .” Ben-Gurion asked, “Where do we get Jews from?” but Horowitz replied that once there was (industrial) development, Jews would come from many countries, including the United States.134 Some time later Horowitz suggested bribing the leaders of the Arab countries to adopt a more favorable position toward Israel.135 Yadin asked, as though he were attending the Versailles conference: “Will we have to waive their war debts?” He proposed a long-term strategy of setting the Arab countries against each other. “We can use the accepted method of divide and conquer,” he said, “and I think that we will get good results.”136

In addition to the political discussions they also frequently considered military action. Yadin: “The border with Jordan should be on the first mountain range. There is really no other logical border; if we can’t obtain this by negotiation, with a clear presentation of the issue, then we must do so with military force, and the time to do so is approaching.”137

In March, Ben-Gurion wrote to the Committee of Settlements in the Jordan Valley: “We have not, of course, forgotten El Kasr and Kafr Samra, and we’re still demanding their liberation in our diplomatic negotiations. . . . If we cannot liberate these places peacefully then we will liberate them by other means.”138 In April he said, “There is really only one type of pressure: if Syria refuses to sign the armistice agreement on the basis of the international border, we shall have to seize it by force.”139 Six weeks later, Dayan proposed the occupation of Mount Scopus.140 The military option was always a possibility for them, so there was no rush to achieve their goals through negotiations. Even Sasson told Ben-Gurion that there was no reason to fear an Arab attempt to reopen hostilities, even if there was no peace.141 The more they trusted their ability to realize the goals of the state “by other means,” the less they were inclined to compromise. None of the participants in those discussions ever proposed considering what they could actually give up in return for peace.

During those months, Israeli representatives often met with Arab officials who said they wanted peace. The files of the Foreign Ministry, as well as the Prime Minister’s diaries, are full of detailed reports about such meetings. Therefore, contact with the Arabs, in itself, was not considered a great achievement. Ben-Gurion did not feel that he might be missing something if he declined to meet with the Syrian ruler. It was assumed that there would be further opportunities to do so in the future.

Before long there was a school of thought in the Foreign Ministry which counseled that any peace agreement would not be worthwhile at present. Foreign Minister Sharett told the MAPAI members of the Knesset that in the Foreign Ministry there were “some very creative people, who contribute a good deal to the formation of the Ministry’s general philosophy,” and they tend to be satisfied with the armistice agreements. Thus they suggest “to stop reiterating declarations about our desire for peace, since the Arab world interprets them as a sign of weakness and as an indication of our willingness to surrender. We should say the opposite: We do not need peace. We are satisfied with the present agreement. Perhaps the Arabs need peace.” Sharett went on to explain at length why Israel could not afford to remain in “malignant isolation” for long, and how she could profit from peace in the areas of tourism and commerce, citing the use of the Suez Canal as an example. Yet he also stated, “I quite agree that from a tactical point of view we should desist from those declarations about our striving for peace and our desire for peace . . . as if it were a daily prayer.”142 Ben-Gurion told a correspondent from the London Times: “Though I would get up in the middle of the night to sign a peace treaty, I am in no rush. I can wait ten years. We are under no pressure.”143

On December 9, 1949, the UN General Assembly resolved that Jerusalem should be a “separate body,” governed by an international authority. The resolution was carried by a large majority; it called for a response. Ben-Gurion proposed that the government transfer the Knesset from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby demonstrating that Jerusalem was inseparable from the State of Israel. His proposal was accepted. Only two ministers objected: Moshe Shapira, Minister of the Interior and Immigration, a member of the religious Hapoel Hamizrahi party, and Eliezer Kaplan, Minister of Finance, from MAPAI, who were both well known for their dovish views. Kaplan was also the chief speaker in the subsequent debate, which was held by the MAPAI Knesset members before the proposal was brought before the House. “I believe that this move to Jerusalem is a fatal error and an unnecessarily provocative act against the United Nations,” he said. “What we ought to do is intensify the pace of construction and industry in Jerusalem, but not do anything demonstrative which involves such a risk.” All the speakers, including Ben-Gurion, treated the UN Resolution with the utmost concern. They assumed that the UN might try to impose its rule in Jerusalem despite Israel’s objections. They even considered the possibility that the UN would create an international army and take the city by force. Ben-Gurion acknowledged, “Obviously, if it comes to a confrontation with a military force sent by the UN, we shall give in.” He supposed however that this would not happen. The possibility that the UN would punish Israel and impose economic sanctions seemed more plausible. “We should remember that we have bread for only three months,” one MK pointed out, and another one added: “Leaving Jerusalem on her own, even if we send in water, is a very dangerous option.” They felt that they faced a fateful decision—to give up Jerusalem or to fight for it. Some compared it with the dilemma that had faced them prior to the Declaration of Independence. Golda Meir explained, “My own motivation in all these debates was fear. I always feared that if we did not decide as we did, things would be worse.” Ben-Gurion added, “I know no one more fearful than myself, and I admit that I’m afraid of this decision.”

Ben-Gurion was worried that the Soviets, the Vatican and the Arabs would use the move to Jerusalem as an excuse to force more territorial concessions on Israel. The MAPAI MKs debated the issue in two lengthy sessions. Pinhas Lubianiker (Lavon) stated, “I think that Jerusalem, quite apart from the UN resolution, is a bad place for a national capital. Practically speaking, I think some of the ministries could be in Jerusalem, but there are others which it would be absurd to move there. Transferring the Knesset is absurd . . . moving the Treasury to Jerusalem is insane.”XV Ben-Gurion had to speak once more before he could persuade his party members to support his position. He did his best to point out the gravity of the situation. “From the moment they remove Jerusalem from the jurisdiction of the State of Israel we’ll be without hope and there will be war,” he said. His conclusion: “We must challenge the UN.” Eventually he succeeded in getting his way—24 members voted for it, 12 either opposed, abstained or voted for other proposals.XXVI

A few days later Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: “During the last three years I have had to make several bitter and difficult decisions, even fateful ones. I doubt if I’ve ever faced a more difficult decision than to challenge the UN while facing the Catholic, the Soviet and the Arab world. . . .”146 Among those who had supported Ben-Gurion were Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol. Toward the end of the week he received a telegram from Moshe Sharett, who was then in New York. The Foreign Minister had not taken part in the decision to move the Knesset to Jerusalem and he opposed the move. After the decision had been made, Sharett resigned. “With the debate in the UN ahead of us, I’m afraid I can no longer be helpful since I cannot wholeheartedly defend the step that has been taken,” he wired. Ben-Gurion instructed that Sharett be told that all those who “took part in May 14” (the date of the Declaration of Independence) must “remain undivided.” Sharett immediately obeyed: “I accept your verdict,” he told his master.147

I. The attack on the British planes was essentially an act of mischief by a few trigger-happy pilots. Ezer Weizmann, who flew one of those planes, later wrote in his memoirs that he did it because he was “blue” about having missed out on the glory of that day. “Here the war was over,” he wrote, “here it was breathing its last breath . . . and I was left out of the celebration,” so out he went to seek his prey.8

II. Walter Eitan, a native of Munich, Germany, had studied at Oxford. His telegrams to Sharett reflect considerable arrogance, and a rather petty bureaucratic mind. The Israeli delegates in Rhodes telegraphed home profusely, to clarify every single detail and ask for instructions. They rarely ventured a decision or proposals of their own. Tel Aviv wired back several times a day, a total of thousands of telegrams, letters and other memos. They generally corresponded in English, whether for practical reasons, having no Hebrew telex, or because they felt that a diplomatic communication should properly be made in English.

III. The following year Gamal Abdel Nasser, later President of Egypt, returned to the site, by arrangement with the armistice commission, to help locate the graves of Israeli soldiers who had fallen there and been buried by the Egyptians.

IV. After the agreement was signed, Eitan sent Tel Aviv a detailed suggestion how to brief the press. He recommended de-emphasizing the Israeli gains so as not to provoke the Egyptians. He also proposed concealing certain Israeli concessions.22

V. This, however, did not put an end to the old dream of annexing southern Lebanon to Israel and establishing a Christian state in the north—or, at least, of dividing Lebanon and establishing a Christian state in the south. Ben-Gurion aimed at it from the beginning of the war. “The Moslem rule in Lebanon is artificial and easily undermined. A Christian state ought to be set up whose southern border would be the Litani River. Then we’ll form an alliance with it.”29 Ben-Gurion raised this idea repeatedly in the coming years. Sharett noted in his diary that the Chief of Staff (Dayan) supported (Ben-Gurion): “In his view, all we need to do is to find a Christian Lebanese officer, perhaps no higher than a captain, and win him over or buy him with money, so that he would declare himself the savior of the Maronite population. Then the Israeli army would enter Lebanon, occupy the territory in question and establish a Christian government which would form an alliance with Israel.”30 Sharett himself considered this an “awful” idea.

VI. The story was published in detail some ten years later, in the memoirs of Abdullah Tall. They were translated into Hebrew and published by the military publishing house; Moshe Dayan related his version of the story in a series of articles published by the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.36

VII. In the course of the war Ben-Gurion recorded in his diary all sorts of wild ideas which seemed to possess his mind. “When we destroy the Arab Legion and bomb Amman we’ll also finish off Transjordan, and then Syria will fall,” he wrote one day. “If Egypt dares to go on fighting—we’ll bomb Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo.”40 That was the day he envisioned “the new order” in Lebanon. Some time later he wrote: “Perhaps we shall also bomb Damascus.”41 But several months later he noted: “I’m not particularly sorry that we did not take the West Bank. But I’m very sorry that we did not capture Jerusalem and then go as far as the Dead Sea.”42

VIII. Ben-Gurion assumed that Zaim was genuinely interested in peace. Shortly before the armistice agreement was signed he noted in his diary:

The fact that Zaim is ready for an armistice which entails complete withdrawal to the border, proves that for some reason he wishes to have good relations with us. Is it because of the conflict with Iraq? The interests of France—Zaim’s ally—also favor peace between Syria and Israel. If—as Makleff believes—an armistice agreement is signed this week, it would be desirable to send Sasson to Damascus to inspect the situation. Eitan too believes that the first peace may be with Syria and that Zaim’s ambition is to be the first Arab statesman to meet us.57

IX. The Arabs, too, were divided on this issue. Abdullah sought to annex the West Bank, whereas Egypt created a “Palestinian government,” otherwise known as the “Gaza government,” which claimed to represent the Palestinian Arabs. It enjoyed the protection of Egypt, but had no power whatever. By the end of 1949 all that was left of it was a “Prime Minister” with a secretary, who passed the time issuing communiqués to the press. On the West Bank, Abdullah’s influence was increasing. He derived his authority from a Palestinian leadership conference which took place in December 1948, the so-called Jericho conference. Abdullah based his claim on this “conference” and Israel recognized it.

X. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine [UNSCOP], which had prepared the Partition Resolution of 1947, had allotted 62 percent of the territory of Palestine to the Jewish state and 38 percent to the Arab one. The November 29 Resolution itself altered this ratio in favor of the Arabs, giving them 45 percent as opposed to 55 percent to the Jews. Following the conclusion of the armistice agreements, Israel retained nearly 80 percent of the territory and the Arabs about 20 percent. Moshe Sharett, who revealed these figures to his colleagues in MAPAI’s secretariat, asked them to keep them secret, “or they might serve as a dangerous weapon against us, like oil on the fire.”71

XI. In the course of the negotiations various proposals for a redivision of the city were made, including suggestions for the exchange of certain neighborhoods. The Jordanians hoped to get back the Katamon and Baq’a quarters and the “German colony,” as well as Talpiot and Ramat Rachel. In return, they were willing to give up the Jewish Quarter in the Old City and certain parts of northwestern Jerusalem. There was a proposal to create a demilitarized zone between the Israeli and the Jordanian side of the city, running through King David Street; the YMCA building and the King David Hotel were to have international, extraterritorial status. When the partition of Jerusalem was drawn on paper the pencil used was too thick—in reality the area it covered was several meters wide. That area ended up as no-man’s-land.

XII. Ben-Gurion believed that the entire Negev would be densely populated. In his diary he listed the natural resources hidden in its soil. The Ben-Gurion Institute in Sde-Boker, which is in charge of his estate, crossed out one word in this list; judging from its length it could well have been uranium.72

XIII. Shiloah and Sasson talked in a similar vein with Samir a Rifai, later Prime Minister of Jordan. They met with him in Abdullah’s winter palace at Shune. Abdullah welcomed them but later withdrew and did not take part in the talks. The Jordanian statesman, like the Egyptian, told the Israelis that the Negev was a wedge in the Arab territorial space. If Jordan obtained the Negev, she could justify her pacifist policy in the eyes of the Arab world. Ben-Gurion: “Our people explained to him that it was out of the question. We would make no territorial concessions. We would only agree to free access to the sea. Territory was out.”74

XIV. This massacre occurred when members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL) and Lehi (the so-called Stern Gang), both Jewish right-wing terrorist organizations, attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin located on the outskirts of Jerusalem, at the height of the war, on April 9, 1948, only four weeks before the Declaration of Independence. Over two hundred villagers, many of them women and children, were killed. The rest were paraded through the streets of Jerusalem and then forced to cross over to the Arab part of the city. The Jewish Agency strongly denounced this action. The massacre at Deir Yassin, like that of the Jews of Hebron nearly twenty years earlier, became a landmark in the chronicles of the Israeli-Arab conflict and a symbol of the horrors of war.

XV. Reports of atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers during the course of the conquest, and also afterwards, preoccupied the government in several of its sessions. The information which reached the ministers shocked them and led to one of the most severe comments ever made in a Cabinet meeting. Aharon Cizling, Minister of Agriculture, said,

I’ve received a letter on the subject. I must say that I have known what things have been like for some time and I have raised the issue several times already here. However after reading this letter I couldn’t sleep all night. I felt the things that were going on were hurting my soul, the soul of my family and all of us here. I could not imagine where we came from and to where are we going. . . . I often disagreed when the term Nazi was applied to the British. I wouldn’t like to use the term, even though the British committed Nazi crimes. But now Jews too have behaved like Nazis and my entire being has been shaken. . . . Obviously we have to conceal these actions from the public, and I agree that we should not even reveal that we’re investigating them. But they must be investigated. . . . 80

Yaakov Shimshon Shapira was designated to conduct this investigation.81 When he brought his findings before the government it was decided to appoint a special committee which would “advise the government on methods to prevent acts of atrocity by the army against the civilian population.”82

XVI. Years later Itzhak Rabin recalled a meeting at which he asked Ben-Gurion what was to be done with the inhabitants of Lydda and Ramlah. According to him, Ben-Gurion responded with a gesture which Rabin interpreted as indicating expulsion. And that, he said, was what happened in Lydda: the people were marched to the border. Ramlah learned the lesson and its inhabitants agreed to leave of their own accord, on condition that they be given vehicles to take them, and this was done. These details were to be included in Rabin’s memoirs, but were barred from publication in Israel. Some time later they were quoted in the New York Times and caused a furor. Yigal Allon firmly denied them. However, the instruction “to encourage the inhabitants to leave” seems to suggest that Rabin’s version was true, as does also the following comment by the Minister of Agriculture, Aharon Cizling, at a Cabinet meeting:

I have to say that this phrase [regarding the treatment of Ramlah’s inhabitants] is a subtle order to expel the Arabs from Ramlah. If I’d received such an order this is how I would have interpreted it. An order given during the conquest which states that the door is open and that all the Arabs may leave, regardless of age and sex, or they may stay, however, the army will not be responsible for providing food. When such things are said during the actual conquest, at the moment of conquest, and after all that has already happened in Jaffa and other places . . . I would interpret it as a warning, “Save yourselves while you can and get out!”85

XVII. By the armistice agreement with Jordan, Israel had undertaken the responsibility not to harm the villagers who would now be under her jurisdiction, and in fact most of them were left in peace. But while the negotiations were taking place it was assumed that these Arabs would be expelled. “I imagine that the intention is to get rid of them,” said Moshe Sharett. “The interests of security demand that we get rid of them.”91 A Foreign Ministry file contains an extraordinary document in connection with this, by Walter Eitan, in which he wrote to his minister:

I don’t know how Shiloah and Dayan felt about this, but certainly Yadin and I had qualms, and, if you like, moral reservations, about what we were doing. . . . In spite of all guarantees and fine phrases, it was as clear to the Transjordanians as to us that the people of these villages were likely to become refugees. . . . The people who are letting these Arab villagers down are of course the Transjordanians, but that does not make it any more agreeable for us. We are partners in this deal, and it is we, not the Transjordanians, who will be blamed for its results.92

XVIII. In one of the Cabinet meetings, Aharon Cizling, Minister of Agriculture, said: “We still do not properly appreciate what kind of enemy we are now nurturing outside the borders of our state. Our enemies, the Arab states, are a mere nothing compared with those hundreds of thousands of Arabs who will be moved by hatred and hopelessness and infinite hostility to wage war on us, regardless of any agreement that might be reached. . . .”106

XIX. Ben-Gurion held that this was an unnecessary expenditure, as the refugee problem would solve itself. “In his opinion,” Weitz noted in his diary, “time will cure all, and all will be forgotten.”108

XX. The figure of 100,000 was not the outcome of a study or a real estimate. It was arbitrarily fixed, perhaps from force of habit, as in the years before the creation of the state the demand was often made to permit 100,000 Jewish DPs to settle in the country. That figure, too, was an arbitrary one.

XXI. The US Consul in Jerusalem had doubts about the value of the Israeli proposal to accept 100,000 refugees. In a letter to Secretary of State Acheson, the Consul, William Burdett, reported on a meeting of the Israel-Jordan armistice commission which dealt with the case of some 1,000 villagers whom Israel had expelled from Baq’a el Gharbieh and forced across the border. Moshe Dayan commented that the United Nations could compel Israel to take the refugees back, but if they did, “they would be sorry.” The Consul felt that those words cast a new light on the true value of the Israeli proposal.114

XXII. Sharett had been forced to deal with the rebellious party on his own—Ben-Gurion did not come to help him out. When Yosef Weitz complained to Ben-Gurion about the decision to accept refugees, Ben-Gurion maintained that the decision was made “against his judgment.” “In any case,” Ben-Gurion said, “they are not returning yet.”116

XXIII. Houari led a right-wing Arab youth movement, the Nejjada. Eliyahu Sasson proposed making him the “Prime Minister” of a government-in-exile, supported by Israel, and Sharett made no objection. Houari came to Lausanne and Sasson paid his hotel bill—probably the sole practical aspect of the affair. Eventually Houari was allowed to settle in Nazareth and was made an Israeli judge.117

XXIV. While the negotiations were going on, the US delegate at Lausanne accused the American Ambassador in Israel of failing to use his influence to advance the positions of the US State Department in Israel. James McDonald, formerly High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, was known to be a great friend of Israel. Now President Truman left the reprimanding of McDonald up to his Secretary of State.127 One day that summer, Eliyahu Sasson left Lausanne for Paris to meet McDonald, who was staying there on his way back from Tel Aviv to Washington. “I don’t know if it was worth the effort, but I did it for old times’ sake,” he wrote Sharett. He reported that McDonald was depressed. “He said he feared his standing in the White House, and even more in the State Department, was in jeopardy, that he was being used as a messenger boy and was not being consulted about policy. During his stay in Washington he would try to find out whether there was any point left in his remaining at his present post.”128

XXV. In the eyes of the politicians from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem was a remote little village. Yosef Shprintsak, Speaker of the Knesset, who opposed moving it to Jerusalem for political reasons, frequently complained about how uncomfortable the ride was to there. The cold weather also disturbed him. As far as he was concerned, the whole thing was an intolerable nuisance. Had he been consulted, he said, he would have proposed waiting a year or two to let the Knesset develop in a “suitable climate,” in Tel Aviv.144

XXVI. In the debate among the MAPAI MKs it was suggested that if the party did not propose moving the Knesset to Jerusalem Herut would do so, and MAPAI would be afraid to oppose it, since they might be accused of being weak. It was best, therefore, to make the proposal on their own behalf. Ben-Gurion noted: “Begin, of course, demanded a debate on the government’s policy and a no-confidence vote. . . . I proposed instead of a debate that the parties make statements. It was so ruled. Begin did not keep his word, and instead of a statement made an obnoxious speech.”145

About The Author

Tom Segev is one of Israel’s best-known historians. He is often cited as one of Israel’s New Historians who challenged the country’s traditional narratives. His books have been published in 14 languages and include 1949: The Other Israelis; One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British MandateThe Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust; and 1967: Israel, The War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (August 14, 2018)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501183737

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