Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres (2011)
6. Fateful Hour
The moment the partition option ended—it ended. There was a new ballgame.… To him, it was against morality and against political wisdom to rule over another nation.
The war’s end found Ben-Gurion in London again, and he wandered the streets, mingling with the jubilant crowds but thinking his own dark thoughts. In his diary he wrote, “Rejoice not, O Israel, unto exultation, like the peoples” (Hosea 9:1).
“I knew what had happened to us in the war,” he recorded later.
The six million Jews of Europe, whom Dr. Weizmann had told the Royal Commission needed a Jewish state and were capable of building it, were no longer among the living. But there were still masses of Jews who needed a state. Moreover, when the British left the country we would have to face the Arab armies. Therefore, we had to prepare ourselves to confront that danger, which meant first and foremost acquiring of all types of weapons … Clearly with the end of the war the United States would dismantle a large part of its arms industry. An effort must be made to obtain the necessary machinery from that source. On May 15, 1945, I left London for the U.S.
Relations with the British were raw, partly due to a wave of terrorist attacks mounted by the two rightist undergrounds, the Etzel, affiliated with the Revisionist Party, and the breakaway Lehi.* Etzel, also known as the Irgun, was led by Menachem Begin, the former leader of the Betar youth movement in Poland. It blew up British intelligence installations, attacked police stations, and killed British personnel. These operations won admiration among significant sections of the Yishuv. Lehi’s bank robberies and killings of Jewish “collaborators” were less popular. But the dissident groups’ worst excess was the murder, by Lehi, in Cairo late in 1944, of the British resident minister in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, an official of cabinet rank and a personal friend of Churchill. The Zionist establishment reacted with horror and outrage, and Ben-Gurion personally directed a Haganah campaign to crack down on the dissidents and actively hand over militants to the British for deportation. This four-month manhunt became known as the saison, or hunting season. Many Etzel and Lehi men were deported, but Begin himself was not captured, the organization was not broken, and it lived on to fight another day.
The tension with Great Britain came at a particularly inopportune time because the government in London had finally come around, at least partially, to Zionist importuning to create a Jewish fighting force within the British Army. The Jewish Brigade saw action in Italy and Germany. After the hostilities ended, its units were to play an important role in organizing the Jewish survivors and helping some of them embark on illegal immigration to Palestine. Ben-Gurion was to put the military experience acquired by the Jewish soldiers from Palestine to good use when he built the Israel Defense Forces after independence.
There had also been indications in London, toward the end of the war, that Churchill’s government was giving renewed consideration to a partition plan for Palestine after the war. More recently, however, the Zionists had been disappointed when the prime minister deferred sine die a scheduled meeting with Weizmann. Ben-Gurion told his colleagues in New York, and also the media there, that there would be one final effort to terminate the Mandate and achieve statehood peaceably. But if the British persisted in applying the white paper policy, the outlook was for armed struggle by the Yishuv against the Mandatory government.
Meanwhile Ben-Gurion turned his attention to the armed struggle that he regarded as inevitable once the British had been eased or forced out of Palestine—the struggle for survival against the neighboring Arab states. Together with Henry Montor, director of the United Jewish Appeal in the United States, Ben-Gurion drew up a list of seventeen “Jews who could be depended upon” from around the country. He invited them all to the New York home of his friend Rudolf Sonneborn on Sunday, July 1, 1945, at 9:30 A.M., “to discuss a very important matter. All arrived on time,” he wrote in his diary. Also present were Eliezer Kaplan, the treasurer of the Jewish Agency; Meyer Weisgal, Weizmann’s close aide; and Reuven Shiloah, an important aide to Ben-Gurion.
“I told the participants that I felt the British would be leaving Eretz Yisrael in a year or two,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary,
and that the neighboring Arab states would then send in their armies to conquer the country and destroy the Jews living there … I was certain we would be able to repel them, I said, if only we had the necessary weapons … A Jewish arms industry must be established in good time … The necessary machinery could now be purchased cheaply. Even so, hundreds of thousands of dollars were needed.
The meeting went on until late afternoon. All the participants pledged their discreet and active help. “That was the best Zionist meeting I have ever had in the United States,” he wrote. He left Yaakov Dori, the future IDF chief of staff, and Chaim Slavin, head of the Haganah’s tiny arms-manufacturing project, in New York to work on the purchase and shipment of the required machinery. Remarkably, as Ben-Gurion himself writes, the British authorities did not open or impound any of it.
Sailing on the Queen Elizabeth to Britain, along with American Zionist leaders, for the first postwar international Zionist conference there, Ben-Gurion learned that Churchill had been ousted by the British electorate; Labor was returned to power by a landslide. There was much rejoicing among the Zionists. The British Labor Party had been steadfast during the war in its support for the Jewish national home. A report by the party’s national executive committee in 1944 recommended, embarrassingly for the Zionists, that the Arabs of Palestine “be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in. Let them be compensated handsomely for their land, and their settlement elsewhere be carefully organized and generously financed.”
Ben-Gurion, presciently, stayed skeptical. “The assumption that a party in power resembles a party in opposition is not proven,” he remarked. “If Britain retains the White Paper regime indefinitely, we will fight her.”
His fight with Weizmann, meanwhile, had narrowed, but also sharpened, into one of timetable. “Palestine as a Jewish state should be one of the fruits of victory,” Weizmann began his speech at the conference. “And with God’s help it shall be!” But he still believed in gradualism and eschewed Ben-Gurion’s demand for le’altar, independence forthwith, and the threat of armed activism to achieve it.
It soon became clear that Ben-Gurion’s skepticism about the new Labor government was warranted. Clement Attlee, the prime minister, and Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, continued to base their Palestine policy on the prewar white paper. They resisted a demand from the new American president, Harry Truman, to permit 100,000 Holocaust refugees to enter the country at once.
Ben-Gurion flew from London to Paris on October 1, 1945, and gave coded orders to the Haganah to launch an armed uprising. Signing his cable “Avi Amos” (father of Amos), he instructed that the two dissident groups, Etzel and Lehi, be invited to join in a Hebrew resistance movement, “but on condition that they accept a unified command and total discipline.” On November 1 the first joint action took place: railroads were blown up at 153 points around the country, and coastal cutters that were used to chase illegal immigrant ships were damaged in Jaffa port.
Ben-Gurion was back in London when Bevin, at a press conference, spoke infamously of his anxiety “lest the Jews in Europe over-emphasize their racial status … If the Jews, who have suffered so much, try to push to the head of the queue, there is a danger of a renewed anti-Semitic reaction throughout Europe.” For Jews everywhere, these words, directed at the Holocaust refugees in the displaced-persons camps, were a renewed anti-Semitic reaction.
“I want to address a few words to Bevin and his colleagues,” Ben-Gurion said in his response.
We, the Jews of the Land of Israel, do not want to be killed. We wish to live. In defiance of the ideology of Hitler and his disciples in various lands, we believe that we Jews, like Englishmen and others, also have the right to live, as individuals and as a people. But we too, like the English, have something that is more precious than life. And I want to tell Bevin and his colleagues that we are prepared to be killed but not to concede three things: freedom of Jewish immigration, our right to rebuild the wilderness of our homeland, and the political independence of our people in its homeland.
The violence in Palestine intensified, and the British intensified their response, promulgating draconian emergency regulations and sending in the crack Sixth Airborne Division to enforce them. Curfews and searches were the order of the day. Death sentences were handed down for involvement in the underground forces. In March the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry took evidence from all sides. The Hebrew Resistance Movement ceased its activities while the commission was in the country. “I saw the blitz in London,” Ben-Gurion told the commission in his testimony. “I saw the Englishman whose land and liberty is dearer than his life. Why do you presume that we are not like you?”
His testimony was less convincing, even in the eyes of sympathetic commission members, when he doggedly refused to admit to any connection with the Haganah, or even to being aware of the existence of such an organization. He apparently feared that the authorities were intent on dismantling the Jewish Agency and might use evidence of a link between it and the illegal paramilitary organization as legal grounds to do so. Ben-Gurion met privately at his home in Tel Aviv with a key commission member, the British socialist Richard Crossman. He warned him not to confuse the Yishuv with a Diasporic Jewish community. The Jews of Palestine would fight to the death for their collective national rights.
While the Anglo-American Commission’s recommendations, published on May 1, 1946, did not endorse the Zionist demand for statehood—they called in effect for an indefinite extension of the Mandate—they did urge the annulment of the white paper restrictions on land purchase. And even more dramatically, they urged the admission as rapidly as possible of 100,000 refugees.
There was rejoicing in the displaced-persons camps in occupied Germany and Austria, but it was short-lived, as was a flare-up of the Ben-Gurion–Weizmann rift, this time over whether the recommendations were to be welcomed or rejected. The British government, despite a prior commitment to accept the commission’s recommendations if they were unanimous, now said it could not implement them so long as armed groups continued to exist in Palestine. The white paper policy, and the violent resistance to it, continued.
On June 16 the Hebrew Resistance Movement blew up fourteen bridges linking Palestine to its neighboring countries. Two weeks later the British carried out an operation that the Yishuv dubbed “Black Saturday”: 17,000 troops swooped down on Jewish towns and villages across the country and arrested thousands of people suspected of involvement with the resistance movement. Hundreds were incarcerated in a detention camp in Latrun, among them Moshe Sharett and other members of the Jewish Agency Executive.
Ben-Gurion himself was in Paris, in contact with the few leaders who had escaped arrest; he ordered reprisal action. But Weizmann, who was in Palestine but had not been harassed by the British, countermanded those orders and ordered all operations stopped. Moshe Sneh, head of the Haganah’s national command, resigned and managed to slip out of the country, joining Ben-Gurion in Paris. Weizmann pursued his contacts with the Mandatory authorities with a view, as it seemed to Ben-Gurion from afar, of creating a new, more moderate leadership for the Yishuv. Ben-Gurion fulminated about the despicability of a “Petain” regime. But his own standing and authority were gravely weakened in July when the Etzel—still part of the Hebrew Resistance Movement—blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing ninety British, Arabs, and Jews. The wing had housed the Mandatory offices. The bombers had telephoned a warning, but somehow it had not been heeded.
In the chanceries of the world, meanwhile, the concept of the partition of Palestine into two states, raised and dropped by Britain before the war, was gaining traction once more. Ben-Gurion had reason to believe, or at least to hope, that Truman would support it. Later he wrote that he was confident that Stalin too would back Jewish independence. He himself had met with the French foreign minister, Georges Bidault, immediately after the war and had enlisted the support of his government.
At a session of the Zionist Executive in Paris in August 1946, Ben-Gurion made it clear that he favored partition. Nahum Goldmann, an important leader of the American Zionists, suggested the wording “a viable Jewish state in a sufficient portion of the Land of Israel.” This was the position that Ben-Gurion put forth at the opening of the Twenty-second Zionist Congress in Basel in December 1946, the congress that I attended as a young man, where Ben-Gurion almost stormed out to “create a new Zionist movement.” Great speeches were made there, and powerful positions staked out.
The Jewish people, Ben-Gurion stressed, had the right to the whole of Eretz Yisrael. But “we are prepared to discuss a compromise arrangement if, in exchange for the reduction of territory, our rights are immediately granted and we are given national independence.” He condemned terrorism but praised
resistance … The resistance movement is a new event in the annals of Israel. There are Jews in the Diaspora for whom immigration to Palestine is a matter of life and death. For them the Land of Israel is not Zionism, or ideology … but a vital need, a condition for survival. The fate of those Jews is life in the Land of Israel or death. That, too, is power.
Weizmann for his part urged caution. “What will happen to the Jewish people, what will happen to Palestine if we upset the basis on which we have built this thing by our efforts and by our blood and toil?” He attacked American delegates who backed Ben-Gurion’s activism while sitting comfortably in New York. “Demagogue!” a heckler shouted. Weizmann’s reply brought the congress to its feet in a prolonged and emotional standing ovation. “Calling me a demagogue … I have gone through all the agonies of Zionist toil … In every farm and in every stable in Nahalal, in every building in Tel Aviv or Haifa down to the tiniest workshop, there is a drop of my life’s blood.” He went on to warn against “short cuts … false prophets … I do not believe in violence … ‘Zion will be redeemed through righteousness’* and not by any other means.”
It was heady stuff. I listened agog. These two enormously impressive men laid out with dignity and force their different political approaches. Weizmann, the gradualist, said the time would come when everyone would become a Zionist. Tall and pale, he spoke in Yiddish and peppered his remarks with his folksy shtetl humor, which now had such a bitter nostalgia to it. To illustrate his point, he told a story about Motol, the shtetl where he had been born. Motol, he said, had two doctors. The elder one took a lot of money from patients and refused to speak Yiddish. Only Russian. Then a younger doctor came, took less money, and spoke Yiddish. People flocked to him. And they told the elder one why.
“Wait,” he replied. “He’ll soon start speaking Hebrew.”
Ben-Gurion was not prepared to wait. He was determined this time to remove Weizmann from his position of influence, and he prevailed on his party to use its votes to do it. A predominantly activist Zionist Organization executive was elected. Weizmann was offered an honorary presidency, but he proudly dismissed the demeaning offer. “I have enough honor,” he remarked bitterly. Ironically, the congress then voted in favor of the immediate policy that Weizmann was advocating: agreeing to take part in a new British-Arab-Jewish conference in London that the British government wanted to convene in January 1947. Ben-Gurion reluctantly went along with it.
Ben-Gurion was reelected chairman of the Zionist Executive, but he also asked the congress to appoint him to the nonexistent defense portfolio. “Only in the political committee of the Congress, whose proceedings were not made public, could I dwell on security matters which I felt would determine the fate of the Yishuv,” Ben-Gurion recorded later. He explained to the delegates, as he had explained more than a year earlier at the home of his friend Rudolf Sonneborn in New York, that the mortal danger stemmed not from the Palestinian Arabs but from the neighboring states: “We must prepare immediately … This is the most important task facing Zionism today.”
True to his word, Ben-Gurion began devoting more and more of his own time to studying the art of war, meeting with Haganah commanders, poring over military manuals and history books, and paying discreet visits to Haganah units and training facilities. Some of the veteran commanders laughed at the idea of the “Old Man,” as he was already known, proposing to run an army. But as time passed, the smiles left their faces; all acknowledged that Ben-Gurion meant business.
The balance of forces, which he meticulously recorded in his diaries, was hopelessly skewed against the Yishuv. The Haganah, for all its vaunted exploits, was in truth a modest territorial force that mustered barely 40,000 troops, of whom only 2,000 were full-time soldiers serving in the Palmach strike units. As of April 1947, the date of Ben-Gurion’s comprehensive inventory, it deployed no heavy weapons whatsoever and precious few light ones: 10,000 rifles, 2,000 submachine guns, 600 light and medium machine guns, 800-odd mortars. A more serious arsenal was being purchased, in many places and in all manner of discreet and devious ways, but nothing obtrusive could be brought into the country so long as the British ruled, for fear of it being impounded. Ben-Gurion knew that when the Union Jack was eventually pulled down and the Arab armies attacked—as they surely would—his overriding aim would be to hold on until the newly acquired guns, tanks, and warplanes could be brought into play.
The Arab armies, to the best of the Haganah’s fledgling intelligence service’s knowledge, could field some 150,000 men all told. Egypt, with armored units, an air force, and even a navy, was the best equipped. Transjordan, with the British general John Glubb in command of its Arab Legion, was the best trained and posed the greatest threat. Other Arab countries pledged to enter the battle at the Palestinian Arabs’ side were Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. There had been a number of secret meetings between emissaries of the Yishuv and the Emir Abdullah of Transjordan, and an understanding seemed to be evolving whereby when the British left, he would step in and annex the West Bank to his kingdom, with the tacit assent of the Arab world and of the British. But there was no certainty that this would happen peaceably, and the Jewish state-in-the-making had to arm against Transjordan too.
As was inevitable, the London Conference ended in failure, and the British, in a sudden change of policy, now dumped the Palestine problem in the lap of the newly formed United Nations. It set up a Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to investigate the entire issue and propose a solution. The committee’s visit to Palestine in July 1947 fortuitously coincided with the Royal Navy’s heavy-handed interception of the crowded refugee ship Exodus. Two passengers and one crew member were killed when it was forcibly boarded twenty miles from shore. Then it was hauled to Haifa, and its 4,515 passengers were unceremoniously transferred to three British prison ships and sent back to Europe. The world, including the UNSCOP members, looked on, appalled.
In his testimony before UNSCOP, Ben-Gurion tried to head off the committee’s known inclination to exclude all of Jerusalem—even the new, western part of the city that had been built by the Jews over the last fifty years—from the Jewish (or the Palestinian) state. “To partition,” he said, “according to the Oxford dictionary, means to divide a thing into two parts. Palestine is [to be] divided into three parts, and only in a small part are the Jews allowed to live. We are against that.”
UNSCOP’s eleven members were unconvinced. Their majority recommendation was for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem a corpus separatum under international control.
A period of intensive diplomacy followed, with the Jews lobbying the chanceries of the world in favor of partition and the Arabs fulminating against it. Eventually, on November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted by the required two-thirds majority to adopt the UNSCOP report. The UN map was not as restrictive to the Jews as the British 1937 partition proposal had been, but it was hardly generous toward Zionist aspirations. The Jewish state was to incorporate the eastern Galilee, the coastal plain, and most of the Negev: in all, 56 percent of Mandatory Palestine (not including Transjordan, which had been lopped off in 1922), but most of it in the barren south of the country. The three Jewish areas were to be linked by “kissing points.” The British Mandate would end on May 15, 1948.
Thirty-three member states voted in favor (among them the United States and the USSR), thirteen voted against (most of them Muslim states or states with Muslim minorities), and another ten abstained (including Great Britain). The entire Yishuv followed the vote glued to their radio sets. Ben-Gurion watched the crowds dancing in the streets at the conclusion of the vote, but his own heart was heavy. “I knew that we faced war,” he wrote in his diary, “and that in it we would lose the finest of our youth.”
The decision by Ben-Gurion himself, by the majority of the Yishuv, and by the majority of the Zionist movement to accept partition represents, for me, a historic act of political wisdom whose logic is as cogent today as it was then. It also represented the acme of leadership. Ben-Gurion’s fortitude and certitude in facing opposition from both the left and the right were all the more impressive because, obviously, he too would have liked to see the Jewish state set up in all of Eretz Yisrael. He was no less profoundly attached to the hills and wadis of the homeland than any of his traducers. But courageous decision making means the ability to take a less-than-perfect decision and stick with it.
And now I turn again to David Landau, to argue the meaning of partition and its place in Ben-Gurion’s thinking. It is connected to our earlier exchange about Israel’s responsibility during the Holocaust, but it also speaks to issues at the burning heart of Israel’s political life today.
DAVID LANDAU: Let’s look more closely at Ben-Gurion’s commitment to accepting a partition he disliked. Ben-Gurion deliberately didn’t put the partition borders into the Declaration of Independence. Apparently he hoped—
SHIMON PERES: It’s not important what he hoped. What’s important is what he agreed to. It’s easy to hope. What he agreed to was the most disadvantageous partition plan imaginable. The pressures that brought him to agree to it were threefold: (a) the plight of the Holocaust refugees in the displaced-persons camps; (b) his sense that the British were preparing to leave, whatever happened; and (c) his conviction that the Arab states would attack us as soon as the British did leave, and that without a sovereign state of our own, we could have no regular army and would not be able to purchase arms and bring them in to defend ourselves. Ben-Gurion hoped all along that our right to the entire Land of Israel would be preserved somehow. But now the moment of decision was at hand, and he decided! He saw it as a tragic decision, but as an indispensable decision. He thought it was a tragedy, but he had to decide between two tragedies. And he did not shrink from deciding.
DAVID LANDAU: That’s what he was saying to you in the taxi about Lenin? He was making that analogy?
SHIMON PERES: Yes. The analogy was between the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 and the partition of Palestine. Why did he say what he said to me? Because Lenin faced the choice of peace at a painful price for Russia, or more war with attendant dangers. And he made his decision.
DAVID LANDAU: Still, what was the meaning of the word accept? Ben-Gurion shed so much Jewish blood to keep Jewish Jerusalem—the battles for the road to Jerusalem were among the most costly of the war—even though under the partition plan, which he had “accepted,” Jerusalem was to be a corpus separatum.
SHIMON PERES: Because there was a war. The moment the Arabs rejected the partition plan and went to war, partition ceased to exist. There was only war. And in the war, Jerusalem was certainly a central objective. The central objective of accepting partition was establishing an independent state, even on a small part of Eretz Yisrael. Once war broke out, at the center of the war stood the fate of Jerusalem—because partition was no longer valid. You could hardly fight a war and at the same time say you were preserving partition, which the Arabs were rejecting.
DAVID LANDAU: At the time, did you think or fear that we were shedding so much blood to open the road to Jerusalem, to save and protect Jerusalem, and yet in the end we might lose Jerusalem and it would revert to being a corpus separatum?
SHIMON PERES: I did not think that way. I thought the war had changed the rules of the game—regarding everything.
DAVID LANDAU: That’s why I’m asking what the meaning was, in real time, of the word accept.
SHIMON PERES: “Accept,” because if it had gone through peaceably, we would have had the partition borders. Here I come back to the matter of the Shoah, because Ben-Gurion’s key consideration in striving to set up a Jewish state le’altar was to take in the refugees. Therefore territory was not the only consideration for him. Shelter was important. Maybe had it not been for this, he would not have accepted partition. But the moment this option ended—it ended. There was a new ballgame. Even then, though, Ben-Gurion didn’t want the army to go to El Arish*; he ordered Yigal Allon back from there. He didn’t want to cross the original borders of Palestine.
DAVID LANDAU: When you would sit with him in the period before May 15 and he would explain that there was going to be a war with the Arab armies, was your working assumption that the partition borders would be extended?
SHIMON PERES: Yes, because the moment the borders that are supposed to be the fruit of agreement and peace don’t exist—there are no borders! We knew we’d have to fight for new borders. What they’d be, we didn’t know. And hence in the Declaration of Independence there is no reference to borders. Borders would be written in by reality. If not by agreement, then by reality, which was also the reality of war. Certainly it was Ben-Gurion’s desire that there would be no corpus separatum and no kissing points, and that we’d have a contiguous state. That was his desire. Definitely. But did he think the Arabs would accept partition? He certainly thought they might. The map was all in their favor. He took into account when he accepted partition that the other side would accept it too. And if they had accepted, there would not have been a war.
DAVID LANDAU: May I just ask you from another angle: Since Oslo in 1993 you have basically favored returning the territories taken in 1967 in return for peace. Why didn’t the same logic apply in 1948? In other words, we’ll fight the war, and then return to the partition border for peace?
SHIMON PERES: The 1948 war wasn’t over borders. It was over our existence. It was over the existence of the State of Israel. The focus of the war was that they wanted to destroy us. In regard to the priorities that each side set for itself once the war was under way, history played a greater role than borders. Ben-Gurion and Abdullah both fought for Jerusalem as their highest priority. Because for them history took precedence over strategy. The Egyptians, by contrast, wanted to attack Tel Aviv by coming up the coast. Their goal was Tel Aviv, and that made strategic sense. But the Jordanians’ priority was Jerusalem, and Israel’s priority was Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion wanted Eilat very much too. I had headed a field mission mapping the route to Eilat three years earlier. Ben-Gurion predicted that we would get it without a battle, which was pretty incredible and turned out to be totally accurate. The whole southern Negev was empty. The Gulf of Eilat was important strategically. It was to be our outlet to Asia and Africa. But it was priority number two. Number one for Ben-Gurion was Jerusalem.
That was his argument with Yigael Yadin,* who wanted to fight in Ashkelon because the Egyptians had reached Ashkelon. And Ben-Gurion said no; Jerusalem first. It was the same on the Jordanian front: John Glubb, the commander of the Arab Legion, said we’ll cross from Beisan to Haifa and bisect the Jewish state, and Emir Abdullah said no; first Jerusalem. Interesting, that parallel.
DAVID LANDAU: Even though Ben-Gurion was careful to avoid putting the partition borders into the Declaration of Independence, was there to your knowledge or in your assessment a point in time in 1947–48 when Ben-Gurion actually believed there would be a Palestinian state alongside Israel and that the two would live with each other in peace?
SHIMON PERES: He believed then that the Palestinian issue could be wrapped into the Jordanian issue. That there was a “Jordanian option.”
DAVID LANDAU: That’s why he sent Golda to meet with Abdullah?
SHIMON PERES: Abdullah thought he could be king of the Palestinians too. The Jordanian option existed all the time. Bear in mind, the UN Partition Resolution speaks of an Arab state, not a Palestinian state. Two states, a Jewish state and an Arab state. Ben-Gurion thought that the common denominator was Arab, with the Palestinian identity finding expression within it. The Palestinian issue as such came to the fore only after the London Agreement.* Ben-Gurion didn’t reject separate Palestinian nationalism; he rejected Palestinian terrorism. Some Arab theorists embraced Communism, some nationalism. Ben-Gurion felt we must fight neither the one nor the other but terrorism. Abdullah and his successor, King Hussein, were against a separate Palestinian state. They thought it would endanger their Hashemite kingdom.
DAVID LANDAU: And you cooperated with them?
SHIMON PERES: What would you have us do? Cooperate with Arafat, who was a terrorist …?
DAVID LANDAU: That’s what you did in the end.
SHIMON PERES: Yes, after the Jordanian option was destroyed by our side by the repudiation of the London Agreement, and after Arafat renounced terror.
DAVID LANDAU: Yes, the repudiation of the London Agreement was a historic disaster. But we’ve jumped ahead forty years. In 1948 Ben-Gurion sent Golda to Abdullah, effectively to empty the Partition Resolution of its original import—a separate (Palestinian) Arab state. Yes?
SHIMON PERES: No, the way it looked to him at the time was that either Transjordan would take over the Palestinians or the Palestinians would take over Transjordan. Which they tried to do twenty-two years later during Black September.*
DAVID LANDAU: But the British wouldn’t have allowed it. Glubb was there till the mid-1950s.
SHIMON PERES: Yes, but the Palestinians were subverting all the time. They murdered Abdullah. In the battle between them, we were on the side of the Jordanians.
DAVID LANDAU: To what extent, in your view, did that influence Ben-Gurion in his standoff with Ahdut HaAvoda and the Palmach, who wanted him to try to conquer the West Bank?
SHIMON PERES: Ben-Gurion did not want to rule the West Bank. He wanted the Jordanians to rule there. It wasn’t clear then that the Palestinians themselves wanted to set up a state there. They wanted to conquer Transjordan too. We had no other option; the Palestinians didn’t want to talk to us.
For Ben-Gurion, the main thing was not to rule over another nation. That was his principle. To him, it was against morality and against political wisdom to rule over another nation. So that meant reaching an agreement, and the only figure available for that was Abdullah. The mufti didn’t want an agreement. Ben-Gurion hoped and even expected that he could get a peace treaty with Abdullah. There was the Feisal-Weizmann agreement of 1918 as a precedent.* There was already dialogue back then.
* Etzel is an acronym for Irgun Tzvai Leumi (National Military Organization). Lehi is an acronym for Lohamei Herut Yisrael (For Israel’s Liberty).
* Isaiah 1:27.
* In December 1948 IDF units reached the northern Sinai town of El Arish.
* Yadin (1917–84) was the IDF chief of operations during the War of Independence.
* In April 1987 Peres, then vice prime minister and foreign minister in a Likud-Labor unity government, negotiated secretly in London with King Hussein of Jordan and reached written agreement on “modalities” for concluding peace between Israel and Jordan. Under that agreement, which was designed to pave the way for a peace conference, “the Palestinian issue will be dealt with in the committee of the Jordanian-Palestinian and Israeli delegations,” and “the Palestinians’ representatives will be included in the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.” The agreement effectively presupposed Israeli withdrawal from most if not all of the West Bank, though this was not stated explicitly. It was rejected by then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader. He informed the U.S. secretary of state, George Shultz, that it had been negotiated without his consent.
* In September 1970 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan fought pitched battles against Jordanian government forces. Syria intervened on the Palestinians’ side, invading Jordan from the north. Israel, at the urging of the United States, mobilized its forces to deter Syria from advancing. In the event, King Hussein’s army smashed the PLO forces and drove them and their political leadership out of the country, mainly into Lebanon.
* Drafted by T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), Emir Feisal’s close aide and military commander, that agreement expressed Feisal’s encouragement of the Zionist enterprise in the interest of both nations. Feisal, Abdullah’s elder brother, became king of Iraq after World War I.