The ship Altalena, which was sunk 61 years ago today, brought arms and ammunition provided to the Irgun Tzvai Leumi underground militia by the French army. Documents revealed here for the first time attest that France's Foreign Ministry believed that helping the Irgun (the National Military Organization, known also by its acronym Etzel), would prevent Jerusalem from falling into Jordanian hands, which would strengthen the position of France's rival in the region: Britain. But France failed to take one element into account: David Ben-Gurion.
One of the most important documents is testimony the French deputy chief of staff, General Henri Coudraux, gave to France's Defense Ministry during an internal inquiry into the affair. Coudraux, who had played a key role in transfering the arms to the Irgun in June 1948, said in his testimony on November 15, 1949, that France "reached a secret agreement with the Irgun, which promised it advantages if it were to come into power (in Israel)." He described the Irgun's representative in the negotiations, Shmuel Ariel, as "a terrorist who did not represent a legitimate organization and acted to take power by force."
The next day Ariel testified, confirming that the Irgun signed a secret agreement with the French government whereby the latter would "provide arms to the Irgun to fight the Arabs." These arms ultimately arrived at Israel's shores aboard the Altalena, which was sunk on June 22, 1948, off Tel Aviv at the order of acting prime minister David Ben-Gurion.
The deep political and historical controversy this affair provoked has not waned even after more than 60 years. Ben-Gurion and the left accused Irgun head Menachem Begin of an attempted putsch in the midst of tan existential fight by the nascent state. Begin and his supporters, for their part, claimed that Ben-Gurion had fomented a cynical plot aimed at harming a political rival seeking to bring arms and fighters into Israel, to strengthen the army in its war against the Arabs. Had Begin not evinced national responsibility, his supporters believe, there would have been a bloody civil war.
The writer of these lines recently discovered in a French archive the report written about 60 years ago by France's Ministry of Defense and the testimonies used in it. The documents cast light on the French motives in the affair, and indicate that a secret agreement concerning the arms supply included stipulations which, Coudraux said, were aimed at the provisional government in Israel. The Irgun representative said the targets of these political provisos were the Arabs.
The written agreement has not been found, but from the documents one concludes that foreign minister Georges Bidault deeply feared occupation of Jerusalem by the Jordanian Arab Legion, with British support; in the second half of May 1948, the Legion had damaged French Catholic institutions and France's consulate in Jerusalem. Years later Ben-Gurion hinted that the French gave the Irgun the arms in return for a commitment to protect the Catholic institutions in the city. On May 24 the French Foreign Ministry sent communiques to Jordan's King Abdullah, Israel's government and British and Arab legations in Paris, demanding that they avoid attacking religious and diplomatic institutions in Jerusalem. Irgun representatives in Paris received a similar notice.
According to the partition plan approved by the UN General Assembly, Jerusalem was an international zone; meanwhile, both the Irgun and the Lehi (Lohamei Herut Yisrael - Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) continued to operate there separately, even after the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces. In the agreement of early June 1948, integrating the Irgun into the IDF, its leaders insisted on receiving one-fifth of the arms slated to arrive on the Altalena for their Jerusalem battalion.
Britain's 'double game'
Thus, the Irgun's campaign against the provisional government, demanding Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, deepened the rift between the two rival camps. Ben-Gurion suspected that Irgun's leaders wanted to establish a separate power base there. Testimonies from French sources indicate the possibility that Ben-Gurion knew about the details of the agreement between Bidault and the Irgun before he gave the order to sink the Altalena.
Bidault decided to provide arms to the Irgun, an organization that opposed the interim government, and which was receiving clandestine aid from France, not only to protect French institutions in Jerusalem from the Arab Legion. He also knew this move would anger the British Foreign Office, which was closely following the Altalena's course.
On May 14, Princess Elizabeth arrived in Paris on a state visit reflecting the good ties between Britain and France. Nevertheless, Bidault decided shortly afterward to give arms to the Irgun - gratis. According to various documents, he may have had another to thwart a British-Jordanian move to control Jerusalem.
In the summer of 1944, French intelligence succeeded to recruit an agent in the Syrian government, who subsequently provided information about clandestine British activity in Syria and other Arab countries. As foreign minister in Charles de Gaulle's provisional government, Bidault witnessed the efficiency of the British secret services, which played a major role in expelling the French from Syria in 1945. Bidault, a devout Catholic, attributed great importance to maintaining Jerusalem's status as an international city, and saw a vital French interest in the creation of the state.
According to the French documents, Paris suspected that Britain had adopted a "double policy," which it used effectively in Syria: Alongside the declared policy about ending the Mandate and evacuating British forces from Palestine on May 15, 1948, the French believed that Britain's secret services sought to prevent establishment of a Jewish state, or at least to limit its size.
The siege of Jerusalem in April 1948, in which the Arab Legion with its British commanders played a major role, led the French to suspect a British plot; reports received afterward about Britain's military and diplomatic moves reinforced this suspicion. For example, the British prevented Palmach underground forces from occupying Sheikh Jarrah in northern Jerusalem, and allowed companies of the Legion to deploy in British camps in the city just before they were evacuated; also British officers of the Jordanian Legion were stationed in the British consulate. On May 12, the Legion attacked the Etzion Bloc in one of the worst defeats suffered by the new state in the War of Independence.
Confirmation of Britain's "double game" was reflected in its diplomatic efforts to thwart a proposal for a general cease-fire in the Security Council on May 19. After many years of following King Abdullah's intrigues in Syria and Lebanon, the French were convinced the Hashemite king was acting on British instructions in certain instances. The Legion concentrated its efforts in the international zone of Jerusalem, and the French were convinced that Britain hoped to enable Abdullah to gain control of all of the city.
Ben-Gurion shared these suspicions. He, too, believed, in contrast to some of his generals, that the war would be determined in Jerusalem. The last week of May, he ordered two attacks on the Latrun police station, then held by Legion soldiers, in an attempt to break through the siege of Jerusalem. The attacks failed and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City fell on May 28.
Reports of these developments were received in France during negotiations with the Irgun, whose strength was overestimated by the Quai d'Orsay. This reinforced Bidault's fears that the provisional government couldn't prevent Jerusalem from falling into Abdullah's hands. Bidault and his aides were also worried by the Legion's bombardments of the French consulate in Jerusalem. The consul and officials in Paris believed British agents were behind the attacks, in which several staff members were wounded. Demands by the French that the British and King Abdullah stop shooting were ignored.
In early June, France's Foreign Ministry ordered its consul in Amman to begin preparations to cut off relations. Reports the consul sent about his meetings with Abdullah reflect the latter's thinking in the midst of the battle for Jerusalem. Indeed, in a meeting on May 23, he was certain his forces would occupy Jerusalem within a short time and, wrote the consul: "He was determined to fight Zionism and prevent the establishment of an Israeli state in the borders of his kingdom." He scoffed at the Syrian army and said he expected that "the annexation of Palestine would be a step toward realization of his great aspiration in Syria."
The French saw these remarks as confirming suspicions that the British sought to exploit the war in Palestine to force Syria to join a Hashemite federation headed by Abdullah, which would take over parts of the land of Israel including the Negev, which had been allocated to the Jewish state in the partition plan. These suspicions were also shared by Arab leaders.
At the end of May, Bidault had reasons to fear a victory by Abdullah in Jerusalem, which would reinforce his status and enable Britain to realize its plans for a Hashemite union including Syria and Lebanon. From General Coudraux's testimony and from the Defense Ministry investigation, it emerges that Bidault decided to provide arms to the Irgun in the last week of May, due to the pressure of time, and not as part of a formal arrangement.
The strengthening of the Irgun's military and political power was aimed at achieving several goals: galvanizing the right wing vis-a-vis the left in Israel's provisional government; ensuring political, economic and cultural advantages for France if the Irgun seized power; protecting France's consulate and religious institutions in Jerusalem; and above all preventing Abdullah from controlling Jerusalem with British support. However, Bidault and his aides did not take into account Ben-Gurion's determination to prevent forcibly the strengthening of a political rival's military power. Even at the price of civil war.
Meir Zamir is a professor in the Middle East Studies department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. An extensive article by him about France's part in the Altalena affair is forthcoming.
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