The French Connection

Meir Zamir
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Meir Zamir

On December 15, 1947, at approximately 1:45 P.M., about 20 fighters of the Haganah - the pre-state underground Jewish militia - seized a British truck south of Acre. The men, armed but wearing civilian clothing, confiscated about half a ton of documents, packed into eight sealed steel containers and 12 sacks of diplomatic mail. The documents had been sent from the British legation in Beirut to Haifa Port, from which they were to be transported to Britain.

The truck was taken to an unknown location. The driver and armed guards were later found in an abandoned building near Kiryat Ata. The British tried to minimize the importance of the captured documents, claiming that most of them concerned economic matters of the British Mission in Beirut, headed during World War II by General Edward Spears. But the reaction of the British, the French and the Haganah itself to the event clearly suggests that the papers removed from the truck were, in fact, of far greater consequence. Immediately after the incident, the French consul in Jerusalem came to Tel Aviv. The French were given classified documents from the truck that were of great operational importance to them. The British Mandate authorities censored reports of the event, prohibiting Hebrew or British newspapers from publishing any details about the Haganah operation. The documents were eventually returned to the British, but about one percent of them remained in the hands of the Haganah.

That France considered the documents to be extremely important and wished to take possession of them is suggested by a telegram that the Jewish Agency representative in Paris, Maurice Fischer, sent on January 11, 1948, demanding that negotiations for the transfer of the documents to France be held in Paris and not vis-a-vis the French Consulate in Jerusalem.

The operation relied on information that the Haganah had received from French intelligence services, indicating that the British truck held cargo of utmost importance. This information was apparently obtained with the help of a French agent who was active in Beirut at least until July 1947, who provided France with documents from the British legation. Immediately after the truck was seized, a French intelligence officer, impersonating a reporter for France Soir, was sent to Tel Aviv to examine the material.

The event revealed to British intelligence the extent of the covert collaboration between the Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community] and France. The British took action against the French as soon as war broke out in Palestine. After Arab armies invaded the country, on May 15, 1948, British agents disguised as Jordanian legionnaires attacked the French Consulate compound in the Old City of Jerusalem. At the height of the shelling, in July, 14 of the consulate staff were injured. The protests that France conveyed to King Abdullah of Jordan and to the British Foreign Office were for naught. Even a threat by the French consul in Amman that his country's relations with Jordan would be severed if the bombardment continued proved futile.

Bribing the Arabs

Much has been written about the French aid to the Zionist movement in 1946-1948 with regard to clandestine Jewish immigration, arms acquisitions and public relations. (An article I wrote on the subject, "Britain's Treachery, France's Revenge," was published in Haaretz on February 2, 2008). Little is known, however, about France's collaboration with Zionist institutions in intelligence and covert diplomacy, as part of the struggle against Britain and the Arab nations. New research reveals that the French intelligence services succeeded not only in infiltrating the Syrian Foreign Ministry but also in placing an agent in the British legation in Beirut in late 1944.

The Beirut British legation received classified correspondence from the British cabinet in London and from the minister for Middle East affairs in Cairo. Three different intelligence organizations also operated in the legation, whose political bureau collected sensitive intelligence reports from agents working for Britain throughout the Middle East. Agents' names and code names (No. 325, for example, was Mohsen al-Barazi, secretary to Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli, and eventually prime minister of Syria under President Husni Zaim); receipts for large bribes from British intelligence officers to Arab leaders; and agreements in which various personages promised to cooperate with Britain - all these and much more ended up in the hands of French intelligence.

France acted against Britain primarily out of a desire to avenge its own expulsion from Syria and Lebanon in May 1945. Later the French formed ties with various anti-British movements, groups and figures in the Middle East. Of all these ties, it was the bond the French forged with the Zionist movement that proved most effective.

Notes by David Ben-Gurion in his war diary, along with reports from Fischer, the Jewish Agency representative in Paris, provide indirect evidence that the French gave the Haganah information from the secret British and Syrian documents. The ties with the Zionist institutions that eventually made France a close friend of the nascent State of Israel began with a letter sent by the head of the French Mission to Syria and Lebanon, General Paul Beynet, to the head of France's provisional government, General Charles de Gaulle, in late June 1945. In the letter, parts of which are published here for the first time, Beynet wrote:

"Mon General,

"In the recent crisis, public opinion in the Middle East has been against us. Only the Jews of Palestine are an exception. Their concern in seeing the danger France faces in the Levant has created a consensus among them that even they themselves consider exceptional. The parallelism between a Jewish homeland in Palestine and a Christian homeland in Lebanon, which has always been advocated by the Jewish Agency, has now become everyone's leitmotif. My collaborators have been approached by the various sides, who offer their services. I have given orders for contacts to be maintained [...]

"It appears that, at least initially, working together can only be to our benefit. It will be enough if we give a verbal reassurance, not necessarily to support the Zionist movement and its demands, but to refrain from adopting a hostile attitude, especially when it comes to the question of immigration to Palestine. The injustices and suffering of the French Jews under German occupation makes it difficult for us to take any other stand. Moreover, we could benefit on the global scale from the excellent network of information, propaganda and even political activities that the Jewish Agency, Jewish press groups and pro-Zionist parliamentary groups are involved in."

Beynet was the French official who played the key role in shaping France's relations with the Jewish Agency. Before being named delegate-general to Syria and Lebanon, he had served on the Free French delegation to the U.S., where he came to recognize the scope of the influence wielded by Jewish organizations. Beynet met with Ben-Gurion in Beirut on October 15, 1944. He already knew then, based on British documents provided by the French agent secreted into the British office in Beirut, that Britain intended to continue forcing its White Paper on the Zionist movement and to prevent the establishment of an independent Jewish state. This policy was part of Britain's secret plan to establish a Greater Syria by unifying Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Palestine into a single political entity.

Britain went to great lengths to advance its interests in the Middle East. The documents obtained by the French revealed the cynical way in which Britain had been exploiting the "Zionist menace." Very high-ranking British officials deliberately sought to deepen Arab fears, stressing over and over that only cooperation with Britain could protect the Arabs from the Jewish-Zionist invasion.

Telling Truman

In his reports to Paris in early 1945, Beynet predicted that if the British succeeded in driving the French out of Syria and Lebanon, their next goal would be to force the Zionist movement to accept a solution that served British interests in the Arab world. In late February, he instructed the French liaison officer in Jerusalem to contact Jewish Agency representatives to explore potential avenues of cooperation. The French reached out first to Jewish Agency representatives in Beirut, and Ben-Gurion met with French Foreign Ministry officials in Paris. It was only after the Syrian crisis, however, that the practical cooperation began.

At first both sides sought ways to join forces on the public relations front in the United States. In July 1945, following Beynet's letter to de Gaulle, Haganah intelligence officer Tuvia Arazi came to Paris; during World War II, he had maintained close ties with Free France intelligence agents in the Levant. Arazi wanted to formalize the relationship between the Yishuv and France with a meeting of high-ranking officials from both sides. He thought that Ben-Gurion or Moshe Sharett should meet with de Gaulle or with foreign minister Georges Bidault; de Gaulle preferred to place Bidault in charge of contacts with the Zionist leaders.

The first test of the Jewish Agency's ability to keep its end of the bargain, as it had been articulated in the talks with Beynet, came during de Gaulle's visit to the U.S. in late August of that year. Earlier that month, Arazi met with de Gaulle's aides to coordinate the visit. When de Gaulle arrived in the U.S., the Jewish organizations prepared warm and sympathetic welcomes for him both in New York and in Chicago. The Zionist movement also benefited from the visit. Indirect evidence suggests that de Gaulle briefed president Harry Truman on the conspiratorial nature of Britain's dealings in the Middle East and on its role in the Syrian crisis. It was no coincidence that Truman's famous announcement, in which he voiced support for the emigration of 100,000 Jews from European refugee camps to pre-state Palestine, was issued at the end of that month.

A second phase in the deepening of the covert relations between de Gaulle's provisional government and the Jewish Agency began in September, after the French learned from British and Syrian documents sent by their agents that Britain's new Labor government would continue its predecessor's policy in the Middle East, including the eradication of France's remaining influence in Syria and Lebanon. The Jewish Agency leaders, for their part, learned that the British government, led by prime minister Clement Attlee and foreign minister Ernest Bevin, intended to persist in its White Paper policy and prevent free Jewish immigration to Palestine.

In early October 1945, during his visit to Paris, Ben-Gurion announced the creation of the Jewish Resistance Movement, which united all of the pre-state militias in the fight against the British. The declaration, alongside the growing U.S. involvement in the efforts to find a solution for the Jewish problem in Palestine, increased the Zionist movement's prestige in the eyes of the French. Ben-Gurion attached great importance to the relations with France and oversaw them personally. In mid-November he met Bidault in Paris and for the next two years he made Paris his headquarters in his struggle against the British for a Jewish state in Palestine.

Saudi oil

One of the findings revealed in British and Syrian documents in the French archives is that Britain tried to use Truman's support for Jewish refugee immigration to Palestine Israel as a means to convince King Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia to revoke the oil concessions granted to U.S. companies in his country. In October 1945, British officials asked Syria's president Quwatli to intercede with the king on the matter. Later that month Quwatli conveyed the king's response in a letter to the British ambassador in Damascus, Terence Shone: "I will not be willing to consent to Jewish immigration to Palestine, which is a country sacred to the Arabs. Russia has reassured me that it will support us if we persist in our uncompromising position in this matter. As for the Americans, I am willing to threaten them with withdrawing the concessions I gave them."

The Americans, who learned of the British conspiracy from their own sources and probably from the French as well, were able to thwart the plan. Truman, who was personally involved in guaranteeing his country's share in the petroleum of the Middle East, was angered by the British attempts to sabotage U.S. interests.

The secret collaboration of the French with the Jewish Agency grew stronger in the U.S. as well, particularly in Zionist-Maronite campaigns to secure Lebanon as an independent Christian state. In 1946-1948 France strengthened its ties with the Zionist movement in America and Israel and provided the Jewish Agency with intelligence on British and Arab designs, thus making a vital contribution to the process that led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Sixty years after the state was created, while thousands of books and articles have been written on the subject there is still no complete account of the regional and international circumstances surrounding Israel's establishment, including the role of France during those decisive years.

Professor Meir Zamir teaches in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev