September 11, 1947. On the eve of the Arab League’s political committee meeting to decide on the Arab response to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) report [supporting the end of the British mandate and partitioning the land between Jews and Arabs], the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient published an article. “Bloc Oriental et extension de la Ligue” argued that, like the Greater Syria plan [that aimed to unite Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine], the Oriental Bloc – a French term for Britain’s planned regional defense pact – hung over the independence of Arab countries and the Arab League like the Sword of Damocles, and that its authors were one and the same: [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nuri al-Sa’id and [Jordanian] King Abdullah.
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On September 20, the Lebanese newspaper Le Jour reported that after the Arab League meeting in Saoufar, Lebanon, Brig. Iltyd Clayton – whom it defined as “head of the British intelligence in the Middle East” – had left for Damascus. It quoted a Syrian newspaper speculating on whether his visit was connected to the Greater Syria scheme and the tense relations between the Syrian and Lebanese presidents (Shukri al-Quwatli and Bishara al-Khuri) and Jordan’s King Abdullah, or to events in Palestine.
On February 19, 1948, the Lebanese newspaper Le Soir published an article titled “Claytonmade.” Based on “Zionist sources,” it reported that Brig. Clayton – “architect” of the Greater Syria plan, the Oriental Bloc and the bilateral defense treaties with the Arab states – was now advocating a new scheme for the partition of Palestine. The plan proposed that : “Imperialist Lebanon will annex the Western Galilee up to Shavei Zion; Syria the northeastern part of the Galilee and part of its southern region; Egypt will have part of the cake; and Transjordan will swallow up the rest.”
In fact, these and other reports in the Lebanese press on the activities of British secret agents were part of a secret war being waged by French intelligence against the British.
Information conveyed by the French intelligence services to the Haganah [the prestate underground Jewish army] in the fall of 1947 indicated that Brig. Clayton and his assistants were involved in a new initiative to secure Britain’s strategic position in the Middle East, and linked Clayton to the escalating Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine. The sources also referred to a new partition plan proposed by Clayton, which, contradicting that of the United Nations, aimed to split Palestine between the neighboring Arab states and limit the designated territory of the Jewish state to the coastal area between Atlit [just south of Haifa] and Tel Aviv.
The French tied this initiative to renewed British efforts to implement the 1946 Morrison-Grady Plan [aka the Cantonization Plan] and warned of the danger of an attack on the Yishuv [Jewish community in Palestine] by irregular forces organized by the Arab League. They also warned that an invasion by the regular Arab armies to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state could not be ruled out.
Information passed on by the French, after the UN partition vote on November 29, 1947, was even more alarming. On January 13, 1948, Maurice Fischer – the SHAI [Haganah intelligence service] liaison officer to French intelligence – reported from Paris that, based on totally reliable information from French sources, Brig. Clayton had, on December 17, 1947, reached an understanding with Lebanese Prime Minister Riyad al-Sulh, according to which the British forces would evacuate northern Palestine and give free rein to the irregular forces of the Arab Liberation Army, headed by Fawzi al-Qawuqji, to attack Jewish settlements.
The next day, January 14, two French intelligence officers from Beirut arrived in Haifa and informed the French military attaché that the Syrian prime minister, Jamil Mardam Bey, was mobilizing an irregular force of 20,000 volunteers to invade Palestine, with tacit British agreement.
Previously, at the end of August 1947, Eliyahu Sasson – David Ben-Gurion’s chief Arabist adviser – had been called urgently to Paris. He remained until mid-September, sending information and instructions to warn Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Egyptian government that British agents were planning to provoke their countries into a war against the Jews in Palestine.
Reports in the Haganah archives from those months – where Clayton’s name figures frequently – tie the escalation in the Arab-Jewish conflict to Britain’s efforts to secure its strategic position in the Middle East. They, too, alluded to a new scheme, promoted by the British secret services in Cairo, to divide Palestine between the neighboring Arab states.
In the early months of 1948, information continued to reach SHAI on secret British attempts, orchestrated by Brig. Clayton’s “clique” in Cairo, to reconcile the Arab leaders and convince them to join forces to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state.
Ben-Gurion’s concern regarding the undercover activities of Brig. Clayton and Arabist “experts” in the Foreign Office and the Middle East intensified after August 1947. On November 11, 1947, he sent a British-Jewish former officer to interview Clayton, who was unaware that Ben-Gurion had drafted the questions. The urgency to uncover the British secret services’ intentions prompted Ben-Gurion to approve the “Acre operation,” in which the Haganah seized the files of the British Legation in Beirut, on December 25, 1947, as they were being transferred from Beirut to Haifa, en route to Britain.
On January 11, 1948, Sasson sent King Abdullah a letter warning him of a plot being hatched in London and Cairo – promoted by Clayton, Nuri al-Sa’id and officials in the Foreign Office and Colonial Office against the UN Partition Plan – that aimed to provoke Transjordan into a war against the Yishuv, contrary to Abdullah’s understanding with the Jewish Agency.
In February, Ben-Gurion’s chief intelligence officer, Reuven Zaslani (Shiloah), arrived in London to establish whether Britain’s failure to ratify its defense treaty with Iraq in January 1948 (the Portsmouth Treaty) had influenced its stand on Palestine, and if there was indeed a British plot to thwart the establishment of a Jewish state. He reported back that although the British cabinet did not intend to oppose partition, the “experts” – who argued that it could not be implemented – were working against it.
Zaslani counted the following against them: Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s adviser, Harold Bailey; Brig. Clayton; and Gerald de Gaury, a Foreign Office Arabist and liaison officer. Zaslani noted that these “experts,” who advocated a collective military agreement with the Arab countries, believed that a future Jewish state could not be relied upon. He added that they were reinforcing the Arab side without the cabinet’s agreement.
Nevertheless, he assessed that they would not be able to influence the cabinet’s decision to end the mandate and withdraw British forces from Palestine, as it was supported by the two highest-ranking British officials – High Commissioner of Palestine Alan Cunningham and the commander of the British forces in Palestine, Gen. Gordon MacMillan.
A similar assessment was made by Ben-Gurion in a conversation with a French diplomat in early March. In a March 7 entry in his diary, Ben-Gurion notes, “Clayton went to Syria; the British want to make Syria their base after failing in Iraq and Egypt. The situation in the Arab world is difficult – riots in Iraq – and Britain is trying to concentrate Arab thought on Palestine.”
The above examples from the Arab press and French and Zionist sources raise intriguing questions. Was there indeed a connection between Britain’s efforts to conclude bilateral military treaties with Iraq, Egypt and other Arab states or form a collective regional defense organization, and the alleged attempts by its secret services in Cairo to provoke a Jewish-Arab war in Palestine? Why was Brig. Clayton associated with a secret scheme to split Palestine between its neighboring Arab states? Why was he implicated in provoking Arab attacks, initially on the Yishuv by irregular forces and, later, on the newly established Jewish state by the regular Arab armies?
Like Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who blamed Britain for conspiring to evict France from the Levant, Ben-Gurion accused it of trying to sabotage the establishment of a Jewish state and secretly provoking an armed invasion by Arab states. Syrian and British documents uncovered in French archives confirm de Gaulle’s accusations and reinforce Ben-Gurion’s charges. These documents and French intelligence reports reveal that the British-Arabist secret agents, who engineered France’s eviction from the Levant in 1945, took similar steps to prevent the formation of a Jewish state in 1947-48.
The Missing Dimension
The question of Britain’s role in the war between Israel and the Arab states in 1948 is one of the most studied issues in the historiography of the War of Independence.
And yet, despite the considerable efforts of historians, they found no evidence of Ben-Gurion’s allegations that Britain had instigated the Arab leaders to invade Israel a day after its establishment.
In fact, confirmation of Ben-Gurion’s allegations can be found in French archives, especially in the files of French intelligence, whose officers closely followed the activities of the British secret services in the Middle East in the 1940s.
A major hurdle when studying the 1948 war is the lack of access to Arab archives. The Syrian documents, obtained by French intelligence – which contain uncensored private correspondence and secret agreements between the Arab leaders, as well as diplomatic exchanges – give scholars a closer look at the Arab stand toward a Jewish state in Palestine without having to rely solely on Israeli and Western archives, Arab rulers’ inflammatory public rhetoric and memoirs, or newspaper articles.
The Syrian documents reveal that the Arab leaders’ attitudes toward the Zionists’ aspirations derived not only from their hostility toward a Jewish state, but were far more complex. This emphasizes the need for scholars to study the Arab-Zionist conflict in the context of Anglo-Arab and inter-Arab rivalries, rather than merely Anglo-Jewish or Arab-Jewish relations.
The thousands of Syrian and other Arab documents found in the French archives, together with British intelligence reports obtained by French intelligence, confirm that the role of the British secret services in the Middle East during and after World War II comprises the “missing dimension” in the historiography of the region in the 1940s.
Two conclusions can be drawn from research into these documents, which are relevant to the role of British intelligence in the war in Palestine.
The first is that, in the 1940s, Britain conducted a two-track policy in the Middle East: one, a well-documented, official policy defined by Whitehall under both the Conservative and Labour parties; the second was informal and secretive, which can be termed “regional,” implemented by “agents in the field,” which left few traces in British archives.
It was perpetrated by a small, influential group of Arabist secret agents who manipulated the cabinet in London and implemented their own policies, which deviated from the official position. These agents enjoyed a unique status as intermediaries between Whitehall and local Arab leaders. Either intentionally, or because of deep-seated personal beliefs, they provided biased assessments.
They did not merely gather and interpret information and recommend policy, but controlled the flow of information and implemented their own policies while keeping the London decision makers in the dark. They joined forces with Arab rulers, whom they portrayed as voicing the Arab view, in order to mislead their government. Their tactics, which were backed by senior military officers in Cairo, gathered momentum under the post-WWII Labour government and during the crisis in Palestine in 1947-48.
The second conclusion is that the British secret agents succeeded in implementing their policies due largely to their use of indirect control over local “agents of influence.” They employed undercover political operations, clandestine diplomacy and covert propaganda to manipulate Arab leaders and public opinion – methods widely used in the Middle East during World War II.
The Syrian and British documents provide a unique insight into the modus operandi of the British secret services in co-opting prominent Arab leaders, and helping them to positions of power in return for their collaboration. President Quwatli and Prime Minister Mardam Bey in Syria; President Khuri and Prime Minister Sulh in Lebanon; Arab League Secretary-General Abd al-Rahman al-Azzam – these are prime examples, but there were many others.
This is not to say, however, that the British intelligence officers entirely controlled those leaders. Relations were complex and entailed various means of coercion.
Apart from political and financial bribery – and, when necessary, pressure and extortion – an effective tactic was to convince them that collaborating with Britain was in their own and their country’s interests. But such maneuvers, as was the case with President Quwatli, did not always succeed. After World War II, as Britain’s prestige waned and its military and economic standing diminished, undercover political operations were stepped up, becoming an essential tool for the Arabist secret agents to safeguard their country’s strategic and economic interests in the Middle East.
The Secret British Scheme
On May 28, 1947, Najib al-Armanazi, the Syrian ambassador to London, informed his foreign minister of an incident involving Brig. Clayton – a confrontation between the Foreign Office and the secret services, who had “categorically refused to remove him from Egypt.” Armanazi noted that “support for Clayton surpasses the imagination,” adding that he had been given “carte blanche to direct the vast program he aims to complete,” which consisted of advancing the Greater Syria plan and securing British control over Libya.
The same day, Mardam Bey instructed Armanazi to alert officials in Britain’s Foreign Office that the Syrian government would forcibly oppose any intervention by King Abdullah in Syrian affairs. He had previously notified Armanazi that British agents were inciting the Druze and Bedouin tribes against the Syrian government.
In early June, Mardam Bey wrote directly to Bevin, complaining of the intrigues of British officers in the Arab Legion against Syria, adding, “What makes the situation even more delicate is that the plot organized against Syria is welcomed by all the British officials in the Near East.” He warned that if Syria had no other way to safeguard its independence, it would seek foreign assistance, including from the Soviet Union.
Reports on increasing subversion by British agents in Syria came during the Syrian parliamentary elections, and the escalating tension along the border between Syria and Jordan in the summer of 1947. An Arab intelligence report reveals that British secret agents were also provoking members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria to act against its republican regime. It also reveals that British agents in Egypt were collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood there, against the growing communist propaganda.
The deterioration in Syro-Jordanian relations coincided with the Anglo-Iraqi negotiations on a new military agreement to replace the 1930 treaty and as relations between the Iraqi government and King Abdullah were improving. These were the initial steps of the scheme devised by the British secret services in Cairo, Amman and Baghdad, implemented between July 1947 and May 1948.
In the summer of 1947, British policy in the Middle East reached an impasse. Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi – backed by King Faruq – insisted that Britain undertake to evacuate its forces before the Egyptian government would agree to proceed with negotiations on an Anglo-Egyptian treaty and the future of Sudan. In July, the Egyptian government went further when it brought its case before the United Nations.
British policy in Palestine reached a deadlock as well. After the failure of negotiations with Arab and Zionist representatives in London in early 1947, the British cabinet had declared its intention to return the mandate over Palestine to the United Nations. Britain was losing ground in the propaganda war, especially in the United States, as the Zionists successfully portrayed the conflict in Palestine not as Arab-Jewish, but an Anglo-Jewish one between a Zionist liberation movement and a colonial power. Also, its harsh measures against the illegal immigration of Holocaust survivors from the European refugee camps to Palestine drew international criticism, which culminated with the Exodus ship affair in July 1947.
Continued reports of Zionist attacks on British soldiers stirred up intense public resentment and hardened the resolve of the cabinet to evacuate Palestine. As the U.K.’s economic crisis deepened, Prime Minister Clement Attlee was compelled to cut the costs of retaining large armed forces overseas to defend an empire that Britain was no longer capable of sustaining, either militarily or economically. In early 1947, the cabinet dramatically announced Britain’s intention to withdraw unilaterally from India.
Arab rulers closely followed the dramatic events unfolding in London, indicating that Britain’s imperial order in the Middle East was beginning to crumble. They saw Britain failing to suppress the Zionist insurgency, gradually losing its grip over the Middle East and being relegated to an inferior position vis-à-vis the United States. President Harry Truman’s March 1947 declaration that the United States would defend Turkey and Greece against the Soviet Union reinforced these beliefs.
Britain’s plan for a regional security pact was perceived as being less likely; Turkish and Arab leaders were less inclined to be part of it. But President Quwatli believed that Britain would not give up the Middle East without a struggle, while King Faruq told Mardam Bey, “Great Britain played us all and exploited us in its own interest, and won on all fronts simultaneously.” The French intelligence service estimated that Britain was far from losing its grip over the Middle East and “still had many cards to play.”
In the summer of 1947, a shift took place in the British Arabists’ stand – especially those in the secret services – toward the Labour cabinet’s Middle East policy.
Unable to influence Prime Minister Attlee, who was resolved to withdraw a substantial part of the British forces from the region, they “hijacked” Britain’s Middle East policy, taking matters into their own hands. They were determined to act against what they perceived as a policy that was endangering their country’s vital strategic interests in the face of the Soviet thrust into the region.
From June 1947 until May 1948, Britain thus conducted two contradictory policies in the Middle East – one official, carried out by the cabinet and foreign secretary; the other, unauthorized and secretive, devised by Arabist secret agents in Cairo, Amman and Baghdad. Brig. Clayton played a key role in coordinating and implementing this covert policy.
This brief analysis examines only whether the Arabist secret agents intentionally instigated Arab armed attacks against the Jewish community in Palestine, and later against the State of Israel, without their cabinet’s knowledge or sanction. It does not address the inter-Arab balance of power, which was closely tied to the war in Palestine; the military and diplomatic counterstrategy adopted by Ben-Gurion and his close advisers after learning of the secret British scheme; nor the French or Soviet counteraction in undermining British designs in the Middle East.
On September 23, 1947, shortly after the Arab League meeting in Saoufar, the French attaché in Baghdad reported a secret British scheme to instigate an Arab-Jewish war in Palestine, in order to facilitate the implementation of the Greater Syria plan. The report, reproduced in part here, disclosed that the Iraqi prime minister’s militant stand in Saoufar had been coordinated with British agents and “marked a turning point in Britain's Middle East policy”:
“It seems, in effect, that the British government, urged on by the young elements in the Foreign Office and the Intelligence Service, has decided, after months of hesitation, to undertake a large-scale maneuver that will enable it to consolidate, at little cost, its present wavering position in this part of the world. The British believe that the UN will no doubt ratify the UNSCOP decisions. Disturbances will thus begin in Palestine. The English will benefit from the situation to build new positions as advantageous as those they have lost in Egypt. According to information from an English source, the British plan will be as follows:
“England will give up its mandate over Palestine as soon as possible and return it to the UN, which will oversee, if necessary, an international force to reestablish order in this country. A retreat from Palestine of most of the British troops can already be envisaged. In the event of open conflict between Jews and Arabs, the English, under the pretext of not wanting to be attacked from both sides in these hostilities, where it maintains an officially neutral position, will retreat to Transjordan, from where one or two British divisions will be able to immediately intervene if necessary. British agents will now push the Arab countries to intervene to help their brethren in Palestine if they are attacked by the Jews.”
The report indicated that Britain would abstain from voting on the final UNSCOP report, “leaving the Americans and their satellites the responsibility of creating a Jewish state.” It provided details of a scheme aimed at provoking Syria into a war in Palestine, in order to open the way for King Abdullah’s Arab Legion and the Iraqi army to advance on Damascus under the pretext of defending Syria against a Zionist attack. “Once there, the King of Transjordan will receive overwhelming support and attempt to reestablish peace in Palestine while incorporating the Arab part of this country into the new Greater Syria that will be united with Iraq.”
But contrary to the French attaché’s account, the cabinet in London neither knew of nor approved the scheme of their secret agents to instigate an Arab armed invasion of a Jewish state. Prime Minister Attlee, who decided on withdrawal from Palestine despite the objections of his chiefs of staff, would not have taken on the moral responsibility for a plot that could have annihilated the Jews in Palestine only three years after the Holocaust. Moreover, such an act could have jeopardized Britain’s international standing and its relations with the United States.
Foreign Secretary Bevin, who still believed in the strategic importance of the Middle East, was caught between his prime minister, the chiefs of staff and the secret services. But it was unlikely that he would have acted against his prime minister’s decision.
The record of his tense relations with his secret services in the Middle East – revealed in the Syrian documents – reinforces the assumption that he too was misled, a victim of his inability to control them. He was led to believe that the hostilities between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine resembled the religious and intercommunal strife in India between Muslims and Hindus following Britain’s decision to withdraw. As in India, the violence and loss of life would eventually force the two sides to reach the compromise that Britain had failed to convince them to make. Britain could thus not be held responsible for a partition it had not believed in, and might be called upon to implement a more acceptable solution.
All-out Arab-Jewish war
While many British politicians and officials shared this belief, neither Bevin nor other cabinet ministers were aware that their secret services in Cairo and Arabist diplomats in London and the Middle East, supported by the senior military authorities, were determined, contrary to cabinet decisions, to hold on to the Middle East – even if it led to an all-out Arab-Jewish war.
While the attaché’s report from Baghdad focuses on a secret scheme by British agents to provoke an Arab-Jewish war to further Greater Syria and its union with Iraq, other French reports disclose that its immediate goal was to safeguard Britain’s strategic position in the Middle East.
Another goal was to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state or an Arab-Palestinian state based on the UN partition. There were also emergency safety measures – both military and diplomatic – to prevent the Jewish state from expanding its territory if the Arab armies were defeated. In this event, British forces stationed in Transjordan and Egypt would intervene, while British diplomats in the UN Security Council would act to impose a cease-fire.
French intelligence sources present the scheme as an attempt by Britain to shuffle its cards in the Middle East and inflame Arab hostility toward a Jewish state in order to secure its dominance in the region. Whether the Arabs won or were defeated, its instigators assumed that Britain would be in a better position than it had been in the summer of 1947. Indeed, the attaché's report concluded: “The British position, which for some time has appeared precarious, will thus find itself again dominant, all the more so as Egypt’s termination of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty will enable the British forces to maintain their position on the Suez Canal.”
During deliberations in London and Cairo in 1947 on a defense strategy in the Middle East, it was decided that Britain would seek bilateral military treaties with each Arab state – rather than a collective agreement brokered through the Arab League – to replace existing treaties. It was assumed that Britain would be in a better position to initially conclude bilateral treaties with friendly Hashemite Iraq and Transjordan, and later with other Arab governments, especially Syria. A treaty with Egypt remained a high priority for the British High Command. The Foreign Office expected that after failing at the UN that July, Egypt would be more amenable to renewing negotiations, thus ensuring Britain’s military use of its territory and solving the Sudan question.
But King Faruq and his prime minister, as well as Syria’s President Quwatli, were reluctant to conclude treaties with Britain, a declining colonial power. They faced an upsurge of nationalist passion among the younger generation, who were demonstrating in the streets for independence and social and economic reforms, and refused to be drawn into a war between the Western powers and the Soviet Union.
As the communist threat became less convincing, British agents believed that they had to come up with more effective leverage to persuade the Arab governments and public that their countries needed Britain’s assistance.
Without the knowledge of their cabinet, from June 1947 until May 1948 British secret agents conducted their own covert policy. While officially seeking to convince the Arab governments of the importance of concluding defense agreements with Britain to counter the escalating Soviet threat, they secretly instigated an Arab-Jewish confrontation in Palestine to advance Britain’s strategic ends. They sought to use a war in Palestine to deflect the Arab public’s attention from the controversial treaty negotiations; as an incentive for the Arab governments to conclude defense treaties with Britain; to demonstrate to the Arab rulers their countries’ need for military collaboration; to reinforce the Arab states’ military dependence on Britain, while preventing the establishment of a Jewish state or limiting its size.
A war in Palestine would pressure the United States to revise its position on partition. No longer would Zionist propaganda be able to portray the struggle against Britain as that of a national movement fighting to liberate itself from colonial rule. An Arab-Jewish conflict would also validate Britain’s long-held position regarding the solution to the Palestinian problem and demonstrate that, despite its good intentions, it was caught in the middle. Moreover, it would help Britain secure its strategic assets in Palestine: Haifa, with its port and refineries, and the Negev region in the south.
Brig. Clayton’s frequent visits to the Arab capitals in the last months of 1947, and his behind-the-scenes involvement in the Arab League’s meetings in Saoufar, Aley and Cairo, were part of the scheme hatched by the secret agents in Cairo, Baghdad and Amman. Nuri al-Sa’id, the Arab League’s Azzam, Mardam Bey and Sulh were used to implement it. King Abdullah was essential for its success, as he and his Arab Legion were to serve as a means to pressure Quwatli, Saudi King Ibn Sa’ud and Egypt’s Faruq, while forcing the Zionist leaders to acquiesce on Britain’s proposals.
Also part of the ploy were attempts by British agents in Transjordan to intimidate the Syrian president; the Iraqi government’s militant stand in Saoufar and Aley, and its insistence that the Arab League take action in Palestine; and Clayton’s proposal to split Palestine between the Arab states.
In mid-January 1948, the Arabists’ scheme seemed on the verge of success. With the Arab public’s attention turned to events in Palestine, Britain concluded a defense treaty with Iraq. A similar agreement with Transjordan was to be signed without any hindrance. After failing to persuade kings Ibn Sa’ud and Faruq to conclude an agreement with Syria against Abdullah, President Quwatli was more predisposed to give in to British pressure, particularly as British agents had undertaken to restrain the Jordanian monarch. He was also anxious to prevent them from jeopardizing his efforts to be elected president for a second term.
Prime Minister Sulh, who opposed a Jewish state on Lebanon’s border that might reinforce Maronite separatism, secretly collaborated with Clayton and publicly endorsed a treaty with Britain. But when Ronald Campbell, the British ambassador to Egypt, and Brig. Clayton proposed to Egyptian Prime Minister Nuqrashi that Britain foil the establishment of a Jewish state or limit its territory in return for a treaty, Nuqrashi rejected any attempt to link the conflict in Palestine with Egypt’s demands for the evacuation of British forces and unity of the Nile Valley.
Alongside negotiations with the Arab governments on defense treaties, the British secret agents stepped up their efforts to fuel violent Arab-Jewish clashes, urging the Arab leaders to close ranks against the Zionist threat.
Between September and December 1947, Brig. Clayton and other secret agents tacitly collaborated with Azzam, Mardam Bey and Sulh to organize an irregular force – the Arab Liberation Army, under Qawuqji’s command – to be activated before Britain formally withdrew from Palestine. While Azzam regarded this force as a means for the Arab League to intervene in Palestine, Mardam and Sulh – and President Quwatli in particular – saw it more as a means to preempt an attempt by Abdullah’s Arab Legion to take over the northern part of Palestine than to help their Palestinian brethren against the Jews.
A British military mission under Col. Fox, an unofficial adviser to the Syrian High Command since 1946, tried to obtain arms and ammunition from British army stocks in Palestine to arm Arab volunteers in the Katana camp south of Damascus. French intelligence sources reported that British army and police deserters, disguised as Arabs, were to be seen in the streets of Damascus.
Scores of British employees of the Iraq Petroleum Company arrived in the city, leading to Syrian press speculation on why the Syrian capital had suddenly become an attraction for British “tourists.”
British agents also negotiated with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem – initially indirectly through Sulh and later with his envoy, following his demand to command his own armed forces in Palestine. The Arab Liberation Army entered Palestine in the first half of January 1948; Qawuqji later wrote that the British army had hardly hindered the advance of his forces on northern Palestine.
The collapse of the Portsmouth Treaty marked the failure of the bilateral treaty approach. Although Bevin signed a new treaty in London with Jordanian Prime Minister Tawfiq Abd al-Huda, other Arab leaders, including Azzam, Mardam Bey and Sulh, openly opposed treaties with foreign powers. British military planners and Arabists in the Foreign Office and the Middle East now came up with a new strategy – a collective defense agreement with the Arab states through the Arab League.
In March 1948, Azzam and Mardam Bey began a campaign to revise the Arab League pact in order to consolidate ties between its member-states against the Zionist threat – an initiative tacitly coordinated with the British secret agents. After consulting with King Ibn Sa’ud, King Faruq declared that before any negotiations could take place on a collective defense agreement, Britain had to abrogate its existing bilateral treaties with the Arab states.
In their reports to London, the Arabists linked the collapse of the Portsmouth Treaty directly to events in Palestine. Their failure in Iraq increased the likelihood of war in Palestine, as British secret agents became even more determined to provoke an Arab-Jewish conflict. The defeat in April of the Arab Liberation Army irregular forces and of those commanded by Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini – the Mufti’s nephew – reinforced their conviction that only the regular Arab armies could prevent the establishment of a Jewish state.
In this brief article, it is impossible to detail all the maneuvers and intrigues of the British Arabists in Cairo, Amman and Baghdad to instigate an Arab attack on the Jewish state. The British secret agents used almost all the “dirty tricks” in their arsenal – fear, jealousy, greed, false promises, misleading information and playing on inter-Arab rivalries – to provoke the Arab rulers into a war in Palestine. Nuri al-Sa’id (until the failure of the Portsmouth Treaty); King Abdullah (between June 1947 and May 1948); and Azzam, Mardam Bey and Sulh, and other co-opted “agents of influence” – all allowed the British secret services to operate behind-the-scenes to implement their schemes.
King Ibn Sa’ud aptly described the British agents as “master puppeteers.” The Arab leaders were trapped between their reluctance to go to war and pressure from their public that they themselves had incited with inflammatory rhetoric on destroying the Jewish state. Azzam admitted to a Jewish Agency representative that “we have no choice but to go to war, even if we will be defeated.”
Provoking Egypt to join the war in Palestine was central to the British secret strategy. French sources give details of the British agents’ tactics – teaming up with Azzam to press King Faruq to instruct his army to join the war, despite the opposition of his prime minister. They also included an undertaking to supply the Egyptian army with weapons and ammunition from British stocks in the Canal Zone, and a deliberate underrepresentation of the military strength of the Jewish forces.
Like other Arab rulers, King Faruq – under public pressure to take action – was vulnerable to British machinations. He could not remain on the sidelines while his rival, King Abdullah, was sending forces to Palestine.
The May 11 report from the French military attaché in Beirut, on the secret discussions of the Arab League’s political committee in Damascus, reveals that, apart from King Abdullah, the other Arab leaders were hesitant, seeking a way to delay an invasion of Palestine. It also exposes the British agents’ direct intervention in their decisions. At the last minute, King Faruq overruled his reluctant prime minister and commanded his army to go to war.
The 1948 war swept away the anciens régimes and opened the road to power for a young generation of radical Arab-nationalist officers, determined to avenge their countries’ defeat and bring an end to Britain’s dominance in the region.
The old Arab rulers, victims of British machinations and their own ambitions, were to pay dearly. King Abdullah, Iraqi Prince-Regent Abd al-Ilah, Nuri al-Sa’id, Sulh and Nuqrashi all lost their lives. King Faruq and President Quwatli were more fortunate, losing only power.
The British secret agents, diplomats, military officers and civil servants returned home, leaving behind their legacy of a divided, violent Middle East, in which the states formed by two colonial powers in the aftermath of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement failed to withstand the test of time.
Meir Zamir teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His book, “The Secret Anglo-French War in the Middle East: Intelligence and Decolonization, 1940-1948,” is due to be published by Routledge this December.