Opinion

What Did the British Ever Do for Israel?

For 20 critical years, the far from philanthropic British Mandate allowed a potentially subversive shadow government to be built under their noses. That’s how Israel survived 1948

Eric Matson / Government Press Office

In Israel, the British Mandate is not always remembered with affection, perhaps for good reason. After all, it was hardly a philanthropic regime, and it was, at times, callous.

However, despite the legitimate criticisms, if it weren’t for the Mandate, the state of Israel would not be celebrating its 70th birthday this year, and celebrating its evolution into a successful and prosperous nation.

Creating a democratic state from scratch is not an easy thing to do. In order to function, it needs an effective and legitimate system of elections. Then there must be a decision-making body that holds public confidence and a legally constituted, armed organization able to enforce those decisions.

All of this is hard to generate instantaneously, and inevitably such things take time to become established. If you don’t believe this, just ask the Palestinian Authority.

Yet, on May 14, 1948, the State of Israel appeared on the international scene, as if from nowhere, complete and fully functioning. More than that, from day one it was not only able to suppress an indigenous Arab population intent on seeing it stillborn, but it simultaneously fought a war with its neighboring states - and comprehensively defeated them. You have to ask yourself how this was possible.

There are many conceivable answers for this, and one can pick and choose from several plausible options.

Perhaps it was all down to half a century of the Zionist movement and the fighting Jews of the Second and Third Aliya; their idealistic fervor that overcame all odds. Or maybe it was organizational and entrepreneurial skills, carefully nurtured over 2,000 years in the diaspora, and finally brought home to great effect. It also is possible of course, as some would have us believe, it was just a proper, old-fashioned miracle; that God threw the Arab side into disarray so that the Jews could defeat them in battle.

But according to most narratives, the one party that can’t take the credit must be the perfidious British.

Dan Keinan

The negative effects of British rule are numerous. They adopted their usual colonial approach to dealing with less sophisticated “native” populations, enforcing their rules using tough, often brutal, methods. As an aside, it is interesting that these days, when taken to task by British military officers and politicians over Israel’s heavy-handed dealing with the Palestinians, I have heard IDF officers respond, ”Well, we learned this stuff from you.”

It is also impossible to avoid the unquestionably shameful actions that took place through the British insistence on maintaining strict immigration levels, when clearly there was an overwhelming humanitarian need for compassion.

Many Israelis would summarize Britain’s behavior in this period as turning away desperate Holocaust survivors from their promised homeland, and ruthlessly executing Jewish patriots fighting for their right to self-determination.

But this narrative runs the risk of confusing British behavior and the Mandate itself, and ends up missing the point. What really matters is that the mechanism of the Mandate ensured that for 20 critical years, the Yishuv did not have to deal with the onerous task of actually running a state, and covered key responsibilities such as law enforcement, foreign policy, and balancing the national budget.

This freedom provided the headroom needed for the Yishuv leadership to create an independent and autonomous Jewish government-in-waiting - and they seized it.

The creditable legacy the British left, unfashionable though it is to recall, included a much admired legal system, a vastly improved infrastructure, and the concept of a professional civil service.

Israelis on the beach in Tel Aviv watch a military show marking Israeli Independence Day, April 26, 2012.
Jack Guez

The Ottomans – or any other colonial power for that matter – would never have allowed a potentially subversive shadow government to be built under their noses, so why did the British?

The short answer is the Balfour Declaration. Although it was nothing more than an expression of support from one member of the British government to the Jewish community at large, when it became an integral part of the Mandate in 1922, the British were committed to it. Of course they often regretted it, frequently tried to find ways around it and, in the end, finally reneged upon it. But for the majority of the time they pretty much stuck to it.

This is what gave David Ben-Gurion the liberty that he required to build up the apparatus of the burgeoning State of Israel virtually unhindered.

Were it not for the British (or more correctly, the British Mandate) there could have been no State of Israel in 1948 - at least not one capable of winning what should have been an unwinnable war and thus surviving.

If that is the case, then perhaps further questions now suggest themselves.

If Israel achieved independence as a stable polity, with a functioning rule of law and democratic foundations, thanks in no small part to the Mandate, are there not lessons the current Israeli state should learn about how it has run its own ”mandate” for the Palestinian Arabs since 1967?

And, while Israel critiques the Palestinians’ lack of democracy, rule of law and stability, does it also have a role in building them?

Ian Westerman is a retired British army officer and doctoral researcher studying Israeli civil-military relations. He currently lives in Herzliya, Israel