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Home > Tamilnation Library> International Relations > The Forgotten Friendship: Israel and the Soviet Bloc, 1947-53 - Arnold Krammer
TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: International Relations
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From Chapter 2: Soviet Motives in Support of Partition Resolution
The investigation of Russia's motives in casting its lot with the creation of Israel, a tiny strip of land on the Mediterranean whose Jewish population only slightly exceeded half a million people, in the face of a potential ally numbering millions of Arabs, must begin with a basic axiom: "As far as the Soviet Union is concerned," Russia's foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, once said, "there is only one kind of logic in foreign affairs: the logic of what is best for the Soviet Union." What was "best for the Soviet Union" with regard to its support of the Jewish Agency's claims in Palestine was a single limited objective: to immediately end British control in Palestine, and create an independent state whose future allegiance, either as the result of gratitude or diplomatic pressure, might be directed toward the Eastern bloc. The eventual conversion of that state into a pro-Soviet entity, as prophesied by a variety of left-wing Palestinians, involved a number of other tactics and objectives.
Britain emerged from World War II as the sole power in the Middle East. Strengthened by the prestige of victory armed with treaties with Egypt, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq, and a mandate over Palestine, and in control of the Arab Legion, Britain's position in the area appeared unassailable.
Yet the Soviet Union was also aware of Britain's underlying weaknesses: the war had left Britain drained financially and psychologically, the great empire was beginning to pull apart with recent independence having been granted to Ceylon, Pakistan, India, and Burma, and its military position in Greece and Turkey was proving untenable.
In addition, Foreign Secretary Bevin was coming under increasing public pressure, as described earlier in this study, to cut colonial costs and to reduce the size of the British forces in the Middle East, especially in view of the heavy casualties resulting from terrorist activity against them in Palestine.
None of these problems was unknown to the Soviet Union, which could only view the dissipation of British strength in the Middle East with hidden satisfaction. Russia's only fear involved Britain's potential appeal for American partnership in an area it was becoming less able to maintain, an appeal which was made by Attlee in the fall of 1946. Britain decided, as it would again with regard to Greece, that the United States had to be persuaded to share the responsibility for continued defense of the Middle East. An astute analysis of the period declared that "It was probably this decision of Attlee's, more than any other, that persuaded Stalin into the surprise decision to support the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine"....
...The final consideration in the Soviet Union's partition objectives was a fairly realistic appraisal of Anglo-American rivalry. In the Western press, Russia's entry into the Palestine Question was frequently considered to be an attempt to inflame the issues which might bring Britain and the United States to a confrontation. Stalin's March, 1947, pledge to Ernest Bevin regarding Russia's recognition of Britain's position in the Middle East, only as long as the United States remained out of the area, illustrates Russia's motive. Not only did the Russian
strategy serve to isolate Britain's deteriorating Middle East position from outside aid, but set the two Western powers at loggerheads on a variety of issues. Britain's uncooperative attitude in the United Nations, following her referral of the Palestine problem to that body in February, 1947, clashed with the joint American-Russian effort to find a reasonable solution in the partition resolution of November. Moreover, Britain backed the Arab states which invaded Palestine, hoping for Arab victory and reinstatement of British rule to protect the doomed Jews under her own terms. The Jordanian Arab Legion was, in fact, trained, financed, and officered by the British and commanded by Glubb Pasha, the British brigadier John Glubb. This military aid to the Arab forces, in the face of a United Nations arms embargo imposed on the Middle East, not only worked at odds with America's efforts to create a Jewish state in Palestine, but vastly increased Western fears that a British-led Arab victory over Palestine would cause the involvement of Soviet forces. The Palestine issue might well have been Moscow's opportunity to split the postwar Western alliance. It is also reasonable to assume that the obverse of this objective might also have been seriously considered by Soviet strategists. By increasing the chaos in the Middle East, and perhaps frustrating both Britain and the United States, the Soviet Union might be able to step into the temporary vacuum, or at the least to exploit the fertile political conditions which chaos generally creates.
The main underlying issue affecting the Soviet attitude toward the Middle East during the several postwar years leading to the creation of Israel was the search for anti-Western support. Moscow would probably have been willing to support any state or movement, regardless of its ideological persuasion, in order to break the Anglo-American front and to weaken Western unity. The Palestine Question provided the Soviet Union with a long awaited opportunity in the Middle East. Whether or not it was an expected opportunity is a moot question, depending on the seriousness with which Moscow viewed the variety of pledges and recommendations offered by left-wing Palestinian Zionists. In addition, there is the question of the information supplied to Moscow, regarding the potentialities for success, by at least two highly placed spies. Thus, when the Palestine issue came before the United Nations early in 1947, it must be assumed that Moscow had not been caught unaware.
Once the partition resolution had been passed in the United Nations, due primarily to the joint partnership of Soviet Russia and the United States, the legal groundwork for the creation of the Jewish state had been largely completed.
While it would not be accurate to state that the desperately needed arms were not also acquired from numerous sources in the West, the Soviet bloc was the only major area in which the governments themselves authorized the sale of arms to the Jews as an extension of foreign policy.
ISRAEL'S declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, was a spontaneous and emotional commitment made in the midst of international diplomatic maneuvering and fruitless negotiations. In fact, the war had begun many months before. As early as November 30, 1947, the day following the momentous partition resolution in the United Nations, armed Arab bands were active all over Palestine. Despite the presence of 100,000 British troops and the fact that a Jewish state would not come into existence for another six months, the widespread terrorist attacks on Jewish settlements reinforced the convictions held by David Ben-Gurion and the majority of Palestinian Jewish leaders that a full-scale invasion by six well-armed Arab armies was inevitable. The inescapable odds in population were 65o,000 Jews against 40,000,000 Arabs.' An immediate campaign was initiated to bring the Haganah, the Jewish underground army, to fighting capacity to unify the various political factions it contained, and to augment its dismally small and antiquated supply of arms and munitions. In 1947 Ben-Gurion had made a thorough investigation of the Haganah's total underground arsenal, and found the following:
10,073 rifles (8,72o in the settlements for local defense; 336 in reserve; 656 with the Palmach Brigade; 361 with the field force)
1. An unofficial estimate placed the military strength of the Arab League armies at over 120,000 men, with Egypt alone allocating $72,000,000 for defense. Arab News Bulletin (Washington, D.C.), no. 13 (September 27, 1947), p. 2.
1,90o submachine guns (785 in the settlements; 424 with the field force; 13o with Palmach; 561 in reserve)
186 machine guns (31 in the settlements; 35 with the field force; 5 with Palmach; 115 in reserve)
444 light machine guns (338 in the settlements; 37 with the field force; 33 with Palmach; 46 in reserve)
There was not a single cannon, and only one heavy machine gun. There was no anti-tank weapon, or anti-aircraft gun, no armored car, and nothing at all for naval or air combat. There was no communications equipment.2
As if the situation were not dismal enough, the Palestinian Jews were well aware that the six major Arab states were heavily equipped with modern weapons and were busily obtaining more, both on the open market and through the sympathy of the several British military commanders in the Middle East. It became imperative to the very survival of the as-yet-unborn state to secure the arms—from any available source and at any cost—necessary to repel the imminent invasion. As chairman of the Jewish Agency executive body, Ben-Gurion turned to the dedicated and experienced Haganah to obtain the weapons.
The Haganah grew out of the early pioneer settlements in Palestine and expanded with the periodic influx of refugees as the only Jewish defense force against roaming Arab bands. Declared illegal under the British Mandate, the Haganah continued to protect Jewish settlers...
Ben-Gurion dispatched dozens of special Haganah agents all over the world to buy anything they could—obsolete aircraft, machine guns, rifles that were barely usable, damaged tanks, and anything else that was for sale. The major problem revolved around the fact that the Jewish Agency represented an underground army and not a legitimate government. The FBI and British authorities, therefore, maintained steady pressure on these emissaries and made frequent arrests—a problem that did not face Arab buyers of military equipment. The young Haganah agents invented all kinds of stratagems to get their purchases out of the country of origin and to hide them in various places in Europe, ready to be dispatched to Palestine.
In the United States, for example, the Schwimmer Aviation Company of Burbank, California, Service Airways, Inc. in New York, and an airline of Panamanian registry called Lineas Aereas de Panama, were used as cover organizations for purchasing planes and flying them to Latin America, from where they could be dismantled and smuggled into Palestine. In England, a legitimate film company was persuaded to make a war documentary in order that disguised Haganah pilots could obtain permission for a number of their planes to take off—planes which did not land again in England.
The Haganah agents involved in the film company and their British accomplices were later tried and convicted for their parts in the illegal export of aircraft and arms to Israel, as well as a complicated side-issue involving the death of a Jewish car dealer and the disposition of his body. [See The Times (London), April 26 and October 10, 1948; January 26 and December 23, 1950.] Fictitious companies were also established in South Africa, Spain, France, and South America.'
...What, then, can be concluded about the roles and motivations of the Czech and Soviet governments in supplying military aid to the Haganah? During the period between the first arms purchase in December, 1947, and the coup d'etat in February, 1948, the Czech government offered to supply the Jewish Agency with surplus weapons, in defiance of the United Nations embargo and heavy British and American pressure. ... Based upon Stalin's previous influence over Czechoslovakia's economic affairs, there can be little question that, although it was opposed by most of the Communist members of the government, the decision was allowed to become operational with the Kremlin's permission.
It is further evident that the behind-the-scenes efforts by the "roaming ambassador," Mordechai Oren, had a decided influence on the Kremlin's adjudication.
Following the February coup.. military supplies available to the Jews increased enormously as did the help they received in transporting the consignments from Czechoslovakia, through several Eastern European countries, to Palestine.
The weight of evidence indicates that Moscow stood directly behind the new emphasis and that the Soviet leaders were influenced, perhaps by promises of an impending pro-Soviet socialist Israel government made by Shmuel Mikunis.
Characteristically, Stalin implemented his decision to add critical military aid to Russia's earlier diplomatic commitment through Czechoslovakia rather than directly through Russian arms manufacturers. If at any time the current close relations between the Soviet bloc and the new Jewish homeland underwent a change, it would be the Czechs and not the Russians who would bear the responsibility for the "ideological error." The Slansky trials of 1952 were the hard results of that responsibility.
At the moment, however, the relationship between the Jewish Agency, represented in Prague by the Haganah Rechesh team, and the new Czech government, were at their closest point. From February through midsummer of 1948, the members of the Rechesh, under Avriel's leadership, were shown a new horizon in military hardware and their only real limitations revolved around their ability to pay the enormous costs in dollars and the myriad intrigues involved in their transportation to the hard-pressed front lines of Israel."