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The History of the World: Israel becomes a state

14 May 1948

The following is a brief extract from The History of the World: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad.

From the beginning of the Nazi persecution the numbers of Jews who wished to settle in Palestine rose. As the extermination policies began to unroll in the war years, they made nonsense of British attempts to restrict immigration, which was the side of British policy unacceptable to the Jews; the other side – the partitioning of Palestine – was rejected by the Arabs. The issue was dramatized as soon as the war was over by a World Zionist Congress demand that a million Jews should be admitted to Palestine at once. Other new factors now began to operate. The British in 1945 had looked benevolently on the formation of an ‘Arab League’ of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Yemen and Jordan. There had always been in British policy a strand of illusion – that pan-Arabism might prove the way in which the Middle East could be persuaded to settle down after post-Ottoman confusion, and that the co-ordination of the policies of Arab states would open the way to the solution of its problems. In fact the Arab League was soon preoccupied with Palestine to the virtual exclusion of anything else.

Proposed UN partition of Palestine 1947 (c) Helicon Publishing Ltd

The other novelty was the Cold War. In the immediate post-war era, Stalin took the view that Britain and the United States would rival each other for world dominance, and that the Soviets would be served by stirring the pot. Verbal attacks on British positions and influence therefore followed, and in the Middle East this, of course, coincided with traditional interests … The Americans struggled with making out their position. There was major public support in the United States for Zionist views, fueled by the terrible revelations that were coming out of the Nazis’ death-camps.

Thus beset, the British sought to disentangle themselves from the Holy Land. From 1945 they faced both Jewish and Arab terrorism and guerrilla warfare in Palestine. Unhappy Arab, Jewish and British policemen struggled to hold the ring while the British government still strove to find a way acceptable to both sides of bringing the mandate to an end. American help was sought, but to no avail; Truman wanted a pro-Zionist solution. In the end the British took the matter to the United Nations. It recommended partition, but this was still a non-starter for the Arabs. Fighting between the two communities grew fiercer and the British decided to withdraw without more ado.

On the day that they did so, 14 May 1948, the state of Israel was proclaimed. It was immediately recognized by the United States (sixteen minutes after the foundation act) and the USSR; they were to agree about little else in the Middle East for the next quarter of a century.

Reprinted from The History of the World: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2013 by O.A. Westad.

J. M. Roberts CBE died in 2003. He was Warden at Merton College, Oxford University, until his retirement and is widely considered one of the leading historians of his era. He is also renowned as the author and presenter of the BBC TV series ‘The Triumph of the West’ (1985). Odd Arne Westad edited the sixth edition of The History of the World. He is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. He has published fifteen books on modern and contemporary international history, among them ‘The Global Cold War,’ which won the Bancroft Prize.

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