Late on the night of Wednesday, May 12, 1948, Minhelet Ha’am (the “people’s administration,” Israel’s provisional government-in-the-making) convened in order to make a fateful choice: whether to accept the American demand for a cease-fire, or to declare the establishment of an independent Jewish state.
It was clear to the meeting’s 10 participants that the consequence of declaring statehood after the British Mandate expired on May 14 would be total war against all the Arab armies. The reports that had arrived overnight about the dire situation of the Etzion Bloc settlements, south of Jerusalem, only heightened their concern. With the memory of the Holocaust painfully fresh, the participants were confronted with a grave moral dilemma: Did they have the right to make a decision that might inflict a second catastrophe on the Jewish people?
Despite the decision’s historical importance, the motivations that led David Ben-Gurion to push for a declaration of statehood continue to be shrouded in fog. Did he act rashly, driven by a sense of mystical, almost messianic redemption, or on the basis of a judicious appraisal of the situation derived from precise intelligence and a thorough examination of the capabilities of the forces of the Yishuv – the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine – to repel the Arab offensive?
Documents recently found in French and Israeli archives support the second option. The documents show that during the fateful meeting, Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Yishuv, received secret information from French intelligence to the effect that the leaders of the Arab states, who were meeting at that time in Damascus, had decided, with secret British support, to launch a lightning attack (blitzkrieg) and had devised a coordinated invasion plan.
“It is learned from an authoritative source that the Arab states have made a final decision to attack together and simultaneously on May 15,” read a telegram received by a Ben-Gurion aide shortly after the meeting started. “They have decided to do so even if it entails a risk of failure. They are relying on a lack of heavy weapons and of Jewish air power. Tel Aviv will be attacked immediately from the air.”
The cable, from French intelligence sources, elaborated on the Arab attack plan and on the forces that would be participating. This was supremely important strategic information, and it stands to reason that even if Ben-Gurion did not share its content with the majority of those present at the meeting, it formed the crux of his considerations as to whether to delay the declaration of the state’s establishment in order to gain time, as weapons shipments were on the way. The “authoritative source” was the French consulate in Jerusalem; the cable was sent the previous day by the country’s military attaché in Beirut to army headquarters in Paris.
Ben-Gurion found out as early as July 1947 about a British plot involving Iraqi leaders to incite war. French intelligence informed him that senior British military and intelligence officers in Cairo and Bagdad were working secretly to thwart His Majesty’s government’s decision to evacuate Palestine by sparking a general war between Jews and Arabs.
On the eve of the meeting of Minhelet Ha’am, it had become clear to him that it was precisely the Yishuv’s military successes against the Palestinian forces and the Arab Liberation Army – particularly the capture of Haifa and Jaffa – that enabled the British officers to overcome the rifts and deep rivalries between the Arab leaders. They succeeded in persuading the Arabs to join forces and go to war to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, or at least to confine its area to the coastal plain only.
British evaluation of the forthcoming war
A May 7 memorandum sent to the Chiefs of Staff in London forecast accurately the stages of the War of Independence, and some of its conclusions would be reflected in the Arabs’ war plan. The memorandum refers to the war as an unalterable fact and ignores mediation efforts by Washington, as well as dismissing the apprehensions harbored by Arab leaders about going to war.
According to the memo, in the first stage, the Arab armies would exploit their advantage in terms of regular forces and heavy arms and munitions to launch a lightning strike and seize the areas allotted to the Arab states, based on the United Nations Partition Plan of November, 29, 1947, as well as the Negev, which was to be part of the Jewish state. The Arab forces, it was predicted, would also successfully conquer Jewish-controlled areas in the northeastern part of the country. In response, the Jews would quickly expand their fighting forces by means of massive immigration and a general mobilization of those fit for combat in the Yishuv. Concurrently, they would greatly expedite the importation of arms and ammunition, ignoring the American embargo.
In the second stage the Jewish forces would launch a counteroffensive and would gain the upper hand, given the Arab forces’ shortage of weapons and ammunition and their demoralization.
The document postulates that “there might consequently be opportunities for the Jews to exploit the situation in this phase and recapture some of the Arab areas and even possibly to launch attacks on Arab states.” If the Arabs survived the second stage, the subsequent stage would take the form of a “war of attrition” in which the Arabs would have the upper hand, owing to their superior resources. At the same time, the Arab regimes could face domestic crises and have to cope with the rise of extremist political movements.
From the memo it emerged that the British would end up adopting the following four operative conclusions during and after the war:
1. The Arab armies would conduct a lightning war to ensure rapid ground achievements.
2. An Israeli counteroffensive should be prevented by imposing a cease-fire to secure the Arab military achievements. Indeed, the French ambassador to the UN at that time, Alexandre Parodi, reported that on May 19 the British representative had worked to torpedo his initiative in the Security Council for a cease-fire, but the same representative was eager for a similar resolution to be adopted at the end of the same month, when the Arab forces were in retreat.
3. Military intervention, based on existing defense treaties between Britain and Egypt and the Kingdom of Jordan, would be considered if Israel invades its neighbors. Thus, the British threatened to intervene in the wake of the Israeli attack in Sinai in December 1948 (Operation Horev) and as a result of their fear of an Israel assault on Transjordan. This was the background to the downing of five British Spitfires by the nascent Israeli air force and the transfer of large quantities of heavy weapons by the British Navy to Aqaba. Simultaneously, British destroyers staged a demonstration of strength off the coast of Beirut at the request of the Lebanese prime minister.
4. It was imperative to ensure the conquest of the Negev by the Arab forces. It bears noting that in January 1947, the British Army had completed its fieldwork in the Negev in order to examine the feasibility of transferring its camps there from the Suez Canal. The recommendations included building roads in the Arava that would connect the army’s bases in the Sinai and the north to Aqaba, which was to become a central port for the arrival of reinforcements, or for evacuation of British forces to East Africa if needed. Israel’s conquest of the southern Negev, the Arava and Eilat (Operation Uvda) in March 1949 thus not only heightened British fears of an Israeli takeover of the West Bank and of a direct assault on Transjordan, but also derailed a vital British strategic plan.
The question that arises from the British memorandum is why the senior Mandatory intelligence officers and the High Command in Egypt urged the Arab leaders to launch a war, even though they foresaw a possible defeat. Some of them apparently were wrong in their assessment of the abilities of the Yishuv’s leaders and of the fighting force at their disposal to contain the Arabs’ thrust. They believed that the major goal – conquering Tel Aviv – could be accomplished by a combined attack of Egyptian forces from the south and the Arab Legion from the east.
Others maintained that, win or lose, the Arab states would be increasingly dependent on Britain and would rescind their objections to the signing of defense pacts. The British High Command viewed such treaties as crucial in the light of its assessment that the Middle East would be one of the main arenas in a projected third world war against the Soviet Union.
What Ben-Gurion knew
A leader who knows that he and his movement are a target of covert, subversive activity possesses an advantage: He can thwart the adversary’s intentions. This was certainly true in the case of Ben-Gurion, who knew about the British officers’ intention to foil the establishment of a Jewish state. With this information, by the summer of 1945, Ben-Gurion – contrary to the leaders of the Haganah, the pre-state underground militia – was able to foresee the outbreak of a general war with the Arab states, and to make vital strategic decisions on how to conduct the struggle against the British, on acquiring arms production means in the United States and on procuring heavy weapons.
During his lengthy sojourn in Paris, in 1945-46, Ben-Gurion learned how British intelligence agents had manipulated the leaders of Syria and Lebanon to oust the French from the areas of their mandate in the Levant. The agents also made use of these leaders and others – notably the secretary general of the Arab League, Abd al-Rahman al-Azzam – to forge the Arab invasion coalition.
Ben-Gurion developed an almost fatalistic belief in the ability of British intelligence to manipulate both Arab leaders and their own government in London, to achieve their goals. His belief proved prescient.
On the eve of the May 12, 1948, meeting of Minhelet Ha’am, Ben-Gurion received information from French sources to the effect that British intelligence officers and the British High Command in Egypt had succeeded in persuading King Faruq to reverse his earlier position and join the Arab war coalition.
The king made the decision on his own and forced it on his prime minister, Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi, overriding his opposition and that of senior government figures, senators, the royal family and the Egyptian High Command. From May 10 to May 13, Nuqrashi held secret discussions with other members of the government, in which the participants arrived at the conclusion that the Egyptian army lacked sufficient war matériel and was unprepared for combat.
Research in the archives of the French army, intelligence branch and Foreign Ministry has revealed many details about how British intelligence personnel and generals in Egypt manipulated Faruq to join in the war against Israel. Among other tactics, British agents made use of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Thousands of the organization’s members attacked and plundered Jewish and foreign property and demonstrated on the streets of the cities, demanding that the king order the army to take action to save Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and Palestine’s Muslims.
In the Negev, hundreds of the Brotherhood’s members operated against Jewish settlements. At the same time, the king was told that the Arabs’ conquest of the Negev would encourage the British Army to accede to his request to move its forces there from Egypt.
However, the most potent lure was the secret supply of weapons to the Egyptian army, in spite of the British government’s embargo on arms sales to the Middle East. In the second week of May, the French noted unusual visits by King Faruq to British army headquarters in Tel al-Kabir. Intelligence that reached the French indicated that the British officers promised the king that if he were to join the war effort, Britain would provide the Egyptian forces with the necessary weapons, ammunition and aircraft.
According to a report of the French military attaché in Cairo, during the period of May 1-25, the British Army supplied the Egyptian expeditionary force with large quantities of weapons and equipment from its Suez Canal depots, including rifles, machine guns, field artillery, ammunition, water containers and other items.
Special emphasis was placed on strengthening the Egyptian air force: It received 16 Spitfires, a number of Dakotas, air-to-ground bombs and a great deal of ammunition. The British also agreed to replace planes that were damaged. For their part, the French suspected that British officers were directly involved in planning the Egyptian offensive.
Faruq’s decision was a pivotal event for Egypt and for the entire region. Israel was now forced to fight on several fronts simultaneously: The Egyptian army advanced from the south toward Tel Aviv, while the armies of Transjordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon attacked from the east and the north.
British intelligence officers were also successful in Damascus, as Ben-Gurion learned, again, from French sources. The Arab leaders met there in the second week of May to discuss whether to accept the American call to extend the British Mandate by 10 days in order to make possible an Arab-Jewish agreement, or to decide to go to war and come up with a coordinated scheme for the invasion.
According to information given by a senior Syrian figure, the British compelled the Iraqi regent, Abd al-Ilah, and King Abdullah to replace Iraqi Gen. Ismail Safwat with another Iraqi general, Nur a-Din Mahmud, who was more compliant from the British point of view.
The report also indicates that Arab League head Azzam, Jamil Mardam and Riyad al-Sulh, the prime ministers of Syria and Lebanon respectively, and the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, were ready to accept the American proposal to extend the Mandate, but yielded to the pressure of the Jordanian monarch, whose representatives informed them that the Arab Legion (Jordanian Army) would invade Palestine in any event.
Abdullah’s stance compelled the other Arab leaders to back an invasion, lest they be seen by their own people as being less committed than the Jordanian king to defending the Arabs of Palestine. Those present at the Damascus meeting, some of whom were secretly collaborating with the British intelligence agents, had no doubt that Abdullah was acting at the directives of his English sponsors. It follows, then, that the visit by Golda Meir, then head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, to him on May 11, in a last-ditch attempt to avert war, was hopeless from the outset.
The capture of the Etzion Bloc by Arab irregulars, mostly from the surrounding villages, in cooperation with units of the Arab Legion, which concluded on the morning of May 13, persuaded even those Arab leaders who were still hesitant that their armies were capable of defeating the Jewish forces and of liberating Palestine. This was overwhelmingly affirmed by the events in the Etzion Bloc, during which many of the residents of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion were massacred and hundreds more from neighboring settlements were taken captive and paraded in trucks through the streets of Amman to the cheers of the crowd. Indeed, furnishing such proof was one of the objectives of the operation, whose architect was the commander of the Arab Legion, Glubb Pasha (the British officer John Bagot Glubb), who was in direct contact with the British High Command and intelligence services in Egypt.
But the conquest of the Etzion Bloc also had an immediate military purpose: ensuring the functioning of the supply lines from the British Army depots at the Suez Canal to the Arab Legion. Significantly, British intelligence documents and reports of Syrian army intelligence show that Glubb was involved in British intelligence activity in Transjordan and Syria, including in the recruitment of Bedouin tribes in the Syrian desert as irregular auxiliary forces for the Arab Legion. Some of them later took part in the battles against the Israeli forces at Latrun, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Deciding on a state
It can be concluded that before and during the meeting of Minhelet Ha’am, Ben-Gurion received reliable, precise information about the decision of the Arab leaders, with British backing, to go to war, and about the invasion plan and the participating forces.
The members of Minhelet Ha’am took part in the long deliberations, which lasted for over 10 hours. Golda Meir reported on the failure of her mission to King Abdullah, and Israel Galili, the head of the National Command (Haganah), and Yigal Yadin, the acting chief of staff, reported on the war situation. Yadin estimated that the Yishuv had an “even” chance to withstand the Arab offensive.
It can be argued that the decision by Minhelet Ha’am was necessary, given the Arab leaders’ decision two days earlier to invade on May 15, after the departure of the Mandatory forces. In the light of the Arab leaders’ hesitations and the pressure from Washington, it is very unlikely that the Arab leaders would have acceded to British pressure and ordered the invasion to go ahead, if the Jewish state had not been declared.
The decision to establish the state was made from a deep conviction that this was a historic moment for the Jewish people and the Zionist movement. But it was based on a realistic situation appraisal, on up-to-date intelligence about the enemy and its intentions, and on an assessment of the ability of the Yishuv’s forces to contain a lightning attack by the Arabs and launch a counteroffensive.
The magnitude of the responsibility that Ben-Gurion felt he bore is attested to in a diary entry he made on May 14, after the declaration of the state: “In the land intense joy and jubilation – and again I am a mourner among the joyful…”
Meir Zamir is a professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His article “The Role of MI6 in Egypt’s Decision to Go to War Against Israel in May 1948” was published in May 2019 in the British journal Intelligence and National Security.