Monday, January 19, 2009

Israel's founding and the Soviet Union

Establishment of the state of Israel on 14 May [1948] was internationally an important achievement for the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and its satellites supported the Jews in every way throughout the war in Palestine. The military aid which the Soviet bloc extended to Israel, declared Professor Yaacov Ro'i, was a major factor in enabling the Jews to gain important military victories; it was also a significant factor in promoting Soviet political and strategic ambitions in the Arab world. To quote him, 'The desire that the British be expelled from Palestine and their position in the entire region weakened, justified the unusual step of exceeding the bounds of purely political backing in the international arena as well as the political risks involved in strengthening Israel's fighting potential both with personnel and arms supplies'.
Say what? Establishment of the state of Israel ... was internationally an important achievement for the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies?

Well, yes. The latest round of fighting in Gaza reminded me that this was something I intended to post on one of these days. The quote above is from Soviet Policy towards the Arab World, 1945-48 by Rami Ginat Middle Eastern Studies Oct 1996 (JSTOR database link).

Raising of the Israeli flag at Eilat (then Umm Rashrash) in 1948, marking the end of the War of Independence

The Inauguration is obviously the biggest political event on most Americans' minds right now. But it's also Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And Juan Cole reminds us at his Informed Comment blog (King's Anti-Imperialism and the Challenge for Obama 01/19/09) that King placed great value on the anti-colonialist movement of the post-Second World War period. And Israel's War of Independence played a role in that movement that isn't often mentioned in the light of today's priorities and political alignments.

Of course, the Truman administration also endorsed the creation of the State of Israel. But of the two then-superpowers, the USSR was the one that contributed most substantially to that event and to the support of Israel in its war with the surrounding Arab states that same year.

In an historical retrospective, Israel Seeks "Neutrality" Between U.S., Soviet Union by Washington Report on Middle East Affairs Jan/Feb 1995, Donald Neff recalled that at the time of its founding and immediately afterward, Israel had substantial interest both in having support from Washington and in the immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel. However:

But of more immediate importance were weapons. And it was here that the Soviet Union played a paramount role at this time. Moscow had allowed Czechoslovakia to become Israel's major arms supplier in 1948. In that capacity, Czechoslovakia had provided Israel with all the Messerschmitts and Spitfires that formed its new air force, as well as other weapons and the training of 5,000 of its military personnel by the fall of 1948. And it remained Israel's major arms supplier in 1949.

The significance of the Czech connection to Israel rested on the fact that the U.S. had imposed an arms embargo on the area in 1947. Despite unrelenting pressure from Israel's supporters, the Truman administration continued to observe the embargo in 1949, as did subsequent administrations for more than a decade.

The steadfastness of the Truman administration on the arms issue had less to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict than with the Soviet Union. Keeping Russia out of the Middle East was one of Washington's major goals. Before the Palestine problem grew acute after the end of World War II, the Middle East had been "virtually clean" of Soviet influence, in the words of one British general. But since then it had made some modest gains in Israel because of Moscow's support of partition, its quick recognition of the Jewish state, its decision to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel and its secret supply to Israel of weapons via Czechoslovakia during the fighting.

Harry Truman (l) and Chaim Weizmann, 1948

A mid-1948 report to Secretary of State George C. Marshall from Ambassador to the United Nations Philip C. Jessup observed: " is not apparent that communism has any substantial following among the [Arab] masses. On the other hand, there are apparently a substantial number of Communists in the Irgun, the Stern Gang and other dissident [Jewish terrorist] groups. Beyond that, the Soviet Union, through its support of partition and prompt recognition of Israel, must be considered as having a substantial influence with the PGI [Provisional Government of Israel]. The communist influence is, of course, capable of substantial expansion through whatever diplomatic and other missions the Soviet Government may establish in Israel."

This is a major reason that the legitimacy of the State of Israel itself was never a serious point of contention in the Cold War, despite the later alignment of the Soviets with some of the more anti-Israel states like Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and the strong alignment of the US with Israel. The Soviet Union not only recognized Israel at its founding. The founding of Israel was considered to be an significant diplomatic and political achievement for the Soviets and countries like Czechoslovakia that would later be part of the Warsaw Pact.

There were a number of reasons for this particular alignment. Palestine was under British authority until 1947, when under the pressure of Jewish guerrillas fighters (the British called them terrorists), Britain decided to dump the whole mess into the lap of the United Nations. A great many problems in the Middle East and Asia, too, have the fingerprints of the British Empire all over them: Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir, to name a few. In November of 1947, the UN declared the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab areas. Civil war began immediately with Israel declaring independence in May 1948.

But Britain and France weren't ready to recognize Israel at that time. Both nations were trying hard to hang on to their worldwide empires and didn't want to give the Jewish-Zionist national liberation movement in Palestine that much of a victory.

The Soviet Union did. And the Truman administration decided to support the creation of Israel, not because it was particularly popular, on the contrary. Truman was persuaded it was the right thing to do for a number of reasons.

But it's important to note here that aligning diplomatically with the USSR on this issue, when Britain and France were taking a different position, showed that Truman wasn't simply dogmatically committed to opposing the Soviet Union above all other considerations. Although, as Neff points out in the quotation above, Truman's administration put trying to limit Soviet influence in the Middle East as a higher priority than arming Israel in the face of the Arab War with Gamal Abdel Nasser's infamous threat to drive the Jews into the sea. The Soviet Union, not the US, was their most important international ally at the time. Czechoslovakia was their most important arms supplier.

Rami Ginat writes:

At the very beginning of the war, the Soviet Union justified its support of Israel by claiming that the state of Israel had been proclaimed in accordance with the resolution passed by the UN and they therefore recognized its establishment. As for the Arabs, the Soviets mentioned frequently that they had defended and would continue to defend the independence of the Arab states and peoples. The Arab war against Israel [according to the Soviet position] was not intended to protect Arab national interests or their independence, but was against the rights of the Jews to create their own independent state.
Stalin's USSR didn't make a practice of letting ideology overrule practical considerations of power politics in international affairs. But ideology is also a part of any state's power-political position, and that was perhaps more so with the Soviet Union than most other states. It laid claim to be the leader of a revolution of worldwide scope. And the Soviets framed their support of Israeli independence in the context of Communist ideology which stressed the importance of national liberation movements against imperialism, even when the leaders of those movements weren't communists or close allies to communists.

Joseph Stalin: Israeli independence was perceived as a victory of Soviet foreign policy

Martin Ebon of the New School wrote in "Communist Tactics in Palestine" The Middle East Journal July 1948 that from 1920 until just a few months prior to his writing, the primary focus of Soviet Middle Eastern policy had been "to reduce the influence of the Western powers, primarily Great Britain."

This negative objective could be detected with particular clarity in Soviet policy regarding Palestine; as long as a solution of the problem was the concern of Great Britain, or of joint Anglo-American efforts, the Soviet Union's attitude was largely one of deterring action. But as soon as the Soviet Government could exercise its influence through the United Nations, Russia's policy became positive and sought a wider objective: to bring Soviet influence into play, even if this required modification of the traditional communist attitude of opposition to Zionism, as well as withdrawal from the goal of a unitary Jewish-Arab state which the communists had previously described as the only possible solution.
Ebon quotes the position of the Soviet-line Communist Party of Israel in 1948 on independence of Israel as follows:

This is a great day for us. The British mandate, covered with blood, is dead. The Jewish state arises. The British mandate has been annulled by the struggle of the Yishuv [Jewish national community in Palestine] and with the help of the Soviet Union and the progressive forces of the world. But the fight for independence is not yet finished. There are still British armies on our soil. The British sent Abdul-lah's Arab Legion into action, which is now attacking savagely.

Just as we achieved liquidation of the mandate by a struggle for liberation of the Yishuv, so we will achieve full independence by the mobilization of all the forces of the Yishuv for the fight for our freedom. On our side stands the whole Jewish people. On our side stand all progressive forces. We will fight and we will win.

The proclamation by the government of the Jewish State means a change in the tradition of getting instructions from Washington and London. On this great day, we state that we will never accept foreign domination and we will fight for the roll evacuation of the British army. As we succeeded in destroying die British mandate, we will oppose every new attempt at Anglo-American suppression. On this great day we declare that we win fight for the freedom of the Arab population and co-operation with them in our state. We stretch out our hands for agreement to the neighboring Arab countries, for their independence means our independence, and we want to stand with them against the common imperialist enemy.

May the Jewish State be the free homeland for all its inhabitants. May the Jewish State be the homeland for working people. Let us build a fighting democratic unity for full independence of our state. In these fateful days and amid dangers which threaten us, may the Yishuv be ready for die defense of our state. Our enemies won't conquer us. The whole Yishuv must be united to fight for freedom. Every attack will meet the opposition of the whole people.

Long live the Jewish State! Long live our independent, democratic state! Glory to the defenders and fighters for independence! Justice is with us! Victory will be ours! [my emphasis]
That position cast Israel's independence war as a battle against Anglo-American imperialism, the "American" part of which wasn't entirely plausible given Truman's support of Israeli independence. The opposing Arab armies were cast as the agents of the British Empire, also quite a stretch, since Britain decided in 1947 to wash its hands of the Palestine mess and allow Israeli independence to move forward.

Soviet hopes to keep good relations with Israel soured fairly quickly. For one thing, the USSR was playing both sides of the fence to some degree in the 1948 war. As Ginat explains:

Nevertheless, Soviet support of partition, the establishment of the state of Israel as well as their solid aid to the Jewish effort throughout the war in Palestine, did not mean that the Soviet Union was willing to put all its eggs in the Israeli basket. In fact, there was much evidence to indicate that arms shipments from the Soviet bloc had been made to Egypt and other Arab states.
But it was mainly the larger political situation in the world that moved Israel fairly quickly firmly toward the Western side in the Cold War:

The Soviet plan to establish a stronghold in Palestine failed mainly because soon after the war in Palestine Israel demonstrated its neutral and independent policy in the inter-bloc struggle - a policy which did not fall in line with Soviet interest. Consequently, the Soviets concluded that the way to achieve domination in the Middle East would not be through Israel but rather through Arab countries, mainly Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Thereafter, a significant change in their policy concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict took place. With the end of the war in Palestine, the Soviet pendulum of support swung again towards the Arab side. Throughout 1949, the Soviets extended their policy of promoting instability and insecurity in the Middle East. They rejected the possibility of lifting the arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council. They benefited from the existing state of tension in the Middle East by, indirectly, supplying arms to both sides. They continued to attack the Western powers' defence plans in the Middle East and the Arab leaders' attitude towards these plans, which the Soviets considered to be directed against their vital interests. From this stage on, the Soviets launched a massive campaign against these plans, a campaign which later on proved fruitful. [my emphasis]
The Zionist Labor movement (Mapai, the Labor Party), which played a leading role in the years leading up to independence and just after, practiced a form of militant social democracy. The kibbutz movement was an idealist effort to establish a fundamental basis for a socialist society in Israel. But the orientation of the Israeli labor movement and left was largely social-democratic, not communist. As Martin Ebon wrote in 1948 at the time Soviet-Israeli relations were at their best:

... most Zionist statesmen, from Dr. [Chaim] Weizmann [Israel's first president], favor the Western democracy. Their own community government is run along parliamentary lines. Israel's financial, moral, and military support has in the past largely come from the United States. The young state will continue to require substantial aid, most of it from its friends and well-wishers in America.
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