Newly Declassified Documents on the CIA, the Partition of Palestine, and the Creation of Israel
In The Arab Lobby, I documented the efforts of Arabists in the State Department to prevent the partition of Palestine primarily because of concern that US support for a Jewish state would threaten access to oil and allow the Soviet Union to gain influence in the region. I also referred to the presence of Arabists in the intelligence community but did not have documents to cite their views — until now.
In a report dated October 20, 1947, the CIA laid out America’s interests and concerns for a place whose “geographic position gives it a strategic significance out of all proportion to its size and wealth.” The report stated, “To counter Soviet infiltration, political, economic, and social stability must be maintained in the area” and access to Middle East oil “depends on friendly US relations with the Arab people as well as with their governments.” The CIA believed the Arabs needed US aid to raise their standard of living but would not accept it if the US supported a Jewish state. Hence, it concluded, “The Palestine issue is capable of changing the development of the Arab world from one of evolution in cooperation with the West to one of revolution with the support of the USSR.”
On the eve of the partition vote, the CIA wrote another report anticipating the consequences of UN approval of partition. It didn’t require access to secrets to know that “armed hostilities” would follow such a vote. The CIA incorrectly predicted, however, that the Arab states would not send their armies to fight out of fear of jeopardizing their position at the UN if they defied a UN decision.
The analysts predicted instead that the Arab force would consist of 100,000-200,000 nomads. The Agency spoke of Bedouins as a “hardy type of fighting man not only imbued with warlike tradition (combining religious fanaticism with an enthusiastic devotion to looting, plundering, and raiding) but also trained in the use of small arms and the methods of desert warfare.” The Agency said tribes of Arabs would join the “crusade” because of a sense of Arab patriotism, the opportunity for plunder, and “the thrill of battle.”
The Arabs, according to the CIA, “believe that not only politically but also culturally, the Jewish state threatens the continued development of the Islamic-Arab civilization.” The Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, “regards westernization as a dangerous threat to Islam and would oppose any political encroachment of Zionism on Palestine with religious fanaticism.” The Agency warned that a jihad would be spearheaded by the Brotherhood whose members believe they would be “assured of entrance into paradise if they die on the field of battle.”
The analysts recognized the Palestinians also posed a threat. “Since nearly half of the population of the Jewish state proposed by UNSCOP will be Arab,” the report noted, “the Arabs will have a ready-made ‘Fifth Column’ in enemy territory.”
The Jews were expected to mobilize around 200,000 fighters who would have an advantage because of “superior organization and equipment.” Over time, however, the economy would collapse and the Jews would be unable to protect their extended supply lines and isolated settlements “without substantial outside aid in terms of manpower and material.” The Agency predicted “they will be able to hold out no longer than two years.”
The CIA expected Arab “fanatics” to commit atrocities, which would be “exaggerated by Jewish propaganda.” Echoing an argument critics of the Israeli lobby would later use, the report said, “This propaganda campaign will doubtless continue to influence the US public, and the US government may, consequently, be forced into actions which will further complicate and embitter its relations with the entire Arab world.”
American support for partition had resulted in a loss of prestige and, in the event partition was imposed on Palestine, the Agency predicted the destabilization of the Arab world, which would imperil US commercial and strategic interests. As evidence of Arab resentment, the Agency cited the bombing of the American consulate in Jerusalem on October 13, 1947 by a terrorist group identified as “the Jihad.” It concluded, “Whatever the official position of the Arab governments may be, attacks on US property, installations, and personnel by irresponsible groups or individuals can be expected.”
With the Cold War just beginning, the Agency was focused on the danger of the Soviets exploiting any weakening of America’s position in the region. Without US assistance, for example, the Agency said that “poverty, unrest, and hopelessness upon which communist propaganda thrives will increase throughout the Arab world” and that Soviet agents would infiltrate the Arab states.
The report also said Soviet agents were smuggled into Palestine as Jewish displaced persons and that the Soviet Union was “actively but secretly assisting the Jews.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed the view of Arabists at the time when they reported that the Zionist leadership “stems from the Soviet Union … and ideologically is much closer to the Soviet Union than the United States.”
The Agency said the UN would be “morally bound” to “enforce partition,” which would create the possibility of inhibiting future US-Arab and US-Soviet relations. The UN, however, never took any meaningful steps to implement the resolution.
The CIA was also wrong in its belief that the Arab states were committed to Palestinian independence when, in fact, Arab leaders wanted to carve up Palestine for themselves.
The Agency accurately predicted that the lives of a million Jews in the Arab world would be endangered by the partition decision. The CIA claimed without any citation, however, that “a representative of the Jewish Agency has stated that in the event of partition the 400,000 Jews in the Arab states outside Palestine may have to be sacrificed in the interest of the Jewish community as a whole.” According to historian Yoav Gelber, “what was said was that if there will be a pro-Zionist solution of the Palestine problem the Jews in Arab countries will pay a price, meaning there will be anti-Jewish riots and pogroms, which indeed took place in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.”
Making the Zionists sound more threatening, the CIA predicted they would not be satisfied with partition: “Even the more conservative Zionists will hope to obtain the whole of the Nejeb, Western Galilee, the city of Jerusalem, and eventually all of Palestine. The extremists demand not only all of Palestine but Transjordan as well.”
Following the UN vote, the CIA reported on February 28, 1948 that the Arabs had reacted violently and were determined to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. The Agency remained primarily concerned with how the Soviets could take advantage of the situation when it laid out three options for enforcing the UN decision. The first was for the UN to use force, but the CIA concluded it was a nonstarter because of Arab and British opposition and the expected insistence by the Soviet Union that its troops be involved. The second was for the UN to do nothing, which would result in a loss of prestige and open the door to the Soviets sending troops to Palestine. The preferred option was to abandon partition and find a solution acceptable to the Arabs, a unitary state rather than two states.
The CIA analysts misjudged how the Arab states would react to the establishment of Israel and US support for a Jewish state. Even as time proved them wrong — the Soviets did not spread their influence in the region because of American policy toward Israel, oil supplies were not cut off, and relations with the Arab states improved as US-Israel ties grew stronger — it is likely the views of Arabists remaining in the intelligence community, like those in the State Department, have remained unchanged to the potential detriment of the US-Israel relationship. Unfortunately, we will not know until documents are declassified decades from now.
Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.