May 14, 1948 — Miracle or Catastrophe?
On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence. Shortly thereafter, five Arab states invaded to join Palestinian fighters in a campaign to destroy the new Jewish state. Let’s put aside the real and imagined flaws of Israel today, and consider how unlikely the Jewish victory was in 1948.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states — one Jewish and one Arab. The Arabs had left no doubt beforehand that they would go to war to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. The CIA reported as early as September 1947 that Jerusalem’s Grand Mufti was “reportedly making final preparations for a call to a holy war (jihad), which may start even before the UN General Assembly completes its deliberations.”
Jamal Husseini, the Arab Higher Committee’s spokesman, told the UN that the Arabs would drench “the soil of our beloved country with the last drop of our blood,” and Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, said, “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.”
At the outset, the Jews appeared to have no chance. The Arab states vastly outnumbered the Jews and had easy access to weapons. The strongest Arab army, the Jordanian Legion, was led by a British officer. Israel faced a US arms embargo and was forced to smuggle weapons in from wherever it could. The new Israeli army did not have a single cannon or tank; the air force consisted of nine obsolete planes.
On the eve of the war, Israel had only 32,500 fighters mobilized, armed, and prepared for war. Chief of operations Yigal Yadin told the new government’s leader David Ben-Gurion: “The best we can tell you is that we have a 50-50 chance.”
Ultimately, the Arabs only fielded about 50,000 troops, as did Israel. Nevertheless, the CIA believed Israel could not sustain a long war. In late April 1948, the CIA concluded, “Without active aid from outside, the Jewish forces will be unable to defend themselves indefinitely against the Arab armies.”
By late June, however, it became clear that the Arabs would not succeed in driving the Jews into the sea. At that point, the State Department, which had opposed partition, hoped to minimize the territory of Israel, and transfer the rest to Jordan (then Transjordan). As it would later, Israel won on the battlefield what diplomats tried to take from it.
Due to their aggression, the Arabs wound up with less territory than if they had accepted partition. Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria did not sign armistice agreements until the following year (Iraq never did). None of the Arab states would negotiate a peace agreement with Israel.
Israel gained more territory than it was allotted by the UN, but the cost was enormous. The economy was decimated and 6,373 Israelis were killed, nearly 1% of the Jewish population. Approximately 10,000 Arabs were killed. Had the West enforced the partition resolution or given the Jews the capacity to defend themselves, many lives might have been saved.
At the end of 1949, 40 of the 59 member states of the UN recognized Israel, an improvement over the 33 votes (out of the then-56 members) for the creation of a Jewish state two years earlier (with the Arab states predictably opposed to both).
The Palestinians refer to Israel’s Independence Day as the Nakba — the catastrophe — because they assert the Jewish state was created at their expense. The Palestinians don’t acknowledge that it would have been a catastrophe for them even if the Arab states had driven the Jews into the sea, because the invaders had no interest in creating a Palestinian state; they wanted to divide the spoils among themselves. Despite losing, they still did so, with Egypt occupying the Gaza Strip and Transjordan seizing what is now referred to as the West Bank.
The Palestinians are victims of their own obstinacy. They rejected offers of statehood in 1937, when Britain’s Lord Peel proposed partitioning Palestine into two states. They turned down an even better offer in 1939 when the British were prepared to create a unitary Arab state. In 1947, they rejected the UN’s partition plan to create a Jewish and Arab state. They subsequently squandered opportunities for statehood from 1949-1967, when they never demanded that Jordan and Egypt create a Palestinian state; in 1979, when Israel offered them autonomy; and, in 2000 and 2008, when Israeli prime ministers offered them a state in more than 94% of the West Bank and all of Gaza.
Palestinians and their supporters repeatedly say they object to the “occupation” of the territories Israel captured in 1967. If that is true, then why isn’t their Nakba Day celebrated each June on the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War?
The reason is that the Palestinians consider the creation of Israel the original sin, and their focus on that event is indicative of their refusal to reconcile themselves with the Jewish state.
Despite the “catastrophe,” nearly two million Palestinians now enjoy full citizenship in the only democracy in the Middle East while their cousins in other Arab countries are denied citizenship and face persecution far beyond what they say they suffer in the West Bank. For example, journalist Khaled Abu Toameh recently wrote that “the only apartheid in the Middle East” can be found in Lebanon where Palestinians are “barred from 72 regulated professions” and “cannot own property.”
Israeli Arabs have no interest in living in a Palestinian state, which is little better. They see first-hand how Hamas and the Palestinian Authority deny their own people civil and human rights.
If the Jews had lost the war in 1948, it would have been more than a catastrophe; it would have been the genocide Azzam Pasha promised. Israel is much more powerful today than it was then; however, Israel still cannot afford to lose a single war.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations.