Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 May 2008
Issue No. 897
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Soviet hand in Israel

While Balfour is usually blamed for the break up of Palestine, it was the Soviets that ensured the creation of Israel, writes Rumy Hasan*

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel -- or the 60th anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians -- one element in this conflict-ridden story that seems to be neglected is the role that the Soviet Union played.

Western critics of Israel almost invariably think that the partition of Palestine was a product of the West, above all of the old imperial power, Britain, which held "mandate" Palestine, and the US, the dominant force after World War II. Given all the support that these two countries have given to Israel over the past six decades, and continue to give, this is perhaps an understandable assumption. Importantly, however, it is not a full, and therefore true, representation of what actually happened.

Crucially, there are two curious, unexpected, twists to the tale concerning the superpower states that had just embarked upon their Cold War rivalry, the US and USSR. All those interested in this intriguing and surprising history would be rewarded in reading an enlightening paper by French historian Laurent Rucker, who utilises voluminous primary research from Soviet archives ("Moscow's surprise: The Soviet-Israeli Alliance of 1947-1949", Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars, Working Paper 46), the main points of which I elaborate upon, whilst drawing my own conclusions.

Put briefly, there is compelling evidence to suggest that had the USSR not supported the partition of Palestine and Israel's creation, such a partition would not have happened. On the one hand, the US's support for the partition plan was by no means as strong as is ordinarily imagined. We surely need to recognise that the political terrain in the US with regard to a Jewish state was very different 60 years ago than it is now. On the other hand, the USSR's late change of stance and its uncompromising support for the Zionist project during the fateful years of 1947-48 was arguably the decisive factor.

Recognising that it had no weight in the Middle East, during World War II the Soviet Union opened embassies in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in an attempt to exert some influence. A corollary to this endeavour was weakening and removing Britain's influence in the region and somehow forging divisions between the UK and the US. It was this thinking that drove Soviet policies. When the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry into the Fate of European Jews was set up in January 1946, the erstwhile ally USSR, which had a legitimate interest in the issue as there were about five million Jews living under Soviet rule, was simply excluded, the crucial reason being that Britain and the US did not want Stalin to poke his nose into the Palestine issue.

Yet after the war, there arose the issue of some quarter of a million displaced Jews in Eastern Europe that was now under the Soviet sphere of influence. It was the issue of the settlement of the bulk of these that proved fundamental to what happened. The Soviets and East European regimes failed to do what was incumbent upon them, that is, to re-settle displaced Jews in their old homes and counter any hostility from the local population. Naturally, therefore, many of these displaced persons wished to emigrate, the preferred option, and understandably so, being the US which had not suffered destruction during the war. But the US operated a closed-door policy to the "tired, poor huddled Jewish masses yearning to be free" -- thus enabling the second preferred option, Palestine, to come to the fore. This conveniently suited the Americans and the Soviets, as well as the East European regimes (none of whom wanted the displaced persons) so that the Zionist programme of settling European Jewry in Palestine quickly gathered momentum. Britain, however, was at first wary as it did not wish to alienate the Arab world.

The Zionist organisations had foresight and forged links with Soviet diplomats, quietly calling for support for their designs. This, however, did not immediately lead to the USSR agreeing to a future Jewish state in Palestine (which the USSR had never supported), though the seeds were sown and came to fruition surprisingly soon. The official USSR position was for the removal of the British mandate and troops and for a unitary Palestine to be granted independence but under UN "trusteeship" (meaning, under joint control of the "big three" powers). In March 1947, the Near East Department of the Soviet UN delegation accordingly argued for a "single democratic Palestine that ensures that the peoples living there will enjoy equal national and democratic rights".

A month later, there was a dramatic U- turn. At the extraordinary session of the UN General Assembly, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko was instructed to present the new line. For the first time the USSR advocated the creation of a Jewish state. The new line was duly presented to the General Assembly on 29 November 1947 in the historic vote to partition Palestine. A two-thirds majority was needed and here the role of the USSR was again decisive when it pressured Byelorussia, Ukraine, Poland and Czechoslovakia to also vote "Yes". Therefore, it needs to be stressed that if the USSR had adhered to its earlier position of opposing the partition of Palestine, it is highly improbable that Israel would have been created in May 1948. Indeed, the likely outcome would have been a unified Palestine under UN trusteeship.

However, after the expected opposition of Arab states and with violence in Palestine itself, the US began to have doubts. On 19 March 1948, the US ambassador to the UN argued for a provisional trusteeship that had been the USSR's original plan. Gromyko countered this in an uncompromising, de facto Zionist, speech at the 30 March meeting of the UN Security Council that secured partition: "... the only way to reduce bloodshed is the prompt and effective creation of two states in Palestine. If the United States and some other states block the implementation of the partition and regard Palestine as an element in their economic and military- strategic considerations, then any decision on the future of Palestine, including the establishment of a trusteeship regime, will mean the transformation of Palestine into a field of strife and dissension between the Arabs and the Jews and will only increase the number of victims."

Moreover, despite a UN weapons embargo on Palestine, Czech weapons were sold, with Soviet knowledge, to Zionists in Palestine that facilitated the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from their land. The rest, as they say, is history. As Rucker summarises in his insightful paper, "Moscow provided political, military, and demographic support to Israel", for the absurd reason that the only means of weakening Britain's power in the Middle East was by supporting the Zionist movement. It didn't take long for this policy to unravel. The various communist parties in Arab states immediately suffered a haemorrhage of members as the USSR's reputation and influence in the Arab world was severely damaged; whilst the new state of Israel unequivocally joined the Western camp. Britain's influence did decline but rather than divisions arising, Britain remained firmly wedded to the US, helped by Marshall Aid reconstruction funds. Moreover, without demurring, it settled into its new role as the US's junior partner. The net effect of the USSR's policy turn was, therefore, precisely the opposite of what had been intended. The Zionists had played a brilliant hand as they cleverly finessed Stalin and his cohorts.

The truly shocking fact in this version of the "Great Game" is that the victims were contemptuously ignored, as if they were mere cattle. It is my contention that the Soviet Union's role in the creation of Israel and the Nakba should be accorded greater significance than the Balfour Declaration of 1917; yet it is the latter that attracts far more attention.

So when Israelis and their supporters celebrate the 60th anniversary, they ought to give a special toast to the role played by the Soviet Union; equally, as Palestinians drown in sorrow for the Nakba, they ought to raise an accusatory finger at those who took them to the path of perdition, not least the Soviet Union.

* The writer is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, UK.

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