How Palestine was ‘disappeared’ by Britain, Jordan and the Zionists

We are republishing this review of Collusion Across the Jordan (1988), the first book to demonstrate conclusively that in 1947-1948, Britain, Jordan and the Zionists worked to ensure there would be no Palestinian state. Israel has continued that policy to this day. 

It is striking to observe how great is the contrast between accounts of this period written without access to the official documents and an account such as this one  based on documentary evidence. One explanation is that much of the existing literature was written by Zionists and consciously or unconsciously incorporates the numerous legends that have come to surround the end of the Palestine mandate and the birth of the State of Israel.

The myths on the origins of the state of Israel are still widespread and the information Shlaim records in this book, which was written over 30 years ago, needs to be known.  More information is coming to light on both Britain’s role as well as that of the Israelis and the Jordanians.  We have a series of articles on our web on these end of the Mandate and the Nakba.

(The book can be downloaded here. An abridged version of this book was published under the title The politics of Partition: King Abdullah, the Zionists and Palestine 1921-1951)

‘Collusion Across the Jordan’

A review of Avi Shlaim’s book, by Ronald Sanders, in The New York Times of of September 4, 1988

COLLUSION ACROSS THE JORDAN King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine. By Avi Shlaim. Maps. 676 pp. New York: Columbia University Press. $40.

IF revisionist history means a kind of writing that differs, on grounds of scholarly objectivity, from popular assumptions and myths, then all serious historical writing is revisionist. Even as one puzzles at King Hussein’s severing of Jordan’s legal and administrative ties to the West Bank and the proposals of the Palestine Liberation Organisation to assume political responsibility there, it is useful to know the historical background so brilliantly presented here. He examines aspects of the country’s origins as a state and is not afraid to be tough toward his own when truth requires that he be so.

Indeed, Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St. Antony’s College at Oxford, is tough toward the Israelis even when he does not have to be. His ”Collusion Across the Jordan” – which is largely based on hitherto unavailable source materials – is a lucid and meticulous study of the 30-year political relationship between the Zionist (later Israeli) leadership on one side of the River Jordan and the Emir (later King) Abdullah on the other, ending only with the assassination of the latter by a Palestinian nationalist in 1951. This strange and mostly clandestine, yet crucial, relationship stands now as a demonstration that even in 1948, when the new state of Israel was being invaded by Arab armies on all sides, the lineup against it was not really so monolithic as it seemed.

The fact was that the Israelis and Abdullah’s Jordanian monarchy, brought together by geography and their common origins in British Mandatory Palestine, had as many crucial interests in common with each other as Jordan had with the Arab world in general. Foremost among these, as Mr. Shlaim demonstrates with occasional though not consistent disapproval, was a common desire not to see an independent Palestinian state established west of the Jordan. Abdullah, still harbouring his Hashemite dynastic dreams of ultimate rule over the entire Arab world, had for a while aspired to a kingship over Jordan and Palestine, one that would even have tolerated the growth of a Jewish national home in its midst. But at last, perceiving the inevitability of Jewish statehood, he was ready to confine his ambition to sovereignty over the parts of Palestine that did not become Israeli. At the same time, the Zionist leadership was persuaded that Jordanian sovereignty over the areas that have since become known as the West Bank was preferable to another Arab state there.

It is with regard to the question of the West Bank that Mr. Shlaim’s book is particularly instructive. For the fact emerges quite clearly that the 1949 armistice border between Israel and Jordan – and, above all, the line that cut Jerusalem in two – was not so purely an accident of war as may once have seemed to be the case. Rather, it was to some extent the product of understandings (albeit strained at times) between Abdullah and the Israelis. Mr. Shlaim demonstrates that if Jerusalem in particular came to be divided between Jordan and Israel, it was largely because this was the arrangement preferred by both countries’ leaders to the internationalization of the city proposed by the United Nations in November 1947. If the fighting over Jerusalem and its access corridor became fierce in 1948, this was because the Israelis occasionally showed signs of wanting more than the Jordanians thought they should have. But throughout the war, as Mr. Shlaim shows, the Jordanians were scrupulous about not engaging Jewish troops in areas that had been designated as part of the proposed Jewish state in the November 1947 United Nations resolution.

This, then, is the thrust of the ”collusion” of Mr. Shlaim’s title, though the reader is often led to wonder why the author imposes on the whole story the harsh judgment implied by that word. Abdullah and the Israelis were, after all, only doing what nations do when they discover that a mutual acknowledgment of claims is a better way to peace than the pursuit of distant visionary goals. To be sure, they were ignoring any possible Palestinian Arab claims to statehood: Mr. Shlaim is never more severe regarding this point than when he writes that the book focuses ”in particular on the clandestine diplomacy that led to the partition of Palestine between the two sides and left the Palestine Arabs without a homeland.” Yet, through the course of more than 600 pages of narrative, he often slips into a rather more approving tone as he describes the repeated efforts of Israelis and an Arab king to achieve some kind of reconciliation with each other.

That this was the path of simple political realism is implied by the facts themselves as exhaustively assembled by Mr. Shlaim. For there is virtually nothing in his book to indicate that the Palestinian Arabs were ready, with a viable political leadership, to step in and take control of the West Bank for themselves in 1948. This never appears in his narrative as a practical alternative. Rather, what the reader sees is two functioning political entities behaving no more cynically than other nations in the same circumstances.

”Collusion Across the Jordan” ends with a brief sketch of the ways in which some of the outlines of the Israeli-Abdullah relationship have extended down through the reign of Abdullah’s grandson, King Hussein, the present ruler of Jordan. (Golda Meir, who made two clandestine diplomatic visits to Abdullah in 1947-48, is said to have met with King Hussein 10 times while she was Prime Minister of Israel.) Of course, there have been some crucial changes in circumstances: the West Bank is now in Israeli hands, and a vigorous Palestinian Arab national movement has clearly emerged.

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