BOOK REVIEW: International Diplomacy of Israel’s Founders
Hasbara is the Israelis’ Hebrew term for propaganda, pitched to the only regions that really matter to that country, North America and Europe. For the average Israeli though, it’s just an explanation of why their nation behaves in its curious ways. So although their Foreign Ministry has an official hasbara project to sell the Zionist enterprise to the West, Israelis are apparently used to tweaking the perceptions in Washington, the United Nations and the minds of average citizens.
Theodor Herzl is seen as the originator of all this constant explaining over a century ago, as it was his mission to sell the idea of Zionism to the powers that were in a position to give the project a green light. Sadly for him, neither German investment nor Jewish buffering against Arab nationalism worked on the Turks. Soon after, Chaim Weizmann started touring the same act to the Westminster stage. As noted by Doreen Ingrams in her landmark 1972 book, The Palestine Papers, 1917-1922, the 1917 Balfour Declaration was even hyped by dropping Yiddish translations from World War One aeroplanes over Germany and Russia.
This book treats the Zionists’ approach to the West as perpetual puffery, exaggerating wartime help and sharing the administrative burdens of the British mandate government.
Early on, the League of Nations believed that there were a lot of Jews standing behind the Zionist banner in Palestine itself. But certainly the local, established, Orthodox Jews were cool with their Muslim and Christian Arab neighbours and didn’t want any sort of secular Jewish government.
Victorious after five years of battle carnage, Britain stood by their mandate to the League, promising to prepare Palestine for eventual self-government, as "moral" colonialist powers have sometimes done. The Zionist-led Jewish Agency for Palestine helped HM Government to further this, but the agency wasn’t a Jewish one in Palestine, but an international one.
Our Foreign Office wasn’t delusional though – our elected ministers knew that the path could only lead to violence. So other arguments came in: strengthening the imperial zone between the Suez Canal and interests further East. The Jewish Agency’s colonisation department, a confection that would seem sour today, played the interwar Soviets’ interests against Britain’s.
So the hasbara for the Kremlin comrades was laid on thick, reminding them that Westminster wasn’t keen on the forced removal of Arabs (true) and the Jewish settlers’ Histradut labour union was left-leaning (also true). In 1943, when Churchill and Stalin were on the same page in war aims, the Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maiskii even got a trip to Mandate Palestine, courtesy of his hosts, the Jewish Agency. Years later this is seen as having softened up the Kremlin to reluctantly accept partition as the only practicable path for the United Nations.
In the USA, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver led the Jewish Agency to resist resettling of post-war refugee Jews to anywhere but Palestine. Franklin Roosevelt attempted to take in some but, at about 12,000 immigrants (less than the 20,000 Syrian refugees promised by David Cameron), the author here rightly describes the Zionist opposition as a "brick wall". All this, while David Ben Gurion is lobbying Eretz Israel to Holocaust survivors in the new displaced persons camp hellholes.
None of the slippery arguments made throughout this book are new revelations and they were all public, so there’s no conspiracy claimed here to attach to the perpetrators. Israelis today don’t rake over the coals from their state’s explosive birth 68 years ago, but the nuggets still glow, thanks to Israeli historians whose own diligence and privileged access are cited throughout this book. Even Zionists such as Arial Sharon boasted, however gently, of civilian killings.
You’re unlikely to know that, while still in 1948, the UN passed Resolution 54, which denounced new land acquired by force. In this case, it was a fishing village on the Gulf of Aqaba, originally to be part of Israel in the 1947 Partition Plan. So, despite the UN’s wishes, the new Israeli Defence Force easily added the seafront town to its property portfolio and we know it today as the port-resort Eilat.
Regardless of your prior knowledge, John Quigley’s book is a concise summary of the eternal hoodwinking of our own democracies with anti-democratic agendas by what’s been branded as the "only democracy in the Middle East".
The Arab Palestinian efforts have no roles in the narrative here and neither the Mufti, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, nor his largely Christian Palestinian opposition even get walk-ons in this drama. It was ever thus in Western storytelling, but the book isn’t about them.
A fascinating time frame is between the end of the Second World War in Europe and the UN’s partition remedy for the British Mandate mess. The Jewish Agency lobbied President Harry Truman to kindly let it address the General Assembly, even though it wasn’t yet a state. Further, the UN’s own Special Committee was overwhelmingly European, so Westernised Zionists found it easy to relate.
It’s in this period when the Mossad start using their brains, with women agents playing at being the room cleaners and placing listening devices in hotel rooms too. The half-truths at the end-of-Mandate years are numerous, a plausible sounding warehouse of arguments pitched at the post-war decision makers, each one individually tailored. The canon of contradictory logic in service to influence is what this book is about. It’s where astuteness meets luck in the creation of a so-called plucky little country.
The subtitle, Deception at the United Nations in the Quest for Palestine, is a slight misnomer. The Zionist Lobby was on solid foundation well before the UN’s scaffolding was erected, and has been building its own Babel ever since, as the author shows. But throughout the timeline of Zionist arguments against the League of Nations and its successor United Nations, there’s only one side that has had the skill to navigate official international resolutions and law.
Prof. Quigley rates Abba Eban the highest, with a verbal eloquence so elastic as to mask his political intentions. Addressing the UN to portray Israel’s 1967 attack on Egypt as somehow defensive, Eban was highly praised by the American press, reflecting a national culture that reveres foreign accents when they sound posh. Regardless of any degree of Western, English-language stage presence of Israeli leaders, the author finds a pattern in their patter: deny, deny, deny, and then tell the truth in your own autobiography.
In future, such public voices, verbal or written, may not have a winning hand when at the diplomatic gaming table because times have changed. In our better and wider entitlement to information, we’re positioned to look over a foreign minister’s shoulder and read his or her cards.
Some events aren’t included in this title: the 1967 war’s northeast front is off the narrative map, and Israel’s public relations over the 1982 massacres in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps are barely noticed. But as for understanding how we got here over the last century, this book offers a broad appeal, introducing both students and non-academics to the wonders of what opportunistically flexible, even contradictory political posturing has achieved.
"The International Diplomacy of Israel’s Founders: Deception at the United Nations in the Quest for Palestine" by John Quigley (2016, Cambridge University Press).