" I suppose you would even throw dice for an orphan or barter away your friend!" - Job_6:27

British Secret Service Plot

Encouraged Arab armies to invade Israel in 1948

Intelligence obtained by the French secret services in the Middle East sheds new light on Britain's role in the Arab-Israeli War of Independence.

By Meir Zamir | Sep. 14, 2014 - www.haaretz.com/news/features

It should be borne in mind that HaAretz is a leftist newspaper.

September 11, 1947. On the eve of the Arab League's political committee meeting to decide on the Arab response to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) report [supporting the end of the British mandate and partitioning the land between Jews and Arabs], the Lebanese newspaper L'Orient published an article. "Bloc Oriental et extension de la Ligue" argued that, like the Greater Syria plan [that aimed to unite Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine], the Oriental Bloc - a French term for Britain's planned regional defense pact - hung over the independence of Arab countries and the Arab League like the Sword of Damocles, and that its authors were one and the same: [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nuri al-Sa'id and [Jordanian] King Abdullah.

On September 20, the Lebanese newspaper Le Jour reported that after the Arab League meeting in Saoufar, Lebanon, Brig. Iltyd Clayton - whom it defined as "head of the British intelligence in the Middle East" - had left for Damascus. It quoted a Syrian newspaper speculating on whether his visit was connected to the Greater Syria scheme and the tense relations between the Syrian and Lebanese presidents (Shukri al-Quwatli and Bishara al-Khuri) and Jordan's King Abdullah, or to events in Palestine.

On February 19, 1948, the Lebanese newspaper Le Soir published an article titled "Claytonmade." Based on "Zionist sources," it reported that Brig. Clayton - "architect" of the Greater Syria plan, the Oriental Bloc and the bilateral defense treaties with the Arab states - was now advocating a new scheme for the partition of Palestine. The plan proposed that : "Imperialist Lebanon will annex the Western Galilee up to Shavei Zion; Syria the northeastern part of the Galilee and part of its southern region; Egypt will have part of the cake; and Transjordan will swallow up the rest."

In fact, these and other reports in the Lebanese press on the activities of British secret agents were part of a secret war being waged by French intelligence against the British.

Information conveyed by the French intelligence services to the Haganah [the prestate underground Jewish army] in the fall of 1947 indicated that Brig. Clayton and his assistants were involved in a new initiative to secure Britain's strategic position in the Middle East, and linked Clayton to the escalating Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine. The sources also referred to a new partition plan proposed by Clayton, which, contradicting that of the United Nations, aimed to split Palestine between the neighboring Arab states and limit the designated territory of the Jewish state to the coastal area between Atlit [just south of Haifa] and Tel Aviv.

The French tied this initiative to renewed British efforts to implement the 1946 Morrison-Grady Plan [aka the Cantonization Plan] and warned of the danger of an attack on the Yishuv [Jewish community in Palestine] by irregular forces organized by the Arab League. They also warned that an invasion by the regular Arab armies to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state could not be ruled out.

Information passed on by the French, after the UN partition vote on November 29, 1947, was even more alarming. On January 13, 1948, Maurice Fischer - the SHAI [Haganah intelligence service] liaison officer to French intelligence - reported from Paris that, based on totally reliable information from French sources, Brig. Clayton had, on December 17, 1947, reached an understanding with Lebanese Prime Minister Riyad al-Sulh, according to which the British forces would evacuate northern Palestine and give free rein to the irregular forces of the Arab Liberation Army, headed by Fawzi al-Qawuqji, to attack Jewish settlements.

The next day, January 14, two French intelligence officers from Beirut arrived in Haifa and informed the French military attaché that the Syrian prime minister, Jamil Mardam Bey, was mobilizing an irregular force of 20,000 volunteers to invade Palestine, with tacit British agreement.

Previously, at the end of August 1947, Eliyahu Sasson - David Ben-Gurion's chief Arabist adviser - had been called urgently to Paris. He remained until mid-September, sending information and instructions to warn Jordan's King Abdullah and the Egyptian government that British agents were planning to provoke their countries into a war against the Jews in Palestine.

Reports in the Haganah archives from those months - where Clayton's name figures frequently - tie the escalation in the Arab-Jewish conflict to Britain's efforts to secure its strategic position in the Middle East. They, too, alluded to a new scheme, promoted by the British secret services in Cairo, to divide Palestine between the neighboring Arab states.

In the early months of 1948, information continued to reach SHAI on secret British attempts, orchestrated by Brig. Clayton's "clique" in Cairo, to reconcile the Arab leaders and convince them to join forces to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state.

Interviewing Clayton

Ben-Gurion's concern regarding the undercover activities of Brig. Clayton and Arabist "experts" in the Foreign Office and the Middle East intensified after August 1947. On November 11, 1947, he sent a British-Jewish former officer to interview Clayton, who was unaware that Ben-Gurion had drafted the questions. The urgency to uncover the British secret services' intentions prompted Ben-Gurion to approve the "Acre operation," in which the Haganah seized the files of the British Legation in Beirut, on December 25, 1947, as they were being transferred from Beirut to Haifa, en route to Britain.

On January 11, 1948, Sasson sent King Abdullah a letter warning him of a plot being hatched in London and Cairo - promoted by Clayton, Nuri al-Sa'id and officials in the Foreign Office and Colonial Office against the UN Partition Plan - that aimed to provoke Transjordan into a war against the Yishuv, contrary to Abdullah's understanding with the Jewish Agency.

In February, Ben-Gurion's chief intelligence officer, Reuven Zaslani (Shiloah), arrived in London to establish whether Britain's failure to ratify its defense treaty with Iraq in January 1948 (the Portsmouth Treaty) had influenced its stand on Palestine, and if there was indeed a British plot to thwart the establishment of a Jewish state. He reported back that although the British cabinet did not intend to oppose partition, the "experts" - who argued that it could not be implemented - were working against it.

Zaslani counted the following against them: Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin's adviser, Harold Bailey; Brig. Clayton; and Gerald de Gaury, a Foreign Office Arabist and liaison officer. Zaslani noted that these "experts," who advocated a collective military agreement with the Arab countries, believed that a future Jewish state could not be relied upon. He added that they were reinforcing the Arab side without the cabinet's agreement.

Nevertheless, he assessed that they would not be able to influence the cabinet's decision to end the mandate and withdraw British forces from Palestine, as it was supported by the two highest-ranking British officials - High Commissioner of Palestine Alan Cunningham and the commander of the British forces in Palestine, Gen. Gordon MacMillan.

A similar assessment was made by Ben-Gurion in a conversation with a French diplomat in early March. In a March 7 entry in his diary, Ben-Gurion notes, "Clayton went to Syria; the British want to make Syria their base after failing in Iraq and Egypt. The situation in the Arab world is difficult - riots in Iraq - and Britain is trying to concentrate Arab thought on Palestine."

The above examples from the Arab press and French and Zionist sources raise intriguing questions. Was there indeed a connection between Britain's efforts to conclude bilateral military treaties with Iraq, Egypt and other Arab states or form a collective regional defense organization, and the alleged attempts by its secret services in Cairo to provoke a Jewish-Arab war in Palestine? Why was Brig. Clayton associated with a secret scheme to split Palestine between its neighboring Arab states? Why was he implicated in provoking Arab attacks, initially on the Yishuv by irregular forces and, later, on the newly established Jewish state by the regular Arab armies?

Like Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who blamed Britain for conspiring to evict France from the Levant, Ben-Gurion accused it of trying to sabotage the establishment of a Jewish state and secretly provoking an armed invasion by Arab states. Syrian and British documents uncovered in French archives confirm de Gaulle's accusations and reinforce Ben-Gurion's charges. These documents and French intelligence reports reveal that the British-Arabist secret agents, who engineered France's eviction from the Levant in 1945, took similar steps to prevent the formation of a Jewish state in 1947-48.

The Missing Dimension

The question of Britain's role in the war between Israel and the Arab states in 1948 is one of the most studied issues in the historiography of the War of Independence.

And yet, despite the considerable efforts of historians, they found no evidence of Ben-Gurion's allegations that Britain had instigated the Arab leaders to invade Israel a day after its establishment.

In fact, confirmation of Ben-Gurion's allegations can be found in French archives, especially in the files of French intelligence, whose officers closely followed the activities of the British secret services in the Middle East in the 1940s.

A major hurdle when studying the 1948 war is the lack of access to Arab archives. The Syrian documents, obtained by French intelligence - which contain uncensored private correspondence and secret agreements between the Arab leaders, as well as diplomatic exchanges - give scholars a closer look at the Arab stand toward a Jewish state in Palestine without having to rely solely on Israeli and Western archives, Arab rulers' inflammatory public rhetoric and memoirs, or newspaper articles.

The Syrian documents reveal that the Arab leaders' attitudes toward the Zionists' aspirations derived not only from their hostility toward a Jewish state, but were far more complex. This emphasizes the need for scholars to study the Arab-Zionist conflict in the context of Anglo-Arab and inter-Arab rivalries, rather than merely Anglo-Jewish or Arab-Jewish relations.

The thousands of Syrian and other Arab documents found in the French archives, together with British intelligence reports obtained by French intelligence, confirm that the role of the British secret services in the Middle East during and after World War II comprises the "missing dimension" in the historiography of the region in the 1940s.

Two conclusions can be drawn from research into these documents, which are relevant to the role of British intelligence in the war in Palestine.

The first is that, in the 1940s, Britain conducted a two-track policy in the Middle East: one, a well-documented, official policy defined by Whitehall under both the Conservative and Labour parties; the second was informal and secretive, which can be termed "regional," implemented by "agents in the field," which left few traces in British archives.

It was perpetrated by a small, influential group of Arabist secret agents who manipulated the cabinet in London and implemented their own policies, which deviated from the official position. These agents enjoyed a unique status as intermediaries between Whitehall and local Arab leaders. Either intentionally, or because of deep-seated personal beliefs, they provided biased assessments.

They did not merely gather and interpret information and recommend policy, but controlled the flow of information and implemented their own policies while keeping the London decision makers in the dark. They joined forces with Arab rulers, whom they portrayed as voicing the Arab view, in order to mislead their government. Their tactics, which were backed by senior military officers in Cairo, gathered momentum under the post-WWII Labour government and during the crisis in Palestine in 1947-48.

The second conclusion is that the British secret agents succeeded in implementing their policies due largely to their use of indirect control over local "agents of influence." They employed undercover political operations, clandestine diplomacy and covert propaganda to manipulate Arab leaders and public opinion - methods widely used in the Middle East during World War II.

The Syrian and British documents provide a unique insight into the modus operandi of the British secret services in co-opting prominent Arab leaders, and helping them to positions of power in return for their collaboration. President Quwatli and Prime Minister Mardam Bey in Syria; President Khuri and Prime Minister Sulh in Lebanon; Arab League Secretary-General Abd al-Rahman al-Azzam - these are prime examples, but there were many others.

This is not to say, however, that the British intelligence officers entirely controlled those leaders. Relations were complex and entailed various means of coercion.

Apart from political and financial bribery - and, when necessary, pressure and extortion - an effective tactic was to convince them that collaborating with Britain was in their own and their country's interests. But such maneuvers, as was the case with President Quwatli, did not always succeed. After World War II, as Britain's prestige waned and its military and economic standing diminished, undercover political operations were stepped up, becoming an essential tool for the Arabist secret agents to safeguard their country's strategic and economic interests in the Middle East.

The Secret British Scheme

On May 28, 1947, Najib al-Armanazi, the Syrian ambassador to London, informed his foreign minister of an incident involving Brig. Clayton - a confrontation between the Foreign Office and the secret services, who had "categorically refused to remove him from Egypt." Armanazi noted that "support for Clayton surpasses the imagination," adding that he had been given "carte blanche to direct the vast program he aims to complete," which consisted of advancing the Greater Syria plan and securing British control over Libya.

The same day, Mardam Bey instructed Armanazi to alert officials in Britain's Foreign Office that the Syrian government would forcibly oppose any intervention by King Abdullah in Syrian affairs. He had previously notified Armanazi that British agents were inciting the Druze and Bedouin tribes against the Syrian government.

In early June, Mardam Bey wrote directly to Bevin, complaining of the intrigues of British officers in the Arab Legion against Syria, adding, "What makes the situation even more delicate is that the plot organized against Syria is welcomed by all the British officials in the Near East." He warned that if Syria had no other way to safeguard its independence, it would seek foreign assistance, including from the Soviet Union.

Reports on increasing subversion by British agents in Syria came during the Syrian parliamentary elections, and the escalating tension along the border between Syria and Jordan in the summer of 1947. An Arab intelligence report reveals that British secret agents were also provoking members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria to act against its republican regime. It also reveals that British agents in Egypt were collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood there, against the growing communist propaganda.

The deterioration in Syro-Jordanian relations coincided with the Anglo-Iraqi negotiations on a new military agreement to replace the 1930 treaty and as relations between the Iraqi government and King Abdullah were improving. These were the initial steps of the scheme devised by the British secret services in Cairo, Amman and Baghdad, implemented between July 1947 and May 1948.

In the summer of 1947, British policy in the Middle East reached an impasse. Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi - backed by King Faruq - insisted that Britain undertake to evacuate its forces before the Egyptian government would agree to proceed with negotiations on an Anglo-Egyptian treaty and the future of Sudan. In July, the Egyptian government went further when it brought its case before the United Nations.

British policy in Palestine reached a deadlock as well. After the failure of negotiations with Arab and Zionist representatives in London in early 1947, the British cabinet had declared its intention to return the mandate over Palestine to the United Nations. Britain was losing ground in the propaganda war, especially in the United States, as the Zionists successfully portrayed the conflict in Palestine not as Arab-Jewish, but an Anglo-Jewish one between a Zionist liberation movement and a colonial power. Also, its harsh measures against the illegal immigration of Holocaust survivors from the European refugee camps to Palestine drew international criticism, which culminated with the Exodus ship affair in July 1947.

Continued reports of Zionist attacks on British soldiers stirred up intense public resentment and hardened the resolve of the cabinet to evacuate Palestine. As the U.K.'s economic crisis deepened, Prime Minister Clement Attlee was compelled to cut the costs of retaining large armed forces overseas to defend an empire that Britain was no longer capable of sustaining, either militarily or economically. In early 1947, the cabinet dramatically announced Britain's intention to withdraw unilaterally from India.

Arab rulers closely followed the dramatic events unfolding in London, indicating that Britain's imperial order in the Middle East was beginning to crumble. They saw Britain failing to suppress the Zionist insurgency, gradually losing its grip over the Middle East and being relegated to an inferior position vis-à-vis the United States. President Harry Truman's March 1947 declaration that the United States would defend Turkey and Greece against the Soviet Union reinforced these beliefs.

Britain's plan for a regional security pact was perceived as being less likely; Turkish and Arab leaders were less inclined to be part of it. But President Quwatli believed that Britain would not give up the Middle East without a struggle, while King Faruq told Mardam Bey, "Great Britain played us all and exploited us in its own interest, and won on all fronts simultaneously." The French intelligence service estimated that Britain was far from losing its grip over the Middle East and "still had many cards to play."

Posted 04/12/14

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