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The Turning Point?


On Sunday night, July 31, Israelis throughout the country were watching Jordanian television. King Hussein’s speech was broadcast twice, once in Arabic and again with a voice-over in English. I watched and listened with special interest, for just a few hours before I had crossed the Allenby Bridge to Israel after a three-day visit in Jordan. Immediately after the speech Israeli commentators outdid one another in finding hidden political ploys in the king’s declarations. By the following weekend the analysis had become less clever, and more somber. The most serious newspaper commentators had come to understand that King Hussein had not made just another move in a continuing game of simultaneous chess with Israel, the PLO, the United States, and the many forces in the Arab world.

The king had gone back to the basic lasting issues of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. The very staging of his speech conveyed that message. Hussein had spoken while sitting behind a simple desk in a bare room, or so it seemed to the eye of the camera, with a large portrait of his grandfather, King Abdullah, on the wall behind him. Forty years earlier, at the end of the war with Israel, Abdullah had made the fateful decision to annex the West Bank. Hussein was now reversing this decision—but clearly, sitting under Abdullah’s portrait, he could not have thought that he was betraying what he had learned from the grandfather whom he revered. To understand this paradox one must recall the events of 1948–1949.

At the end of the war against the nascent state of Israel, all of the invading Arab states signed armistice agreements with Israel, but they continued to regard the Zionist state as a usurpation of Arab land and to announce that they were waiting for the moment when they would join with the aggrieved Palestinians to reverse al-nakba, “the disaster.” In September 1948, when the war was already lost, the Arab Higher Committee, which was then based in Gaza and was supported by the Egyptians, created the Government of All Palestine. As its name proclaimed, this body was waiting to rule a land regained from the momentarily victorious Jews.

Those months were indeed a great disaster for the Palestinians. At least 600,000, perhaps up to 760,000, fled their homes inside the border that Israel was to establish through war, and only slightly more than 100,000 people remained. Whether the Palestinians fled of their own accord or whether they were expelled by the Israelis has been argued about ever since. Most Israelis prefer to believe that the Arabs left to join the armies and the guerrilla bands that were fighting the Jews, presuming that they would soon return in triumph; the Palestinians insist that very few left of their own will, and that most were either expelled directly or frightened by the massacre of civilians on April 9, 1948, at Deir-Yassin, a village on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, by a joint attacking body of the Irgun and the Stern gang. There some 250 Arabs, most of them noncombatants, were murdered.

These events have recently been studied on the basis of extensive new materials in Israeli archives and in England and America by Benny Morris, the diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. His conclusions are that during the first months of 1948 middle- and upper-class Palestinians left of their own will in order to avoid the war. But in April and May of 1948 the fear of atrocities “played a major role in certain areas of the country in encouraging flight.” There was never a policy decision by the highest leaders to expel the Arabs, but Israeli military commanders were given authority as early as March “to completely clear vital areas.” This, according to Morris, “allowed the expulsion of hostile or potentially hostile Arab villagers.” He concludes that “it was understood by all concerned,” without any formal discussions of the kind that leave documents behind, that it was best militarily to leave as few Arabs “behind and along the front lines,” and that it would be best politically to have as few Arabs in the Jewish state as possible. This was the thinking of some of the commanders in the field, including even those who had grown up in Mapam political circles, and who were ideologically committed to coexistence with the Arabs.

The question of return of these refugees was on the minds of the Israeli leaders even as the exodus was taking place. After the first truce in the fighting in June 1948 the Arab states were already pressing Israei to let the refugees return to their homes, and the United Nations mediator for Palestine, Court Folke Bernadotte, advocated their cause. The Israeli cabinet decided on June 16 that there could be no return during the war and that the matter would be reconsidered later. As the war resumed, more Arabs ran away, and more and more of them were forced out by direct expulsion. Jews quickly took over abandoned houses and property, even though the Arab population in some places, such as Nazareth, was left entirely untouched. By the time of the armistice agreements with all of the Arab states in the spring and summer of 1949, Israel was neither in the mood nor in the position to allow the return of any substantial number of Palestinians. It was sitting on their property as the spoils of war and it was threatened by their enmity. It needed the space for the hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to Israel. From their refugee camps the Palestinians watched the rapid beginnings of the obliteration of their roots in the land. Inevitably they felt vengeful and unforgiving toward the Israelis, and angry at the Arab states and at their own leaders, all of whom had failed them.1

Abdullah, for his part, acted in his own interest. In December 1948, he created a Palestinian committee in Jericho. This group asked for the union of Palestine and Transjordan, and soon extended Jordanian rule to the West Bank. In February 1950 he formally annexed the region. The Government of All Palestine became irrelevant, and soon ceased to exist. From the moment of annexation the inhabitants of the West Bank were treated as Jordanians. Abdullah decided that the Palestinians who had fled to Jordan, including those in the refugee camps, should be given Jordanian citizenship. Thus Abdullah very swiftly made Jordan into the successor state of the Palestinian state that never was. He was widely, and correctly, suspected of talking with the Israelis about a formal peace treaty, and he was punished by Palestinian nationalists, who murdered him in 1951 in front of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, before the eyes of his teen-age grandson, Hussein.

During his rule, and especially during his last three years as he reacted to the rise of Israel, Abdullah defined the Jordanian political tradition. He had been made ruler of Jordan (then Transjordan) in 1921 with the help of the British. He was an outsider, for the roots of his family were in the Arabian peninsula, from which they would shortly be expelled by Ibn Saud. His support came not from Arab or Palestinian nationalists, but from Great Britain, which subsidized his government and trained his army.

Abdullah was inevitably fashioned by necessity, if not by conviction, into a pragmatic statesman who dealt not in rhetoric or ideology but rather in compromise and self-interest. To be sure, he was a religious believer who went on foot every day to the mosque to pray. To have gained control of the Old City of Jerusalem, the third holiest place of Islam (after his family had so recently lost Mecca and Medina), meant much to him, but he had no problem in 1948 dividing power in the region with the Jews. Abdullah, like the Israelis, felt threatened by Palestinian nationalism, and, like them, he wished to weaken its force. As a Muslim, he believed, of course, that the faith that had been announced by his ancestor the Prophet would ultimately spread to the whole world, but he was willing to wait for that end of days.

Sitting under his grandfather’s portrait on Sunday night, July 31, Hussein continued his grandfather’s pragmatic politics. Abdullah had thought that he could best rule in Jordan by making it the successor state of the Palestine that never was after the Palestinians had rejected partition. Under changed circumstances Hussein was now announcing in the firmest tones: “Jordan is not Palestine.” After eight months of unrest in the West Bank, with even some threat that the intifada might be taken up by the Palestinians inside Jordan itself, the king had decided that he could not govern the West Bank. After twenty-one years of Israeli occupation the majority of its population, including most of the very stone-throwers who are giving Israel so much trouble, had learned their politics not from Jordan, which would have suppressed the uprising at once, but from Israel’s raucous democratic tradition, and from the often violent factional fights in the PLO.

Indeed, there was a rumor in Amman in the last days of July that a high-ranking delegation of Jordanian officials had recently toured the West Bank, with Israel’s knowledge, and that they had concluded that there was almost no local support for the return of the Jordanians. Abdullah had always believed that rational decisions should be made in the self-interest of the Hashemite ruling family. Hussein was following this example when he reversed his grandfather’s action and de-annexed the West Bank.

Hussein was confronting the Palestinians on both sides of the river. To the Palestinians in his territory, some 60 percent of the population (even though the official Jordanian figure is 40 percent), he was saying that he would not countenance Palestinian nationalism within his country. While I was in Amman it was being said that Jordan was safe only for loyal Jordanians, and that the many ties of people of Palestinian origin with their families on the West Bank were not a reason for Jordan to be used as the staging area for Palestinian nationalism. Hussein was saying to Palestinians everywhere, and especially to those on the West Bank, that they would now have to fight their battle with Israel on their own. Some of the Palestinian nationalists who had for years expressed hatred for Hussein now complained bitterly. Hussein had served their cause by representing the possibility of rational compromise with the Israelis. The ultra-nationalist Palestinians could continue to demand the extinction of Israel, while Hussein’s position shielded them from the embarrassment of being negotiating partners in any discussions with the Israelis, or even with either of the superpowers.

Hussein’s decision upset the Israelis even more than the Palestinians. Since the beginning of their state the Israelis have been using the “Jordanian option,” in one or another form, as a way of avoiding the issue of the Palestinians. The deal that David Ben-Gurion made with Abdullah in 1948 for a partition of Palestine had included, at least on the Israeli side, the presumption that the Palestinians who fled during the 1948 war would somehow disappear into the Arab world, that they would not become part of an increasingly aggressive national irredentist movement. Like Abdullah, the founders of the State of Israel, or most of them, were pragmatic statesmen—and they preferred him to other Arabs. This preference was not a creation of geography, although it is true that Israel’s longest border by far is with Jordan. The issue goes far deeper, to the very nature of politics and war between Jews and Arabs.

  1. 1

    Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem: 1947–49 (Cambridge University Press, 1987), see especially pp. 289–290.

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