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A shoddy little fantasy

Paul Foot

The Chariot of Israel Harold Wilson (Weidenfeld & Nicholson pp.406, £14.95) A wry Arab scholar once pointed out that Palestine was the perfect place for the settlement of persecuted Jews, if only it hadn't been populated already. Harold Wilson has developed this idea into a vast book. He has contrived to write a history of the making of Israel with hardly a mention of the Arab people who lived there before it was made. The Palestinian Arabs crop up from time to time, rather awkwardly, in official reports and politicians' speeches. But in Wilson's own narrative and comments, it is as though they had never been. The index has: Arabs, Palestinian, Harold Wilson on, p 368.

The single reference, in a speech he made as leader of the Opposition in 1973 is to 'the Palestinians who lost their homes in what they regard as the land of their fathers in 1948. This is a problem that I have constantly raised . .

It is a 'problem', however, which he constantly does not raise in his book. He devotes himself instead to the story of how a brave and tenacious people were led by far-sighted leaders back into the promised land, with no one to help them but the government of the United States of America (all the time) the government of Britain (almost all the time) the government of Russia (at the crucial time) and the most fantastic programme of economic and military aid ever afforded any nation on earth.

Leave the Palestinian Arabs out of this, and there is no limit to the rewriting of history. The Balfour Declaration, a cynical document which promised a 'national home' to the Jews in Palestine without affecting the 'civil and religious rights' of the Arabs whose home it was, becomes the foundation stope of wise statesmanship .The policy of encouraging free immigration of Jews into Palestine, provided they could show they were what Churchill called 'good citizens who will build up the country4 ('we cannot,' he explained 'have a country inundated by Bolshevist riff-raff') gets Wilson's accolade as Britain's answer to the problems of 'Hitler's persecution of Jews in Germany'. In this he forgets not only the Palestinian Arabs but also the immigration policy of Britain and America which was at that time as hostile as ever to foreign settlers, especially to the Jewish refugees.

In his book on the immigration service, Mr T.W.E. Roche writes of Jews coming to Britain from Austria in 1938: In some instances, passengers reached the ultimate in self-debasement, kneeling on the ground, begging the immigration officer for mercy, and yet, when they realised that their pleadings were in vain, suddenly switched from abject beseeching to vituperation and vilification'.

They were sent back to Dachau and other such places without a murmur of complaint from all the high-principled Zionists in the British government and opposition. The only place where the Jews could go in large numbers was to Palestine, where they would eventually outnumber and expel the existing population. There are those awkward Arabs again, cluttering up the ideal.

In 1939, the British government realised the trouble it was stoking up, and published a White Paper restricting Jewish immigration into Palestine. Wilson describes this as the 'all time nadir in the long history of Britain's relations with the Jewish people'.

The high point of his fantasy and the low point of his book is his description of the formation of the state of Israel. He supports the plan for partition drawn up and approved by the United Nations in 1947 (in which some quarter of a million Arabs were asked to live in a permanent minority, or leave). He supports the Jewish armies' seizing by force of arms about 25 per cent more territory even than that allotted to them by the UN; and he manages to tell the story without himself once recording that, at the very least, half a million Arabs were driven from their homes. There is nothing about the massacre of Deir Yassin, in which 254 women and children were massacred and then held out as a warning to thousands of other Arab villagers to leave; nothing about the take-over of Jaffa (an Arab city, allotted to the Arabs by the UN,) nothing about 'solving' the problem of Jewish persecution by creating one of the most intractable refugee problems the world has ever known.

In so far as these things are mentioned at all, they are put into the mouth of Ernest Bevin, Labour's post-war Foreign Secretary who, with the support of the Prime Minister Attlee, tried without success to stem the Zionist tide. In two enormous chapters entitled Britain Puts the Clock Back and Bevin Moves the Reference Back, Wilson conducts a furious assault on Bevin, ridiculing his trade union background ('was it perhaps that Bevin regarded Truman as one of the secondary dockyard managers he had out-manoeuvred in hisTransport Workers' days?') and charging him with hostility to the Jewish people. In the course of this attack, he quotes Bevin at length, as though to expose him. In these quotations, the Palestinian Arabs come back into the story, and at last someone is talking some sense. 'We cannot make two viable states in Palestine, however hard we may try' said Bevin, and he was absolutely right. 'Either the Arabs in a partitioned state must always be in an Arab minority, or else they must be driven out' he predicted, absolutely correctly. And when they were driven out . .

The fact is that 500,000 Arabs are gone; they are refugees; and I do not think they walked out voluntarily . . . The marvel to me is that the conscience of the world has been so little stirred over that tragedy. I think that the driving of poor, innocent people from their homes whether it is in Germany by Hitler or by anybody else, and making the working people of the place suffer is a crime .

How was it that this simple humanitarian response was so unpopular among socialists at that time? Wilson reminds us that the Party had from its formation been more Zionist even than the Tories. He shows how Bevin, always in a minority in the Cabinet over the Middle East, was vigorously opposed on the Right of the Party by Hugh Dalton (let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews moved ire), and on the left by Aneurin Bevan.

Most Labour politicians at the time, understandably enough, were consumed With horror at the Fascist holocaust, and what it had done to the Jews. They saw support for Zionism as support for the persecuted Jewish people, and were easy prey to the old Zionist argument that anyone who argues against Zionism is anti-semitic. In fact, Zionism complements anti-semitism. It accepts that anti-semitism Is endemic to the human condition, and cannot be fought and scotched by a multiracial society. It concludes that the only solution to anti-semitism is to construct for Jews their own country, their own chauvinism, their own superstition and their own right to persecute their minorities.

As Wilson recognises in a footnote, many socialists who supported Zionism in the late 1940s came to adapt their position, and to sympathise more with the Arabs as Israel continued her conquests and her occupations. But Harold Wilson moved in the opposite direction.

In the postwar government, whose Cabinet Wilson joined before the State of Israel was declared, his was the mild, undogmatic Zionism of most of his colleagues. Fond as he is of quoting himself, he can't find a single contribution which he made in Cabinet in support of the new Israeli state.

In 1956 when the Israeli, French and British Governments combined in a nasty, violent intrigue against Egypt, Wilson was shocked. His monumentally boring two chapters on Suez much as they whitewash the Israeli involvement, cannot but conclude with his speech at the time that Britain was behaving like a 'bullying imperialist power' against a 'weaker, coloured nation.'

As Prime Minister after the 1967 six-day war, he approved UN Resolution 242 calling for a withdrawal from occupied territory. He sanctioned his Foreign Secretary's speech to the UN General Assembly strongly opposing the acquisition of territory by war. When Gerald Kaufman, who worked in Wilson's office, visited Israel for a holiday in 1969, and sent to Downing Street a postcard from the occupied territories, Wilson was furious and considered sacking him. In all this time, his basic sympathies were with Israel but he could see that the Arabs and the Palestinians had a point of view.

The change came during his years as Leader of the Opposition in 1970 to 1974, and in his two years as Prime Minister following that. He drew closer to a circle of wealthy friends, many of whom were involved in one way or another with raising funds for Israel. The Lords Fisher, Plurenden, Kagan, Weidenfeld (who publishes this book), Kissin, old friends, and all ennobled under Wilson's premiership, were joined by Sir Eric Miller, of Peachey Properties and the Churchill Hotel, where so many Zionist meetings were held.

The connection between Wilson and the Israeli government became very close. The Israeli Prime Minister or London Ambassador had a direct line to Wilson and his personal and political secretary Lady FMkender, and they used it. On one occasion, Foreign Secretary James Callaghan was moved to complain that he and his department were being by-passed.

So Wilson became an unswerving Zionist at the time when the Zionist case was at its weakest, His book is an attempt to establish that case. It ends with a pathetic little postcript in which he voices his 'anxieties' about Israel. The 'democratic humanitarian socialist state' which Wilson defended so vigorously for so long is now run by the most brutal terrorists of the Irgun and Stern gangs on the economic principles of Milton Friedman. The 'sanctuary for the Jewish people' has become for Jews one of the most insecure places on earth. And while the Begin government continues with its military occupation of the Arab West bank and of Jerusalem, the Israeli Labour Party, Left and Right, offers not the slightest hope of any alternative.

The whole wretched experiment of Zionism is in ruins. It says something about the condition of a once proud and dignified politician that he has devoted 400 pages in an attempt to shore it up.