- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

"One Palestine, Complete" is how the first high commissioner referred, rather jocularly, to the territory that would become the British mandate of Palestine. Tom Segev, a prominent Israeli historian, borrows the phrase for the title of his new book dealing with the British period, and chooses it clearly for its irony. Palestine was far from complete when the British Colonial Service arrived in the wake of Gen. Edmund Allenby's conquering army, and equally far from complete when it left in 1948.

Mr. Segev works somewhat like a novelist, following the lives of several individuals to depict the history of the era. There is Khalil al-Sakahini, a Christian and fervent Arab nationalist, and Alter Levine, a Jewish insurance broker, who await the arrival of the British in Jerusalem. Although they share the experience of being arrested by the Turks for pro-British activity, they do not become friends. There is also Yeffim Gordon, a young immigrant from Lithuania, and a passionate Zionist, different from the other two.

When the British arrived, this small land had a population of about 700,000 including three separate, insular societies: the governing British elite committed to fulfilling the British mandate; the Zionist contingent dedicated to the sanctity of labor and the promulgation of Western culture and hygiene; and the local (basically xenophobic) Arab population. These societies interacted, but in a limited way and rarely with significant results.

For example, Mikhail Golinkin, an orchestral conductor from the Ukraine, wanted to establish a Palestinian opera. The productions were well-attended, though there was no orchestra, only a piano. The audience consisted of British in evening dress and young Zionist "pioneers" wearing shorts, heavy boots, and open necked shirts two communities in pursuit of high culture but virtually unable to talk to each other.

A higher-stakes issue, however involved the purchase and use of land. The Zionists needed land to establish their settlements and were careful to obey all existing real estate laws in order to ensure that their purchases were valid. What should have been a commonplace procedure became complicated and political because the Arab owners were often absentee landlords while the land was cultivated by Arab tenants. Upon sale due notice was given the tenants to leave, often with further compensation.

Such transfers caused a great deal of resentment. An unfortunate side effect was that the Zionists soon learned that if the price was right almost anything could be bought. Many prominent Arab nationalists sold land for incoming Zionist settlements, at the same time arguing against it publicly. Even the rich and powerful Husseini clan, having the notoriously anti-Zionist Grand Mufti as a member, sold land quietly to the Zionists. In consequence, these same Zionists thought, rightly or wrongly,that Arab leaders were venal. Such beliefs did not do much for good relations.

Indeed, in this heavily footnoted book of over 500 pages, we see very little of good relations. We are told of the 1929 riots, the "Arab Uprising," the growth of paramilitary Zionist self-defense forces, and given accounts of some of the fighting that occurred during the final days of the mandate. No space is allotted the effort made to nurture cooperation, such as the commingling of students in Arab-Jewish schools, or joint economic enterprises. It is clear today that such efforts failed dismally, and many people may join the author in saying they were doomed from the beginning, and that it is now futile to seek cooperation or even a kind of Detente. Nevertheless it is important to ask why.

Another disappointing feature of the book is the tone Mr. Segev takes when dealing with historical figures. Particularly egregious are his remarks concerning Orde Wingate whose work in developing the Haganah, the Zionist self-defense force, is revered by all who served with him. What is the purpose of denigrating him now? The author is also a bit harsh in his treatment of Yeffim Gordon who, while not always practicing what he preached, died fighting to liberate Jerusalem.

Despite its flaws, the book is loaded with information on the British mandate and the people who ran it. We learn of early reluctance on the part of the British government to even assume administration of the region and resistance to continuing it, marked by various partition proposals that never came to pass. After the grievous financial and spiritual weakening that came with World War II, the British attempted to abandon stewardship completely and did so finally in 1948. At that point, the territory was engulfed in a civil war. Fifty-odd years later we see the much cherished peace process in shambles and the area once again in flames.

The Israelis, however, are there to stay. They will do whatever is necessary to preserve their nation. This does not mean the eradication of the Palestinians, but rather standing firm against any conceivable pressure to surrender what makes their nation feasible. In time, one hopes a workable modus vivendi will arise between the two peoples. There is no other way.

Sol Schindler is a retired foreign service officer who writes on international affairs.

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