YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


History Repeats, With Roles Reversed

Ben-Gurion's problem in '40s now haunts Palestinians.

June 20, 2003|Tom Segev

JERUSALEM -- In one of those extraordinary turnarounds of history, the position of the Palestinians today mirrors the position the Jews were in nearly 60 years ago, between the end of World War II and the founding of the state of Israel.

In those years, there were two Jewish paramilitary organizations in Palestine -- the Haganah and the Palmach -- affiliated with David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency, which represented the mainstream of the Jewish community.

At the same time, there were two other, more militant organizations -- the IZL, commonly known as the Irgun, and LHI, which was also known as the Stern Gang. Demanding free immigration for Jews and national independence, the Irgun and the Sternists used tactics that went far beyond those of the Haganah and the Palmach: They killed British security personnel and government officials, but the explosives they planted in urban centers also caused the deaths of numerous civilians, both Arabs and Jews.

Just like Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas today, Ben-Gurion, who was chairman of the Jewish Agency, was in a very tricky political position because of the militants: In order to win the concessions he wanted from the British authorities, Ben-Gurion could not openly condone acts of terrorism. But in order to retain his influence as national leader of the Jews, he could not afford to seem less patriotic than the militants.

So, just as Arafat and Abbas have had to play a complex game with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Ben-Gurion too went back and forth between supporting and then cracking down on the militant groups.

There were differences, of course. The Zionists mostly enjoyed the support of the British in the 1940s, while the Palestinians get no such support from Israel. And Hamas today targets civilians, while the Irgun and Stern Gang at times sent prior warnings to avoid civilian casualties.

Another important difference is that Ben-Gurion invested nearly 30 years developing national institutions and infrastructures before declaring independence in 1948. Arafat, by contrast, declared independence before he had prepared any infrastructure.

Yet in spite of these and other differences, the basic dynamics of those days are strikingly similar to ours.

For a short while, Ben-Gurion authorized a united front of resistance against the British, working with the Irgun and the Sternists. At other times, he and the Jewish Agency tried to act against the militant groups. At one point, the agency ordered Jewish parents to turn in members of these groups, even their own children.

But most of the time Ben-Gurion was unable to control the militants. And just as Israel has held Arafat and Abbas responsible for all Palestinian terrorism, the British held Ben-Gurion responsible for Jewish terrorism committed by the Irgun and Sternists and demanded that he eliminate terrorism completely, which he could not do.

At one point, Ben-Gurion sent Golda Meyerson -- later known as Golda Meir -- to convince the British high commissioner that more permits for immigrants would increase the Jewish Agency's influence and thereby weaken the militants. It's a very similar argument to the one Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas is using in trying to extract concessions from Israel.

Many Israelis take offense at the comparison between their country and Britain. History, however, offers a number of clear lessons for the present.

Drawing on their colonial experience elsewhere, the British understood that there could be no military solution to the problem of terrorism. The level of violence can be reduced, but it cannot be wiped out. There will always be some uncontrollable group, or perhaps only a single person, such as the 18-year-old member of Hamas who blew himself up on a bus in downtown Jerusalem just a few days ago, who will stand in the way of reason.

The question is whether such terrorists should be allowed to determine the entire Middle East agenda. In the 1940s, the British concluded that they should not. The British continued to cooperate with Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency as if there was no terrorism from the Irgun and the Stern Gang, and they fought Jewish terrorism as if there was no cooperation.

The British presence in Palestine lasted 30 years; they left when they finally concluded that the country was too costly to keep. More and more Israelis are coming to a similar conclusion with regard to the occupation of the Palestinian territories, which began 36 years ago, in June 1967. But it is discouraging to note that even if the "road map" ends the conflict by 2005, which is quite doubtful, Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories will have lasted much longer than the British occupation did.

Tom Segev, a columnist for Haaretz in Israel, is the author of "Elvis in Jerusalem, Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel" (Owl Books, 2003).

Los Angeles Times Articles