Midwife of the Middle East, Evening Standard, 5 February 2001

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One Palestine, Complete
Tom Segev (Little, Brown, £25)
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Reviewed by Edward Fox

An inglorious history: Britain acted as midwife at the birth of modern Israel
 
Tom Segev, a journalist on the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, who also holds a doctorate in history, has accomplished what one would not have thought possible: a compulsively readable narrative of one of the most dismal chapters in the history of British imperialism: the 30-year period from 1918 to 1948 when Britain governed Palestine and acted as the erratic, uncomprehending midwife to the establishment of the State of Israel.

Britain assumed responsibility for Palestine in the carve-up of the Ottoman empire that followed the First World War, entrusted by a League of Nations mandate to govern Palestine until it could be granted independence. But built into the terms of its rule was an additional undertaking to support the aims of the nascent Zionist movement, which sought to create in Palestine a "national home" for the Jewish people.

Segev argues that Britain undertook this project, which was bound to displease Palestine's Arab population, out of a muddled combination of motives which included a vague belief in the country's strategic and economic value, a mystical Christian obligation to return the Jews to their ancient homeland, and what Segev calls "a myth of Jewish power".

The conventional Zionist account of the birth of Israel portrays Britain as opposing Jewish state-hood at every step: Segev's alternative version - that Britain did all it could to foster the Jewish state - is just one example among many of the freshness of Segev's historical approach. The book is full of startling and unsettling truths. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, for instance, rather than seeking to avoid the shabby European myth of the power of international Jewry (as the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, sought to do), used it shamelessly to frighten British politicians into giving the movement what it wanted.

A social history rather than a political history, the book is rich with anecdote, amusing, awful, even gossipy, and of portraits of not only the principal actors in the struggle for Palestine that took place during the Mandate, but also of minor players whose lives went on amid the increasing turmoil. This is a wise decision: there are few places on earth more burdened by history, no place that demands more of our fatigued attention in daily news reports, yet the mad, sour mood of the place is rarely described with acuity.

No matter how hard they tried to be fair to both communities in Palestine, the British simply couldn't succeed in squaring the circle of enabling Israel to come into existence without harming the Arabs. No matter how many roads they built or soldiers they employed, the country slid toward Arab-Israeli war with every passing year, with the British administration the target of terrorism from both sides. Today there are old soldiers from Bow to Bolton who recall the years they spent in Palestine, trying to keep order at the point of a gun, as the biggest headache of their lives.

The strongest historical force in this story is undoubtedly the determination of the Yishuv (as the Jewish community was called before Israel's independence) and its leaders to carve out a new country in Palestine - a force to which the British and the Arabs could merely react. Segev describes the wild energy of the Yishuv in all its chaotic variety - from building the vibrant city of Tel Aviv, with its proudly humanistic Bauhaus architecture, to the case of the stubborn individual who demanded that Hebrew be accepted by the British as a language of official telegraphy. Despite this will to succeed, the Zionist movement's politics were by no means coherent. The mainstream of the Zionist movement, led by Weizmann and later David Ben Gurion, was dogged by an extremist and violent Right-wing - one of whose leaders, Menachem Begin, went on to become prime minister of Israel.

In approaching any book about Israel/Palestine one wants to know at the outset where the writer's perspective lies. The subtitle of this book promises an account of the Mandate from the point of view of both Jews and Arabs, suggesting an Olympian viewpoint giving both sides equal time. As an Israeli writer, Segev is able to describe the Israeli side with intimate knowledge, but unfortunately he only sees the Arabs from a distance. While the Zionist leaders and the British colonial rulers are vividly depicted, the only Palestinian character Segev is able to capture is the eccentric Arab nationalist Khalil Sakakini, whose memoirs were published in Hebrew. One regrets that he was not able to portray as successfully the reluctant and ineffective leader of the Palestinians, the "grand mufti" Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a complex and difficult man, which would certainly have helped us begin to understand how the Arabs of Palestine failed so comprehensively to achieve anything politically under the Mandate.

The sources for this book are entirely in English and Hebrew, with not a single Arabic work cited. But for this he can be forgiven. His narrative is so strong, his sources so diverse, his historical insights so penetrating, candid and fresh that it can safely be described as the best general history of the Mandate yet written - -until someone can achieve the impossible and write about it from all three sides - British, Israeli and Palestinian.