British Empire Books

Palestine: Retreat from the Mandate

The Making of British Policy, 1936 - 1945

AuthorCohen, Michael
PublisherPaul Elek
ISBN No.0236401297

This is an extremely thorough book detailing the history of one of the most critical periods of Palestinian history. In this short period of nine years, British policy towards the Jews and Arabs of Palestine swung violently between the mutually exclusive claims and aspirations of the two peoples. If you were only going to examine nine years of Palestinian history then these are almost certainly the most crucial years to put under the microscope. For this reason alone, Michael Cohen's book is one that should be consulted by anybody interested in what happened to Palestine and why Israel come into being.

This is a very well researched book. However, one glance at the list of sources and acknowledgements is going to suggest that this is a history that is geared more towards the Jewish point of view than the Arab one. Not that I'd dismiss the book out of hand for this reason. Biased histories are as valuable, and nearly always more interesting, than those straining to be objective and neutral. As long as the reader is totally aware of the potential weak points and differences of opinion that the author is likely to hold. An example of this is how the author often states that the duplicity and deviousness of the Palestinian negotiators frustrated and annoyed even sympathetic British administrators and officials. Now, there is nothing wrong with Mr. Cohen stating this theory but you should go and check with British sources to confirm or deny it for yourself.

I think that the book does indeed demonstrate how what is often viewed as British vacillation and footdragging were often part of a far more concerted effort to extract the maximum advantage from both of the communities. The complete 180 degree change in British policy from 1936 to 1939 was almost entirely to seduce the Arabs at a time when the British were aware that the Jews had no choice but to support Britain against the far more evil Germans. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened after the Second World War had Britain been in a strong enough position to maintain its own sense of direction and destiny. Unfortunately for Britain, and as Micahel Cohen points out, the war wearly nation were more beholden to the Americans than ever before. Consequently, they were extremely susceptible to American aspirations and ideas at the end of the war. As the author states, it was no coincidence that the British withdrawal and the declaration of the Truman doctrine were within a month of each other. Whether intentionally done or not, the British well and truly passed on the torch of responsibility for the new state of Israel to the Americans. Given the subsequent history of the region this was probably no bad thing for the British in the long run.

There are many books written about Palestine and Israel. Many of them focus on contemporary attitudes and recent political history. As ever, a look at more historically focused books such as this one is likely to give anyone with an interest in this part of the world a far greater understanding of the intricacies and complexities of the subsequent developments. I would recommend this book to anyone on condition that they find other sources more sympathetic to the British and or Arab point of view.

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