Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Kennedy, Johnson and Maariv

We're working towards launching a new ISA website later this year. Among other preparations, a group of staff is working on a collection of the Cabinet transcripts from 1948-1967, which we hope to put online in its entirety. As we look at the documents, we'll try to put up some teasers, mostly on our Hebrew language blog; so if you read Hebrew and are interested in the classified discussions in Israel's Cabinet in its early years, feel free to follow us over there.

One of our staff blogged about the Cabinet discussions following Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. The first meeting was characterized by the same shock everyone else was in. A week later, however, on Dec. 1, 1963, Golda Meir reported at length. Golda was the Foreign Minister at the time, and it just so happened that she'd been in the US, and her colleagues were eager to hear her impressions.

Some of what she had to tell was generally known, such as her description of the funeral. Some was tinged by the Jewish Question. Golda and all the Jews she'd been in contact with were apprehensive that the assassin might turn out to have been Jewish: "It may not be rational that we were afraid he would turn out to be Jewish--why should he be Jewish and what difference would it make?--but that's the way it is. We were worried." Then she spoke about all the reasons to suspect there had been some sort of conspiracy, and was of course worried by the fact that Jack Ruby, Oswald's killer, was Jewish.

Then Golda went on to talk about Lyndon Johnson and Israel. She and Johnson knew each other from previous occasions, and once, when as Vice President he had been at some convention of diplomats, he had even invited her to lunch. She was proud to note that at Johnson's first reception after the funeral he had been very friendly to her. She then talked about her brief meeting with him the next day--and here she probably lowered her voice and told the rest of the Cabinet ministers she was about to divulge confidential information which they must keep to themselves. Johnson had told her that not only would he continue Kennedy's friendly policy towards Israel, if anything, he would improve the relations.

"That was in the paper," said Health Minister Shapira.
"It was in the newspaper?" replied Golda
"Yes. In Maariv," said Abba Eban.
"So you see, the leak didn't come from the Cabinet," noted Shapira.
"We've got unfair competition, it seems," concluded Zalman Aran, minister of education.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Horsing around in the Cabinet

On January 16, 1966, the Israeli Cabinet was discussing the upcoming budget (the budgetary year in those days was from April to March). Pinchas Sapir was the Finance Minister, and also--when he felt like it--a very stern fellow, who allowed no interruptions when he was talking. So he'd been lecturing for quite a while, and the Cabinet members had been siting docilely as Sapir had demanded, until at one point he mentioned that would have to talk to the governor of the Bank of Israel to ensure the BoI behaved as Sapir wanted. Zalman Aran, the minister of education, interjected that he had a personal connection to the topic of the interest rate. Sapir gruffly told him to shut up: "I requested that no-one interrupt me," but even Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, had had enough of being silent so he piled on: "We should decide that ministers can't have debts." Aran, glad that Sapir's decree of no talking had been suspended, agreed with the PM: "Yes, let's have an official decision about that!"

At which point Sapir reasserted his control--"I said no-one was to interrupt me"--and went on with his lecture about the budget.

Page 43 of the proceedings, here.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Weizmann-Feisal Agreement, January 1919: An Early Peace Agreement with the Arabs

During the First World War, Emir Faisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, the Hashemite ruler of Hejaz (today Saudi Arabia) led a revolt against the Turks, made famous in the film "Lawrence of Arabia" (T.E. Lawrence). The revolt's British backers believed that Arab and Jewish nationalists could work together to build a new Middle East.
T.E. Lawrence at Aqaba, 1917
Photograph: Wikimedia
96 years ago this week, Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the World Zionist Organization, signed an agreement with Faisal for peace and co-operation between the two movements at the Paris Peace conference. Weizmann had already met Feisal in 1918, when he visited Palestine with a delegation of Zionists in the wake of the Balfour Declaration. You can see an account of their meeting by the British interpreter here.

On June 17, 1918, Weizmann wrote to his wife Vera in London about the romantic journey along the Red Sea past the "glowing mountains" of Sinai via Aqaba to the Anglo-Arab army in southeast Transjordan. Here he met Faisal: "the first real Arab nationalist I have met. He is a leader! He is quite intelligent and a very honest man, handsome as a picture. He is not interested in Palestine, but on the other hand he wants Damascus and the whole of northern Syria."

Weizmann and Feisal at their meeting in Ma'an , June 1918.
Photograph: Yad Chaim Weizmann, Weizmann Archives, Rehovot, Israel
Faisal was afraid that the French would try to take over Syria. Weizmann noted that he was contemptuous of the Palestinians and did not regard them as Arabs. He saw Faisal as an alternative to the Palestinian leadership which was hostile to the Zionists' aspirations. Although Zionist colonization would benefit the Arab peasants, they wrongly believed that the Jews would take away their land. Weizmann did not realize the depth of Arab nationalism, which was in its early stages but would quickly gain ground.

In December 1918, Faisal and Weizmann met again in London. In the interim, Faisal had captured Damascus, which he hoped would be the capital of the Arab Kingdom promised by the British, but his regime there was fragile. In their talk on December 11, Weizmann promised help from the Zionist movement. They agreed to cooperate against the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which divided Palestine into British and French spheres of influence and gave Syria to the French. An agreement was drawn up, signed on January 3, 1919, in which Faisal expressed approval for the Balfour Declaration and Jewish settlement in Palestine. Other clauses ensured freedom of religion and Muslim control of the Holy Places sacred to Islam. In the original, held in the Central Zionist Archives, you can see the reservation in Arabic Faisal added in his own handwriting, saying: "If the Arabs are established as I have asked in my manifesto of January 4, addressed to the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, I will carry out what is written in this agreement. If changes are made, I cannot be answerable for failing to carry out this agreement."

On February 6, 1919, Faisal appeared before the peace conference and demanded an Arab state, excluding Palestine from his demands. However, under pressure from Arab nationalists, he later retracted. In the summer of 1919, the first Syrian Congress proclaimed the Arabs' desire for a united independent Syria, including Palestine and Lebanon. In March 1920, Faisal was proclaimed King of Greater Syria. However, by July the French had driven him out of Damascus, and Syria became a French mandate. The British, who had just created the state of Iraq (a move leading to many current problems), compensated Faisal by making him its king. His brother Abdullah became Emir of Transjordan and later King of Jordan.

The documents and quotes shown here come from the Weizmann Archives in Rehovot and were published in the "Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann" series. In 1994, the Israel State Archives published some of them in Hebrew in its commemorative volume on Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president.