Wingate’s Wisdom: Why Diplomats Blame Israel First

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2004

Several days ago, over 50 former diplomats, led by former Ambassador Andrew Killgore, who served in Qatar from 1977-1980, wrote an open letter to President Bush denouncing his administration’s “unabashed support” for Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. Writing in the Washington Times on May 3, Arnaud de Borchgrave claimed that “it was the first time in living memory so many former envoys to the Middle East had acted as a group to denounce the government’s foreign policy. They said they spoke for many serving diplomats, as well.”

The letter to the president claimed, among other things, that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the core of the problems in the Middle East” and that this fundamental problem has been exacerbated lately by “[Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s extra-judicial assassinations, Israel’s Berlin Wall-like barrier, [and] its harsh military measures in occupied territories.” By dropping its objections to Israeli settlements in “occupied territories” of the West Bank and by taking the Palestinian “right of return” off of the table, the United States, the former diplomats contend, has closed “the door to negotiations with Palestinians and the possibility of a Palestinian state,” proving “that the U.S. is not an evenhanded peace partner.”

Most of the letter is nonsense. President Bush is the first American president to officially embrace the creation of a Palestinian Arab state. But the letter is not only factually wrong: It represents another example of the predisposition of American diplomats to blame Israel for all that goes wrong in the Middle East. What accounts for this diplomatic bias against Israel? The answer, I believe, is to be found in a book that I read in February on my way to visit a friend in Israel: Fire in the Night: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia, and Zion by John Bierman and Colin Smith.

Orde Wingate was a brilliant but eccentric British officer who died in a military plane crash in Burma in 1944. At the time, he was leading a guerrilla force known as the Chindits who, by shattering the myth of Japanese invincibility in jungle warfare, contributed mightily to Allied morale at a critical juncture of World War II.

But, although he was not a Jew, Wingate’s enduring passion was Zionism. Posted to Palestine in 1936, he became enamored of the attempt by Jews to return to their ancestral land. In the face of an Arab revolt in Palestine, Wingate pushed for an alliance between the British and Palestinian Jews. In 1938, Wingate convinced his superiors to authorize the creation of a small Anglo-Jewish guerrilla army known as the Special Night Squads. He was called “Hayedid“—”The Friend”—by such Zionist leaders as Chaim Weizmann, a sobriquet by which he is still remembered by Israelis some six decades after his death. Yemin Orde, a Galilean kibbutz named after Wingate, became a youth center in 1953.

I can’t help but believe that the attitude of those who signed the letter condemning the president’s Middle East policy mirrors that of the British in Palestine, as described in Fire in the Night. The fact is that when it came to British attitudes toward Palestinian Jews, Wingate was out of step with most of his diplomatic and military colleagues. Despite the fact that the main security threat in Palestine came from the Arabs, Wingate found more sympathy among his countrymen for them than for the Jews.

According to Bierman and Smith, “the [British] foreign policy establishment was dominated by Orientalists who felt a romantic affinity for Arabic culture, especially that of the Bedouin—the ’noble savage’ who in various guises throughout the empire (the Masai of Kenya, the Gurkha of Nepal, the Fuzzy-Wuzzy of the Sudan, the Sikh of the Punjab) represented some ideal of manly courage, Spartan simplicity, and courtly charm.” According to Shimon Peres, “The Arabs—and especially the Bedouin—were famous for their hospitality and their winning ways. They had been wooing and winning the hearts of British imperial officialdom for decades…”

The British found the Palestinian Jews prickly, irritatingly non-deferential, and unlike the Arabs, altogether impossible to patronize. While they may have grudgingly respected the former, the British accorded a condescending affection to the Arabs. Bierman and Smith write that “the Anglo-Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin used to liken the Palestine mandate to a third-rate English public school in which the British were the teachers and the Arabs and Jews were the pupils, but in separate houses. The Jews won all the prizes but the teachers preferred the Arabs because the Jewish boys were insubordinate, disrespectful, no good at games, and constantly complaining to their parents, who then complained to the governors.”

As was his wont, Wingate let his superiors know what he thought of some of his colleagues. “We seem to send only the worst type of British official to Palestine. They hate the Jew and like the Arab who, although he shoots at them, toadies to them and takes care to flatter their sense of importance.” If you ask me, this is a pretty good description of the signers of the open letter to President Bush.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.