This is an edited version of an article written by N. Israeli.


The relationship between Zionism and imperialism is unique and merits a special analysis. Many people of various viewpoints on the left agree that Israeli policies today are linked with those of US imperialism, and condemn these links. Few, however, realize the origin or the internal mechanism of these relations. Can Israel ever align itself with the anti-imperialist forces in the Middle East? Did not Israel, after all, fight against British imperialism in Palestine in 1948? The following essay constitutes an attempt to answer these and similar questions through an analysis of Israel’s relations with the imperialist West.

Modern Jewish colonization of Palestine was begun not by the Zionists, but by a French organization sponsored and financed by Baron Edmund de Rothschild. For that matter the Rothschild movement, named Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), was hostile to Zionism until the late 1930s.

The Rothschild settlers had some conflicts in Palestine with the Arab peasants who refused to give up the land which their feudal landlords had sold to the AIU. Later these peasants became hired farm hands in the AIU settlements. The AIU never got into a political conflict with the Palestinian Arabs because it was not in itself a movement for political independence – the Rothschild colonization was simply part of the French colonial system. The Zionist movement was something entirely different. From the very beginning – even before the Zionist immigrants reached Palestine – its main aim was to establish a politically independent Jewish nation. (For tactical reasons this aim was couched in the terms “to achieve a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”) Unlike the AIU, Zionism therefore required an independent foreign policy and some Zionists recognized immediately that their fundamental aim implied a foreign policy which would rest upon an alliance with imperialist interests.

In its history as well as its nature, Zionism differs significantly from all other nationalist movements. It is the case, as has been said, of “a government that acquired a state.” From the time of the 1897 founding Congress, the Zionists had a government (the Zionist executive committee). They had a House of Representatives (the Zionist Congress) with a left and a right wing, moderates and extremists, progressives and conservatives, religious and secular parties. They collected annual taxes (the shekel, whose payment granted the right to vote in the elections of the Zionist Congress). Yet they had no state to govern and no citizens. The Congress was a federation of political parties which shared one common objective – to create a Jewish state in Palestine – yet quarreled on almost every other issue, including the means to achieve this common objective. All this activity was taking place in Europe while the Jewish population in Palestine numbered less than 10 per cent of the Arab population, and had nothing to do with the Zionist movement.

Zionism originated in Europe and was a European phenomenon arising out of conditions affecting European Jews. These conditions included: the severe persecution suffered by Jews in Tsarist Russia in the second half of the last century (in the pogroms the Russian Jews were in constant danger of losing not only their livelihood, but their lives) and the obstacles faced by Jews in Western Europe (where their economic conditions were much better) in becoming integrated into non-Jewish society (the Dreyfus Affair converted Herzl from an assimilationist to a Zionist). Ideologically, Zionism was shaped under the impact of nineteenth-century European nationalism, which was the emerging ideology of a wide group of people living in the belt between the Baltic and the Adriatic. Emotionally, it was deeply influenced by the Jewish religion.

Herzl himself underestimated the strength of the Jewish sentiment toward Palestine. Coming from an assimilationist home, he was unaware of the emotional-political power of the Jewish religion. When he suggested to the Congress that the Jewish state be created in Uganda, he was surprised by the fierceness of the opposition from the majority which refused to accept any substitute, even temporarily, for Palestine. The Zionists considered their rights in Palestine to be incontestable, but they realized that they must either achieve recognition of these rights by some world power or else convince those who happened to be ruling Palestine that the creation of a Jewish state there would be to their benefit. 1 Although Palestine was at that time populated by some 700,000 Arabs, the Zionists never bothered to consult them. Realistically they could hardly have expected the Palestinian Arabs – who had their own nationalist aspirations – to accept the idea of a Jewish state, especially at a time when Jews constituted such a small percentage of the population. And like any other colonizing movement of that time, Zionism simply did not consider the indigenous population of the colonized country as a political factor to be reckoned with. According to Max Nordau, Herzl’s deputy: “Our aspirations point to Palestine as a compass points to the north, therefore we must orient ourselves towards those Powers [Germany and Turkey] under whose influence Palestine happens to be.” Considering the circumstances and the nature of a nationalist movement bent on a policy of colonization, whatever the reason, one can hardly see an alternative to this policy. Thus, during the first phase of its existence (from 1897 to 1914), political Zionism courted the Turkish Sultan and the German Kaiser, attempting to win their approval of Zionist plans. During World War I, the focus of the campaign was shifted when it became clear that Britain would be the next ruler of Palestine.

The primary goal of Zionist foreign policy was achieved on November 2, 1917, when the British Government made public the Balfour Declaration, recognizing the right of the Zionists to establish a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine and making a vague promise of support. It is evident, even at this early stage, that the pro-imperialist orientation of Zionist foreign policy was inherent in its aims, since Zionism could not possibly begin to carry out its plan if the ruler of Palestine did not approve. It was this internal logic that drove Zionism into the imperialist camp. It simply had no choice.

Once the legitimacy of the Zionist plan was recognized, the next step was to implement it. This necessitated two things: a mass immigration of Jews into Palestine and mass acquisition of land by Jews.

The Palestinian Arabs, awakened to political consciousness under the impact of World War I and taunted by hints of independence from the British during the war (in order to gain their co-operation against the Turks), immediately opposed the Zionist plan. The Arabs had no wish to become a minority in their own country; nor did they wish to be citizens of a Jewish state. Moreover, they were anxious to establish their own state and hence found their political interests in direct contradiction to those of the British. On the other hand, the Zionists realized that if the Arabs in Palestine achieved independence before the Jews constituted a majority, the main Zionist aim would have been defeated. Thus they strove to support British rule long enough to build up their numbers and to buy more of the land. Only when they had formed a majority over a considerable and continuous part of the territory would they be ready to start the struggle for their own independence. Many Zionists were unhappy about the coincidence of their interests with those of British imperialism, but whenever a Zionist experienced a conflict between his anti-imperialist attitudes and his Zionism, it was always the latter which gained the upper hand in the end.

In the thirty years between 1918 and 1948, the Jewish population of Palestine increased from 50,000 to some 600,000 inhabitants. Most of this increase was the direct result of Zionist immigration. Funds collected regularly from Jews throughout the world helped to build an all-Jewish economy (which never was, nor aimed to be, economically profitable) based on the slogans “Redeem the land,” “Jewish labor,” “Buy Jewish,” Despite some friction with the British (who on the eve of World War n began to court the Arabs’ favor by curtailing immigration, etc.), the basic alliance of interests remained. Both parties opposed Palestinian efforts to dislodge the British, and during the 1936-39 rebellion (a major effort that at times tied down as much as 50 per cent of the entire British Army), the Zionists contributed to the Palestinian defeat. This defeat marked the departure of Palestinians from power politics in the area, leaving the field to be occupied by the British and the Zionists.

During World War II, friction started to build up between these two parties, finally breaking out into armed conflict between 1945 and 1947. The main reason for the outbreak of hostilities was the refusal of the British to allow mass immigration of Jewish refugees from Europe. There were, however, important economic factors as well During the war, local industry (mostly in Jewish hands) had become the main source of supply for the British Army in the area. When the war was over, economic prosperity was over too, and British goods once more enjoyed preference. The Jewish community in Palestine (often against the advice of its leaders) began to clamor for independence. This clamor developed finally into an armed struggle based mostly on urban guerrilla warfare. The Zionists enjoyed tremendous popularity in world opinion and this factor, combined with the weakness and demoralization of the British and the complete collapse of Arab nationalism (which had based its hopes on the defeat of the British in the war), contributed to their victory.

When the United Nations partitioned Palestine in 1947, Ben-Gurion and Abdullah each annexed half the territory allotted to the Palestinian Arabs. This forfeited international recognition of Israeli borders for Ben-Gurion, and the recognition of the legitimacy of this claim by some authority of world opinion then became the major task of Israeli foreign policy. The United States, Britain and France provided this recognition in their Tripartite resolution of 1950 in which they sanctioned the 1949 armistice lines. (They compromised by not recognizing the finality of these lines, however, and declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel as the Zionists demanded.)

Once more Zionist foreign policy had demonstrated its dependence on imperialism. Moreover, the economic and political links between the Israeli leadership (who, from the establishment of an independent Jewish state, became the de facto, though not de jure, leaders of the Zionists) and both United States Jewry and Government were already too strong to permit a neutral, let alone anti-imperialist, foreign policy. When the war with Korea broke out in 1950, the Israeli Government aligned itself openly with the United States. This signaled a certain transformation in the pro-imperialist attitudes of the Israeli leadership: from the previous coalignment of interests on the local, Palestinian issue suddenly sprang a coalignment of interests on global issues. The price of relying on imperialist support at home is support of the imperialist system throughout the world.

By 1950, political Zionism had succeeded in accomplishing four tasks: Its claims in Palestine were recognized by the big powers, it had created a Jewish majority, it had achieved political independence in part of Palestine, and it had achieved imperialist recognition of its territorial integrity. There was, however, one flaw in this series of successes – the Arabs refused to recognize them or to accept the situation as final. This is hardly surprising. With the defeat of their aspirations to independence, many Palestinians lost all they had and became refugees within their own former territory. The Israelis then began to treat them as non-existent. From the moment they concluded the secret agreement (endorsed by the British Foreign Office) with Abdullah in 1949, Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Moshe Dayan and the rest of the Israeli leadership scrupulously refrained from any mention of the Palestinians. They were willing to conclude peace with the rulers of any Arab state, to enter negotiations with them “anywhere and anytime,” but they insisted that the Palestinians were, politically, non-existent It is an irony of history that through their victory in the 1967 war these same leaders were forced to recognize and deal once again with the same Palestinians they conjured away in their imaginations some nineteen years earlier.

In 1950, Ben-Gurion expected that within a year Jordan would conclude a peace treaty with Israel, thereby bringing the Israeli-Arab conflict to an end. Abdullah, however, was shot by a Palestinian and suddenly peace seemed further away than ever. It is not entirely clear what the Israeli leadership meant by “peace.” Still, there is little doubt that the Israeli leadership was intent on extracting from the Arab states the overt, de jure recognition as well as the covert, de facto acceptance of the 1949 territorial and demographic status quo. Since the Arab states refused to grant this recognition and all direct Israeli approaches had failed, Ben-Gurion decided to use indirect means.

At this time (1953-55), the United States was surrounding the USSR with a network of bases and enticing its allies into a series of anti-Soviet pacts. Numerous attempts were made, especially by John Foster Dulles, to draw the Middle Eastern states into a joint anti-Soviet pact. Israel was always eager to join, not so much out of fear or hatred of the Soviet Union (which had been the stanchest political and military supporter of Israel in 1948), but because of the possibility that a paragraph concerning “mutual respect for territorial integrity” or the like could always be introduced into such a treaty, thereby causing any Arab signatory to recognize indirectly the accomplished fact. Most Arab leaders, with the exception of veteran pro-imperialist politicians like Nuri Sa’id of Iraq, refused to sign. They were suspicious that these treaties were directed not so much against the Soviet Union as against their own interests, and they believed – with some justification – that they constituted a veiled attempt by the United States to replace the British imperialist presence in the Middle East

Anti-imperialist movements throughout the Arab world have been gaining in influence since the end of World War II and they exert considerable pressure, both directly and indirectly, on every ruler and politician in the area. Gradually these movements came to power and the Israeli leadership became more and more worried. When it became clear in 1954, for example, that the British intended to evacuate the Suez Canal, the Israeli Government made frantic efforts to make them stay. In a carefully calculated provocation, the Israelis sent a ship flying the Israeli flag into the Canal and used its detention to demonstrate that “Egypt cannot be relied upon to ensure free navigation to all nations.” The truth is that during the period that the British ran the Canal, no Israeli ship passed through. Egypt was not ready to grant passage to Israeli ships before a settlement of the whole Palestine problem had been achieved. But the really significant fact is that while up to 1948 the Zionists had had no conflict with Egypt, they now found themselves up against the anti-imperialist policies of a new Egyptian regime (which was not responsible for the 1948 invasion of Palestine) and with a stake in the continuation of British presence in the Canal.

Once again the alliance with imperialism in local affairs had prescribed distant consequences. The Arab world stubbornly refused to accept as final the situation that the Zionists had imposed on the Palestinians. When this failure became clear to Ben-Gurion (who between 1949 and 1959 was the sole authority on defense and foreign policy in Israel), the Zionists changed their tactics. The instrument of this change was the “retaliation” raid conducted by the Israeli Army into Arab territory. As the name implies, these raids were said to be retaliations for the small-scale armed infiltration and acts of sabotage carried out by various Arab organizations inside Israel. Politically, there was a somewhat different motive behind them (a motive of which few Israelis were aware): that of forcing the Arab regimes to join the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact, which was part of the American cold-war containment policy.

When, after a major Israeli raid on Gaza on February 28, 1955. Nasser approached H. Bayrod, the US ambassador, with a request for arms, he got the usual answer: “First join the Baghdad Pact.” Instead of following this advice, he turned to the Soviet Union for help and as a result an Egyptian-Czech arms deal was signed. The West was now forced to compete with the Soviet Union for the favors of local rulers in order to maintain its interests in the area.

Nasser made much use of this competition. Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, was unable to exploit it for two reasons: He was already too dependent economically on the United States, and the USSR continued to insist upon the rights of the Palestinians. So the Israeli leadership, which during its struggle with the British in 1948 had found its stanchest supporter in Stalin, now found itself in direct conflict with the Soviet Union.

From 1955 onward, the Israeli leadership had its own vested interest in diminishing Soviet influence in the Middle East, which culminated in the Suez war of 1956. Israel was certainly not lured into this situation by France or Britain – there is reason to believe, in fact, that it was the other way around. Realizing that France, because of its involvement in Algeria, had an interest in defeating the anti-imperialist movements in the area – particularly in overthrowing Nasser, who symbolized these movements – the Israelis started to tempt the French into a joint military strike on Egypt. Once the bargain was struck, Britain was lured into it. 2 The Suez war, which the United States opposed, demonstrated one important aspect of the link between Israel and imperialism – namely, that Israel is not an obedient servant of US, British or French imperialism. Rather it is more than ready to initiate action on its own behalf. The failure of the Suez war, in spite of the Israeli military victory, to force the Arab states into a recognition of the status quo terminated this stage in the development of Zionist foreign policy.

After Suez it became clear to the Israeli leadership that, at least for the present, little could be done to make the Arabs accept a Zionist state in Palestine. The situation was aggravated by the clear split in the Arab world between anti-and pro-imperialist regimes, a split which deepened during the Suez war. Pro-imperialists like Nuri Sa’id and Hussein who, like the Israelis, were interested in preserving imperialist influence in the Middle East, were under constant pressure from the masses supported by the anti-imperialist governments. To counter this pressure they turned to racial, anti-Jewish propaganda, calling upon the anti-imperialists to “throw all the Jews into the sea.” Instead of mouthing empty words about fighting imperialism, they said, let us join ranks in the fight against the Jews. The fact that the Arab governments were no longer united in their attitude toward imperialism, and that it was precisely the pro-imperialists who resorted to the strongest anti-Israel propaganda, frustrated the Israeli leadership. Moreover, the fact that the British, French and Americans continued to court Nasser because of their economic interests in the area, while at the same time remaining cool toward Israel in order not to antagonize the Arabs, gradually brought into being a policy of self-reliance. Israel began to feel that it could not entirely trust the Western governments to safeguard its existence, and must rely almost exclusively on its own resources and the resources of Jews throughout the world. One consequence of this policy was the insistence on the part of Ben-Gurion and his disciples – notably Dayan and Peres – upon the development of an independent nuclear deterrent. The moderates like Eshkol and Meir wavered; they disliked the idea of antagonizing the United States, which for years had insisted on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Ben-Gurion, however, went ahead and built a secret atomic pile without the knowledge of the United States (which had donated a smaller one over which it had absolute control). When Washington finally learned about this, American pressure was used to unseat Ben-Gurion in favor of Eshkol.

One of Eshkol’s first moves as premier was to delay the construction of an Israeli bomb. In return he received a very definite American military commitment to safeguard the territorial status quo. However, when Nasser imposed the naval blockage in Tiran in June 1967, President Johnson refused to intervene. He already had a war on his hands in Vietnam and was unwilling to antagonize the entire Arab world – not to speak of the Soviet Union – by siding openly with Israel. It was only after the CIA and the Israeli leadership assured him that there would be no need for “American boys to die for Israel” that he accepted the possibility of a military conflict For the Israeli leadership, however, Washington’s refusal to honor its commitment was a shock; Ben-Gurion’s arguments for self-reliance were vindicated. Today there are a significant number of Israeli politicians who would not hesitate to employ the most drastic measures in order to avoid the prospect of military defeat.

  1. See Ben-Gurion’s statement in Ma’ariv, Mar. 19, 1971.
  2. See M. Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, the Prophet Armed.