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H.D.S. Greenway

Flashbacks of a lost cause

AT FIRST the template was Germany and Japan in 1945. As we turned those defeated tyrannies into successful democracies, so would we create a new Iraq, and by so doing transform the entire Middle East. Now we are told that Korea might provide an example for a long-term America presence.

As Washington struggles with what to do with a lost war, consider the British experience in Palestine and their 30-year mandate after World War I. The British entered Palestine believing that they were liberating the land from Ottoman tyranny. Britain, "with its technological and military superiority . . . its entrepreneurial and missionary zeal, its largely democratic institutions, was to take the once-great peoples of the East into tutelage and direct their slow but sure progress under stable and just government," A.J. Sherman recalls in his book, "Mandate Days." "This clashed almost immediately with the reality of Palestine."

Although favoring a Jewish homeland under the Balfour Declaration, the British genuinely hoped for national reconciliation and peace in Palestine between Jews and Arabs. But from the beginning the soldiers found themselves in a dilemma because, as Tom Segev writes in "One Palestine Complete," "the government expected the army to impose peace between the Jews and the Arabs, as a result of which it had to fight both of them."

At first the British "reflected indefatigable optimism," Segev writes, and were slow to realize that they were in the middle of a civil war in which neither side would compromise. Both sides were "wedded to their national identity and committed to victory."

First came the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, which was marked by cruelty and torture of Arab prisoners -- including simulated drowning. Later on, even before the end of World War II, came terror from the Zionist side. When Arabs and Jews weren't fighting each other they attacked the British, who were still trying to create space for national reconciliation.

Casualties mounted as the British tried troop surges to get on top of deteriorating security. An additional 25,000 soldiers sent to Palestine became the biggest troop deployment sent overseas between the two world wars.

The British were blown up in terrorist attacks, their soldiers kidnapped and killed. When they weren't surging, they holed up in Green Zone-like enclaves called "Bevingads," after Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin.

After World War II, support for the mandate quickly eroded. Winston Churchill complained about this "squalid warfare with terrorists."

"Security continued to erode despite the presence of over 100,000 troops," Sherman writes. "The sense of constant menace (was) heightened by the ubiquitous roadside mines, against which no British vehicle could be adequately armored."

Toward the end, Chief Secretary William Battershill wrote that the British were staying because "they just did not know how to pull out," according to Segev. Bevin admitted to David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel's first prime minister, that "Palestine is not vital to England, but England does not want to have to admit failure."

Both Arabs and Jews were ready and anxious to have the British stay on as long as a British presence could further their cause. But once the British seemed to be favoring one side, trouble came from the other.

A principle reason for staying on was fear of the chaos that would follow a retreat. But after 30 years of trying to engineer compromise, the British left with their tails between their legs when support on the home front collapsed. Once they were gone, the feared upsurge of bloodshed between Arabs and Jews was realized, and the nightmare of outside intervention from neighboring states came to pass. The ramifications are with us still.

Ben-Gurion had predicted it all in 1919. "Everyone sees the problem in relations between the Jews and the Arabs," he said. "But not everyone sees that there's no solution to it . . . The conflict between the interests of the Jews and the interests of the Arabs in Palestine cannot be resolved by sophisms . . . I don't know of any Arabs who would agree to Palestine being ours . . . We want the country to be ours. The Arabs want the country to be theirs." In the end, Ben-Gurion was willing to divide the land. The Arabs were not.

There may be little comparison between the two national movements who fought the British and each other over Palestine and the contentious groups struggling for power in Iraq today. But the danger of a foreign power fighting a long war to force compromise on combatants who have no interest in compromise is hauntingly similar.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.