How Zionist Extremism Became British Spies’ Biggest Enemy

In World War II's aftermath, MI5 turned to fight a new threat. It wasn't the Soviets. It was bombers from Jerusalem.

The years after World War II were not kind to Britain's intelligence services -- especially MI5, its domestic counterintelligence and security agency. In the name of austerity, funding of the nation's intelligence services was slashed, their emergency wartime powers removed, and their staff numbers drastically reduced. MI5's ranks were reduced from 350 officers at its height in 1943, to just a hundred in 1946. Its administrative records reveal that it was forced to start buying cheaper ink and paper, and its officers were instructed to type reports on both sides of paper to save money. And there were some serious discussions within the government, as there had been after World War I, about shutting MI5 down altogether. Unfortunately for MI5, in the post-war years it faced the worst possible combination of circumstances: reduced resources, but increased responsibilities. After the war Britain had more territories under its control than at any point in its history, and MI5 was responsible for security intelligence in all British territories.

But MI5's most urgent threat lay not in its diminished resources, nor from its new Soviet enemy. Recently declassified intelligence records reveal that at the end of the war the main priority for MI5 was the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East, specifically from the two main Zionist terrorist groups operating in the Mandate of Palestine, which had been placed under British control in 1921. They were called the Irgun Zevai Leumi ("National Military Organization," or the Irgun for short) and the Lehi (an acronym in Hebrew for "Freedom Fighters of Israel"), which the British also termed the "Stern Gang," after its founding leader, Avraham Stern. The Irgun and the Stern Gang believed that British policies in Palestine in the post-war years -- blocking the creation of an independent Jewish state -- legitimized the use of violence against British targets. MI5's involvement with counterterrorism, which preoccupies it down to the present day, arose in the immediate post-war years when it dealt with the Irgun and Stern Gang.

MI5's involvement in dealing with Zionist terrorism offers a striking new interpretation of the history of the early Cold War. For the entire duration of the Cold War, the overwhelming priority for the intelligence services of Britain and other Western powers would lie with counterespionage, but as we can now see, in the crucial transition period from World War to Cold War, MI5 was instead primarily concerned with counterterrorism.

As World War II came to a close, MI5 received a stream of intelligence reports warning that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were not just planning violence in the Mandate of Palestine, but were also plotting to launch attacks inside Britain. In April 1945 an urgent cable from MI5's outfit in the Middle East, SIME, warned that Victory in Europe (VE-Day) would be a D-Day for Jewish terrorists in the Middle East. Then, in the spring and summer of 1946, coinciding with a sharp escalation of anti-British violence in Palestine, MI5 received apparently reliable reports from SIME that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to send five terrorist "cells" to London, "to work on IRA lines." To use their own words, the terrorists intended to "beat the dog in his own kennel." The SIME reports were derived from the interrogation of captured Irgun and Stern Gang fighters, from local police agents in Palestine, and from liaisons with official Zionist political groups like the Jewish Agency. They stated that among the targets for assassination were Britain's foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was regarded as the main obstacle to the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East, and the prime minister himself. MI5's new director-general, Sir Percy Sillitoe, was so alarmed that in August 1946 he personally briefed the prime minister on the situation, warning him that an assassination campaign in Britain had to be considered a real possibility, and that his own name was known to be on a Stern Gang hit list.

The Irgun and the Stern Gang's wartime track record ensured that MI5 took these warnings seriously. In November 1944 the Stern Gang had assassinated the British minister for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, while he was returning to his rented villa after a luncheon engagement in Cairo. Moyne's murder was followed by an escalation of violence in Palestine, with incidents against the British and Irgun and Stern Gang fighters being followed by bloody reprisals. In mid-June 1946, after the Irgun launched a wave of attacks, bombing five trains and 10 of the 11 bridges connecting Palestine to neighboring states, London's restraint finally broke. British forces conducted mass arrests across Palestine (codenamed Operation Agatha), culminating on June 29 -- a day known as "Black Sabbath" because it was a Saturday -- with the detention of more than 2,700 Zionist leaders and minor officials, as well as officers of the official Jewish defense force (Haganah) and its crack commandos (Palmach). None of the important Irgun or Stern Gang leaders was caught in the dragnet, and its result was merely to goad them into even more violent counteractions. On July 22, the Irgun dealt a devastating blow, codenamed Operation Chick, to the heart of British rule in Palestine when it bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the offices of British officialdom in the Mandate, as well as serving as the headquarters of the British Army in Palestine.

The bombing was planned by the leader of the Irgun, Menachem Begin, later to be the sixth prime minister of Israel and the joint winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. On the morning of July 22, six young Irgun members entered the hotel disguised as Arabs, carrying milk churns packed with 500 pounds of explosives. At 12:37 p.m. the bombs exploded, ripping the facade from the southwest corner of the building. This caused the collapse of several floors in the hotel, resulting in the deaths of 91 people. In terms of fatalities, the King David Hotel bombing was one of the worst terrorist atrocities inflicted on the British in the twentieth century. It was also a direct attack on British intelligence and counterterrorist efforts in Palestine: both MI5 and SIS -- the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 -- had stations in the hotel.


In the wake of the bombing, the Irgun and the Stern Gang launched a series of operations outside Palestine, just as the reports coming into MI5 had warned. At the end of October 1946 an Irgun cell operating in Italy bombed the British Embassy in Rome, and followed this in late 1946 and early 1947 with a series of sabotage attacks on British military transportation routes in occupied Germany. In March 1947 an Irgun operative left a bomb at the Colonial Club, near St Martin's Lane in the heart of London, which blew out the club's windows and doors, injuring several servicemen. The following month a female Irgun agent left an enormous bomb, consisting of 24 sticks of explosives, at the Colonial Office in London. The bomb failed to detonate because its timer broke. The head of Metropolitan Police Special Branch, Leonard Burt, estimated that if it had gone off it would have caused fatalities on a comparable scale to the King David Hotel bombing -- but this time in the heart of Whitehall. At about the same time, several prominent British politicians and public figures connected with Palestine received death threats from the Stern Gang at their homes and offices. Finally, in June 1947, the Stern Gang launched a letter-bomb campaign in Britain, consisting of 21 bombs in total, which targeted every prominent member of the cabinet. The two waves of bombs were posted from an underground cell in Italy. Some of those in the first wave reached their targets, but they did not result in any casualties. Sir Stafford Cripps was only saved by the quick thinking of his secretary, who became suspicious of a package whose contents seemed to fizz, and placed it in a bucket of water. The deputy leader of the Conservative Party, Sir Anthony Eden, carried a letter bomb around with him for a whole day in his briefcase, thinking it was a Whitehall circular that could wait till the evening to be read, and only realized what it was when he was warned by the police of the planned attack, on information provided by MI5.

The problem for MI5 in London, and local security forces in Palestine, was the extremely difficult nature of detecting and countering the Irgun and the Stern Gang. Both groups were organized vertically into cells, whose members were unknown to those in other cells, and whose extreme loyalty meant they were nearly impossible to penetrate. As one of MI5's leading officers dealing with Zionist terrorism, Alex Kellar noted in one MI5 report, "these terrorists are hard nuts to crack, and it is by no means easy to get them to talk." To complicate matters further, they also frequently made use of false identities and disguises. Female agents used hair dye or wigs to alter their appearance, while male agents were known to dress as women to elude security patrols.

Menachem Begin was known to travel under several aliases, and in the wake of the King David Hotel bombing he managed to elude the Palestine police and the bounty on his head by a series of clever disguises. In November 1946, the Palestine police produced alarming reports that he might be traveling incognito to Britain. Then, in early 1947, the alarm reached fever pitch when SIS sent a report to MI5 warning that Begin was thought to have undergone plastic surgery to alter his appearance, though as the report dryly concluded, "we have no description of the new face." The story soon leaked to the press, with the News Chronicle running the headline "Palestine Hunting a New Face," and sarcastically noting that although Begin might have changed his appearance, it was "likely that the flat feet and bad teeth have remained." As it turned out, the reports of Begin's plastic surgery were inaccurate: they were caused by confusion within the Palestine police (CID) when comparing photos of him. Begin had not actually left Palestine, but had grown a beard and disguised himself as a rabbi, evading the local police by concealing himself in a secret compartment in a friend's house in Jerusalem. When he agreed to give a secret interview to the author Arthur Koestler, he did so in a darkened room: Koestler vainly attempted to counter this by drawing heavily on his cigarettes, hoping to generate enough of a glow to catch a glimpse of Begin's appearance.

The situation was made all the more alarming for MI5 by the fact that members of the Irgun and the Stern Gang were known to have served in British forces during the war. With bitter irony, some of them had been trained by Britain's wartime sabotage agency, SOE, and its foreign intelligence services, SIS, while serving in the elite Palmach commando unit of the Jewish paramilitary organization, the Haganah. Just like the former members of a number of other guerrilla groups the British armed during the war, such as communist forces in Malaya, the Irgun and the Stern Gang used their training in explosives and other paramilitary warfare against their former masters. Reports landing on MI5's desks throughout the summer of 1946 warned that Irgun and Stern Gang fighters were likely to be still serving within British military ranks, and were planning to use that as a cover to travel to Britain. MI5 was thus faced with the real possibility that terrorists could arrive in Britain wearing British military uniforms.


With these startling reports coming into its London headquarters, MI5 devised a range of measures to prevent the extension of Zionist terrorism from Palestine to Britain. These have left few traces within records previously in the public domain, but as we can now see from MI5's own records, they were often extremely elaborate. The front line of its counterterrorist defense was what was termed "personnel security," which involved making background checks and scrutinizing visa applications for entry into Britain. On MI5's recommendation, all visa applications made by Jewish individuals from the Middle East were immediately telephoned through to MI5 for checking against its records before the applicants were permitted entry. MI5 also conducted a series of background vetting checks against its records on approximately 7,000 Jewish servicemen known to be in the British armed forces. This led to the identification of 40 individuals with suspected extremist sympathies, 25 of whom were discharged from the armed forces. MI5's security measures also involved heightened inspections at ports and other points of entry to the United Kingdom, to each of which an MI5-compiled "Index of Terrorists" was distributed, while on its advice Scotland Yard ratcheted up its protection of many leading political and public figures, and increased the number of officers detailed to guard Buckingham Palace. In October 1947 a senior Palestine police CID officer, Maj. John O'Sullivan, traveled to London and provided MI5 with microfilm photographs of terrorist suspects that were added to the index. Some of these mug-shots are today held with unconcealed pride by former Irgun and Stern Gang members.

At the same time as these "personnel security" measures, which were designed to frustrate the entry of terrorists or terrorist sympathizers into Britain, MI5 embarked on the intensive surveillance of extremist Zionist political groups and individuals who were already there. Its assumption in doing this was that Irgun or Stern Gang operatives who succeeded in gaining entry to Britain would at some point make contact with these organizations or individuals, and therefore scrutinizing their activities could provide crucial leads to tracking them down. MI5 also assumed that agents would make contact with elements of the diaspora Jewish community in Britain. These assumptions would prove correct.

To investigate Zionist groups and individuals in Britain, MI5 used the full repertoire of investigative techniques at its disposal. At the heart of its investigations were Home Office Warrants, which allowed for mail interception and telephone taps. In the post-war years MI5 imposed HOWs on all the main Zionist political bodies in Britain: the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the Jewish Legion, the Jewish-Arab Legion, the Zionist Federation of Jewish Labor and the United Zionist "Revisionist" Youth Organization. The last of these, in particular, caused a good deal of alarm within MI5. Some of its members addressed local Jewish clubs in North London with firebrand speeches against the British, fusing religion with politics. Another source of concern was the Jewish Struggle, a Zionist "Revisionist" publication based in London that frequently reprinted extremist Irgun propaganda from Palestine, typically denouncing the British as "Nazis" and advocating the use of violence. MI5's fear was that the Jewish Struggle would act as a recruiting platform for future terrorists in Britain. In December 1946 Alex Kellar and MI5's legal advisor, Bernard Hill, met the director of public prosecutions, and decided that, although there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, they would officially warn the editors of the Jewish Struggle that if they continued to publish Irgun material, their periodical would be shut down. The Jewish Struggle appears to have ceased publication soon after.

Another major source of MI5's counterterrorist intelligence in the post-war years were moderate Jewish and Zionist groups, both in Palestine and Britain. It forged close links with the body officially responsible for representing Zionist wishes to the British government, the Jewish Agency. In fact, MI5's policy toward the Jewish Agency was duplicitous: it cooperated with it, but at the same time kept it under close surveillance, running telephone and letter checks on its London headquarters even while it was liaising with its officers. The reason for this was that although MI5 trusted the agency's security officials, it suspected that its broader staff and membership might contain Irgun and Stern Gang supporters. The willingness of the agency to provide the British with intelligence on the Irgun and the Stern Gang reveals the extent to which those groups' activities were not supported by the majority of the Jewish population in Palestine -- and this, it should be noted, has no parallel in contemporary Arab and Islamist terrorism. The bombing of the King David Hotel brought the coordinated Hebrew Resistance Movement, which had been forged between the Haganah, the Irgun and the Stern Gang, to an end. The Irgun's bombing operation was not approved by the Haganah, and after July 1946 it therefore began providing the British with intelligence on the Irgun and the Stern Gang, and helped British security personnel to hunt them down.

In Palestine itself, MI5's liaison officer stationed in Jerusalem in the post-war years, Henry Hunloke, a former Conservative MP, maintained close liaison with Jewish Agency officials, and acquired valuable intelligence from them, for example on suspected terrorists clandestinely entering or leaving Palestine. One of the agency officials from whom both MI5 and SIS (MI6) received counterterrorist intelligence was Reuven Zislani, who worked in the foreign intelligence department of the Jewish Agency. After 1948 Zislani changed his name to Reuven Shiloah and became the first head of Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad.

In its efforts to establish contacts with Jewish Agency officials in Britain, MI5 used a series of go-betweens, or "cut-outs." Although the declassified documentation is presently incomplete, it seems likely that the Jewish Agency representative who met MI5's cut-out in London was Teddy Kollek, later a long-standing and celebrated mayor of Jerusalem, who during the war had become the deputy head of the Jewish Agency's intelligence department. Kollek is known to have provided MI5 with counterterrorist intelligence in Palestine: for example, in August 1945 he revealed the location of a secret Irgun training camp near Binyamina, and told an MI5 officer that "it would be a great idea to raid the place." The information he provided led to the arrest of 27 Irgun fighters, including the father of a later Israeli cabinet minister.

Some of the meetings held in March 1947 between the Jewish Agency official -- probably Kollek -- and MI5's cut-out, known in the declassified records by his codename, Scorpion, took place in London's finest restaurants. One was over a lavish meal of "oysters, duck and petit pots de creme au chocolat," while another featured gin and "rich red roast beef ." The meetings did produce some intelligence on Irgun and Stern Gang fighters suspected of being about to leave Palestine, whose names MI5 placed on "watch lists" at British ports and airports. Despite the value of this information, one MI5 officer could not help noting that his mouth started to water when he read Scorpion's reports. After all, this was a time when, in Austerity Britain, bread rationing was in place.


As the terrorist threat intensified, MI5 became increasingly worried about the support shown by foreign groups, and even foreign powers, to the Irgun and the Stern Gang. It did not take much detective work for MI5 to discover that the two groups were receiving technical support from the IRA. One Jewish IRA leader, Robert Briscoe, who was also a member of the Irish parliament, a "Revisionist" Zionist and a future mayor of Dublin, was known by MI5 to support the Irgun, and in his memoirs he recalled that he assisted them in every way he could. Briscoe, who in his own words "would do business with Hitler if it was in Ireland's good," made several trips to Britain before the war and met Irgun representatives there. He wrote in his memoirs that he elected himself "to a full Professorship with the Chair of Subversive Activities against England," and helped the Irgun to organize themselves on "IRA lines." In order to enhance the intelligence cooperation on IRA-Irgun-Stern Gang links, in October 1947 MI5 dispatched an officer and a Palestine police officer, Maj. J. O'Sullivan, temporarily in London to brief MI5 on Zionist terrorism, to Dublin. They liaised with the Irish CID, which kept Briscoe under surveillance and passed its findings on to MI5.

The former chief rabbi of Ireland, Isaac Herzog, was also an open supporter of both Irish Republican and Zionist terrorism. After his emigration to Palestine in 1936, Herzog rose to arguably the most important position in the Jewish religious world, the chief rabbinate of Palestine. MI5's DSO in Palestine and the Palestine police both apparently kept a close watch on Rabbi Herzog's activities. In a manner that encapsulates the tensions that existed between moderates and extremists in both Palestine and Ireland, one of Herzog's sons, Chaim, disapproved of his father's collusion with terrorism. In sharp contrast to his father, Chaim Herzog served in British military intelligence on D-Day, went on to help establish the Israeli intelligence community, and eventually became president of Israel.

The stance taken by the U.S. government over Palestine, and in particular the position of Jewish-Americans, sometimes made it difficult for MI5 to obtain cooperation from U.S. authorities on issues of Zionist terrorism. The unambiguous support shown by the U.S. administration toward Zionist aspirations was one of the main factors which led in February 1947 to the British government's decision to hand the entire matter of Palestine over to the United Nations. More specifically, MI5 knew that some extremist Zionist groups operating in the United States, such as the "Bergson Group" and the "Hebrew Committee for the Liberation of Palestine," were raising funds and logistical support for the Irgun and the Stern Gang, with explosives and ammunition sometimes being sent in food packages to Britain. MI5 established a useful working relationship with American military (G-2) intelligence in occupied zones of Europe over clandestine Jewish migration to Palestine and Zionist terrorism, but in general the relationship between British and U.S. intelligence over Zionism was difficult. In March 1948 the high table of the British intelligence community, the Joint Intelligence Committee, noted its reports on Palestine would inevitably be controversial in Washington, and should only be given to the head of the CIA in person, and not left with him. It also advised that other British intelligence reports on Zionist matters should be censored before they were passed on to U.S. authorities. Meanwhile, Operation Gold, run by U.S. Navy intelligence, was intercepting cable traffic with Jewish gun-runners, but this was not shared with Britain, nor was it acted upon by Washington.

One of the few ways in which MI5 was able to receive cooperation from the FBI on Zionist matters was by stressing many prominent Zionists' connections with communism and the Soviet Union. MI5 believed that several members of the Irgun and the Stern Gang had made their way to Palestine with the aid of Soviet intelligence. Menachem Begin and Nathan Friedman-Yellin, a leader of the Stern Gang, were both of Polish origin, and MI5 rightly suspected that the Soviets had helped them "escape" to Palestine during the war. Several Zionist leaders advocated cooperation with the Soviet Union, including the head of "security" for the Jewish Agency in Palestine, Moshe Sneh, who was aware of, if not actively involved, with planning the King David Hotel bombing. MI5's suspicions have been confirmed by subsequent research, which shows that on several occasions the Stern Gang appealed to Moscow for aid.

This makes the involvement of the notorious Soviet spy Kim Philby in SIS's investigations into Zionist terrorism all the more interesting. Philby -- Moscow's longtime agent in the British intelligence services -- was, at the time, the head of Section IX in SIS, Soviet counterintelligence. The position afforded him a legitimate interest in the Middle East -- an interest that he probably also inherited from his father, the noted Arabist, Harry St John Philby. During the war St John Philby had unsuccessfully attempted to broker a deal for the partition of Palestine, the so-called Philby Plan. Kim Philby's manipulative agenda in SIS's Zionist investigations is difficult to determine. On July 9, 1946 SIS circulated a report throughout Whitehall advising that the Irgun was planning to take "murderous action" against the British Legation in Beirut. Almost certainly this was an inaccurate warning of the King David Hotel bombing, which occurred two weeks later. It was Philby who circulated the report. Philby had less motivation for sabotaging British investigations into Zionist terrorism, however, than he did in other fields. He undoubtedly would have secretly welcomed the terrorist campaign waged in the British Mandate of Palestine as undermining the British empire, but when he was working on Zionist affairs for SIS -- and by extension for the KGB -- immediately after the war, the Soviet Union's policy toward Palestine had not yet crystallized. Moscow initially supported the creation of the state of Israel, hoping that it would be a thorn in the side of the "imperialist" West, and the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to recognize Israel when it was established in May 1948. However, Stalin miscalculated: Over the coming years, Israel built up a special relationship with the USA, not with the Soviet Union, and Stalin spent the final years before his death in 1953 consumed with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. By this time Philby was no longer working on Zionist matters for SIS, and therefore not for the KGB either. In the absence of still-closed KGB archives, Philby's precise role in Zionist matters must remain a matter for speculation. Nevertheless, Moscow certainly would have been interested to learn, through him, that London suspected Soviet involvement in Zionist terrorism.


Together with its counterterrorist operations in Britain, in the immediate post-war years Britain's intelligence services were also assessing and countering Jewish "illegal" immigration to Palestine. In fact, MI5 and SIS helped to shape the British government's overall response to this immigration. In 1939 a quota system was established which limited the number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine to 7,500 per year. Immigration above that number was termed "illegal" by the British government. Then as now, "illegal immigration" was a term fraught with controversy, and a fierce debate about it raged between Zionist politicians and the British government. MI5's role in it was not to debate the moral and legal aspects of Jewish immigration into Palestine, but to produce dispassionate assessments for Whitehall about its security implications.

MI5's overall assessment was that mass Jewish immigration to Palestine would almost certainly cause civil war between Jews and Arabs, as it had threatened to do during the "Arab Revolt" in the 1930s. The main policy devised by the British authorities to prevent "illegal" immigration was to intercept refugee ships. Detention centers were established in Cyprus to house intercepted refugees, who were then permitted to enter Palestine through the quota system. This was, however, another public relations disaster for the British government, whose critics accused it of establishing "Nazi-style concentration camps." The British also deported some Irgun and Stern fighters to detention centers in Eritrea, which again attracted claims that they were no better than the Nazis. Such criticism sometimes came from surprising quarters, not least from the assistant secretary at the Colonial Office, Trafford Smith, who privately detailed his despair:  

The plain truth to which we so firmly shut our eyes is that in this emergency Detention business we are taking a leaf out of the Nazi book, following the familiar error that the end justifies the means (especially when the means serve current expediency). We are out to suppress terrorism, and because we can find no better means we order measures which are intrinsically wrong, and which, since their consequence is evident to the whole world, let us in for a lot of justifiable and unanswerable criticism.

Rather than pursuing the ill-conceived and counterproductive measures of deporting and detaining Jewish refugees, MI5 advised the cabinet and the chiefs of staff to concentrate their efforts on preventing "illegal" immigration "at source." With the assistance of SIS, MI5 identified a number of South American and Greek shipping companies that chartered vessels to Jewish refugees, and the Foreign Office was able to exert pressure on these governments to prevent companies registered in their countries from carrying out this practice. The operations appeared to have an impact. An MI5 report stated that by 1948 "only 1 out of some 30 ships carrying illegal immigrants reached their destination."

While MI5 made assessments and was involved in defensive measures to counter unrestricted Jewish migration to Palestine, Britain's other intelligence services attempted actively to subvert the flow of migrants. In February 1947 SIS carried out an operation, appropriately codenamed Embarrass, for "direction action." A small team, mostly comprised of former SOE personnel, was recruited to attach limpet mines to refugee ships and disable them before they could set sail. In the summer of 1947 the team mined five ships in Italian ports -- having first checked that no one was on board. Nevertheless, if Operation Embarrass had been made public, the fact that SIS agents were mining boats containing Holocaust survivors would have been disastrous for the British government.

Operation Embarrass did not stop there. When some of the mines were discovered, SIS blamed them first on a fictitious Arab opposition group, the "Defenders of Arab Palestine," and then on the Soviet government. It obtained typewriters that were known to be used by dissident Arab groups and Soviet authorities, and used them to type letters implicating both groups, which it then carefully leaked around Whitehall. In a further twist, SIS made it appear that the British government was using the traffic of Jewish refugees to get its own agents out of Europe, hoping thereby to get the Soviets to block the flow of migrants to Palestine. SIS therefore attempted to deceive not only Jewish refugees, Arab opposition groups and the Soviet government, but the British government itself. This was truly the stuff of smoke and mirrors. Britain's policy of limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine, both overt and covert, was beset with controversy and resentment. It was, however, symptomatic of a much deeper problem that undermined British rule in Palestine: Britain was faced with a range of contradictory demands regarding the future of the Mandate -- from Jews, Arabs and world opinion at large. In early 1946 an Anglo-American committee of inquiry was appointed to find a settlement in Palestine, but despite the best efforts of its members, who in April 1946 recommended that a compromise be found so that Jews should not dominate Arabs in Palestine, nor Arabs dominate Jews, the committee's findings were not accepted by either party. By September 1947 the JIC in London was painting a gloomy picture for the British government of the future of the Mandate, concluding that any settlement would be unacceptable either to Jews or Arabs. Britain found itself in a situation that was rapidly becoming ungovernable. In 1947 100,000 troops -- one-tenth of the military manpower of the entire British empire -- were tied down in Palestine, a financial burden that London could not afford.

Adapted from EMPIRE OF SECRETS Copyright © 2013 Calder Walton. Published by The Overlook Press. www.overlookpress.com. All rights reserved. 

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The Seduction of George W. Bush

How the president of good and evil bromanced Vladimir Putin. And how a warm friendship turned to ice.

In the summer of 2006, President George W. Bush was relaxing at Camp David with the visiting prime minister of Denmark when the conversation turned to Vladimir Putin. It had been five years since Bush memorably peered into the Russian leader's soul. But now hope had been replaced by exasperation.

Bush regaled his guest with stories of aggravating private dealings with Putin that underscored their growing rift. Bush was astonished that Putin had tried to influence him by offering to hire a close friend of the president's and he found Putin's understanding of the world disconnected from reality. "He's not well informed," Bush groused. "It's like arguing with an eighth grader with his facts wrong."

Putin was on his mind because Russia was about to host the annual summit of the G-8 powers for the first time and Bush feared that the session would be dominated by questions about why an undemocratic nation was hosting a gathering of democratic nations. Bush had been trying to get Putin to relax his authoritarian rule to no avail. "I think Putin is not a democrat anymore," Bush lamented a few weeks later to another visitor, the prime minister of Slovenia. "He's a tsar. I think we've lost him."

Whether Bush or anyone else ever actually "had" Putin in the first place is debatable at best. But the story of Bush's eight-year pas de deux with the master of the Kremlin, reconstructed through interviews with key players and secret notes and memos, offers lessons for President Obama as he struggles to define his own approach to Putin and shape the future of the two nuclear powers. The last few months have become another dramatic juncture in the volatile Russian-American relationship, with Moscow defying Washington by offering shelter to national security leaker Edward Snowden, Obama becoming the first president to cancel a Russian-American meeting in more than 50 years and then, suddenly, improbably, the Kremlin throwing the American leader a lifeline when his confrontation with Syria took a wrong turn.

Looked at in the context of time, Obama's own dashed aspirations to build a new partnership with Moscow seem to echo his predecessor's experience. Bush thought he could forge more meaningful ties with Russia in his early years, particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and for a time seemed to make significant headway with a nuclear arms treaty and cooperation on Afghanistan, only to become frustrated as the two countries diverged, eventually coming into overt diplomatic conflict during the Georgia war of 2008. Obama likewise came into office intent on pushing the "reset" button and similarly saw early progress with a nuclear arms treaty and cooperation on Afghanistan, only to find his efforts increasingly thwarted by the same Putinist revanchism. Whether the recent Russian-American collaboration to disarm Syria's chemical stocks will turn out to be a more enduring foundation for change remains to be seen.

If Obama were to look back at his predecessor's experience, though, he might recognize how easy it is to misjudge Moscow's intentions by superimposing American ideas of what Russian interests should be rather than understanding how Putin and his circle of KGB veterans and zero-sum-gamers actually see those interests. Again and again, Bush and Obama have assessed Russia through an American prism and come away disappointed that the view from the Kremlin looks different than they thought it ought to.

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Bush came to office wary of Putin -- "one cold dude," he called him privately -- but he was interested in forging a working relationship if only because at the time he saw the real threat to the United States elsewhere. When he met with Russia scholars before his first encounter with Putin in 2001, Michael McFaul, then a Stanford University professor and later Obama's ambassador to Moscow, told him that keeping Russia "inside our tent" was the best course.

Bush agreed. "You're absolutely right," he said, "because someday we're all going to be dealing with the Chinese."

So when he sat down with Putin in a 16th-century castle in Slovenia in June of that year, he was predisposed to find a partner in the former KGB man even before his counterpart told him about saving his Orthodox cross from a dacha fire, a story appealing to Bush's faith. Bush's later public comment noting that he had gotten a "sense of his soul" disturbed many inside his own team. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stiffened even as he said it, worried that the answer might be too effusive -- but she said nothing. Back in Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff were even more bothered. "A lot of us were kind of rolling our eyes about that," Eric Edelman, then the vice president's deputy national security adviser, recalled later. Every time Cheney saw Putin, he privately told people, "I think KGB, KGB, KGB."

Bush nonetheless stepped up his courtship, inviting Putin to his ranch outside Crawford, Texas, and later to Camp David. Putin liked to brag that he was the first foreign leader to reach out to Bush after the World Trade Towers fell and that he had overruled his own hardliners to allow American troops into former Soviet-controlled Central Asia as a jumping off point for Afghanistan.

Even when Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty over Russian objections, the two tamped down the dispute and agreed on significant reductions in their respective nuclear arsenals. Cheney resisted codifying those cuts in a treaty, but Bush decided to sign one anyway, because Putin insisted. "Putin is at huge risk," Bush told aides, "and he needs to fight off his troglodytes."

Then as later, Bush would attribute Putin's demands or paranoia to those around him, essentially exonerating the Russian president himself. During a trade dispute when Russia cut off imports of American chicken drumsticks (known colloquially within Russia as "Bush legs"), Putin in a private conversation with Bush asserted that Americans deliberately sent bad poultry to Russia.

"I know you have separate plants for chickens for America and chickens for Russia," Putin told Bush.

Bush was astonished. "Vladimir, you're wrong."

"My people have told me this is true," Putin insisted.

If Bush was willing to blame that misinformation on Putin's advisers, he could hardly have missed the fact that it was the Russian president who fought him publicly and powerfully on the Iraq War, joining his counterparts in Paris and Berlin. Even then, Bush was forbearing, intent on preventing a broader rupture in the relationship. Rice at the time privately summed up the policy this way: "Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia."

* * *

But as he moved into his second term with a sweeping inaugural pledge committing himself to work toward "ending tyranny in our world," Bush could not overlook Putin's domestic centralization of power. The Kremlin had taken over independent television, eliminated the election of governors, forced defiant oligarchs into exile or prison, and ousted Western-oriented democratic parties from parliament. Many in Bush's circle personally knew Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil magnate who had been abruptly arrested on financial charges when he fomented opposition to Putin. So when Bush headed to his first meeting with Putin after that second inaugural address, he resolved to press the Russian, albeit in private.

Sitting down for a long, private discussion in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, in February 2005, Bush made his points about freedom, and Putin grew defensive. As he often did, Putin tried to make equivalences, justifying his actions by comparing them to situations in the United States.

"You talk about Khodorkovsky, and I talk about Enron," Putin told Bush. "You appoint the Electoral College and I appoint governors. What's the difference?"

At another point, Putin defended his control over media in Russia. "Don't lecture me about the free press," he said, "not after you fired that reporter."

"Vladimir, are you talking about Dan Rather?" Bush asked.

Yes, replied Putin.

Rather was in the process of stepping down as anchor of the CBS Evening News after a report accusing Bush of not fulfilling his National Guard service turned out to be based on fraudulent documents. Bush explained to Putin that he had nothing to do with Rather losing his job. "I strongly suggest you not say that in public," he added. "The American people will think you don't understand our system."

But Putin understood his own system. When the two leaders emerged for a joint news conference, a Russian reporter handpicked by the Kremlin challenged Bush on the same grounds Putin had just been citing in private.

"Why don't you talk a lot about violations of the rights of journalists in the United States?" the reporter asked. "About the fact that some journalists have been fired?"

"People do get fired in the American press," Bush answered. "They don't get fired by the government, however."

The encounter stuck in Bush's craw, and he was still dwelling on it a week later when he filled in Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair during a videoconference. "It was fairly unpleasant," Bush told him. "It was not hostile. It was like junior high debating." He recounted the Dan Rather exchange. "Seriously, it was a whole series of these juvenile arguments. There was no breakthrough with this guy."

Bush was exasperated at the memory. "I sat there for an hour and forty-five minutes or an hour and forty minutes, and it went on and on," he said. "At one point, the interpreter made me so mad that I nearly reached over the table and slapped the hell out of the guy. He had a mocking tone, making accusations about America. He was just sarcastic."

* * *

Aggravated as he was, Bush was not ready to give up on Putin. He had become a project of sorts. Bush thought he could still draw Moscow more into the Western world by tempering his public criticism and instead pushing Putin gently in private, thus maintaining his influence rather than completely alienating the Russian. When it came time for Putin to host the G-8 in St. Petersburg in 2006, Bush recognized how important the validation of the moment was for Russia, a sign of its reemergence on the world stage. But he foresaw a barrage of complaints from lawmakers, advocates, and journalists about Russia's domestic repression. "I think we are headed to a firestorm with Putin," Bush confided in Blair during another call.

Among those who favored a tougher approach was Cheney, who with Bush's permission flew to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in advance of the G-8 summit to lacerate Putin for "unfairly and improperly" restricting rights at home and using oil and gas as "tools of intimidation and blackmail" abroad. The speech infuriated Putin, but Bush was happy to have Cheney playing bad cop to his good cop. "The vice president put a stake in the ground with his speech, which helped us," Bush told Blair later that month.

Hoping to avoid the "firestorm," Bush tried to get Putin to put other tangible issues on the summit agenda to keep it from being dominated by the question of Russian democracy. In a phone call between the two leaders on June 5, Bush suggested four subjects -- bird flu, Darfur, Iran, and nuclear terrorism. Putin thanked Bush for pushing ahead with Russian membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and said only "a few more moves" were needed to resolve outstanding disputes and then it "will be finished."

Then, in an odd exchange, Putin mentioned Sergei Lavrov, his chain-smoking, hard-line foreign minister. "Lavrov just returned from London and had problems with his cheeks and lips being swollen," Putin told Bush. "We might need to take a closer look at what Condi did to him."

Bush, awkwardly, played along with what seemed to be a bizarre form of sexual innuendo. "Condi is not blind," he joked.

"And she is a very attractive lady," Putin replied.

"She is a wonderful lady," Bush said, then tried to move the conversation along. "Listen, I'd like to get this WTO stuff done in the next couple weeks before we get to St. Petersburg."

Soon afterward came Bush's meeting with the visiting Danish prime minister at Camp David, where they talked about Putin. Bush said Putin had even tried to lure him by offering a lucrative job in the Russian oil industry to Don Evans, the former commerce secretary and one of his closest friends. "Putin asked me, ‘Would it help you if I moved Evans to an important position?' What a question! ‘Will it help you?'" Bush was flabbergasted, he told Danish prime minister. "What I wanted to say is, ‘What would help me is if you make moves on democracy.' It's strange the way he thinks."

Bush's efforts to divert attention from the democracy dispute by forging a last-minute deal to admit Russia into the WTO failed after an all-night, pizza-for-breakfast negotiating session between trade officials. Bush left St. Petersburg frustrated and Putin waited until he had cleared Russian airspace to tell reporters that he would not support Bush in pressuring Iran to give up its nuclear program. "

Bush and Blair vented their mutual aggravation with Putin during a call two weeks later. "I left St. Petersburg more worried about Russia than ever," Blair told Bush.

"You should be," Bush agreed. "We talked at dinner. He's okay with centralization, which he thinks leads to stabilization. I told him, ‘What happens when the next guy comes and abuses it?' He said, ‘I'll stop him.' He thinks he'll be around forever. He asked me why I didn't change the Constitution so I could run again."

While privately critical with allies like Blair, Bush retained his friendly demeanor with Putin himself. The next year, after a new national intelligence estimate concluded that Iran had stopped a key part of its nuclear weapons program, Bush tried to rally Russia and other nations to stick by sanctions on Tehran despite Moscow's long history of support for Iran. When he reached Putin by telephone that day in December 2007, he buttered him up about his party's success in just-held Russian regional elections that everyone else, it seemed, had condemned as unfair.

"The results give us a reason to rejoice," Putin said of the elections.

"You are popular," Bush said. "People like you a lot."

"Other parties did well," Putin said.

"You're being modest," Bush said.

Bush turned to his real purpose in calling, the Iran report. "I'm worried people will see this and want to change policy," he explained. Bush noted a nuclear weapons program that once existed could be easily reconstituted. He hoped Russia would send a firm message to Iran that there is a "better way forward."

Putin said he would. "In the waiting room, I have the new Iranian national security adviser," he told Bush. "I will take into account what you told me." But in the end, Putin remained a reluctant partner in the pressure campaign against Iran.

* * *

By the following spring of 2008, however, Bush was turning from conciliation to confrontation with Putin. The president wanted to put the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia on a path to NATO membership. On this, Cheney agreed. But Germany and France were opposed, seeing it as unnecessarily provocative, and at a key meeting, Rice, then secretary of state, and Robert Gates, the defense secretary, expressed caution. Gates was hardly soft when it came to Russia; an old Cold Warrior, he had come back from his first meeting with Putin to tell colleagues, as one recalled it, that, unlike Bush, "I looked in his eyes and I saw the same KGB killer I've seen my whole life." But he did not see the virtue in provoking a confrontation. Instead, he and Rice recommended a halfway step that would encourage Ukraine and Georgia by encouraging their aspirations without the more formal step that would precipitate another blowup with Germany and France.

Bush disagreed and resolved to make a deal with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, calculating that the French would follow Berlin. "This is about me and Angela," Bush told aides.

But during a videoconference, Merkel refused to go along. Bush resigned himself to a fight in Bucharest, where NATO leaders would meet in April 2008. As he was about to hang up with Merkel, he told her lightly, "I will see you at the OK Corral."

As if the dynamics were not tricky enough, Putin further complicated them by inviting Bush to visit him in Sochi, a resort town in southern Russia, immediately following the NATO summit. That could be awkward depending on what happened in Bucharest, so Bush was reluctant to accept the invitation. He also noticed the harshening of Putin's anti-American rhetoric; at an international conference in Munich a year earlier, Putin had compared the United States to "the Third Reich."

Bush called Putin to see if he could trust that the meeting would not be a setup. "Look, the only way I can come is if you don't pull a Munich on me in Bucharest," Bush told him, as he later described the conversation to aides.

Putin agreed, and Bush accepted the invitation.

Once he got to Bucharest, Bush ran into stiff resistance from Merkel, but leaders of several Eastern European countries physically surrounded her at the meeting, arguing for a stronger statement. In the end, while Georgia and Ukraine were not put on the official membership track, the alliance declared that "we agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO." Will become, period, no caveats. Bush took that as a victory, but both Russia and Georgia were unhappy and itching for a fight. A long-running conflict between the two neighbors was turning hot.

After the NATO summit, Bush visited Putin in Sochi. It was their 28th and final meeting as presidents, with Putin preparing to step down in favor of his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, while taking up the post of prime minister. Some in Cheney's office later worried that Bush had not been firm enough warning Putin not to take action against Georgia. Others came away from discussions with the Georgians fearing that their president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had interpreted his own talks with Bush to be a "flashing yellow light" subtly supporting him in any military confrontation with Moscow. Bush's staff sent further messages trying to disabuse anyone of such misimpressions, but in the dangerous international game of telephone it was unclear what message was being heard.

* * *

On Aug. 8, 2008, Bush was standing in a reception line in Beijing about to shake hands with President Hu Jintao marking the opening of the Summer Olympics when his deputy national security adviser, James Jeffrey, sidled up and whispered in his ear. Russian troops were marching into neighboring Georgia after the smaller country shelled a breakaway republic aligned with Moscow. Years of tension had finally exploded into full-fledged war.

As he absorbed the news, Bush noticed that just a few places ahead of him in the receiving line was Putin. Bush chose not to say anything to him right then, reasoning that the ceremony presented the wrong venue for a confrontation over war. Besides, protocol demanded that he deal with Medvedev as a fellow head of state. So he waited until he returned to his hotel to call Moscow. He found Medvedev "hot," but "so was I," recalled Bush.

But Bush was dealing with the wrong man. As the opening ceremony for the Olympics commenced, Bush found himself seated in the same row with Putin, so he had his wife and the king of Cambodia shift down a few seats so that the Russian prime minister could sit next to him. Aware of the television cameras focused on them, Bush tried to avoid causing a scene but told Putin that he had made a serious mistake that would leave Russia isolated if it did not get out of Georgia. Putin countered that Saakashvili was a war criminal who had provoked Moscow.

"I've been warning you Saakashvili is hot-blooded," Bush told Putin.

"I'm hot-blooded, too," Putin countered.

"No, Vladimir," Bush responded. "You're cold-blooded."

The sudden war in the Caucasus presented a dangerous test for Bush. He and his aides worried that Georgia was just the first stone to fall; if Moscow were allowed to roll over a weak neighbor, then it could next try to seize the Crimea region in Ukraine or even make a move in the Baltics, where it ruled until the fall of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the last thing Bush wanted to do was turn a volatile situation into a Russian-U.S. confrontation and spark a new cold war.

Meetings at the White House during that week of war were unusually emotional. Saakashvili had cultivated supporters in the administration, particularly in Cheney's camp. When a junior aide suggested that the United States had to step in, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, interrupted.

"Look, I'm already in a war in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. He did not want another, especially with Russia.

Mullen was virtually the only American able to reach his counterpart in Moscow. Most Russian officials were ignoring their phones, but Mullen had perhaps seven or eight conversations with Gen. Nikolai Makarov, the Russian chief of staff, over the course of a few days, trying to keep the Russians from marching all the way to the Georgian capital. To avoid framing it as a proxy clash between nuclear-armed superpowers, Bush turned to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who held the rotating presidency of the European Union, and asked him to negotiate a ceasefire. In the meantime, some in the White House kept looking for possible responses -- even military ones. Among the options were bombing the Roki Tunnel to block any further Russian advance into Georgia. Cheney had received a call from a frantic Saakashvili requesting military equipment such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

The question came up at a meeting after Bush returned from Beijing. Cheney noted the Stinger request from Saakashvili. "I need to give him an answer," the vice president said.

Rice thought there was "a fair amount of chest beating" and "all kind of loose talk" about a muscular response that would pull the United States more directly into the conflict.

Finally, Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, cut to the chase. "Mr. President, I think you need to poll your national security advisers as to whether they recommend to you putting American troops on the ground in Georgia," he said.

Bush looked at Hadley as if he were crazy.

"I think it is important for the historical record to be clear as to whether any of your principals are recommending to you the use of military force," Hadley said.

At that point, Bush got it. Hadley was protecting him, calling the bluff of Cheney and the other hawks: Were they really ready to go to war with Russia over Georgia? Hadley wanted the principals to give their positions explicitly so they could not later write in their memoirs that they had disagreed with the president.

Picking up on that, Bush posed the question. "Does anyone recommend the use of military force?" he asked.

No one did. "It is a very serious matter, but, Mr. President, I think that would be a mistake," Cheney said.

The next day, Sarkozy reached a ceasefire agreement with both sides, but he had been snookered. The Russians had insisted on a 15 kilometer "exclusion zone" for their troops, but the French did not realize that was enough to encompass the Georgian city of Gori. The Russians took advantage and moved in. They were on the doorstep of Tbilisi, intent on regime change.

Bush decided he could no longer sit on the sidelines. He sent Rice to mediate and authorized humanitarian aid to Georgia sent on military cargo planes to make a point. With American military planes on the runway in Tbilisi, he calculated, the Russians would be foolish to attack the Georgian capital.

Rice flew to Paris, Moscow, and Tbilisi to broker a new agreement. Russia agreed to pull out of Georgia but not from its breakaway republics. The war was over, but the relationship between Bush and Putin that started with soul-gazing seven years earlier was irrevocably broken. Russia suspended cooperation with NATO and later recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Bush shelved a civilian nuclear agreement he had spent years negotiating with Putin. The days of collaboration were over.

* * *

On his last full day in office, Jan. 19, 2009, Bush put on a suit and headed to the Oval Office. He was to make back-to-back farewell calls to 13 world leaders, starting with Saakashvili at 7 a.m., and followed by Putin at 7:10 a.m. The talking points on the presidential memo consisted in their entirety of the following 14 words:

  • "Enjoyed working with you."
  • "We have accomplished a lot together."
  • "Wish you continued success."

The biggest debate was whether to call both Putin and Medvedev. By protocol, he should have called only his formal counterpart, Medvedev. But Bush decided to call both; after all their time together, he wanted to say good-bye to "my friend Vladimir." Despite the rupture over the Georgia war, Bush wistfully recounted their many visits at Crawford and the Moscow dacha and in St. Petersburg. Over the course of a few minutes, he recalled their cooperation on Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, terrorism, arms control, and economics.

They had, Bush told Putin, "many fond memories."

The other kind went unmentioned.

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