British Withdrawal from the Middle East Like the French, the British also faced major challenges to their influence and position in the Middle East after World War II. During the war, Britain had stationed huge numbers of troops in Egypt to protect its interests. As in World War I, the British, supported by the United States and the Soviet Union, had also occupied much of Iran in order to keep supply lines to the Soviet Union open. To ensure a pro-Allied government, they had also forced the abdication of Reza Shah and placed his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, on the throne. British troops had occupied Syria along with the Free French government. British troops had also established control over Iraq in order to prevent a pro-German government from seizing power during the war. Not least, the British still held their mandate for Palestine, despite opposition from both Jews and Arabs. In short, at the end of World War II, Britain seemed to be even more firmly in control of the Middle East than ever before. In fact, however, Britain’s control over the region was about to slip away.
Creation of Israel. The first major challenge to Britain’s position in the Middle East came in Palestine. Once the war in Europe was over, the semi-official Jewish Agency in Palestine withdrew its support for the British mandate in Palestine. The agency conducted an active campaign against the terms of the 1939 White Paper, which had promised an end to Jewish immigration and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The Jewish Agency actively supported a massive wave of illegal immigration, as its agents in Europe recruited the displaced Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust for the new Jewish state they hoped to build in Palestine. Meanwhile, extremist Zionist groups, such as the Stern Gang and the Irgun, waged a terrorist campaign against British authorities. In 1946, for example, the Irgun, headed by Menachem Begin, blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Eventually, a virtual state of war existed between the British and the Zionists.
In 1946 the British tried to obtain the help of the United States government to resolve the situation through a joint Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. The British expected the United States to understand the impossibility of giving the Zionists an independent state of their own in the face of opposition by the Arab majority in Palestine. The committee did recommend against creating a Zionist state. Instead, it recommended continuation of the mandate to give Jews and Arabs a further chance to cooperate economically, as a first step toward creating a binational, bilingual state. Such recommendations were rejected by Arabs and Zionists alike. Unable to obtain support from the United States or to get the Arabs and Zionists to agree on a
settlement, in 1947 Britain announced that it was giving up the mandate and referred the entire problem to the United Nations. In November 1947, the UN voted to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem as an international city. When the last British troops left Palestine in May 1948, Zionist leaders proclaimed the Republic of Israel. Chaim Weizmann became its first president and David Ben-Gurion its first prime minister.
The establishment of a Jewish nation infuriated the Palestinian Arabs. As soon as British troops withdrew from the area, armies from neighboring Arab countries moved against Israel. Although outnumbered by the Arabs, the determined Israelis triumphed. When the war ended in early 1949, Israel had won more territory than it had been allotted in the UN partition plan. The Arab nations accepted a cease-fire, but UN-sponsored efforts to negotiate permanent peace failed. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had been uprooted by the conflict and were living as refugees in neighboring Arab lands. Attempts to work out either the return or the resettlement of these Palestinian refugees also failed.
From 1948 to 1970, Israel absorbed about 1.3 million immigrants, almost tripling the Jewish population of the new country. Impressive social and economic programs were also developed.
Collective farms (the best-known form of which is called the kibbutz) proved successful in turning former desert areas into productive land. Among the Arab nations, one emerged from the 1948 war with territorial gains. What remained of the proposed Palestinian state was officially annexed by Transjordan in 1950. (Around the same time, Transjordan changed its name to Jordan.) Other Arabs, including many Palestinians, bitterly opposed this action.
Egypt. At the same time that the British were grappling with the problem of Palestine, they also faced challenges from the growth of nationalism in Egypt. During World War II, British troops had used Egypt as a base of operations. After the war, the continuing presence of large numbers of troops, especially in the vast Suez base, angered many Egyptian nationalists. So too did Britain’s continuing control of the Sudan, which many Egyptians considered an Egyptian province. After 1945 Egyptian nationalists expressed their desire for the complete evacuation of the British troops and the ending of British control. Between 1945 and 1952, however, all efforts to negotiate a settlement on either issue failed.
Meanwhile, the corrupt and inefficient government of King Farouk was also coming under fire from both nationalists and reformers. After Egypt’s defeat by Israel and partly due to the diversion of funds from the war effort to enrich some of the king’s relatives, a group of army leaders decided to overthrow the government. In 1952 the Free Officers Movement led a coup that toppled the monarchy and transformed Egypt into a republic. Eventually, a young charismatic colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, emerged as Egypt’s new leader.
In foreign affairs, Nasser decided to rid Egypt of foreign domination once and for all. In 1954, after intense negotiations, Great Britain had agreed to evacuate the Suez base and to allow free elections in the Sudan. Despite Egyptian expectations, the Sudan chose independence rather than union with Egypt.
Meanwhile, in domestic affairs, Nasser emphasized land reform, industrialization, greater government control over the economy, and expanded rights for women. He also sought to modernize Egypt through major development projects. His ambitious plans were expensive, however, and he soon decided to seek aid from both East and West. In 1956 these efforts led to a crisis in the Middle East over the Suez Canal.