Ibn Saud, FDR, and the Future of the Jewish State
On Feb. 14, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, or Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, on the USS Quincy, a warship parked in the Suez Canal. Together, they transformed the Middle East and ushered in decades of close U.S.-Saudi ties. That conclave remains a cherished lodestar for the Saudis to this day, with pictures of it adorning their government offices, while the United States still calls its ambassador’s residence in Riyadh the Quincy House. However, less well-known is that bilateral bonding came at the expense of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s quiet efforts to fashion a postwar regional settlement that included a Jewish state.
Roosevelt’s meeting with Ibn Saud on his return from the Yalta conference came at a critical time for Zionism. Through the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain had initiated a pro-Zionist policy committed to establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine. As colonial secretary in 1921-22, Churchill implemented policies to fulfil that pledge, marking the zenith of British Zionism. Britain’s commitment then waned, and in 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain effectively nullified it with a White Paper that did not envision a Jewish national home, and limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to 75,000 over five years, restricting a refuge for European Jews facing Nazi genocide.
Churchill fiercely led the parliamentary opposition to the White Paper, despite Chamberlain being his (Conservative) party leader, but when he became premier in May 1940, Churchill shied away from overturning it. Instead, he worked to establish a postwar settlement that included a Jewish state, which he imagined controlling all of Palestine west of the Jordan River. At the same time, he thought it practical that the Jewish state would initially comprise part of a larger Arab confederation headed by Ibn Saud, the tribal leader who founded modern Saudi Arabia in 1932. There had been growing Zionist support for such a structure and Churchill was informed, incorrectly, that Ibn Saud was interested in heading it.
Churchill initially began exploring this postwar vision in 1941. Always philo-Semitic, Churchill became a true Zionist in 1921 while colonial secretary, and while his Zionism fluctuated depending on larger interests, it deepened in the 1930s, when both he and the Zionists languished in the British political wilderness. He was keen to do right by the Jews and redeem their suffering at this most precarious moment in their history. He also became increasingly concerned about German advances in the Middle East, and he hoped his pursuit of a postwar regional Arab confederation that included a Jewish state would rally support for Britain’s cause among the Arabs, the Jews of Palestine, and American Jews—with the latter holding, he believed, considerable influence in then-neutral America.
Churchill’s view of Ibn Saud evolved over time. In the 1920s Churchill thought him a Muslim extremist, but now considered him the “greatest living Arab,” who should be “Boss of the Bosses” or “Caliph” of his conceived confederation. “As the custodian of Mecca, his authority might well be acceptable,” over Iran and Transjordan, who were both ruled by British-allied Hashemites whom Churchill didn’t respect. Saudi Arabia’s newfound oil wealth evidently influenced his thinking as did, uncharacteristically, the pro-Ibn Saud views of government officials he usually disdained. Those government officials were generally anti-Zionist, and his plan was widely opposed by the Colonial and Foreign offices, and most of the War Cabinet. His own foreign secretary, the antisemitic and anti-Zionist Anthony Eden, thought with good reason that a federation including both Ibn Saud and the rival Hashemites would be unstable.
Despite this opposition, Churchill eventually managed in January 1944 to convince his anti-Zionist War Cabinet to approve “in principle” a postwar plan for an “Association of Levant States” comprising a small “Jewish State,” a British-controlled Jerusalem state, a truncated Lebanon, and a Greater Syria encompassing southeast Lebanon, Transjordan, and certain Arab areas of Palestine. This plan was proposed by the Cabinet Committee on Palestine, headed at Churchill’s behest by the pro-Zionist Labourite Home Secretary Herbert Morrison. Churchill didn’t agree with the entire plan, but it marked a tremendous achievement for his Zionist quest.
In November 1944 the Morrison committee revised the plan. As long as the Hashemite British ally Abdullah headed Transjordan, it recommended that Arab Palestine and Transjordan join an Abdullah-ruled “Southern Syria” that would also include the Galilee. The committee also recommended a Jerusalem-based state controlled by Britain, which would “safeguard for ever the Holy City.” Britain would also control the Negev. Yet the committee still remained committed to a rump Jewish state.
Churchill was not keen on the size or even existence of the proposed British-controlled, Jerusalem-based state. Also, he wanted a larger Jewish state comprising all of western Palestine, including the Negev. He even expressed to Roosevelt and Britain-based Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in 1943 that the Zionists should also get Transjordan. For years, Churchill viewed the initial size of a Jewish state as simply a starting point for Israeli expansion. The report gave Churchill the minimum of what he needed—namely, a War Cabinet proposal for a postwar Jewish polity.
On Nov. 4, 1944, the day after he received the latest Morrison committee report, Churchill had a long lunch with his old friend Weizmann. He mentioned the existence of a pro-Zionist cabinet committee but cautioned it would not lead to any statement about Palestine policy until after the war with Germany and probably not until after a postwar general election, presumably given the plan’s political sensitivity. Churchill was unequivocal about U.S. involvement in solving the Palestine problem, asserting, “If Roosevelt and I come together to the Conference Table, we can carry through all we want.” He evidently believed American support could overcome Arab opposition, thereby also circumventing anti-Zionists in his own government, as Eden feared.
Yet Churchill also expressed concern that Washington was not sufficiently pro-Zionist. Indeed, he often felt compelled during the war to persuade Roosevelt to be more sympathetic to European Jewish suffering, which gave him cause to wonder if the Zionists had as much political clout in the United States as he had avowed to his anti-Zionist colleagues. Several times during their meeting he expressed his surprise to Weizmann at the anti-Zionism of some prominent American Jews.
Both Churchill and Weizmann came away from their meeting emboldened. That very day Churchill urged War Cabinet consideration of the new Morrison report. The following day he wrote Roosevelt recommending their upcoming summit with Stalin be held in British-controlled Palestine: “I am somewhat attracted by the suggestion of Jerusalem. Here there are first-class hotels, government houses, etc., and every means can be taken to ensure security.” In this setting, Churchill likely would have pressed his plan for a postwar pro-Zionist regional settlement. But Roosevelt demurred, and the meeting was held instead at Yalta in Soviet Crimea.
Two days later, Churchill’s pro-Zionist efforts hit a significant roadblock. On Nov. 6, 1944, in Cairo, members of the extremist Zionist organization, Lehi, or Stern Gang, assassinated Lord Moyne, Britain’s resident minister in the Middle East. Churchill told the House of Commons it represented a personal betrayal, but he expressed his outrage in measured words and tone. The Foreign Office recommended suspending Jewish immigration into Palestine and the British military requested postponing redeploying troops from Palestine to Italy in order to search for illegal arms held by Palestinian Jews. This wasn’t the first time the British military and bureaucrats prioritized confronting Zionists to Nazis. Churchill rejected those requests but decided, given the toxicity of the subject, to postpone War Cabinet debate on the Morrison committee’s plan, even though it already was on the agenda and the report had been circulated to War Cabinet members. The War Cabinet never did debate the final plan. Although becoming exasperated with the region—privately noting, “We are getting uncommonly little out of our Middle East encumbrances and paying an undue price for that little”—Churchill turned his attention to persuading Roosevelt and Ibn Saud of his pro-Zionist diplomatic solution.
While intrigued by Churchill’s ideas, Roosevelt became aware of Ibn Saud’s hostility to a pro-Zionist settlement. In 1943, the Saudi leader wrote Roosevelt that Palestine was a “sacred Moslem Arab country” that “belonged to the Arabs,” accused the Jews of seeking to “exterminate the peaceful Arabs,” and hoped the Allies would not “evict” the Arabs from Palestine and install “vagrant Jews who have no ties with this country except an imaginary claim which, from the point of view of right and justice, has no grounds except what they invent through fraud and deceit.” Roosevelt replied to his “Great and Good Friend” Ibn Saud, expressing his wish for a friendly Arab-Jewish understanding over Palestine before the war was over, and pledging to forgo important decisions about Palestine “without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.”
Two presidential envoys confirmed Ibn Saud’s fierce antisemitism and anti-Zionism to Roosevelt. In 1943, General Patrick Hurley conveyed Ibn Saud’s opposition to a Zionist state and quoted the Saudi king declaring: “I hate the Jews more than anyone. My religion and my Islamic belief make it inevitable that I should.” Roosevelt got a similar report that year from Lieutenant Colonel Harold Hoskins. Churchill was informed of both these reports, but noted, when rebuffing a Foreign Office request to meet Hoskins: “My opinions on this question are the result of long reflection and are not likely to undergo any change.”
Roosevelt, who enjoyed the overwhelming support of American Jews in all his elections, remained less enthusiastic about Zionism, and about Jews in general. In the 1944 campaign, the Republican political convention endorsed a strong pro-Zionist plank, and the Democrats, with Roosevelt’s support, followed with the same. But as Cordell Hull, Roosevelt’s secretary of state, noted, “In general the President at times talked both ways to Zionists and Arabs, besieged as he was by each camp.”
Having just won his fourth term, Roosevelt seemingly was not overly concerned about American Jewish opinion. Instead, Roosevelt and other U.S. officials were increasingly preoccupied with Saudi Arabia’s promising petroleum potential as American energy reserves appeared to be in decline. He still hoped and felt confident he could convince Ibn Saud to come to some agreement on Zionism, even as the State Department informed him that the Zionist issue inhibited friendly U.S.-Arab relations. Ibn Saud made clear his frame of mind when he told a U.S. delegation a few days before the Yalta conference, “If America should choose in favor of the Jews, who are accursed in the Koran as enemies of the Muslims until the end of the world, it will indicate to us that America has repudiated her friendship with us and this we should regret. The choice, however, is for America.”
Asked by Stalin at Yalta if he intended to make concessions to Ibn Saud at their upcoming meeting, Roosevelt said he might offer to give the Saudi leader the 6 million Jews in the United States. (One journalist writing in these pages argued Roosevelt was keen that Jews be settled thinly across the world.) Roosevelt made other antisemitic jokes during the war to Churchill, who didn’t reciprocate.
When Roosevelt and Ibn Saud finally met on the USS Quincy on Feb. 14, 1945, Roosevelt set an accommodating tone by suspending his chain-smoking in Ibn Saud’s presence, in accordance to the Saudi king’s preference. According to his translator, the ardently pro-Saudi U.S. minister to Saudi Arabia, William Eddy, who remains one of the primary sources for what transpired, Roosevelt expressed hope that Arab countries would permit 10,000 European Jews to immigrate into Palestine after the war. Ibn Saud flatly rejected even that small request, noting, “Arabs and the Jews could never cooperate, neither in Palestine, nor in any other country.” He blamed Arab-Jewish turmoil in Palestine solely on Jewish immigration and Jews purchasing land.
Roosevelt then tried ingratiation. He reacted positively to Ibn Saud’s recommendation that surviving European Jews return to their homes or move to Axis countries, with the president noting there was now a lot of space in Poland after 3 million Jews had been killed by the Germans. According to U.S. minutes of the meeting, Roosevelt also “wished to assure His Majesty that he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs and would make no move hostile to the Arab people.” The president further distanced himself from pro-Zionist remarks made by other U.S. politicians and suggested the Arabs do a better job of making their case because “many people in America and England are misinformed.”
The president also confirmed British suspicions by disparaging America’s close wartime ally and now growing rival for Middle Eastern oil. Roosevelt reportedly told Ibn Saud, “You and I want freedom and prosperity for our people and their neighbors after the war. How and by whose hand freedom and prosperity arrive concerns us but little. The English also work and sacrifice to bring freedom and prosperity to the world, but on the condition that it be brought by them and marked ‘Made in Britain.’” Ibn Saud later told U.S. Minister Eddy, “Never have I heard the English so accurately described.” Ibn Saud was understandably ecstatic after this meeting and told a prominent sheikh upon his return to Saudi Arabia, “The high point of my entire life is my meeting with President Roosevelt.”
Roosevelt gave conflicting reports of his meeting and the conclusions he drew, based on his audience. He told his friend, the American Jewish investor Bernard Baruch, and Rabbi Stephen Wise, that he did not like Ibn Saud and was displeased with the meeting. Yet he also told the anti-Zionist Hoskins that he was unimpressed with Jewish development of Palestine beyond the coastal plain (which he observed from his airplane), that the more numerous Arabs in Palestine and neighboring lands would triumph over the Palestinian Jews, and that he supported a State Department draft plan for making Palestine an international territory for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Perhaps most definitive was his off-the-cuff, post-trip assessment to Congress: “On the problem of Arabia I learned more about that whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.”
Roosevelt’s appeasement of Ibn Saud completely undercut whatever Churchill sought from the Saudi leader. Three days after the USS Quincy meeting, Churchill arrived in Egypt and drove to meet and host Ibn Saud at a desert oasis hotel for lunch. Churchill immediately raised the issue of the Saudi king’s opposition to smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol in his presence. Churchill records telling Ibn Saud with his characteristic humor, “I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.” That likely didn’t go over well with the fundamentalist Muslim leader.
At risk of compromising some of Britain’s interests in Saudi oil, Churchill pressed Ibn Saud to accept a Jewish state, apparently along the lines of the federation scheme that he had promoted since 1941, even though the Morrison committee did not emphasize Ibn Saud’s role. Churchill reported to the War Cabinet that he “pleaded the case of the Jews with His Majesty but without, he [Churchill] thought, making a great deal of impression, Ibn Saud quoting the Koran on the other side, but he [Churchill] had not failed to impress upon the King the importance which we attached to this question.” Understandably, Churchill did not want to belabor his failed meeting with Ibn Saud in his War Cabinet report.
We learn more about the meeting from Ibn Saud’s account to the American envoy Eddy, Hoskins’ cousin, who later worked for the Arabian oil company Aramco. In this telling, Churchill was “confidently wielding the big stick. Great Britain had supported and subsidized me for twenty years, and had made possible the stability of my reign by fending off potential enemies on my frontiers. Since Britain had seen me through difficult days, she is entitled now to request my assistance in the problem of Palestine where a strong Arab leader can restrain fanatical Arab elements, insist on moderation in Arab councils, and effect a realistic compromise with Zionism.” Ibn Saud asserted Churchill was demanding “an act of treachery to the Prophet and all believing Muslims which would wipe out my honor and destroy my soul. I could not acquiesce in a compromise with Zionism much less take any initiative. Furthermore, I pointed out, that even in the preposterous event that I were willing to do so, it would not be a favor to Britain, since promotion of Zionism from any quarter must indubitably bring bloodshed, wide-spread disorder in the Arab lands, with certainly no benefit to Britain or anyone else. By this time Mr. Churchill had laid the big stick down.”
Churchill thought he could leverage what he considered Ibn Saud’s obligation to him and Britain; believed a British-supported Arab confederation headed by Saudi Arabia would offer an important inducement; and, perhaps most importantly, hoped that Roosevelt would press the Zionist cause. The Saudi king was unimpressed with past British support, as Britain continued to support his Hashemite rivals in Transjordan and Iraq, and embraced the ascendant United States over the descendant Britain. Meanwhile, the ailing American president had other goals, and sold out the Jews, and the British, to appease the Saudi leader.
Of course, even if Ibn Saud was inclined to agree to Churchill’s proposal, it is unclear if it would have mattered much. The Saudi leader had little money (the petrodollars did not roll in until after the war) and only a weak hold over the religious tribes across the vast Arabian desert, let alone over Palestinian Arabs, whom Churchill hoped the Saudi leader would restrain. It might have been more practical for Churchill to focus on achieving American support for a Jewish state, and then impose it on the Palestinian Arabs and the region, as he was willing to do for years. But he was wedded to the 1920s’ pan-Arab views of many British officials, even though the Arabs had become more fractured, and less accommodating to Zionism and Britain. But, again, U.S. support was lacking. For Roosevelt, the budding relationship with Saudi Arabia came first.
Churchill’s wartime quest to ensure a postwar Jewish state had failed. Several months later in July 1945, he wrote to some British officials, “I am not aware of the slightest advantage which has ever accrued to Great Britain from this painful and thankless task.” He wanted the United States to deal with Palestine, thus extracting Britain from the challenging situation while pulling America into the Mediterranean.
Eight decades later, even with waning influence and appetite, America has become an even more critical country for regional peace and stability than it was in 1945. The Jewish state, which was founded in 1948, has become, as Churchill (and very few others) projected, a strong military, cultural, and economic force closely aligned with the United States and the West. Equally dramatic, Saudi Arabia’s current de facto leader, 37-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, is trying to modernize the country, moderate its Islamic orientation, liberalize the role of women, and diversify the state’s reliance on oil revenue. And, as authoritative Saudi leaders told me and colleagues last year, MBS is prepared to normalize relations with Israel, with which his country now has many fundamental common strategic, security, and economic interests—if, critically, he gets certain U.S. guarantees related to security, weapons, and a restoration of close bilateral relations. And there’s the rub: America is now, alas, chilly to the Saudis, disengaged, fearful of conflict and still keen for an Iran nuclear deal that threatens Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s existence.
U.S. ambivalence, flawed thinking, or worse, contributed in the 1940s to delays and complications in the establishment of a Jewish state and in the search for Israel-Arab entente. Ibn Saud’s vehement anti-Zionism certainly influenced the U.S. attitude. But nearly 80 years later, with large parts of the Arab world increasingly looking for some kind of accommodation with Israel, and the de facto Saudi leader declaring his readiness to normalize relations, it would be tragic indeed if American ambivalence, or faulty thinking, again contributed to a failure to achieve entente between the world’s only Jewish state and the world’s leading Arab power.
Michael Makovsky, PhD is President and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), and author of Churchill’s Promised Land (Yale University Press).
Originally published in Tablet Magazine.