19

How did the new state of Israel already have an army strong enough to secure a military victory against multiple neighboring armies in 1948?

According to a inadequately cited Wikipedia article, we read that Israel had armament support from a well-trained populace, funds from supporters in the US, support from Stalin, and a pre-war campaign of purchasing WWII weapons stockpiles.

Every Jewish man and woman in the country had to receive military training. Thanks to funds raised by Golda Meir from sympathisers in the United States, and Stalin's decision to support the Zionist cause, the Jewish representatives of Palestine were able to sign very important armament contracts in the East. Other Haganah agents recuperated stockpiles from the Second World War, which helped improve the army's equipment and logistics. Operation Balak allowed arms and other equipment to be transported for the first time by the end of March. Wikipedia

Military support also came from Czechoslovakia: source.

The US had placed an arms embargo on all parties in the region the preceding year, so that wasn't an important source of support (at least in the immediate run-up to war): source.

This article (source) discusses the capacities of the Jewish populations to procure weapons contrasted with more limited capacity for Arabs, in the face of the UN arms embargo:

The cessation of supplies was intended to curtail the conflict in Palestine, however the embargo’s severe flaws rapidly became clear to observers. The CIA noted in August 1948 that the Israelis possessed local arms manufacturing facilities and much more money to covertly acquire weapons from Eastern Europe. The Arab states and the Palestinian Arabs had no manufacturing capabilities, were completely dependant on British arms, and lacked financial resources to purchase arms from non-British sources.

This seems like a number of individually important factors, but without more expertise I'm concerned I might be missing important facts or some big-picture element. Is there more here to why Israel was able to win the 1948 war, despite being a new state and facing multiple enemies advancing on multiple fronts?

2
  • 6
    Note that not only Israel was a "new state", but its enemies were also "new". Of course, the people lived there before, but the countries themselves became independent only very recently.
    – vsz
    Nov 11, 2021 at 5:25
  • Don't forget Israel was fighting to live and knew they'd suffer again another genocide, whereas their aggressors were doing a lot of grandstanding. Most of Arab states only sent a fraction of their military.
    – Issel
    Nov 12, 2021 at 8:01

4 Answers 4

40

Overview

This has been much discussed over the decades since the war and there are various views on this. Even if historical bias could be left aside, we are still left with the problem of measuring or quantifying such factors as experience, determination, planning, weaponry, training and unity of purpose against each other. For example, at what point do determination and / or unity of purpose outweigh better or more weapons and / or soldiers?

However, one can summarize the factors raised, and most of these ultimately favoured the Israelis. How much weight can be given to each is never likely to be agreed upon, but we can at least reasonably conclude that no single factor accounted for the Arab failure in the war; rather, it was a combination of factors, with lack of unity and failure to commit more of their forces perhaps being the most important reasons.


Details

First, recent historians have challenged the idea the conflict was a case of 'David vs. Goliath':

… the myth of the emerging State of Israel as David facing the Arab Goliath in the 1948 war … Despite seemingly overwhelming demographic advantages, the Arab states were not prepared for conflict. Jewish forces consistently outnumbered Arab armies – often by a factor of two-to-one – enjoyed better access to arms, maintained shorter supply-lines, and were far more experienced than their opponents having fought against and alongside British forces under the Mandate and during World War II, respectively.

The Arab states, in contrast, were fighting their first-ever war; the Palestinians, for their part, were almost totally disorganized. Thus, from a purely military standpoint, a Jewish/Israeli victory was all-but-assured.

Source: Benny Morris, cited in 'Review: 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War' by Paul Chamberlain.

Despite the huge population disparity, Israeli mobilization was much higher and

None of the Arab states were willing to commit their resources fully to the destruction of Israel, and ultimately no more than 150,000 soldiers, the majority of whom were Israeli, entered the war despite the involvement of five armies.

Had Arab states committed more forces against Israel's long border, they may well have stretched Israeli resources beyond breaking point. Even so, the Israelis were hard pushed during the first phase, yet managed to hold their own:

All in all, the combined and simultaneous Arab invasion turned out to be less well-coordinated, less determined, and less effective than Israel’s leaders had feared. Success in withstanding the Arab invasion greatly enhanced Israel’s self-confidence.

British-Israeli historian Avi Shlaim observes that "the first truce was a turning-point in the history of the war":

Though they [the Israelis] had succeeded in halting the Arab invasion, their fighting forces were stretched to the limit and badly needed a respite to rest, reorganize, and train new recruits. On the Israeli side, the four weeks’ truce was also used to bring in large shipments of arms from abroad in contravention of the UN embargo – tanks, armoured cars, artillery, and aircraft. On the Arab side, the truce was largely wasted. No serious preparations were made by any of the Arab countries to reorganize and re-equip their armies so that they would be better placed in the event of hostilities being resumed. The UN arms embargo applied in theory to all the combatants but in practice it hurt the Arabs and helped Israel because the Western powers observed it whereas the Soviet bloc did not.[31] … It witnessed a decisive shift in the balance of forces in favour of Israel.

The arms that Israel obtained (but which the Arab states largely couldn't) came from the Eastern Bloc, principally Czechoslovakia with whom the Israelis had signed contracts despite the arms embargo. This violated the UN arms embargo (actively supported by the US and the UK – see this History SE post), imposed in an attempt to de-escalate conflict in the Middle East. This violation was raised in the UK parliament where the use of Skoda rifles and Yak fighters is mentioned (see this Hansard entry for more on the UK government's response to the violation of the embargo). Thus, although the Arab states could have made better use of the truce in terms of more coordinated planning and preparation, Shlaim's use of the word 'wasted' is perhaps a little harsh in view of the greater difficulty the Arab states had in obtaining extra supplies. As Amitzur Ilan states in The Origin of the Arab-Israeli Arms Race: Arms, Embargo, Military Power and Decision in the 1948 Palestine War,

… although the Arab armies started the war better equipped than the Israeli army, their organization was from the start badly lacking and their stores of ammunition and spare parts were nearly empty. Thereafter, due to embargo restrictions, their former sources of supply and military know-how were cut off … In contrast, the Israeli forces, which were also badly hit by the embargo, nevertheless managed to import a considerable number of weapons and supplies and to produce some at home as well, and to attain considerable foreign military expertise.

Although the Soviet Union itself did not respond to Israeli requests for arms, it did not stop states in the Eastern bloc from assisting Israel. Principally, this meant Czechoslovakia (with the co-operation of Hungary and Yugoslavia in transporting the weapons). Arms were supplied to both sides, but it was the Israelis who got the bulk of them. The motive for breaking the embargo appears to have been primarily Czech financial need:

...it was a policy motivated by strong mutual interest which was that the Yishuv desperately needed arms which the Czechs were keen to export and the Czechs desperately needed dollars which the Yishuv could raise in the USA. True, the first contact between the Yishuv and the Czech Government began when there were a number of pro-Zionists in that government. But that same government also offered military assistance to Syria and Egypt and the military assistance to Israel continued long after the pro-Zionists were no longer in government. The fact that in 1948 Israel received 85% of the Czech foreign military aid and the Arabs only the remainder, does not indicate any degree of preference but who was the better customer. A 'reliable source' in the Czech Foreign Office, which used to pass information to the British Military Attache in Prague, said categorically that the Czech interest in exporting arms 'is just Dollars' and that Moscow understood the Prague position.

Source: Amitzur Ilan

Shlaim also points to the lack of unity among the Arab states, citing several examples at various stages of the war in his article Israel and the Arab Coalition in 1948. For example, when Israel attacked Egypt on October 15, Transjordan remained neutral while the Arab legion failed to assist the Egyptian forces trapped in Faluja (Gaza). Then, when the Israelis attacked for the second time at the end of October,

Conflict between the Arab states and lack of coordination between their armies in Palestine gave Israel the freedom to choose the time and place of the second offensive. Egypt appealed to her Arab allies for help but its appeals fell on deaf ears. Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the Yemen all promised assistance but failed to honour their promises. The Iraqis shelled a few Israeli villages near their front line as a token of solidarity with their embattled ally. Without exception the Arab states were either afraid to intervene or did not wish to intervene.

The Egyptians should not have been surprised at this lack of support: back in May, an Arab Legion, despite being stationed nearby, failed to assist the Egyptian advance towards Jerusalem. This view on Arab disunity is supported by the Syrian historian Sami Moubayed:

The rivalries were a major problem because they resulted in poor command, lack of transparency, and ultimately, failure, …

and by Professor Arthur Goldschmidt Jr who argues that the rivalries changed the course of the war:

Notably the rivalry between the Jordanians, with their British-officered Arab Legion and King Abdullah’s ambitions for a Greater Syria, and the Egyptians, with King Farouk’s ambition to lead the Arab World, backed to some degree by the League of Arab States and by the former mufti of Jerusalem …

(All emphasis is mine)

27
9

Yes, there was. The certain knowledge of being exterminated. Nothing motivates as well as standing with your back to the wall, knowing defeat means death.

The Arabs made (many still do) it absolutely crystal clear what they would do with the Jews when they won. Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, repeatedly state they are quite happy most Jews live in Israel. Saves them the trouble of searching and rounding them up.

Very recently (2020), the Abrahamic accords brought peace between many Arab nations and Israel. In 1948 every Arab nation only had one goal that united them: to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.

added, based on the comments:

In the Arab-Israeli war, the Israeli forces were better trained, better armed and stronger. They had a unified command structure, something the Arabs lacked as well.

However, that didn't matter. America had many more advantages over the Taliban, and they still withdrew. It's the motivation that matters.

The Arab forces were fighting for land, honour and religious persecution. The Israeli forces were fighting for their very lives. If the war didn't go well for the Arabs, they could go home and try again later. Most of the Arabs had to go home anyway - victory or defeat - as they didn't live and never had lived in Israel.

Israelis had nowhere to go, except up in a puff of smoke. An experience they were intimately familiar with.

17
  • 24
    -1 False narrative. Arabs were far from united in 1948, especially in single goal to wipe out Israel. In fact, there were various factions among them, and most of them paid only lip service to war .
    – rs.29
    Nov 10, 2021 at 8:01
  • 17
    @Jos One ;) The fact that you have 7 armies, all with their own goals, is actually opposite to unity of command and purpose.
    – rs.29
    Nov 10, 2021 at 8:14
  • 15
    The reference to the 2020 Abraham Accords seems out-of-place here, since the Arab countries involved in them (the UAE and Bahrain) were not among those that sent armies to wipe out Israel in 1948. More relevant are the 1977 Egypt–Israel peace treaty and the 1994 Israel–Jordan peace treaty.
    – ruakh
    Nov 10, 2021 at 9:12
  • 9
    This is an almost entirely subjective answer. The only source is to the recent Abraham Accords, described as involving "many" Arab nations whereas it's actually only UAE and Bahrain. Additionally the Abraham accords are considered fragile because UAE signed on the promise that Israel abandons their annexation plan. And the part involving Bahrain is mostly symbolic, probably to make it look like a more significant symbol than it actually is.
    – Erwan
    Nov 10, 2021 at 16:46
  • 7
    @jamesqf that's not the point, the argument might be perfectly good but it needs to be sourced.
    – Erwan
    Nov 10, 2021 at 18:56
3

Summarizing shortly:

1). Arab countries had sent a small part of their armies. At the same time, Isralis performed a total mobilization, and at the end of the war Israeli forces were BIGGER. It is a matter of quantity.

2). Israelis had lots of personnel with combat experience of WWII. Arab armies did not have any combat experience at all. It's a matter of quality. In fact the only one Arab army that was strong enough to be a real problem for Israelis, it was Arab legion of Jordan ("Transjordan" that days), trained by British.

But it was a

3). Secret deal of Israelis and British with Jordan kingdom, that they will occupy territory, that is West Bank now, and will stop in these borders without attempts to destroy Jewish state. It is a matter of lack of pan-Arab solidarity. Jordan and Egypt did not help to create Palestinian state at all. Instead of it, they annexed it's territories (West bank by Jordan and Gaza Strip by Egypt).

1
  • 3
    Welcome to HSE. Please consider revising your question to be more in line with our community expectations. Like other stacks, we expect questions to provide evidence of prior research. That helps us to understand the question, and avoids our repeating work you've already done. Our help center, and other stacks provide additional resources to assist with revisions. Please revise your question to document your preliminary research. Nov 11, 2021 at 18:59
1

To understand the Israeli victory in the war, one should consider the chronology of the war:

The war could be divided in two main parts:

  • First, the new Israeli and Palestinian states confronted in local but severe skirmishes, each of them trying to coordinate its local units, sometimes militia-based, to perform better. The overall result of this phase of the conflict is that the Israeli state, sometimes with violent actions, was able to "tame" some Jewish movements that had played a role under British colonial movements such as Irgun. During this phase, Arab states only performed marginal attacks on the borders, blockading kibbutz. They were themselves in an issue of organisation. During this phase, everyone is trying to reinforce his army with weapons, foreign mercenaries or volunteers... At this game, Israel was somewhat better because of large immigration of european Jewish that had fought WW2.
  • Second part: The Arab states performed great-scale offensives. All of them are ultimately defeated, but Israeli forces are in a difficult situation during this time. The best Arab armed forces of that period is the Glubb Pacha Jordanian legion, then Egyptian forces.

During the conflict, if the land fight is very close, the fight on the sea is very much in favour of Israel, that used all means (such as fast attack craft similar to the Italian MTM) to counter British-legacy boats under Egyptian crews. In the air, buying Czech Avia S 199 and American Mustang out of WW2 help Israeli to counter the Arab aviation, mainly based on British types. As on the land, Israel had the advantage of european Jewish pilots that had served in WW2 and immigrated in 1948 to fight for Israel.

Conclusion:

The first phase was the best chance for the Arab to win, because they had greater means. But the novelty of regal prerogatives for those states caused them to be slow in mounting an powerful attack of Israel. This let the chance for Israel to regulate its own political problems and to create an army out of unorganized material and human material. The second phase saw a fight where Arab armies had the classic difficulties of a state fighting for foreign conquests with few ideological background attacking a state with high morale: their soldiers were not willing to fight and were commanded by contemptuous officers, while Israeli soldiers were like "fight for life".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.