The Road to Jerusalem: Glubb Pasha, Palestine and the Jews by Benny Morris

The political prescience of an imperial eccentric
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The Independent Culture

Sagacious yet impetuous, ascetic and garrulous, passionate while calculating: Sir John Bagot Glubb, Britain's last Middle East proconsul, cut an enigmatic figure. The quirks of this devoted Christian who wrote a life of Mohammed are a boon to any biographer. Yet it takes a historian of Benny Morris's stature to use Glubb as a prism to view the region's current morass.

For all his eccentricity, Glubb reflected many colonial stereotypes. He saw his beloved desert bedouin as "authentic" Arabs: dignified, passionate, occasionally "immature", yet loyal to a fault. Palestinians and Lebanese, by contrast, Glubb regarded as miscegenated, mischievous Levantines. Until his dying day he championed "the Arab cause", despite the fellow Britons who feared he had gone native, and Arabs who blamed him for losing Palestine.

More surprising is Glubb's extraordinary political prescience. His lurid memoranda helped shape the postwar Middle East. He endorsed a partitioned Palestine, but predicted doom unless Israel blended into the region. Ahead of time, he grasped the Zionist goal of statehood and identified the refugee issue as the prime obstacle to peace. And he understood how victims often become victimisers.

From 1939 to 1956, Glubb headed the fabled Arab Legion: the only force seriously to challenge Israel in 1948. He suppressed Jordanian enthusiasm for the earlier Arab revolt in Palestine, and dispatched Legionnaires in 1941 to stymie a pro-Axis coup in Iraq. In May 1948 he even raided the Legion's canteen fund to finance emergency access roads to Ramallah.

Such was Glubb's predilection for imperialist order that he criticised first-century Jews for rejecting Roman rule. Here lay his lifelong paradox: Glubb Pasha served two masters – Britain and Jordan – and saw no contradiction between their interests. Hence his shock when a young King Hussein dismissed him in March 1956.

British colonial intrigue marks a departure for Benny Morris, an Israeli academic best known for revealing painful facts behind the Palestinian refugee crisis. This book concentrates on collusion between Glubb, Transjordan and the Zionists. Still, Zionists and Legionnaires did struggle over the "jewel in the crown", Jerusalem. Morris draws on declassified sources to give an excellent depiction of the battle.

Another theme is Glubb's anti-Semitism. He depicted Jews as aloof, rebellious, materialist and vicious. He lectured on "The Problem of the Jewish Nose", and spoke of Jordan's battles with "World Jewry". Elsewhere, though, he sympathised with Jewish suffering, and grudgingly acknowledged their legitimate desire for sanctuary.

On balance, he seems more pro-Hashemite than anti-Jewish. He hoped Jordan would usurp Syria and Iraq to create the Arab superstate that colonial planners dreamt off. Presumably, Britain would then feel less guilty about deserting their allies, the Hashemites, whom the Saudis displaced from Mecca and Medina.

Road to Jerusalem is a gripping exposition of an age when Britain believed it ruled the dunes as well as waves. It shows how superpowers play off local potentates for strategic advantage, yet find themselves caught in a web of their own making. Now, there appears to be no contemporary Glubb to extricate them.