As Palestinians Lobby UN for Statehood, Forget Not the Zionists' 1947 Manuever

How Jewish diplomats managed to find the right answers when the 'Palestine Question' was discussed at the UN in 1947.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

February 1947 witnessed a historic turn in the Middle East. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced to the parliament in London that his government was no longer able to bridge conflicting interests of Jews and Arabs, and had therefore decided to relay the "Palestine question" to the United Nations. There is no chance of resolving the dispute via negotiations between the sides, Bevin declared. Nine months later, following a complex, trying diplomatic struggle, the UN authorized the partitioning of the country into two states; this resolution paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel. The 'state' of Palestine, which did not come into being at this 1947-1948 juncture, is now turning to the UN for recognition.

"Several groups and individuals invested all of their moral and public influence in this campaign. This was a do-or-die fight, and it involved emotions, opinions, ambitions and interests," reflected Eliyahu Eilat (Epstein ), who headed the Jewish Agency's political bureau in Washington, and was later appointed to serve as Israel's first ambassador to the United States. Whoever is today appalled by Israel's hapless maneuvering in the current UN diplomatic fight can find some nostalgic consolation in the diplomatic agility displayed by Israel's founding generation, as recorded in Eilat's memoirs. When the UN constituent meeting was held in San Francisco, two years before the fateful Palestine partition resolution, Jews lacked official standing in the new organization, and they were not allowed to state their case.

Harry Truman and David Ben-Gurion at the White House, 1951Credit: The Truman Library

Nor did the Jews constitute a united front. Zionist delegates, Eilat wrote, "roam around the corridors of the hotels where the various delegations are quartered, knock on doors, submit briefs, arrange press conferences and confuse the minds of Gentiles who are willing and able to help us, and who are surprised to receive appeals which sometimes contradict one another."

In the months which preceded the fateful vote, five Arab states operated in the UN, and their negative position regarding partition was well known. There were also a number of Catholic and Muslim states which, many assumed, would oppose the establishment of a Jewish state on religious grounds. Communist states from Eastern Europe displayed hostility to Zionism. States from Latin America, Western Europe and Scandinavia, Asia and Africa sat on the fence.

Harold Beeley, adviser to the British foreign secretary, told Jewish Agency delegates: "To obtain a positive result, you will need a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. You will be able to forge such a majority only if the Soviet and American blocs unite and support the partition resolution - such a union between the blocs has not happened up to now, and it will never happen."

The top officials in the Jewish Agency headed the Zionist delegation. The delegation was led by Moshe Sharett (Shertok ), who later became Israel's first foreign minister. Each of the 15 delegates was assigned to lobby with different countries, on the basis of his background, language abilities and other talents. Eliyahu Sasson dealt with Yemen, Syria and Iraq; Moshe Tov lobbied with Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico; and Eliyahu Eilat tried his hand with the Soviets.

Walter Eytan, who supervised this lobbying effort with the UN countries, ridiculed Jewish Agency delegates who complained about being assigned to lower-ranking countries such as Ethiopia or Liberia. "Stupidly, they didn't understand that each of these countries had exactly the same one vote as that possessed by other countries" that were regarded as first-tier states, Eytan recalled after the vote.

Despite natural tensions stemming from ego battles and internal intrigues, the Agency delegation managed to cultivate a wide network of ties among several circles in the U.S., and win sympathy for Zionism in the White House, Congress, the Democratic and Republic parties, and also among pundits and pressure groups. U.S. President Harry Truman's Jewish advisers, along with his non-Jewish aide Clark Clifford, mobilized to support the establishment of the Jewish state, defying the position taken by officials in the State Department and Pentagon, who argued that a pro-Zionist position would harm U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Complementing its lobbying success in the U.S., the delegation managed to create a wide network of connections within the United Nations, among the delegates of its member states. Sources in the UN relayed to the Zionists reliable information which helped them plan their public advocacy and diplomatic activity. One major triumph for the Zionist delegation was its activity in France - thanks to this lobbying, responsibility for Palestine matters moved from France's foreign minister to its cabinet, which was more responsive to the Zionists and also more accountable to domestic pressures in favor of a Jewish state.

A sustained diplomatic effort was also made vis-a-vis the Arab and Muslim delegations. Helpful in this regard was Omar Dejani, a Palestinian who was a member of the delegation representing the Supreme Arab Council, and who served as a reliable contact for the Zionists in their approaches to the Arab delegations.

In July 1947, Eilat met Iran's ambassador in Washington, D.C., Mustafa A'adal, who explained that he would be unable to support the establishment of a Jewish state. However, the Iranian diplomat "expressed admiration of our many accomplishments in Eretz Israel, and of our contribution as an element which is bringing social and economic progress to the region," Eilat noted. He added that "the Iranian government will be happy to create ties with the Jewish state, should it arise, despite the Arab opposition."

Turkey's UN delegation supported the Arabs throughout this diplomatic struggle. "I know that 80 percent of the newspapers in the U.S. are owned by the Jews," one Turkish envoy confided to Eilat. For his part, Eitan reflected that the thinking of his Turkish counterparts was laced by anti-Semitism "that the Nazis planted in Turkey during the war years."

India's delegation voiced pro-Arab views, but the Zionists were convinced that India would support the Jewish state due to three points of commonality - the struggle against the British; their location in Asia; and the rebirth of a slumbering, ancient civilization. Albert Einstein was recruited for this lobbying effort.

The physicist wrote to Nehru that "it would be moral for the Jews to receive this small patch of land on which they were once sovereign." "Nationalist policy, regrettably, is mainly egotistic. Each state thinks about its own self-interests," Nehru responded to Einstein, reminding the physicist that India had 13 million Muslims.

Meantime, China announced that it could not support either of the sides. Its delegate, Tsiang Ting-Po, explained that the Chinese had only become aware of Jews during the past 100 years, and that they understood very little about anti-Semitism and Zionism.

In efforts to recruit Ethiopia, the Zionists relied on Lorna Wingate, the widow of pro-Zionist British officer Orde Charles Wingate. During the early 1940s, Wingate commanded British troops who ousted Italy from Ethiopia, and restored rule to Haile Selassie. Lorna Wingate quickly composed a message to the Ethiopian ruler:

"It's quite possible that the fate of the world hinges on the UN's decision regarding the land of Israel. In the name of [Orde] Wingate, I implore you to rise up again in history as a man of destiny," and support the Jewish state. As it turned out, when the vote came, Ethiopia abstained.

Journalist and diplomat Yehoshua Yustman colorfully described the atmosphere to Haaretz readers: "I felt as though we were in a hospital, near the room of a dangerously ill patient, and doctors are about to come and announce whether the man will live or die. Nothing could be more dramatic than the [UN] sessions in which you listen to discussion of the country's borders. Then the country gets cut up ... and you return to tell yourself, 'This is a surgical operation, and every operation is painful.'"

The final discussion began on November 26, 1947. The Zionists tried to persuade other countries to support them, and asked their friends to play for time on the rostrum. Them, the decision of the General Assembly's president, Oswaldo Aranha, not to let discussions drag into the night gave the Zionists a boost - the deferral of proceedings gave the Zionist delegation a bit more time to lobby. The next day, November 27, was Thanksgiving in America. The Zionists did not sit down to dine on the holiday; they devoted the whole day to diplomacy.

According to the Zionists' tallies, the vote would be decided by a razor thin margin. Their efforts concentrated on African, Asian and South American delegations. The head of the Filipino delegation announced at the start of the General Assembly discussions that his country would vote against partition, and then packed his bags and left the U.S.

The Zionists did not waste any time, and engaged discussions with the Philippines' ambassador in Washington; assisted by U.S. senators and Truman's assistants, they contacted the President of the Philippines. The Filipinos changed their position. So, too, did Haiti and Liberia; these countries tried to use support of the Jewish state as leverage to pressure the Americans regarding economic issues of concern to them.

Arab diplomats complained that the Zionist delegation used illicit methods, including blackmail and threats, to mobilize support for partition in the UN. Partition resolution debates resumed on November 28. This time, the Arabs wanted to delay the vote. The submission of a compromise proposal brought about another 24 hour delay. The next day, Saturday morning, Dr. Chaim Weizmann - subsequently Israel's first president - tried to reach President Truman by phone, to ensure that the U.S. would do its utmost to stop another delay on the resolution; but Truman had already left the White House, to attend a college football game, which was played outside of Washington.

At the end of the day, the UN voted in favor of the "establishment of the Jewish state," as Haaretz reported. "This historic moment will be remembered for generations. The enemy's maneuvers were to no avail. Every attempt to defer and sabotage the vote failed. The heart still cannot grasp the full significance of this great event. The legend has become reality, the dream, a miracle," concluded Eilat.



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