Secrets and Lies: Scenes From the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine

A deep dive into the UN archive reveals a lively trade in ideas and plans that were thrown into the ring but ultimately left on the cutting room floor of history

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The 11 members of UNSCOP during one of their sessions in Jerusalem.
The 11 members of UNSCOP during one of their sessions in Jerusalem.Credit: Hans Pinn / GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Two states for two peoples, one state for both peoples or perhaps only a Jewish state or an Arab one? Behind the scenes of the Partition Plan the United Nations approved 72 years ago, which paved the way for Israel’s establishment, there was a lively trade in ideas and plans that were thrown into the ring but ultimately left on the cutting room floor of history.

In this case, that floor is some 9,000 kilometers from Jerusalem, in the UN archive in New York. Thousands of documents — letters, memoranda and meeting minutes that lay unexamined for decades offer a glimpse into one of Zionism’s foundational moments: the proceedings of the UN Special Committee on Palestine, which was appointed to decide the land’s fate in 1947 and produced the Partition Plan.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 51Credit: Haaretz

Elad Ben-Dror, the head of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle East Studies, spent many hours poring through those documents in an attempt to follow the debates among committee members that preceded the historic recommendation. His doctoral dissertation, which has just been published in Hebrew under the title “The Road to November 29 – UNSCOP and the Beginnings of UN Involvement in the Arab-Israeli Conflict" (Ben-Zvi Institute), offers fascinating material.

One of his discoveries is that the committee chairman and some of its members opposed the plan to divide the land into two states. The chairman, Emil Sandstrom of Sweden, thought the territory’s educated Arab population was anti-Semitic, so he proposed a different solution — establishing a Jewish state in part of the land while annexing the remainder to Jordan, rather than establishing a separate, independent Arab state.

“The committee later sought to cover up this disagreement,” Ben-Dror said. “But the issue comes up clearly in the reports I read.”

According to Ben-Dror, Sandstrom “didn’t believe in the chances for Jewish-Arab cooperation,” and that is also apparently why he objected to the idea of one state for two peoples. In addition, the UNSCOP chairman thought the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea could not support two states economically; he said the economic problems would have to be solved in another way, though he didn’t elaborate.

David Ben Gurion testifying before the UNSCOP members in Jerusalem. Credit: Hans Pinn / GPO

It was while he was trying to determine what this other way was that Ben-Dror discovered Sandstrom’s view that the areas the Partition Plan assigned to an Arab state should instead be annexed to Jordan and made a district or province of that kingdom.

To promote this idea, Sandstrom organized a visit to Jordan, where he “heard clear support from King Abdullah for the idea of dividing [the land] and then annexing the rest of it to his kingdom,” Ben-Dror said.

During that visit, Sandstrom also spoke with British officers of the Arab Legion, the military unit Britain set up for Jordan, to hear their assessment of the legion’s ability to conquer and hold the Arab portion of the land. The answer he got evidently bolstered his support for this solution.

Another idea, which never generated much interest or support, was presented to the committee by Rabbi Judah Magnes, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Instead of dividing the land between two states or between a Jewish state and Jordan, he supported a single, binational, Jewish-Arab state. In his testimony before the committee, he argued that Jewish-Arab cooperation was not only essential for making peace in this part of the world, but also possible.

Moreover, Magnes said, the Land of Israel is neither exclusively Jewish nor exclusively Arab. The Arabs have significant natural rights to this land, because they have lived there for generations and cultivated it throughout those generations, and it holds both the graves of their ancestors and relics of their culture, he argued.

Yet at the same time, the Jews also have historical rights. The Jews have never forgotten the Land of Israel, Magnus said, and since they began returning a generation ago, they have created a national home there — through their fallen, their scientific talents, their love of the land and their hopes for the future — of which, in many respects, they have a right to be proud.

He therefore proposed a binational state in which all citizens would have equal rights regardless of which people constituted the majority and which the minority. Under his plan, Jews and Arabs would have separate “national committees,” with a supreme governing council above them.

Magnus also argued that it would never work to have one people in charge and the other oppressed, as it would lead to wars, unrest and rebellions.

But the committee was unimpressed by Magnes’ proposal, Ben-Dror said. Members had many questions about how it would work in practice to which they didn’t receive persuasive answers.

Jewish Agency and executive members David Horowitz and Moshe Sharett (1st and 2nd from left) appearing before UNSCOP members in Jerusalem.Credit: Hans Pinn / GPO

A brutal occupier

Another plan was proposed to the committee by Ahmed al-Khalidi, head of the Government Arab College in Jerusalem. At his meeting with committee members, he sought to rebut Jewish arguments.

Khalidi alleged that the Jews had never had an independent state in the Land of Israel, that they had always been a minority there and that the historical rights claimed by Jewish speakers were a falsification of the facts. Regarding the Zionist argument that Jewish settlement had led to accelerated development of the land, he argued that this didn’t give the Jews any rights to it.

The problems between Jews and Arabs, Khalidi said, began when the Jews announced their desire for an independent Jewish state. He illustrated with a personal story. His father had a good friend who was Jewish, he said, but he himself had no Jewish friends, and his son never even sees a Jew.

The Khalidi family, he continued, had been in Palestine for 700 years and knows every inch of the land. The Jews, in contrast, are strangers: Of the 600,000 Jews then living there, only 100,000 were considered citizens of Mandatory Palestine, he said; all the rest were citizens of the lands from whence they came.

“In Khalidi’s view, the solution was clear — an independent Arab state that the Arabs would control democratically,” Ben-Dror said. No more Jews would be allowed to enter it, and the Jewish refugee problem created by World War II would be solved with the help of other countries. The United States, for instance, could absorb 300,000 Jews without undermining its economy, Khalidi argued, and the Arabs shouldn’t suffer for what the Nazis did.

The committee also sought to hear competing views. Therefore, members met with Menachem Begin — the head of the pre-state Irgun militia, who became Israel’s prime minister three decades later – even though he was wanted by the British.

Ben-Dror described how committee members switched cars in Tel Aviv several times before they finally reached the secret meeting place. Ralph Bunche, an American member of the committee who later was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work mediating between Israel and the Arab states in the run-up to Israel’s War of Independence, later described this trip as his most exciting adventure in the Land of Israel.

Dr. Chaim Weizmann and his wife Vera at a UNSCOP session in Jerusalem.Credit: Hans Pinn / GPO

Begin had no creative solutions for the complex problem. But in his address to the committee, he termed Britain a brutal occupier and predicted that the Jews would soundly defeat the Arabs if the Arabs launched a war against them after the British left.

When word of the meeting with Begin leaked to the press, the British were furious. Members of Parliament demanded to know how the chairman of UNSCOP had managed to find Begin without any problem when the British had been searching for him for five years without success.

A merry band

Ben-Dror also found evidence of the problems that afflicted the committee’s work, including internal wrangling, politics, ugly dynamics, lack of discipline and conduct that, in the words of its chief administrator, damaged the UN’s reputation.

For instance, Ben-Dror said, Australian committee member John Hood wrote that he preferred to spend his time having fun. He and his deputy often went out drinking at night and returned to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning, singing and generally raising a ruckus; this resulted in them being absent from the committee the next morning.

Ben-Dror even discovered that Bunche’s patience ran out one night as he was trying unsuccessfully to sleep. So he called the local police in an attempt to restore peace and quiet.

The Dutch representative, Nicolas Blom, sprained his ankle shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, so he missed almost all the committee’s tours of the area. As for the Guatemalan representative, Jorge Garcia Granados, and his Uruguayan colleague, Enrique Rodriguez Fabregat, they “were exceptional in every respect,” Ben-Dror said, “riding roughshod over the committee’s rules of secrecy” and giving the Jewish Agency information about internal committee discussions.

There can be no doubts about their contribution to the Zionists’ success in getting the Partition Plan passed, Ben-Dror added. Their information arrived almost in real time, enabling Jewish Agency personnel to wage their diplomatic campaign more effectively.

The committee’s critics had various names for it, Ben-Dror said, of which one of the least crude of which was “the YMCA summer camp,” after the hotel where its members stayed in Jerusalem. Granados, the Guatemalan, said that rather than UNSCOP being an 11-member committee, it was more like 11 separate one-man committees.

The paper trail of the committee’s work has never before been studied as thoroughly as Ben-Dror did. Not only historians, but also committee members themselves “had trouble dealing with the plethora of material sent to them,” he explained.

For instance, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann once invited the committee to dine at his home. He couldn’t understand why no one ever responded, until he discovered that his letter had been placed in a large pile of documents that hadn’t yet been sorted. It was finally found just a day before the proposed dinner was to take place.

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