The concept of dividing Palestine between Arabs and Jews was first presented formally in July 1937, by the British-appointed Peel Commission, charged with investigating the Great Arab Revolt that had broken out a year earlier. After hearing witnesses from both sides, the Commission asserted that the violent rebellion stemmed from the steadfast resistance of Palestinian Arabs to the establishment of a Jewish National Home, their fear that Jews would one day lord over them and their suspicion that this is exactly where the British Mandate was heading. The 400-page report is riveting, especially today, when Palestinians once again feel betrayed and the report’s brainchild, the two-state solution, is slowly dying.
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The members of the commission led by Viscount William Peel made no effort to hide their sympathy for the Zionist enterprise. The report details the ancient ties between the Jewish people and their homeland, lauds the quality of the new Jewish immigrants and the wonderful things they’ve achieved and empathizes with the demand that Palestine serve as refuge for Europe’s persecuted Jews. The Commission also acknowledged the deep and abiding devotion of local Arabs to their land and to the holy Haram a-Sharif in Jerusalem, but it did so in a detached and condescending manner, as befits natives who had dared challenge the Empire, and nothing as warm and embracing as the accolades heaped on the delightfully skilled and educated Zionists from Europe.
Like their Israeli successors after the 1967 war, the Mandatory authorities were convinced at first that improving the Palestinians’ standard of living, by virtue of British government projects and Jewish expansion and investments, would eventually make them amenable to cooperating with both. The naive dream of the Mandate’s creators was that building autonomous self-government for both communities separately would lead them to one day share a joint Palestinian state. But 15 years of frustrating efforts to advance their utopian vision and to reconcile the feuding sides were enough to convince the Brits that they’ve taken on a thankless mission impossible.
“An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country” the Commission’s summary states. “There is no common ground between them. Their national aspirations are incompatible. Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.”
The publication of the Commission’s recommendation that Palestine be divided sparked a storm in the Zionist world. American Zionists, including liberals, where vehemently opposed to any attempt to further shrink the territories allocated for the Jewish National Home, in their view, by the Balfour Declaration; the Revisionists’ Ze'ev Jabotinsky demanded, in fact, that Britain revoke the autonomy it had set up in Trans-Jordan, today’s Jordan, and earmark it forthwith for future Jewish settlement; the socialist left, meanwhile, decried the loss of a binational state based on complete equality and mutual respect.
David Ben-Gurion hesitated at first but ultimately joined Chaim Weizmann, who had proclaimed his qualified support for the Commission’s findings, much at the insistence of East European Zionists who were already feeling the fascist and Nazi knife close to their necks. Ben-Gurion wished to cement the British agreement to Jewish independence, though he rejected the narrow boundaries delineated by the Commission. He and his colleagues were also interested in anchoring the part of the Commission’s report that advocated population exchanges, known today as transfer, by force if necessary.
Like the British, Zionism looked down on Arab nationalists. The Palestinian peasant farmers, known as fellaheen, would not be rising up were it not for incitement by their own extreme leadership, led by the notorious Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, as well as the agitation caused by turbulent nationalist movements operating in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. The Jewish claims were rebuffed, however, and the nationalism of Palestinian Arabs, whether they view themselves as independent or as part of a wider nationalist movement, was sturdy, strong and uncompromising. The Arabs, who still outnumbered Jews by two or three to one, would not agree to live in a state in which the Jews were threatening to become a majority. The Zionist claim that there were moderate Arabs who would cooperate if encouraged to do so was a myth, the Commission noted. The only way to prevent bloodshed was by partition - or repression.
“The moral objections to repression are self-evident,” the Commission noted, though in 2018 Israel they’ve become blurry and virtually unmentionable. “Nor need the undesirable reactions of it on opinion outside Palestine be emphasized,” the report notes, though Netanyahu has now come around to believing and convincing others that the problem isn’t with the repression, but with its critics. “Moreover,” the Peel Commission notes, “repression will not solve the problem. It will exacerbate the quarrel. It is not easy to pursue the dark path of repression without seeing daylight at the end of it.”
The Commission’s report turned out to be the swan song of the British commitment to establishing a Jewish commonwealth, as Winston Churchill named it. Two months after the Arabs rejected the report, terrorists belonging to the Black Hand gang set up by the recently killed legend Izz a-din al-Kassam assassinated the Australian-born pro-Zionist Governor of Galilee, Lewis Andrews, as he ended his prayers at the Anglican Church in Nazareth. The British responded with unprecedented ferociousness, spurring Arabs to step up their attacks on Jews. In response, the underground right wing Irgun underground rescinded their allegiance to the Jewish leadership’s policy of restraint, launching a wave of terror attacks against Arab civilians in major population centers that left hundreds dead. After the British authorities published the White Paper that cancelled Jewish emigration, the Irgun began to attack Mandatory targets as well.
The ongoing attacks soured the Mandate’s sympathies for the overall Zionist enterprise, but the British attitude was changing anyway because of the looming Second World War. The main focus of the British government now was to make sure the Arabs fought on their side against the Nazis, and not vice versa. Talk of a Jewish National Home was put on the back burner. After finally winning the war six years later, faced with renewed Jewish assaults and escalating clashes between Jews and Arabs, the British finally called it quits. They left the two communities to slug it out between themselves after the United Nations General Assembly decided to adopt the 1947 Partition Resolution, which essentially copied the Peel Commission’s findings.
The Jordanian occupation of the West Bank as well as Egyptian control over Gaza removed the two-state solution from public consciousness, and even after Israel conquered those territories in 1967, support for partition was mainly confined to the radical Jewish left. The breakthrough came in 1988, when Yasser Arafat declared the PLO’s willingness, ostensibly at least, to recognize Israel. Five years later, the Oslo Accords were signed. For the first time in history, the leaderships of both Jews and Arabs supported the partition of Palestine, in one form or another. Agreement in principle, however, did not lead to an agreed solution, as both sides balked at making the concessions necessary to achieve a breakthrough. In such an intense rivalry between two competing nationalisms, the Peel Commission noted, moderates invariably give way to extremists, who then set the tone.
A quarter century after Oslo, the window of opportunity is now on the verge of closing. Then as now, Palestinians have failed to reject violence, bridge over their internal differences or adopt the kind of pragmatism shown by Ben-Gurion, who advocated taking the bird in hand and only then going after the two in the tree. Israel for its part may have submitted proposals and issued declarations, culminating in Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar Ilan speech, but at the same time it moved hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers into the occupied territories, where they diminish the chances for a negotiated division of the land each and every day. The election of Donald Trump instead of Barack Obama spurred Netanyahu to take off his mask and to assert, plainly and to all intents and purposes, that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state is no longer in the cards. His Likud Party this week called on its representatives to annex settlements and their surrounding areas forthwith and to erase the option of a two-state solution.
Trump has deviated from U.S. policy of supporting Palestinian independence, first voiced by George Bush Jr. in June 2002. Despite internal and external pressures to do so, Trump refuses to endorse the two-state solution. He believes that beleaguered Palestinians will ultimately return to the negotiating table, even after he’d recognized Jerusalem, intimated that it was no longer on the negotiating table and threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians if they continue to protest. Contrary to the findings of the Peel Commission and everything that’s gone down ever since, Trump apparently believes that a show of force and threats of economic hardship will suffice to get the Palestinians to give up on their national ambitions, including their core desire to see their capital in Jerusalem.
Trump’s harshness towards the Palestinians has been making headlines in recent days, but from the Arabs’ historical point of view, it’s just more of the same. It’s no coincidence that Netanyahu and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah both reacted to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem by comparing it to the Balfour Declaration. While Israel recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration and Netanyahu chastised any Arab who dared challenge its greatness, the letter sent by then Foreign Secretary Balfour to Lord Rothschild on November 2, 1917 was, is and always will be seen by Arabs as a knife in the back. In their eyes, it violated the explicit promise made two years earlier by then British High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, to Hussein bin Ali, who soon became the first King of Hejaz. In exchange for helping the British by launching a revolt against the Ottoman Turks, McMahon pledged that the entire Arabian Peninsula, from Iraq southwards, would be granted independence. The only exception McMahon noted were lands west of Damascus that France also had a claim on, though the Brits would later try to prove that this formulation somehow included Palestine, though it wasn’t explicitly mentioned.
The Arabs and their supporters claimed that Balfour contradicted McMahon, and they haven’t changed their minds to this very day. The Great Arab Revolt broke out, inter alia, because the Arabs viewed the British as backstabbing champions of Zionists out to appease rich and influential world Jewry. Trump is but an extreme example of the same kind of behavior, which Palestinians are all too familiar with.
All those rejoicing at the demise of any and all partition plans must assume that Palestinian nationalism can be diminished, if not extinguished, and that Palestinians will agree to live in peace either as second class citizens under occupation or as equal citizens in a state ruled by Jews. Eighty years ago, the Peel Commission reached the conclusion that both possibilities are unsustainable and would lead to inevitable bloodshed, but, hey, who knows, a lot of water has flowed in the Jordan River since then, and maybe things have changed.
The two-state solution, in any case, is on its deathbed. If the Likud and the settlers win the next elections it will probably be left to die. With it, the prospects for an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic will also be buried. Israelis will then have to ask themselves whether they wish to live in a Jewish state that represses Palestinians on a permanent basis or in a democratic state that would inevitably precipitate civil war, as the Peel Commission envisioned. But if these two are the only available options, many Israelis will choose to skip them both.