75 years since UN partition vote: A self-inflicted Palestinian tragedy

Ultimately, had the Palestinian position been more pragmatic and moderate, they too could have been celebrating a diamond jubilee Independence Day alongside Israel.

 MAY 2018: Palestinians clash with Israeli soldiers near Ramallah during a protest to mark the anniversary of the Nakba. This upcoming May, Palestinians will not be joining Israelis in celebrating the 75-year existence of the Jewish state. Instead, they will mourn their Nakba, says the writer. (photo credit: FLASH90)
MAY 2018: Palestinians clash with Israeli soldiers near Ramallah during a protest to mark the anniversary of the Nakba. This upcoming May, Palestinians will not be joining Israelis in celebrating the 75-year existence of the Jewish state. Instead, they will mourn their Nakba, says the writer.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

It is well known that on November 29, 1947, the Palestinian Arabs rejected the UN partition proposal that awarded them an independent sovereign state in the territory of British Mandatory Palestine. Less understood is that they not only harbored a deep ideological hostility to the concept of partition, but also opposed all other possible alternative compromises with the Jews.

For Zionists, the partition plan was undoubtedly flawed: the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) divided the homeland; allotted the Jews territory separated into three areas (two of them very small and the third largely desert); and internationalized Jerusalem, leaving the ancient capital outside the borders of the proposed Jewish state.

Nonetheless, the Jews celebrated the General Assembly’s support for partition. For them, the UNSCOP plan’s multiple drawbacks were mitigated by one overriding factor: the organized international community had endorsed the principle of Jewish statehood. Everything else was secondary.

Popular enthusiasm for the resolution can be seen in black and white footage shot contemporaneously: The Jews of Mandatory Palestine glued to their radios, listening to the live broadcast from Lake Success where the UN was meeting; marking down each UN member’s vote in the “yes,” “no,” or “abstain” columns – and when the two-thirds majority was achieved, erupting in spontaneous jubilation, literally dancing in the streets.

The grassroots rejoicing echoed the position of the Zionist leadership, headed by Chaim Weizmann – later the first president of the State of Israel – and David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister. Neither was enamored with the borders set out in the UNSCOP plan, but they had taken a strategic decision: A small state was preferable to no state at all.

Chaim Weizmann takes the oath of office as the state’s first president on February 17, 1949. (credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)Chaim Weizmann takes the oath of office as the state’s first president on February 17, 1949. (credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)

The opposition to partition

WHILE JEWS in their thousands rejoiced in the UN vote, an important minority refused to be caught up in the enthusiasm. Underground commanders, the Irgun’s Menachem Begin and Lehi’s Yitzhak Shamir – both future Likud prime ministers – staunchly opposed partition. 

So, too, did important elements in the labor movement: Yitzhak Tabenkin’s United Kibbutz and Meir Ya’ari’s Hashomer Hatzair – the former committed to the Land of Israel, the latter championing a Marxist bi-nationalism. The two joined hands to establish the United Workers Party (Mapam) to challenge Ben-Gurion’s leadership of Labor Zionism from the Left.

Ben-Gurion’s Labor Party (Mapai) had dominated the Jewish Agency since the 1935 Zionist Congress, and it was the emissaries of the agency’s Political Department in New York, which had been instrumental in securing the special majority in the General Assembly, their stellar lobbying efforts helping deliver the requisite two-thirds vote.

But even the most effective Zionist diplomacy could not have guaranteed the positive outcome. In 1947, the liberation of the Nazi death camps was still fresh in peoples’ minds, and, in accordance with the zeitgeist of that period, support for a Jewish state was viewed as correcting historic wrongs and creating a more just post-war world.

Nevertheless some unity?

AMAZINGLY, the partition vote saw the two Cold War arch rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union, line up on the same side of the debate.

In contrast to the narrative portraying Israel as a colonialist implant, Jewish statehood received backing not merely from Western countries like the USA, France, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands, but also from anti-imperialist Communist Bloc countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland, and the Soviet Union itself.

The Soviet UN delegate, Andrei Gromyko, in support for partition, declared: “The fact that no Western European state has been able to ensure the defense of the elementary rights of the Jewish people and to safeguard it against the violence of the fascist executioners explains the aspirations of the Jews to establish their own state.”

Concurrently, Great Britain, the Middle East’s hegemonic colonial power, opposed Jewish independence and later provided military support to the Arab countries in their attack upon the nascent State of Israel.

Unlike the Jews, who heatedly debated the pros and cons of partition, the Palestinian leadership did not entertain public doubts. Its united opposition to the UNSCOP plan was consistent with a longstanding, hardline approach. A decade before the 1947 vote, the Palestinians turned down the British government’s Peel Commission partition plan that awarded the Arab side some 75% of the territory – the Jews having to suffice with a mini-state along the coastal plain and part of the Galilee.

It was not just a Jewish state, regardless of its size and borders, that was abhorrent to the Palestinians. They rejected both the UNSCOP majority report favoring partition, backed by eight of the committee’s eleven members, as well as it’s minority proposal, supported by three members, which called for a federal unitary Palestine in which the Jews would enjoy an autonomous status. Apparently, any arrangement that protected the Jews’ national rights was deemed repugnant.

As threatened by Arab UN representatives, the passing of UNSCOP’s partition proposal led to an immediate escalation of Palestinian violence against the Jews. And in May 1948, when the British Mandate ended and Israel was established, the surrounding Arab countries invaded in support of their Palestinian brethren.

THE BOTTOM line: Upon suffering diplomatic defeat in the General Assembly, the Arab world chose to overturn the UN’s determination through the force of arms. The ensuing bloodshed and displacement stemmed directly from that decision.

Despite its significance, the UN partition plan did not create the Jews’ right to their ancestral homeland – this, in the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, is “the natural right of the Jewish people to be... like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” But, as with the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, the UN’s 1947 resolution offered critical international recognition of that innate right.

This upcoming May, the Palestinians will not be joining the Israelis in celebrating the 75-year existence of the Jewish state. Instead, they will mourn their Nakba (catastrophe). But perhaps they should recall, at a historic inflection point – as the Union Jack was lowered and the colonial power departed – when the opportunity for sovereignty was within reach, which side embraced partition, and which side rejected it.

It is easy for Palestinians to blame their statelessness and dispossession on the Zionists. This ubiquitous, knee-jerk response avoids confronting difficult questions about their own leadership’s all-or-nothing culpability in their national tragedy, while being emblematic of an enduring, self-defeating, maximalist nationalism.

Ultimately, had the Palestinian position been more pragmatic and moderate, they too could have been celebrating a diamond jubilee Independence Day alongside Israel.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.