When Iran supported Zionism

Persian representative to UNSCOP called Arabs ‘asses’ for blocking region’s Switzerland

 RESIDENTS OF disputed Lebanese village Ghajar await the arrival of UN officials in 2000. Like the Palestinians who opposed any UN visits and the partition of ‘Palestine’ in 1947, the villagers pledged to block a proposed partition.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
RESIDENTS OF disputed Lebanese village Ghajar await the arrival of UN officials in 2000. Like the Palestinians who opposed any UN visits and the partition of ‘Palestine’ in 1947, the villagers pledged to block a proposed partition.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), the body that opened the door to the establishment of the State of Israel, has never been subjected to the degree of scrutiny as that provided by Prof. Elad Ben-Dror in his new book, UNSCOP and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Ben-Dror is a professor in the Middle Eastern Studies Department of Bar-Ilan University.

The result of intensive and detailed research, Ben-Dror’s work provides the reader with insights into the dynamics of the committee’s operations, never available before.

The book is far from a dry-as-dust academic work. The reader will gain as much pleasure from Ben-Dror’s revelations and sometimes surprising insights as the style in which he conveys them. Well illustrated with photographs and maps, his work is above all eminently readable – a lucid account of a key episode in Israel’s long journey to sovereignty. Translator Haim Watzman is to be congratulated for rendering Ben-Dror’s Hebrew into such free-flowing English.

Britain, which had accepted a mandate from the League of Nations in 1922 to administer Palestine with the aim of establishing a national home for the Jewish people, was by 1947, trying to contain continuous Arab-Jewish conflict, as well as armed Zionist opposition to British rule. A major bone of contention was the severe restrictions that Britain, in an effort to placate Arab opinion, had placed on Jewish immigration. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Jews who had survived Nazi rule in Europe, and in many cases the extermination camps, were being held in displaced persons’ camps in Europe, unable to reach Palestine. In addition, Britain’s foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, was facing a demand from the US to allow at least 100,000 Jewish survivors into Palestine.

After several failed attempts to get Arabs and Jews to reach some negotiated agreement, Bevin decided that Britain alone could no longer cope with the situation, and handed over the problem to the UN. The UN responded by setting up the Special Committee with the widest possible terms of reference. UNSCOP was to “prepare a report to the General Assembly and submit such proposals as it may consider appropriate for the solution of the problem of Palestine.”

 JEWISH IMMIGRANTs from war-torn Europe pack the ship ‘SS Atzmaut’ on its way to Haifa, between the 1947 UN partition vote and the 1948 declaration of the State of Israel. (credit: REUTERS) JEWISH IMMIGRANTs from war-torn Europe pack the ship ‘SS Atzmaut’ on its way to Haifa, between the 1947 UN partition vote and the 1948 declaration of the State of Israel. (credit: REUTERS)

How UNSCOP recommended partition

STEP BY step, Ben-Dror leads us through the tangled political maze that eventually, through some sort of inevitable logic, led UNSCOP into recommending (and the UN General Assembly into endorsing) partition rather than a variety of other options, such as allocating enough territory to the proposed Jewish state to ensure its viability. All the subsequent charges that UNSCOP had succumbed to pressure from America or Britain or Russia (or, indeed, the Jewish Agency or the Zionist lobby) are baseless. 

In the final analysis, the Zionist view prevailed because, as Ben-Dror writes, “it offered a clear and pragmatic solution, in opposition to the claim of the Arabs to the whole of Palestine.” He maintains that the committee’s 11 members “operated freely, without being imposed on by any of the great powers.” Indeed, he asserts, with the evidence to back him up, the reverse is true, and “the tiny committee moved these countries from their initial position on the sidelines into support for partition.”

The committee dealing with setting up UNSCOP decided that the great powers – the permanent members of the Security Council – would be excluded, as would the Arab bloc. UNSCOP’s membership consisted of representatives of 11 “neutral” nations. In the event, the committee was drawn from Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. A valuable reference source for readers, as they make their way through the complex story, would have been an appendix containing this information.

Quite early on in his account, Ben-Dror brings up an issue that confused the committee throughout its investigation – the British stance. Britain refused to indicate whether it wanted its Mandate to be renewed or was really seeking to disengage from Palestine completely. In the beginning, several members were pro-British in sentiment and would have supported Britain’s wishes, but all attempts to gauge Britain’s preferred outcome were rebuffed. Britain would not engage directly with the committee at all.

Ben-Dror’s research reveals that except for Bevin, the UK’s policymakers themselves were totally unclear about Britain’s end game. Indeed, the two departments of state concerned – the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office – were often in conflict, especially after UNSCOP announced that it would conduct most of its investigations in Palestine. Officials in the Foreign Office were historically pro-Arab and opposed partition and the emergence of a sovereign Jewish state, while the Colonial Office favored the idea.

Ben-Dror reveals that this dichotomy of views actually led to Colonial Office officials deliberately undermining Bevin’s Palestine policy. Frustrated at being debarred from engaging with the committee, they ensured that a copy of a classified Colonial Office memorandum Palestine: A Study of Partition was provided covertly – and in breach of procedure – to UNSCOP members.

AS OPPOSED to British equivocation, Ben-Dror reveals that the Zionists set themselves the clear goal of navigating UNSCOP toward partition. Three liaison officers were appointed – Abba Eban, David Horowitz and Moshe Tov – and they immediately sought to engage directly with committee members. Ben-Dror informs us that alongside this conventional program of fostering social relationships, the Jewish Agency ran a successful intelligence campaign designed to uncover material on members of the committee and their positions. This covert operation included tapping the telephones of committee representatives and planting “chambermaids” who spoke their language to rummage through the wastebaskets in their hotel rooms.

UNSCOP members were determined to fulfill their assignment with scrupulous thoroughness. They made a point of touring Palestine widely in order to assess for themselves the political, economic and social situation on the ground. In the Jewish areas, they received a warm, and sometimes joyous, reception. Their visits to Arab areas were soured by the strategy that the Arab Higher Committee, led by the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Hussayni, imposed from the start; namely a total boycott of UNSCOP and an uncompromising demand for the establishment of an Arab state covering the whole of Palestine.

UNSCOP members were determined to hear and incorporate Arab views in their investigation, so they circumvented the mufti’s boycott by approaching the Arab League, which decided to cooperate. A hearing of the League’s position was arranged to take place in Lebanon. Their initial statement was noteworthy for what Ben-Dror describes as “a set of threats, implied and explicit,” emphasizing the unbridgeable gap between the Arab and the Jewish positions.

King Abdullah of Transjordan requested a separate visit from UNSCOP. He opposed the mufti’s boycott and the uncompromising demand that the whole of Palestine become an Arab state, and was in favor of partition. The Iranian representative on the committee actually supported Zionism. Ben-Dror reveals that Hagana intelligence sources picked up this transmission from him: “What asses the Arabs are. If they would only allow the Jews to establish a state, it would be the Switzerland of the Middle East.”

“What asses the Arabs are. If they would only allow the Jews to establish a state, it would be the Switzerland of the Middle East.”

Iranian representative

The committee eventually debated whether to visit the displaced persons’ camps in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of Jews who had experienced the horrors of the Nazi regime now languished, yearning to reach Palestine. The relevance of Europe’s refugee issue to the future of Palestine had been hotly debated and was one reason why the General Assembly provided UNSCOP with such wide terms of reference.

In the end, aware that the British and the US held contradictory positions on the matter, and that the Arabs rejected any connection between Europe’s refugees and the future of Palestine, the committee’s decision to visit the camps was passed by a majority of two.

Ben-Dror’s description of the visit by a sub-committee of UNSCOP to the displaced persons’ camps is a highlight of the book. It includes members’ dramatic encounters with Holocaust survivors and some of the accounts they get told about the horrors that the survivors experienced. Before agreeing to the visit, some of UNSCOP’s members had queried whether the majority of displaced persons really wanted to immigrate to Palestine or whether they would be willing to immigrate to other countries as well. On their return to Geneva, the head of the sub-committee reported to the members of UNSCOP. Stressing that the issue was of the utmost urgency, he told them unequivocally that “one hundred percent” of the Jewish refugees wanted to go to Palestine.

The final sections of the book trace in detail the political twists and turns, the maneuvers and last-minute events that led to the UNSCOP report in the form in which it was finally handed to the General Assembly. That is followed by Ben-Dror’s research-based explanation of how and why the General Assembly adopted the report with only minor amendments and brought it forward for final approval on November 29, 1947.

UNSCOP and the Arab-Israeli conflict is a work of major importance, in which Ben-Dror not only provides a clear account of this seminal period in the history of modern Israel, but through assiduous research provides us with facts previously unknown or neglected. 

UNSCOP and the Arab-Israeli ConflictBy Elad Ben-DrorTranslated by Haim WatzmanRoutledge272 pages; $160