Did the UN’s Partition Resolution Change History?
November 29 marked 70 years since the 1947 decision by the United Nations General Assembly to partition the British League of Nations Mandate of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.
This decision is often credited as a vital link in the chain of events leading to the restoration of Jewish sovereignty after two millennia of Jewish statelessness.
How did it come to pass, and was it crucial to the fortunes of Zionism?
Without risking absurd reductionism, it seems fair to say that partition came to be passed by the UN General Assembly, among other things, because of the extraordinary exertions of Australia’s then-Minister for External Affairs, Dr. H.V. Evatt.
Evatt, both an idealist and a schemer, was an extremely secretive man. Many of his meetings with foreign diplomats are not recorded in his official or personal papers. His published accounts of his contribution to the affairs of the United Nations, in whose establishment in 1945 he played a notable role, are often bland, unrevealing and even misleading. Nonetheless, using foreign archives and memoirs, it is possible to trace Evatt’s role in this issue and many others.
Evatt came upon a scene in which few were willing to take action. When, early in 1947, Britain handed over the issue of Palestine for determination by the United Nations, most governments were reluctant to deal with the rising conflict between Palestine’s two-thirds Arabs and one-third Jews — the former determined on undivided Arab rule, the latter on carving out their own state. The UN dispatched an 11-nation fact-finding committee that included Australia to investigate.
With his eye on the UN General Assembly presidency, Evatt was fearful of alienating the Arab bloc, so he instructed his delegates to abstain when the committee presented its findings in August 1947 — seven in favor of partition into Arab and Jewish states, three in favor of a single, federal Arab-dominated state.
Yet Evatt, who had lost his campaign for the General Assembly presidency that year (he later won it for the 1948-9 session), was named chairman of the all-nation Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question.
It is here that Evatt played a role that can be judged to be decisive. There were so many forces at work to delay and prevent adopting partition that Evatt resorted to all sorts of stratagems to outwit its opponents, while also trying to cover his tracks so as not to incur Arab displeasure. As the pressures increased and the US State Department maneuvered to torpedo partition in Committee, Evatt moved the competing proposals of partition and a single state into two separate sub-committees. This allowed a detailed partition plan to be prepared, unobstructed by the Arab states and their supporters.
Evatt insisted on the Committee completing its work and recommending partition, which had emerged with majority support, so that the proposal could be put to a vote at the end of the 1947 General Assembly session. He succeeded — and, on November 29, 1947, the General Assembly approved partition by a vote of 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions, thereby attaining the necessary two-thirds majority.
Wedded to undiluted Arab control, the Arab world denounced partition. Attacks upon Jews in Arab countries ensured. Arab irregulars — infiltrating from neighboring countries — and internal Arab militias commenced a war on the Jewish infrastructure and population in Palestine.
The US and the USSR were the first to support partition, and recognize Israel when it emerged in May 1948 at the expiry of the British authority in the territory — amid the simultaneous invasion of neighboring Arab armies in a war that lasted for the better part of a year. With the Cold War emerging, it proved to be the last occasion that the superpowers voted in concert for years to come.
However, did the UN decision for partition matter all that much? The resolution,passed by the General Assembly, was non-binding. Many are wont to argue that the first Arab/Israel war would have broken out pretty much as it did, irrespective of whatever vote the UN had taken, or failed to take.
Superficially attractive, with its realist appeal to physical realities, this judgement is nonetheless ill-conceived — because it is by no means clear that the US and USSR would have supported Israel’s emergence in the absence of an international decision for partition.
The Truman administration was acrimoniously divided on the issue, with figures like Secretary of State George Marshall and Defense Secretary James Forrestal fearful of alienating Arab states in the emergent Cold War. Stalin’s Soviet Union was a deeply anti-Zionist polity that only momentarily supported Israel’s emergence to hasten Britain’s departure from the region. Each superpower could have found compelling reasons to adopt a diametrically opposite policy.
Accordingly, the UN partition resolution allowed both superpowers to support Zionism in a way not otherwise open to them on congenial terms. If, for example, the UN had established a trusteeship or awarded the whole of Palestine to Arab control, would President Truman have extended recognition to a Jewish state arising in defiance of such decisions? It is most unlikely.
Israel might still have come into existence, but it might have been gradually snuffed out in what would have been a profoundly adverse diplomatic climate. As it is, it had to wage a bitter war of survival. Partition thus proved a milestone — and Evatt, in good measure, is its author.
However, Arab rejection meant that Palestine was partitioned by war, not agreement, with a consequent, tragic harvest of Arab refugees.
It was not the partition resolution, but the Arab determination to prevent partition, that produced the consequences that are still with us.
These refugees and their descendants have not been resettled and integrated in any state other than Jordan (and about 70,000 by Israel, under a scheme of family reunion) to this day. In the aftermath of the war, several Arab countries also expelled or drove into exile their Jewish populations which, unlike the Palestinian Arabs, found a country willing to receive and integrate them.
The abiding Palestinian Arab strategy from that day to this has been to condemn partition and Israel’s emergence by investing both phenomena with the responsibility for all the tragic consequences that — in reality — were produced by the general Arab decision to resort to war to stop Israel’s emergence.
Ironically, nowhere has this strategy enjoyed greater success than in today’s UN. For instance, the November 29 anniversary has been annually observed at the world body for some years now as an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
In other words, the day that could have signaled the dawn of a Palestinian Arab state 70 years ago is now misrepresented as the start of an Israeli campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Perhaps Australia, of all countries, should be protesting this moral absurdity, which takes an enlightened UN decision to give statehood to both peoples, produced by an Australian statesman, and perverts it into a day of mourning. By so doing, the UN annually accomplishes the double disservice of legitimising a propagandist lie designed to prolong rather than end the conflict, while concealing the actual responsibility of the Palestinian and wider Arab leadership for the war and suffering that has been a loss to all, and a gain to none.
Daniel Mandel is director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy, a former fellow in history at Melbourne University and author of “H.V. Evatt & the Establishment of Israel” (Routledge, London, 2004).
A version of this article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post.