The Success of the Zionist Strategy vis-à-vis UNSCOP

Elad Ben-Dror. Israel Affairs. Volume 20, Issue 1. January 2014.

The article examines the successful political strategies employed by Zionist diplomacy in the summer of 1947 vis-à-vis UNSCOP (the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine). The committee’s recommendation of partition and the creation of a Jewish state on the majority of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River served as the basis for the UN partition resolution of 29 November 1947.The Zionist leaders made UNSCOP aware of their willingness to accept partition, but conditioned this on enlarging the territory of the future state. In this regard, the climax of their campaign, recounted in the article, was a secret and informal meeting between the senior echelons of the Jewish Agency and most members of UNSCOP on 14 July, an event that has been missed by historical research. The article describes the crucial influence of the Zionist message when UNSCOP came to formulate its conclusions and contributes to a better understanding of the process that led UNSCOP to its final recommendations.

In February 1947, the British announced that they were submitting the Palestine question to the UN General Assembly. On 28 April that body convened for a special session to discuss the matter and decided to establish a special inquiry committee, comprising representatives from 11 member states, to study the problem in depth and submit recommendations to the regular session of the General Assembly in September. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) held its first meeting in New York on 26 May 1947. On 15 June it arrived in Palestine to conduct its investigation on the ground. Three days later, the Jewish Agency executive convened in Jerusalem to discuss how the Zionist demands should be presented to UNSCOP. The decision, passed by majority vote, called on the members of the executive to ‘take an active initiative’ to advance the solution of partition (‘a viable state’ in the Zionist parlance of the day, meaning a large territory in part of mandatory Palestine). It had taken many years for the Zionists to abandon their demand for the entire country. Now, however, their representative leadership would declare – to the emissaries of the international organization that would decide on the fate of the Land of Israel – its consent to the principle of partition.

UNSCOP is arguably one of the conspicuous success stories in the annals of Zionist diplomacy in its pursuit of an independent Jewish state. Throughout the committee’s stay in the country, the Zionists made every effort to persuade its members to support the establishment of a Jewish state in the lion’s share of the territory of the mandate. Their efforts bore fruit in the recommendations that UNSCOP submitted on 31 August: A majority of seven members came out strongly for the Zionists’ solution. In brief, they recommended that the British mandate be terminated and that two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab, be established in mandatory Palestine. The Jewish state would be awarded 62% of the territory of Western Palestine (after deduction of Jerusalem and its environs, which would come under UN control), even though, demographically, the Arabs outnumbered the Jews by almost two to one. The importance of the UNSCOP majority report quickly became evident and remains beyond dispute today. Its lack of ambiguity gave the push the partition resolution needed to be passed by the General Assembly on 29 November 1947.

Zionist historiography has largely attributed this outcome to the affair of the clandestine immigrant ship Exodus 1947, which played out during the committee’s inquiry. The members were very impressed by the Zionists’ arguments that a Jewish state was absolutely essential, and by the undoubted achievements of their enterprise. In this reading, most of the members of UNSCOP identified with the plight of the refugees on board the Exodus and of the Deported Persons (DPs) in Europe (where they visited the camps). In addition, they toured the country and were receptive to the Zionist values of absorbing immigrants, settlement, and making the desert bloom. Taken together, these impressions influenced both the recommendation for the establishment of a Jewish state and the size of the territory allotted to it by its plan. Historical scholarship tends to belittle the myth of the decisive impact of the Exodus. Instead, it rightly emphasizes the Arab boycott and the British policy of discounting UNSCOP as a great boon to the Zionists: it left them the only players on the field. Archival documents that have been declassified reveal how difficult it was for UNSCOP to make its decision and the many reservations its members entertained until the very last moment. But why UNSCOP ultimately came out in support of partition and the pro-Zionist partition map has remained unclear. The present article reviews the Zionist strategy vis-à-vis UNSCOP and demonstrates the central role it played in the committee’s decision. Rather than study every facet of the extensive Zionist campaign to win UNSCOP over, it will focus on the efforts to induce the committee to support partition and an extensive territory for the Jews, while making clear that the Zionist leadership would support a partition plan only if it led to a ‘viable’ Jewish state. This key message was conveyed in a confidential and informal meeting between the heads of the Jewish Agency and a majority of the members of UNSCOP on 14 July – a meeting whose content was so sensitive that it was all but written out of the memoirs of its participants. Though it has been ignored by historical scholarship, its importance was cardinal. Here we will describe how strongly the Zionist message about partition impacted on the majority report. This will help us reach a better understanding of the path that led UNSCOP to its final recommendations.

The Run-Up: The Adoption of the Partition as the Zionist Consensus

The internal debate among the Zionists over partition as a solution of the Palestine problem was generated by the Palestine Royal Commission of 1936-37, known as the Peel Commission for its chairman, Earl Peel. The Peel Commission recommended that the British mandate over Palestine be converted into a political arrangement that separated the Jews and the Arabs and allowed each group to live in its own sovereign state. It envisaged the Jewish state to comprise most of the coastal plain, the northern valleys, and all of Galilee (approximately 20% of the area of western Palestine). A British-controlled corridor would run inland from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Everything else would be allocated to the Arabs. But the importance of the Peel Commission lies not in the details of its plan but in the impetus it gave to the idea of partition and the fierce debate it triggered among Jewish supporters and opponents of partition. This idea attracted a following and thereafter a majority in the Jewish Agency Executive. The first partition plan produced by an official Zionist body was drafted in 1938.

But the British withdrew their support for the Commission’s proposal. The vigorous opposition expressed by the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states, together with the deterioration of the political situation in Europe, caused them to modify their Middle East policy. In 1939, the idea of partition was replaced by a pro-Arab policy that discarded the British commitment to the Zionists. The British once again considered several versions of partition in 1943 and 1944, but the moment of decision did not arrive until after the end of the Second World War. Although the Holocaust spurred official Zionist circles to reject any compromise (the 1942 Biltmore Program), the real new development in the Palestine arena was the increasing involvement of the United States. In 1945, President Truman called on the British to allow the immediate immigration of 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine. The British, who wanted to stay on the Arabs’ good side without cold-shouldering the Americans, decided to embroil the latter in the fray. This line of thought culminated in the work of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry (December 1945 to April 1946). Although the Jewish Agency remained officially committed to the Biltmore Program, there were informal efforts to convey a message of support for partition while the Anglo-American Committee conducted its study. Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) all found their way to the pro-Zionist members of the committee (the Englishman Richard Crossman and the American Bartley Crum) and made sure they knew of their support for the principle of partition. In addition, a confidential partition map was leaked to the pro-Zionist members of the committee; although it left the central mountain ridge and the Jerusalem area (which, as stated, was to be internationalized) outside the Jewish state, the Jewish state would cover 70% of the territory of western Palestine. The submission of the secret map and the attempt to encourage partition were not the result of an official decision but an individual and private initiative directed at individual members of the committee, at a time when the principle of partition had already won strong support among senior Zionist leaders but still lacked official backing.

The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry called for the admission of 100,000 Jewish DPs to Palestine. But its recommendations for the political future of the country, a hybrid of the variant positions of Britain and the United States, were purposely vague and stated merely that the country should be neither a Jewish state nor an Arab state. We may assume that even had there been more active, public, and formal Zionist support for partition at the time, the committee’s recommendations would have been the same. Nevertheless, the Anglo-American discussion of the committee’s recommendations and the feeling that some decision was impending forced the Jewish Agency Executive to formulate a clear position. When it met in Paris in August 1946, its agenda included not only a decision about whether to accept partition but also an offer by Nahum Goldmann to travel to the United States and inform administration officials there that the Zionists would agree to partition. Both motions won almost unanimous support. The final resolution called for the establishment of a ‘viable Jewish state in a suitable portion of the Land of Israel’; this marked the end of the long period of deliberation, which has been sketched with extreme brevity here. Ben-Gurion (who supported the decision but abstained in the vote, as he did on all votes about matters of principle) effectively reversed his previous position that the Jews should not initiate partition but only accept it should it be offered by some outside party. His reasons, which combined the argument that the Jewish people had a right to the entire Land of Israel with the practical consideration that one should not begin negotiations with a compromise position, could not withstand the pressing needs of the hour.

Despite Goldmann’s success in expressing the Zionist acceptance of partition in the United States, the ‘match’ between the Americans and the British did not work out well. In no circumstances would the British allow the immigration of 100,000 refugees; Truman, for his part, felt that they had misled him with regard to the Palestine question. In late 1946, the British took the ball back and invested in strenuous efforts to persuade the Arabs to accept a solution of autonomous cantons (the Bevin Plan), which clearly favoured them. But the Arabs rejected any idea that did not give them a state in all of mandatory Palestine. The next stop was the United Nations. The British tossed Palestine into the lap of the young organization, a step that heightened international tensions. The special session of the General Assembly that created UNSCOP resolved that the committee would not include representatives of the great powers (or of the 11 Arab countries, whose position was not in question). The United States, fresh from the painful experience of the Anglo-American Committee, breathed a sigh of relief at this ‘timeout’. From that time on, they did their utmost not to interfere in the committee’s work; the Soviet Union, for its own reasons, also kept its distance. Uruguay, Australia, Iran, Guatemala, India, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Peru, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Canada – the 11 countries chosen to send representatives to UNSCOP – were able to make their decision free of any pressure by the great powers.

Almost a year had passed since the Jewish Agency Executive’s decision to support partition; now the acid test had come. On 18 June 1947 the Executive met in plenary session to determine the general guidelines for presenting the Zionist case to UNSCOP. The decision, which won majority support, was that their public position would be to demand a state coterminous with the mandate; but members of the Executive would take action in support of a partition plan that established a large Jewish state. It is important to note that despite the official decision to compromise and accept only part of mandatory Palestine, the notion of partition was still problematic for broad segments of the leadership and was not laid before the general public. Consequently, the decision to refrain from expressing public support for partition was meant first and foremost to satisfy internal needs, whereas the tactics to be followed vis-à-vis UNSCOP were a marginal consideration. The sensitivity of the decision is also reflected in the discussions that same day with representatives of the Zionist opposition parties, aimed at forestalling their separate appearance before UNSCOP. Ben-Gurion was attacked both from the right (the Revisionists) and the left (Hashomer Hatzair); both of them, quite unwillingly, swallowed the bitter pill of not testifying before UNSCOP, but would not agree to support a policy that promoted partition. Another consequence was that, beyond the adoption of partition as a general objective, there was no serious discussion of borders or the status of Jerusalem. The time and place for unveiling the Zionist plan to the commission were left undefined and subject to the leaders’ best judgement.

The UNSCOP Inquiry

On 16 June 1947 UNSCOP met for its first working session in Palestine. The Arabs greeted the commission with outrage. The Arab Higher Committee (AHC), the effective ‘government’ of the Palestinian Arabs, declared that the United Nations should simply have called for the establishment of an Arab state in all of Palestine rather than conducting an inquiry and announced that it would not have anything to do with UNSCOP. Despite all the efforts to persuade it to recant, the AHC continued to shun UNSCOP to the end and managed to impose the boycott on the entire Palestinian public. In his memoirs, AHC head, former Jerusalem Mufti Hajj Amin Husseini, defended the decision to boycott UNSCOP, for which he was directly responsible. He claimed that the British and the Americans, who pretended to be wearing a cloak of neutrality, were in fact engaged in extensive action to partition Palestine; hence any campaign vis-à-vis the committee was doomed to fail. Although Husseini’s claims are totally without merit, they were voiced in various Palestinian forums during UNSCOP’s life, accompanied by attacks on the integrity of the members of UNSCOP and the motives of their countries. These arguments served supporters of the boycott in good stead; in the circumstances, it was considered to be inevitable.

The British, too, made their policy towards UNSCOP a matter of public record at the very outset and stuck firmly to their position. When London submitted the Palestine question to the United Nations, it made no recommendations of its own, refraining from floating any solution whatsoever during the UNSCOP inquiry and endeavouring to maintain correct relations with UNSCOP, as far as was possible.

The Arab boycott and British silence left the field clear for the Zionists to conduct their campaign without opposition. From the moment UNSCOP arrived in mandatory Palestine, the Zionists’ level of engagement was exceptional. Shertok headed a large and diversified team that welcomed the committee to the country and presented the Zionist case. Three energetic liaison officers were appointed: Aubrey (later Abba) Eban, David Horowitz, and Moisés Toff (later Moshe Tov). They were seconded by Walter Eytan of the Jewish Agency, whose task was to identify individuals, places, and organizations that shared a common background with the United Nations representatives. The vast amount of material he collected included many unsolicited applications from members of the general public who wanted to help out with their contacts and skills. After screening this material and the applicants, he held preparatory sessions with candidates found to be suitable. Residents of kibbutzim and moshavim with a large concentration of immigrants from one of the member states of UNSCOP were selected and briefed, along with members of veterans’ organizations from those countries, and so on.

UNSCOP devoted the first part of its stay in the country to an extensive tour; it was received respectfully in Jewish localities. The committee visited villages and towns, along with a long list of educational and medical institutions and manufacturing and commercial centres. Its members were astonished by the strength and organization of the Yishuv and came away with the impression that it was sufficiently developed to become an independent sovereign entity. At this stage, there were also many informal meetings between locals and representatives of UNSCOP, some of them intentional (coordinated by Eytan) and others spontaneous. The direct and repeated encounters with a new immigrant who had found a home on a kibbutz after losing his family in the Holocaust or with an enthusiastic farmer showing off his crops to the committee left a strong impression on the members of the committee.

The well-focused Zionist presentation underscored the successes of the Yishuv as compared to the mediocre achievements of the Arab sector, perceived by the committee as backward; its demand, voiced at the special session of the General Assembly, that the Arabs be granted full self-rule, was seen to be totally at odds with reality. In addition to these conclusions from UNSCOP’s tours of the Arab sector and its members’ occasional conversations with Arabs, there was also a large question mark attached to the prospects for a shared Jewish-Arab future. ‘The racial hostility is strong’, reported the Australian representative to his country, and from this perspective ‘the situation is dangerous and insoluble’.

The meeting with British mandatory officials left the UNSCOP members uneasy and provoked their criticism. ‘Soldiers, roadblocks, and barbed wire everywhere’, wrote Ralph Bunche, a member of the UNSCOP secretariat, in his diary; he referred to Jerusalem, the site of the Mandatory government, as ‘a military camp’. These descriptions were not exaggerated: UNSCOP arrived in the country in a period of unprecedented intensification of the Yishuv’s battle against the British. The latter had decided, as a matter of principle, that their efforts to wipe out clandestine immigration and the Jewish ‘dissident’ organizations would continue uninterrupted while the committee was in session. This policy was put to the test almost as soon as the committee arrived, when a British court-martial, with what was considered to be extremely bad timing, pronounced a death sentence on three members of the Irgun who had been caught during the raid on the Acre prison. UNSCOP let the British know that it was concerned about the possible consequences if the sentence was carried out; the British responded angrily. The issue remained prominent throughout the UNSCOP inquiry because the Irgun kidnapped two British sergeants and threatened to execute them if the condemned men were hanged. The British determination to prevent clandestine immigration afforded the United Nations mission another astounding sight. On 18 July the Exodus arrived in Haifa port, with more than 4500 refugees from the DP camps in Europe on board. The British had intercepted the ship shortly after it set sail from France and shadowed it across the Mediterranean; when it arrived in Palestinian waters they boarded it by force and towed it into the harbour. The Yugoslavian representative, Vladimir Simic, and the UNSCOP chairman, Emil Sandström of Sweden, came to Haifa, where they watched as the passengers were forcibly disembarked and re-embarked on the ships sent to deport them. Another firsthand account has been provided by Stanley Grauel, an American clergyman who was on board the Exodus and later made his way to Jerusalem, where he delivered emotional informal testimony to several members of the committee. The Exodus drama was not wound up in Haifa, however. As time passed it expanded to fearsome proportions, as the passengers continued to be tossed on the waves for many long weeks. The British wanted to deport them to their port of origin and transported them to France. But after the refugees refused to disembark there (and the French authorities refused to allow their forcible removal), the ships continued to the British zone of occupation, where British troops hustled them ashore in early September. The way the British managed the Exodus crisis, demonstratively ignoring the refugees’ suffering, brought down fierce international criticism on their heads. The members of UNSCOP felt that the British were unable to control the situation and that their conduct was problematic and full of unanswered questions and miscues.

It was in this stormy atmosphere that the committee began the second stage of its investigation, which involved hearing testimony. The main spokesman for the Jewish Agency was David Ben-Gurion. In his testimony, he vigorously pressed the Zionist demand for a Jewish state in all of mandatory Palestine, spoke of the historic bond between the Jewish people and its country, and castigated the British and how they had implemented their mandate. Ben-Gurion was careful not to say that the Zionists were looking toward a solution of partition. Only after sharp questioning did the members extract from him a statement that the Jews were willing ‘to discuss’ the question of whether it would be possible to establish a viable state in an appropriate section of Palestine. After Ben-Gurion’s testimony, UNSCOP chairman, Emil Sandström of Sweden, spoke with the British liaison to UNSCOP, Donald MacGillivray, admitting that he had been ‘surprised’ by Ben-Gurion’s words and that ‘he did not understand how people at the Jewish Agency could think that the line he had presented would serve their goal’.

The other Jewish Agency representatives who testified never allowed the word ‘partition’ to cross their lips. Shertok turned and twisted on this point, but he too did not allow himself to speak explicitly about partition. He emphasized, however, that the Jewish state must be fully sovereign, a condition that could not be met in the entire territory of Palestine; hence listeners might infer that the Zionists did have partition in mind. Nevertheless, it should be noted that at a very early stage of their hearings, the members of the committee heard a clear and well-reasoned presentation in favour of partition from Weizmann, who no longer held any official position in the Zionist leadership and appeared as a private individual (as he emphasized in his remarks). Weizmann detailed the advantages of partition and urged the committee to adopt it as the underlying principle for solving the Palestine problem. In fact, he went beyond his public testimony and hosted the committee at his home in Rehovot; on another occasion he met informally with several of its members in the chairman’s private quarters. On this occasion, Weizmann explained the constraints that made partition untenable for the British and told the United Nations representatives that their role was to implement what the British should have done but had failed to do – partition of the mandate. Weizmann emphasized that the solution had to be ‘simple and final’ and that the boundaries of the Jewish state must be those set in the Peel Commission report, plus the Negev. Weizmann also attempted to give UNSCOP a counter to the Arabs’ rigid stand. He argued that the Jewish state would produce significant prosperity in the entire Middle East and that the Arabs and Jews ‘would learn to get along with each other’ when they understood that the settlement was final. In conclusion, Weizmann stressed that an immediate solution was essential: ‘The Jews have reached the last stage’. He cautioned: should UNSCOP fail, matters would be left exclusively to ‘God Almighty’.

The Hagana’s intelligence sources maintained that the meeting with Weizmann was especially important and that it led key members of UNSCOP to adopt and promote the notion of partition. It is important to remember, however, that by this time the elderly leader was not even a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; his testimony and off-the-record statements, however impressive, could not be considered to be an official Zionist position. Weizmann did not testify until after the Jewish Agency Executive had given him explicit sanction to do so; his informal meetings with the members of the commission were coordinated by the Zionist liaison officers. Weizmann’s exclusion from the Zionist establishment made it possible for him to speak freely, untrammelled by party discipline; he took advantage of the circumstances to present a clear exposition of the idea of partition in a manner that served the goals of the official leadership. His testimony effectively made him the advance man for the partition idea and enabled the official leadership to defer revealing their hand until just a few days before UNSCOP left the country.

The Revelation of Official Zionist Support for Partition

On 14 July 1947, after UNSCOP had been at work for almost a month, the senior officials of the Jewish Agency finally broke their silence. The venue was an evening meeting at Shertok’s home, to which most of the members of UNSCOP were invited; Bunche kept notes of the discussion and later circulated them to all members of UNSCOP and its secretariat as an internal document. The UN representatives found themselves facing Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency; Shertok, the head of the political department; his deputy Golda Meyerson (later Meir); Eliezer Kaplan, the Jewish Agency treasurer; and Leo Kohn, the secretary of the political department. Eban and Horowitz, the Zionist liaison officers to the committee, were also present. At the start of the meeting, the UNSCOP representatives asked the Jewish Agency officials to state their views about the idea of a binational state, as proposed to them by the president of the Hebrew University, Judah Magnes, who had appeared before the committee as a representative of the Ihud (a small Jewish group that advocated the establishment of a bi-national state in Palestine). Magnes was a strong opponent of partition and argued that a bi-national solution, based on political and numerical equality between Jews and Arabs, would lead to coexistence and cooperation between the two peoples. At the meeting, Ben-Gurion and Shertok made mincemeat of Magnes’ ideas. They argued that ‘it is certain to be opposed by the majority of both Jews and Arabs’ and that their implementation was quite impracticable.

Later in the meeting, the UNSCOP members asked to hear their interlocutors’ reaction to the so-called Rand formula (named for its author, the Canadian representative Ivan Rand). This posited a commonwealth of two states, each of them with a large measure of internal autonomy, but with their joint course overseen by a central administration composed of neutral parties. The Rand proposal embodied a two-pronged goal: to satisfy the Zionists’ need for an independent state while guaranteeing the future of the Palestinian Arabs, given the doubts about the economic and social viability of an independent Arab state. Ben-Gurion, Shertok, and Golda Meyerson (Meir) rejected the idea out of hand. They explained that any cantonal or federal arrangement would effectively eliminate unlimited immigration, which was the most important way in which the future Jewish state would differ from any country ever known. Sandström sought to find out how far the Jewish Agency was willing to go in cooperating with the two entities to be established. The convoluted answer he received was that the Jewish Agency could indeed support some mechanism (a central administration) to deal with joint ‘neutral matters’ as long as ‘vital matters’ were not subject to its authority.

The second part of the meeting was devoted to the ‘possible boundaries of the Jewish state’. Ben-Gurion said that he wanted to state his personal view on the topic. Here, as Abba Eban said in an interview many years later, Ben-Gurion astonished even his colleagues.

To our astonishment Ben-Gurion took out a pencil and sheet of paper and sketched a map. Its details caused his colleagues some consternation; they certainly had not been discussed in advance. One of the Jewish Agency representatives, who saw this as crossing a red line, stage-whispered the Zionist codeword ‘Biltmore’. ‘Biltmore shmiltmore’, Ben-Gurion hissed back; ‘we need a Jewish state’.

The map was not handed to the UNSCOP representatives. But the list of the districts that appeared on it (as found in the UN archives) indicates the difference between Weizmann’s clear statement (Peel plus the Negev) and Ben-Gurion, who refused to refer to existing formulas. To begin with, he demanded the entire Negev. Next, he explained that the core of the territory of the Jewish state would be the existing Jewish settlements, supplemented by ‘the uninhabited areas of Palestine’; in addition, he demanded the Galilee and the area around the Dead Sea. As for Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion was evasive. He said that ‘part of the new Jerusalem must be included in the Jewish state’ and that ‘the Arab part of Jerusalem would also be an enclave’.

Many years later, Eban acknowledged that there was in fact a tacit agreement that Jerusalem would be internationalized, so Ben-Gurion preferred to skip over the matter at the meeting. As Eban explained, the Zionist negotiators felt that it would not be realistic to demand and expect ‘both a Jewish state and a Jewish Jerusalem’.

Later, Ben-Gurion made clear that ‘a Jewish state along these lines’ would include an Arab minority of between 500,000 and 600,000 persons and noted several Arab towns that could be excluded from the territory of the Jewish state, including Jaffa (which would be an enclave), Nazareth, and Gaza. Shertok, the only Jewish Agency official who interrupted from time to time to comment on Ben-Gurion’s remarks, acknowledged that he thought that only the northern Negev should be included in the Jewish state; his reasoning, counter to Ben-Gurion’s view, was that the southern Negev was not arable. Shertok closed the meeting by making it plain that the map was the minimal Zionist demand, but the Jewish Agency’s official stance remained that Jewish sovereignty should be established on both sides of the Jordan River.

In his report on the meeting to his own foreign minister, the Dutch representative wrote that the Zionist leadership’s support for the principle of partition had become crystal clear. It does seem that beyond the content, the very fact that the meeting took place was of cardinal importance. The clear statement that partition was the Jewish Agency’s preferred solution had to be presented to UNSCOP in unvarnished fashion, and the evening meeting was meant for this purpose.

With regard to content, the crux of the meeting was Ben-Gurion’s attempt to sketch out the preferred borders of the Jewish state. Although he named districts in a rather amorphous and ambiguous way, his statement conveyed a number of important points: he provided the number of Arabs who, according to Jewish Agency calculations, would be left in the Jewish state. This clearly limited the densely populated Arab regions that the general list of districts seemed to encompass. He also failed to respond to Shertok’s more limited claim to the Negev, allowing UNSCOP to understand that the Zionist leadership had formulated a consensus territorial formula, thus leaving the committee some flexibility. Finally, Ben-Gurion’s message that the Zionists would agree for the Old City of Jerusalem to be excluded from the Jewish state was also quite significant. Whatever the reference to this or that region, the overall tenor of the meeting yielded a clear message as to the territory they were seeking for the Jewish state. UNSCOP understood that the Zionist leadership would support partition only if the boundaries of the state it was offered were broad enough. In fact, this message was the crux of the Zionist strategy.

In any case, the outline of the borders and the concessions seem to be why the meeting is glossed over or omitted in Zionist accounts of UNSCOP. Horowitz and Eban, the liaison officers whose memoirs included many details of their work vis-à-vis the committee, mentioned the meeting but revealed very little of what transpired there. Eban wrote that ‘Ben-Gurion, at his most authoritative, broke all precedents. He argued openly for partition, which, however, he would accept and defend only if the Jewish state included the Negev’. Horowitz minced his words even more: ‘Ben-Gurion reviewed the broad aspect of the problem frankly and informally. The partition issue soon came up … For the first time, the territorial and constitutional aspects associated with implementing such a solution were raised’. Golda Meir, who was also present, completely omitted the meeting from her memoirs.

A week after the secret meeting with the leaders of the Jewish Agency, UNSCOP left Palestine. Almost at the last minute (on 16 July), its secretariat held an informal interview with Hussein Khalidi, a member of the Arab Higher Committee who represented himself as its secretary. For him, the solution was clear: an independent Arab state encompassing all of mandatory Palestine. Khalidi was not even willing to discuss any other solution. His position fully coincided with the presentations of the few Palestinian witnesses who did testify to UNSCOP, and with the positions of the Arab countries, which ultimately decided to end their boycott of UNSCOP and appear before its members in Lebanon, between 21 and and 24 July.

The committee wound up its stay in the Middle East with a brief stop in Transjordan. The Jewish Agency attached great hopes to this visit, expecting that the committee would hear Arab support for partition and a satisfactory solution for the Arabs of Palestine. The Zionist line, referred to as ‘partition and annexation’, was that partition would not result in an independent Arab state alongside the Jewish state; instead, whatever territory was not included in the Jewish state would be annexed to the Kingdom of Transjordan. This idea, floated by the Arab department of the Jewish Agency, had been accepted by King Abdullah a year earlier. For tactical reasons, it was left for the king to announce it to the committee himself. The Jewish Agency was supposed to ask the committee to partition the country; Abdullah would propose annexation. But in his formal testimony to UNSCOP, the king put forward a position that was not too different from what the Arab states had proposed in Lebanon, although it was more flexible and full of winks and smiles. The Jewish Agency was furious with Abdullah, thinking he had not kept his part of the bargain and had not told UNSCOP of his support for partition and annexation. In fact, the Zionists’ impression was false; while paying his pan-Arab debt in public, Abdullah also held off-the-record talks with the committee, at which his message was quite different. He told Sandström explicitly that he wanted to annex any Arab districts left by partition; other members of the commission also came away with that impression. The Zionists’ strong message in favour of partition was indeed seconded by Abdullah in Transjordan.

The Zionist Strategy and the Test of the UNSCOP Recommendations

After a short visit to the DP camps in Europe, UNSCOP reconvened in Geneva to write its report. In a series of informal conferences, the members were asked to state their personal conclusions about the investigation. It quickly became clear that, at least with regard to the British, the committee was of one mind. All the members of UNSCOP agreed that the British mandate over Palestine must be terminated and that the residents of the country were entitled to independence. Bunche summed it up in a few words: ‘There is agreement between the Jews and Arabs with regard to one thing only – that the British must go’.

UNSCOP quickly discarded the idea of a unitary state in the entire mandated territory, Jewish or Arab. After that, however, it stagnated in a long period of indecision that lasted until its very last days. When it began drafting its report, there was no broad support for partition in the version pushed by the Zionists. The Jews, who were a minority in the country, wanted most of the territory, and had outlined borders that would leave at least as many Arabs in the Jewish state as Jews. Even disregarding a division of the territory that favoured the Jews at the expense of the Arabs, the committee found it hard to believe, after the angry Palestinian presentation they had seen and after the unyielding words they had heard in Lebanon, that Arabs who found themselves in a Jewish state would accept the verdict quietly.

The tension between the Jews and Arabs led the committee to discard Magnes’ bi-national concepts, too, and to note the advantage of solutions that would leave all or some of the reins of power in the hands of the UN. It considered other ideas as well, including various forms of federation, which would resolve the complicated problems of demography (such as a federation of cantons, whose residents would enjoy broad autonomy in running their internal affairs). All of these ideas had the same fatal flaw: they were quite unacceptable to both the Jews and the Arabs. Both peoples demanded independence and sovereignty, and UNSCOP understood that any solution that did not provide these would encounter the same problems that had defeated the British. The Arabs wanted independence in all of Palestine, adamantly objected to Jewish immigration at any level, and had already rejected, as recently as February 1947, the pro-Arab Bevin plan put forward by the British. The Zionists demanded an independent state in most of the mandated territory and represented their stand as a compromise; but a majority on UNSCOP did not accept the content of their proposal. In practice, with the exception of the representatives of Uruguay and Guatemala, who were strongly pro-Zionist from the outset, and the Canadian Rand, who moved in that direction as the inquiry proceeded, the other four representatives who ultimately concurred in the majority report (those from Peru, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, and Sweden) believed that the Zionists had gone much too far in their territorial demands and did not want to create a Jewish state of the size they demanded. It was here that the clear statement by the Jewish Agency leaders, at their confidential night-time meeting with members of the committee, was critical. The Zionist message was that partition and a sufficiently large Jewish state were irrevocably linked. The UNSCOP members who had been persuaded that partition was the answer but were not willing to give the Jewish state the extensive territory demanded by the Jewish Agency were afraid that the Zionists would reject a recommendation that awarded them a more restricted territory.

In mid-August, the UN responded to these circumstances with heavy pressure on the Zionists, to persuade the leadership to cut back its territorial demands. Those involved were Bunche and the Frenchman Henri Vigier, a senior official of the UN political department, who came to Geneva to help the committee write its report. The two men made strong efforts to move the Jewish Agency leaders from what they saw as inflated demands toward the committee’s more modest approach. But the Zionists stood firm. After a gruelling period of uncertainty, during which Eban and Horowitz went off to consult with Weizmann and Shertok even considered sounding the call for retreat, a letter was sent to the UNSCOP chairman reaffirming the Zionist demands as they were. The Jewish Agency was extremely troubled, Shertok wrote, that its staunch support for the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel might ‘give rise to the impression that the Jews would be prepared to accept any scheme of partition provided only it gave them statehood’. There could be no greater mistake than this, he added, and went on to emphasize that the primary Jewish need was for a suitable territory that would permit the development of the local Jewish community and the absorption of the Jewish DPs in Europe. Later in the letter, Shertok repeated the demand that the Negev (especially the northern Negev) and the entire Galilee be included in the Jewish state.

Thus it came to pass that a majority of the members of UNSCOP coalesced around a partition plan that gave the Jewish state extensive territory. Most significant here was the clear stand taken by the chairman, Sandström, who ultimately became a vigorous partisan of the establishment of a large Jewish state and made a major contribution to the consolidation of support for what eventually became the majority report. Sandström pushed the quest for a solution that would be the most stable and practical for Palestine in the existing conditions; this line of thought led him to wholeheartedly adopt the Zionist- version of a solution. A close study of his thinking process might shed a slightly different light on UNSCOP’s history and yield a better understanding of the success of the Zionist diplomacy and its true weight among all the committee’s considerations. At the start of the inquiry, Sandström’s position was neutral; even later, though he became a vigorous supporter of partition, we cannot infer that he had adopted a pro-Zionist perspective. By contrast, the abundant material that Sandström left behind (a detailed memoir and reports on his later talks with the Americans) allows us to fathom his motives and outline the process that led him to support the Zionist solution. With regard to the British leg of the British-Zionist-Arab triangle, everything was clear. Sandström got the impression that the British wanted to leave the country; in any case, it was obvious that they would not be part of any future solution for Palestine. By contrast, he was not so sure about the Palestinian Arabs: Although he referred to their elite as ‘antisemitic’, precisely where the masses stood and how they would react to various political arrangements remained a riddle, because he thought that most of them were not interested in political questions. What carried the day for the Swede were the Palestinian leadership’s uncompromising attitude and its utter rejection of any solution that would permit the Jews to have even the slightest degree of autonomy in Palestine (much less a sovereign state). Thus, with the British out of the picture, so far as Sandström was concerned, and the Arabs’ intransigence making them irrelevant, he made the Jews the anchor of his plan. Viewing this turn to the Jews as a strategic decision that would endow the future arrangement with maximum stability, he needed to make sure that the Jews themselves would adopt the plan with no reservations. In the Swede’s calculation, the other details of the plan were the price to be paid for achieving this, so he fell in line with the Zionists’ demands about the borders of their future state.

During the committee’s last days of work, the representatives of Peru, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia joined the advocates of partition, albeit unenthusiastically. They had two plans to pick from: either a pro-Arab federation, which was supported by the Iranian, Indian, and Yugoslavian delegates, but which the Arabs themselves had already announced they would turn down cold; or a partition plan that the Zionists were certain to support. The choice between these two options was not very difficult; it was chiefly a matter of logic.

UNSCOP published its recommendations on 31 August 1947. The majority report, supported by seven members, recommended partition and awarded the Jewish state most of the territory of mandatory Palestine, including the Negev, the coastal plain from Be’er Tuvya as far north as Acre, most of the interior valleys, Lower Galilee, and the eastern Galilee, including the Hula valley and Sea of Galilee. The Zionist leadership declared its support for the UNSCOP partition plan as soon as the report was published. Even though the plan called for Jerusalem to be under international control, and although the Zionist leadership had a number of other reservations, UNSCOP had clearly acceded to the Zionist request for a viable state. In a letter to his wife, Ben-Gurion acknowledged that should the plan be implemented, ‘it would truly be the beginning of the redemption, and more than the beginning’. Shertok lauded the success of Zionist diplomacy and referred to the UNSCOP report as ‘an incredible achievement’. Ben-Gurion and Shertok were not mistaken. Three months later, on 29 November, the UN General Assembly adopted the UNSCOP recommendations and voted to establish a Jewish state. Although the territory allotted it was trimmed back slightly from UNSCOP’s recommendation, the main points and orientation of the committee’s map were retained.


There is abundant documentation of UNSCOP’s stormy career, its favourable impression of the successes of the Yishuv, and its identification with the tribulations of the Jewish people. But David Horowitz, one of the Zionist liaison officers to the committee, candidly acknowledged in his memoirs that ‘partition had won support because the members of the committee found it difficult, despite all their efforts, to arrive at any other satisfactory solution’. This brief statement seems to encapsulate the main reason for UNSCOP’s conclusions. The political triumph of Zionist diplomacy depended first of all on its consistent presentation of a clear and pragmatic solution, in contrast to Arabs’ demand for the whole pie. One can effectively describe the events of the summer of 1947 as a tug of war between the two peoples. UNSCOP quickly realized that the British mandate over Palestine must be terminated. Once British suzerainty had been discarded, it was clear that the solution would have to involve some sort of compromise between the Jews’ aspirations and those of the Arabs. This line of thought was quite natural and logical, but in practice it excluded the Arabs from the game, leaving only the Jews holding their end of the rope.

The Arabs forced UNSCOP to move very far in the direction of the Jewish position. The Jews demanded a state with a territory large enough to absorb the Jews of the world and especially the Holocaust survivors who were now rotting away in DP camps in Europe. Off the record, the Zionists conveyed to UNSCOP the message that they would support partition if the Jewish state was large enough (though they had not thought through all of the details); but UNSCOP got the point. The Zionists’ unwillingness to compromise on territory, combined with their pragmatic willingness to make concessions, made an impression on the UNSCOP delegates. The rigid British and Arab stands left the Jews’ position the only relevant option and made it the focus of UNSCOP’s attention. UNSCOP, in turn, realized that the Zionists’ version of partition was the only concrete alternative it could adopt that would enjoy the support of at least one of the sides. In the end, the committee accepted most of the demands made by the Jewish Agency leaders at the off-the-record meeting.

The meeting between the Zionist leaders and UNSCOP members in Shertok’s apartment has never been highlighted. The diplomatic triumph was credited to the Exodus affair and to the Zionist settlement project, which provided UNSCOP with the justification for a state. It has also been left out of the narrative by historians and memoirists. It seems, however, that those who were present or knew about it did not underestimate its importance. Two years later, in the heat of a debate among the members of the Israel mission at the UN about how to deal with the Conciliation Committee’s plans for Jerusalem, one of them noted that ‘we are liable to find ourselves in the same situation as in 1947, before we decided to bring up the idea of partition with UNSCOP. There is no doubt that, were it not for that step, the committee would not have accepted the idea behind the majority proposal’. The Zionists’ willingness to give up control of the entire country was a step that the leadership viewed as essential and imperative, although it preferred not to say so publicly, either back then or in the many years since. But there is no doubt that the strategic decision to support partition and the effective presentation of that resolve to UNSCOP were critical elements in the affair, exerting a major impact on the outcome of UNSCOP’s work.