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Intensely Lobbying the UN behind the scene, half a loaf by the Jerusalem Post
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Posted on March 8, 2002


The below article was quoted from the Jerusalem Post, click here for the online version.

(November 30) Fifty years after the crucial UN vote that created the State of Israel, the question of partition once again dominates the Middle East peace process.

Gideon Rafael could hear the window of opportunity, opened only a few months before, beginning to creak shut as he sat in his car off Queens Boulevard. In two hours, the UN General Assembly would convene in Flushing Meadow, New York, to vote on a resolution to partition Palestine. The man sitting alongside Rafael, a member of the Arab delegation to the assembly, had just informed him of a tactic his associates would employ to delay the vote, effectively burying it. Bidding his contact a hasty good-bye, Rafael, of the Jewish Agency's political department, made a quick telephone call and sped off to the converted skating rink, temporary home of the UN where 56 men representing the nations of the world were to decide before dinner the fate of the Jewish people.

For many Israelis today, Kaf Tet B'November - November 29 - is more familiar as a street name than as a date in history. But on that date, 50 years ago yesterday, the UN voted to create a Jewish state in mandatory Palestine alongside an Arab state, reviving Jewish sovereignty after a 2,000-year time-out and setting in motion all that has happened since to this part of the world.

With 100,000 of their troops deployed in the country in a futile attempt to keep the peace, the British had in February 1947 decided to turn the Palestine problem over to the international community. The UN General Assembly met in special session in the spring to decide what to do with the baby left on its doorstep. The result was a Special Committee of Inquiry on Palestine (UNSCOP), made up of representatives from 11 nations, tasked to come up with a recommended solution by September 1. The committee, whose membership pointedly excluded any of the big powers, included two Moslems - from Iran and India - and two Latin American representatives clearly sympathetic to the idea of a homeland for the Jews: Guatemala's Jorge Garcia-Granados and Uruguay's Enrique Rodriguez Fabregat.

The UNSCOP team left in June for Palestine to interview Arab and Jewish leaders, and Mandatory officials. The undisputed statistics were these: the country contained 1.2 million Arabs and half as many Jews; Arabs owned 94 percent of the land and Jews only 6 percent. Beyond this, divergent historical, legal and moral claims separated the contending sides with a menacing abyss.

David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency, spelled out for the committee the political equation from the Zionist point of view. "The Arabs have vast undeveloped territories; the Jews have only a tiny beginning of a national home. The Arabs have no problem of homelessness, while for the Jews, homelessness is the root cause of all their suffering for centuries past." Jewish immigration would not displace the Arabs, he declared, and the Arabs' economic and social conditions would only improve under a Jewish government.

The committee elicited a key political statement from Ben-Gurion who had opened his argument by calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in all of Palestine. Would he consider partition? "We feel we are entitled to Palestine as a whole," replied Ben-Gurion, "but we will be ready to consider the question of a Jewish state in an adequate area of Palestine."

"Am I right in understanding that you are not opposed to partition?" pressed the Czech delegate.

"We are ready to consider it," repeated Ben-Gurion.

The Palestinian-Arab case had been spelled out to the committee in New York by a member of the Arab Higher Committee, Henry Cattan, a Jerusalem attorney. "The Zionists claim Palestine on the grounds that more than 2,000 years ago the Jews had a kingdom in part of it. Were this argument to be taken as a basis of settling international issues, a dislocation of immeasurable magnitude would take place. It would be redrawing the map of the whole world."

Finding a solution for the displaced persons in Europe was a responsibility for the international community, he said, not for Palestine. He urged a halt to further Jewish immigration.

Dr. Judah Magnes, president of the Hebrew University, called for a binational state after sufficient Jews had been permitted in to make the two communities equal in number.

Several delegates met secretly with the commander of the IZL, Menachem Begin, who had been eluding an intense British manhunt for five years. They reached his hideout after being taken on an elaborately circuitous route through the back streets of Tel Aviv. Begin opposed partition, saying that it would give the Jews not a state but a ghetto incapable of absorbing the Jews who wished to immigrate.

Senior Hagana commanders met with committee members in Jerusalem's Talpiot quarter in similarly surreptitious circumstances to express confidence that Jewish forces, which they numbered at 90,000, including 35,000 reservists, could overcome any Arab assault should it come to war.

The committee members were very impressed by what they saw of how the Jews had developed their part of the country - particularly Kibbutz Revivim in the northern Negev - and by the vitality of their cities.

Traveling to Beirut, the committee met with representatives of several Arab governments who insisted that all Jews who had entered Palestine since the Balfour Declaration be subject to deportation, something more than half of the Jewish population. "For the Arabs, the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine is a question of national dignity," said the Syrian representative. "We will never permit it." Lebanese Christian representatives, in separate conversations, said they favored a Jewish state.

Continuing on to Europe, the committee visited DP camps and heard from refugees selected at random that it was in Palestine, and Palestine alone, that they wished to settle. Gen. Lucius Clay, American military governor in Germany, confirmed that Palestine was where the refugees wanted to go. He said that their emotional condition was deteriorating the longer they remained in the camps.

The UNSCOP members retired to Geneva for deliberations. They succeeded in meeting their deadline a few hours before midnight on August 31 and came up, in fact, with two recommendations. A minority proposal, tabled by Yugoslavia and the two Moslem delegates, called for a federal solution, ironic in view of federal Yugoslavia's own fate more than four decades later. Under this proposal, Jewish and Arab states would join in a federal authority controlling defense, foreign affairs, immigration and other areas.

The UNSCOP majority, however, advocated partition of the country into separate states.

Ten years before, a British commission headed by Lord Peel had made a similar recommendation after concluding that Jewish and Arab national ambitions could not be met within the boundaries of a single state. The Jews had been prepared to negotiate on the basis of partition, but the Arabs insisted on majority rule within an undivided country which meant permanent Arab rule, since such a state would ban further Jewish immigration. The Peel Commission's recommendations were overtaken the following year by the White Paper curbing Jewish immigration and then by the onset of world war.

The boundaries stipulated by UNSCOP for the Jewish state in 1947, with hundreds of thousands of refugees waiting in camps in post-Holocaust Europe, were far more generous than those of the prewar Peel Commission. They included the Negev, the coastal plain north of Ashdod, eastern Galilee and the Jezreel Valley. The Arab state was to include western Galilee, Judea, Samaria and the coastal strip between Ashdod and the Egyptian border.

The proposal also called for the international community to assist the Arab state economically. In this concern for the economic well-being of the Arab state, the resolution pre-echoed similar concerns that surround the Oslo agreements.

In addition to the two states, the proposal called for a neutral corpus separatum that would embrace Jerusalem and Bethlehem under international trusteeship. Its residents could become citizens of either the Arab or Jewish states, but the governor would be neither Jew nor Arab. Nor would members of the police force that would guard the holy places.

The population of the Jewish state would consist of 558,000 Jews and 407,000 non-Jews. The population of the Arab state would be 804,000 Arabs and 10,000 Jews. The 200,000 residents in the Jerusalem corpus separatum would be divided roughly equally between the two communities.

Lobbying of General Assembly members over the final terms of the resolution was intense. Rafael recalls heated arguments between Jewish representatives and the head of the American delegation, Herschel Johnson, over the Negev. "At one point, he was called to the phone and returned a different man," says Rafael. "We didn't know it at the time, but he had just gotten a call from President [Harry] Truman who told him, 'Forget it. The Negev belongs to the Jews.' I've never seen a representative fold like that."

Later, the Jewish representatives learned that it was Chaim Weizmann who had convinced Truman that the Negev was needed as the lung of the new state.

Rafael, who in time would become director-general of the Foreign Ministry, was a junior member of the Jewish Agency delegation to the UN. Along with Abba Eban, he is one of the few participants in that drama still alive. "That's one of the advantages of being a junior member," wryly notes the retired diplomat, now 84.

During the three months between completion of the UNSCOP recommendation and the vote in the General Assembly, Jews and Arabs tried to sway the votes of various delegations. The outcome was by no means certain, and the lobbying followed the principle that all is fair in love, war and politics. A female diplomat representing one of the smaller countries was charmed out of her political directives by the ardent wooing of a handsome Arab diplomat and reportedly vowed to cast her vote against partition contrary to her instructions. Urgent representations were made to her foreign ministry and a new delegate, male, was sent to replace her.

According to Prof. Michael Cohen, a historian from Bar-Ilan University, the Cuban delegate, who voted against partition, told a US State Department official that a Latin American country had changed its vote in return for $75,000. It is not clear from the records in which direction the change was made. Strategy sessions led by Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), Israel's future foreign minister, were held by the Jewish delegation every day at Jewish Agency headquarters on Manhattan's East 66th Street. Also participating were leaders of the American-Jewish community.

'It was a very exciting period," recalls Rafael. "We were on the go day and night. We didn't just report at these meetings. There was also an operational division of assignments: 'You work on these delegations,' 'You on those.' We discussed the weak points and where we had to mobilize influence in various capitals."

Shertok and Eban met with Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, in search of agreement but nothing came of it.

Jewish lobbies were at work in many countries but in others, like the Philippines, Haiti and Greece, the brunt of persuasion was borne by the Americans. US secretary of state George Marshall, concerned about American interests in the Middle East, had recommended against partition but had been overruled by Truman. A key factor was the support of the Soviet bloc. "We were three locomotives - us, the Americans and the Soviet Union," says Rafael. "The other two were the most important and they were pulling in the same direction for completely different motives. It was a most unusual situation. There was a confluence of positions, not interests."

While Soviet archives on this period are still secret, it is presumed that Moscow was primarily interested in getting the British out of the Middle East. But there was also, Rafael believes, a measure of honest sentiment involved, a sense of identification with what the Jews had experienced in the war. "We were some kind of companions in suffering," says Rafael. "Twenty million Russians had died in the war and a third of the Jewish people. In the deliberations in the General Assembly in the spring, [Soviet foreign minister Andrei] Gromyko had come out with a sensational statement. He said that six million Jews had been killed by the Nazi butchers and that the Jewish people had a longstanding association with Palestine and the right to independent status. I think that was an authentic sentiment. It was policy and it helped change the course of history."

This convergence of positions between the Soviets and Americans, notes Prof. Shlomo Avineri of Hebrew University, appeared during a very narrow historical window of opportunity. "The Cold War hadn't yet started in earnest and cooperation was still possible in the summer and fall of 1947. A year later, it would not have been possible for American and Soviet diplomats to work together." That winter the Soviets imposed their blockade on Berlin, and the Allies were forced to undertake a massive airlift to protect their interests. The Korean War, with its raw East-West confrontation, was only two years away.

Even with the two superpowers supporting a Jewish state, the outcome of the General Assembly vote - initially set for Wednesday, November 26 - was so doubtful that partition advocates undertook a filibuster to stall the vote. A clear hint of impending failure had come two days earlier when the members of the assembly convened in a cumbersome bureaucratic procedure, as an ad-hoc committee to discuss the UNSCOP report in detail. After rejecting the federal proposal, the ad-hoc committee had voted to submit the partition plan to the assembly - that is, to itself - for formal consideration. The vote was 25 for, 13 against and 17 abstentions, which was one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed for General Assembly approval of a resolution. The Arab and Moslem states constituted a formidable bloc, and many of the other nations had no particular reason to defy Arab goodwill for the notion of a Jewish state.

The following day was Thanksgiving, which gave a day's respite, and on Friday the French asked for another day's delay.

"The French were waffling," recalls Rafael. "Their position was important to other countries, particularly Belgium." Lobbying during the three-day break reached frantic heights with the realization that a single vote could be decisive. It was not a pretty sight. Harvey Firestone, whose rubber company owned extensive plantations in Liberia, personally intervened with the president of that country to change its planned vote against partition after Jewish representatives threatened a boycott of Firestone tires.

President Truman would later say that the US did not pressure any country to vote for partition. That statement, however, would seem to be based on an interpretation of pressure as gunboats or White House stationery. Two US Supreme Court justices, Frank Murphy and Felix Frankfurter, contacted the Philippine ambassador in Washington and sent telegrams to Philippine president Carlos Rojas warning that a negative vote would alienate millions of Americans. Ten senators also cabled Rojas.

Presidential aide David Niles, Truman's channel to the Jewish community, contacted influential American-Greek businessmen in an attempt to persuade Athens to vote for partition. Unlike with the Philippines and Liberia, this effort was not successful.

Similar approaches were made by American officials to a number of other countries with mixed results.

The Arabs too were busily applying pressure against partition in capitals around the world.

By Saturday morning, November 29, it seemed that the pro-partition position had improved, but the outcome of that afternoon's vote was still far from certain.

At 1:30 p.m., Rafael was at the Jewish Agency offices in Manhattan when he received a call from someone he describes as "an insider in the Arab delegation." He declines to identify this source except as "a very important and good man who was convinced we were right." The man's motive, says Rafael, was not money. "He said, 'I must meet you immediately. Something is going to happen which will surprise you.' " Rafael fixed a street corner in the borough of Queens as a meeting point and picked his caller up at 2. He then drove to a side street and parked.

"My contact told me that the Arab delegates had decided on a surprise move. They were going to say that they had changed their mind and were now considering support of a federal solution. They would ask for a deferment of a few months to work out details." The request was to be made by Lebanese delegate Camille Chamoun, later president of his country.

"Normally," notes Rafael, "any international organization which can defer a decision and has a good pretext for it seizes it. If they had deferred the vote in this case, the partition resolution would have been finished." Understanding the vital nature of the intelligence he had just acquired, Rafael telephoned it to his superiors and sped to Flushing Meadow where he found Shertok waiting, an hour before the session was to open. The information had already been passed on to him and he had informed the Americans and Soviets. The representatives of the two powers were already conferring with the president of the assembly, Brazil's Oswaldo Aranha, to discuss tactics to foil the Arab move.

The atmosphere in the hall was electric. The Jewish and Arab League delegations sat not far from each other at the side of the plenary hall, rigid with expectation. The public gallery above was packed. As the voting was about to begin, Chamoun asked for the floor. As expected, he requested deferment of the vote in order to permit the Arabs to work out details of a federal plan for Palestine. The American delegate, Herschel Johnson, quickly responded that the federal proposal was identical to the minority UNSCOP recommendation which had already been rejected as unworkable. He proposed that voting on the partition resolution proceed.

Aranha leaned over to exchange some words with UN secretary-general Trygve Lie. When he straightened up, he said that the meeting had been called for voting, not discussion. A basket with the names of the 56 member states was set in front of Aranha. (The 57th state in the Assembly, Siam, was absent because a revolution at home had caused its delegate to leave abruptly.) From the basket, Aranha picked the name of the country which would start the voting. "Guatemala," he called.

Rafael was the only one in the Jewish delegation to have prepared a tally sheet. He ticked it off as the voting proceeded. (He would present the sheet to Abba Eban on the latter's 80th birthday.) Another member of the Jewish delegation, the late Dov Joseph, would recall that while the voting took only three minutes, "it seemed to me to stretch the length of the Jewish exile."

The voting was conducted by the senior American on the UN Secretariat, Andrew Cordier. When it was done he handed the tally to Aranha who studied it for a moment before announcing that the resolution had been carried by a vote of 33 for, 13 against and 10 abstentions. "I close the meeting."

Wild applause and cheers broke out from the gallery and the Jewish delegation. "Men embraced each other sobbing with joy," Joseph wrote. "The delegates streamed into the lobby, the galleries emptied, and the Jewish observers who were present were left to savor the sweet fulfillment of that moment of destiny. There is no way in which men can express the utterly overflowing gladness of the heart. The whole of one's being become a prayer. Was a trace of the Divine Presence that had gone into exile with Israel to be found lingering in those halls which would always retain for us an element of sanctity? Is that why we were so reluctant to leave?"

In Palestine, where it was past midnight, Jews poured into the streets to dance and synagogues filled with worshipers giving thanks.

The Arab delegations had listened to the tally stony faced. The leading Palestinian-Arab representative, Jamal Husseini, declared that the partition line would be delineated by blood and fire. "And he kept his word," says Rafael. Azzam Pasha warned the Jews that they faced a slaughter the likes of which the Middle East had not seen since the invasion of the Mongols.

But, for the moment at least, thoughts of war were relegated to the backs of their minds by the Jewish Agency delegates and the American-Jewish leaders who had worked with them. They gathered that evening to celebrate in the apartment of Nahum Goldmann, chairman of the World Jewish Congress executive board. They were joined by Weizmann, the grand old man of Zionism who had induced the British to issue the Balfour Declaration pledging a Jewish national home in Palestine. He had been too gripped by emotion during the day to travel to Flushing Meadow, but he attended the party. "I remember him sitting there like on a throne, and everybody making their devotions to him," says Rafael. "He sat there like a king, just happily smiling. It was a most unusual moment."

Fifty years after the UN vote, the subject of partition once more dominates the public agenda here. The logic of dividing the land between the two contending parties had been challenged first by the Arabs when they thought they were powerful enough to overwhelm the Jews. After the Six Day War, substantial elements in Israel who thought the country powerful enough to impose its will on the Arabs were drawn to the notion of Greater Israel. In both camps, a broad consensus eventually came to the conclusion that compromise and separation were the only viable way. Even the current Likud government has accepted the principle of territorial division, reversing its traditional stance, although the extent of that division remains a major bone of contention.

It was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat who reopened the window of opportunity for partition, says Avineri. "By supporting Palestinian autonomy he very clearly suggested that the principle of partition was acceptable to him. That was why Egypt was ostracized by Arab public opinion."

Later, the PLO itself, after initially rejecting territorial compromise, accepted the notion of two states for two peoples.

The Zionist movement, for its part, accepted partition in 1947 because it realized that the world would not accept a Jewish state in the whole of Palestine when Jews were only a minority of the population, says Avineri. "The situation today is not that much different. The best friends of Israel in the international community, primarily the US, are ready to go to great lengths to support the security and existence of Israel but on the principle of partition. Just as in 1947 there is not going to be any international support for Jewish rule in the whole of the Land of Israel, much as many people don't want to face it."

To Gideon Rafael, the basic principles of the 1947 resolution are as valid today as they were then. "There are only three solutions - Greater Israel without Arabs and that can only happen with war; Greater Israel with Arabs and that means no Jewish state; or two states alongside each other. Unless you are willing to sacrifice the idea of a Jewish democratic state, there is no other way but separation."

The passage of time and the plethora of dramatic events that constantly beset us may make the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, seem today like a faraway episode rendered irrelevant within a few months by war. However, its basic principle - half a loaf is better than none - has been shown to be relevant still. Beyond that, Kaf Tet B'November remains one of the most dramatic moments in Jewish history - the issuance by the international community to the Jewish state of its legal birth certificate, as Rafael puts it.

"You must remember that, at that time, the Jewish people were at the lowest ebb of their fortunes in history," he says. "In this darkness, the opening to a Jewish state was a beacon of light. We knew there were dark corners ahead of us, but this beacon shone above everything."

Neither the Jewish nor Arab delegations departing Flushing Meadow at the end of that day imagined the conflict would still be going on 50 years later. "The Arabs thought we'd be wiped out by then," says Rafael, "and we were convinced we would be at peace."


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