UNGA Resolution 181
  1. The 1937 plan to partition Palestine was never implemented. It did, however, remain a workable political option for resolving the conflict between Arabs and Zionists. Britain needed to placate Arab state opposition to Zionism, so it refrained from actively revisiting the partition plan. The 1939 White Paper which attempted to freeze the growth of the Jewish national home was rejected by the Zionists. By implementing the land transfer restrictions as part of the May 1939 British White Paper, Britain acknowledged that there were Arab and Jewish parts of Palestine. Into the 1940s, debate continued inside the foreign office about solving the Arab-Jewish conflict via partition. In 1944, while still enforcing the White Paper’s restrictions against Jewish immigration and land purchase, British High Commissioner Sir Harold MacMichael wrote in a private letter to London, “I see no alternative to partition …Jews and Arabs alike would enjoy the possession of their own respective territories….”

During World War II, while British-Zionist relations in Palestine deteriorated, they did little to unglue Britain’s firm strategic grip on Palestine. Ben-Gurion’s call for a Jewish state in his May 1942 Hotel Biltmore address in New York City irritated Zionist-British relations further. The seed Ben-Gurion planted in the early 1940s of activating and strengthening American Jewish support for Zionist aspirations paid dividends after the war ended. Then enormous lobbying efforts were directed at a variety of Washington officials affiliated with the Truman administration.
Public Zionist declarations were matched by continued Jewish physical and demographic growth on the ground during the war years. Despite the White Paper’s restrictions, Zionists easily circumvented land purchase rules, buying land for strategic needs. Despite British efforts to stop it, illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine continued. In Palestine, Jewish para-military organizations attacked British forces and installations. While millions of Jews died in European death camps, Jewish economic growth in Palestine continued. When the war ended, US President Harry S. Truman recommended the immediate admission into Palestine of 100,000 Jews, putting him in opposition to the British Labor government that stood committed to the 1939 restrictions on the growth of the Jewish national home. Britain remained forever mindful of how policies in Palestine would be heard and seen in the rest of the Middle East and India where British concern for local Moslem sensitivities remained paramount.

Arab volunteers
Figure 4 Arab volunteers who participated in the 1947-1948 war that followed the partition of Palestine. (Public Domain)

Formation of UNSCOP
Faced by increased violence in Palestine, Zionist pressures to allow Jewish immigration, and pressure from abroad, the British government turned to the newly created United Nations for advice. The British made it clear that in seeking UN advice, they would not be obligated to accept any UN suggestions unfriendly to British interests. One hope that Britain retained was that the UN might in the end suggest continuation of the British control of Palestine.
In April 1947, the UN set up UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine). Its purpose, like previous commissions that visited Palestine, was to investigate underlying causes for communal unrest and to make political recommendations about next political steps. The UNSCOP committee included eleven nations: Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia.

Members of the commission traveled to Palestine in June. While there it was:

“Confronted with the facts of life in Palestine. The Arab Higher Committee greeted it with a country-wide strike, and refused to testify before it….three members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi were sentenced to death, two British sergeants were kidnapped as hostages, the Army imposed martial law and curfew, and when members of the Committee expressed its concern the Chief Secretary of the Palestine Administration curtly reminded them that it was none of their business….the refugee ship “Exodus 1947″ was dramatically seized out at sea, and the Committee’s Chairman watched its passengers being transhipped in Haifa Port…in Jerusalem, the Palestine administration had shut itself in barbed-wire security zones.” The Committee had seen firsthand that the Palestine administration was unworkable, and the two communities were locked in what seemed an intractable conflict.
Symptomatic of earlier refusal to officially deal with the British government in shaping Palestine policy, the Arabs of Palestine refused to make an official presentation to the UNSCOP committee. A few Palestinian Arabs met privately with UNSCOP officials. Representatives of Arab governments, with the exception of Transjordan, met the committee in Lebanon after it left Palestine. They recommended that all of Palestine become an Arab state. A sub-committee of UNSCOP visited some of the Displaced Persons camps in Europe.
By 1946, the partition of Palestine became the avowed policy of the Jewish Agency. As head of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion made it clear in his testimony to the UNSCOP Committee that an independent Jewish state was the only political outcome acceptable to the Zionists. Ben-Gurion’s testimony was a brilliant expose of the Zionist cause and its recent history. The Zionist map that was presented to the UNSCOP committee was essentially the map that was proposed in 1937 to the Peel Commission. However it added, the Galilee, the Negev, and at West Jerusalem. The mountain ridge of Judea and Samaria (what later became most of the West Bank) was to remain outside the boundaries of the Jewish State. Both maps suggested by the Zionists in 1937 and 1947 reflected in great measure the foot prints created by Arab land sales and Jewish land purchases. These were the areas suggested for purchase in 1937 when the JNF reviewed land buying options suggested by eager Arab land sellers. (See Doc Epstein Letter)
Presentation of the Jewish Agency and Zionist point of view came in the form of oral testimony and more than 550 pages of detailed written material. This was typical of Zionist preparation and response to investigatory commissions in which they were asked to participate during the Mandate’s duration. The content of the volume produced, The Jewish Plan for Palestine, Memoranda and Statements Presented by The Jewish Agency for Palestine to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, covered recent history of Zionism and the Mandate as well as possible solutions to the Palestine issue. Solutions included:

1. Continuance of the Mandate
2. Joint Trusteeship
3. Cantonisation
4. An Arab state
5. Bi-National Parity
6. A Jewish state
7. Partition.

The Jewish Agency report included large sections on Zionist history and the Arab World as viewed by Zionist politicians, the status of Jewish communities in Arab/Oriental countries, and evidence of testimony presented by the leading Zionist officials. The testimony was forthright, copious, and far-ranging.
There was no oblique agenda: the Zionist leaders believed they had earned the right to have an independent Jewish state with a Jewish majority. They acknowledged Arab opposition to the idea and understood why the Arabs opposed the Zionist enterprise.
Reading the Zionist case gives one an understanding of the depth of Jewish Agency preparedness to handle the diplomacy of the moment. If they did not impress the UNSCOP members, they certainly overwhelmed them with data, logic, and cogent analyses of every central and tangential issue associated with establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and Jewish presence in the Middle East at large. The volume of material presented
to UNSCOP blatantly revealed the gap between the Jewish and Arab communities and their leadership choices in dealing with the British in making and shaping policy. The Arabs of Palestine did not make their case to the UNSCOP committee and forfeited a wonderful chance to impress committee members who could have been persuaded to at least listen to the view that the Balfour Declaration, the Palestine Mandate, and partition were inappropriate. The Arab leadership in Palestine consciously abrogated the responsibility to represent the Arab population. Moreover, the Arab League that had appropriated the Palestine issue in inter-Arab affairs, was itself virulently divided by parochial Jordanian and Egyptian national interests. Both Amman and Cairo wanted a part of Palestine for themselves; no one was speaking for the Palestinian Arabs.

The UNSCOP Report
In September after going to Palestine, UNSCOP issued its report. There was a majority report that suggested partition and a minority report that suggested a federal solution of two communities living in one state. There was debate about whether a UN Trusteeship should be set up to keep control of Palestine or partition recommended with independent states established. The majority UNSCOP report suggested the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. Both the Arab and Jewish states were to consist of three segments with each one of the segments barely contiguous or barely touching one another. The map so entwined the three geographic segments of each proposed state that neither state could have worked operationally or retained independence without the sanction of the other.
When the partition report was presented, the Arab reaction was unequivocal, swift, and totally opposed to its acceptance. For suggesting the possibility of partition, the Political Committee of the Arab League suggested that economic sanctions be imposed on Britain and the US. Moreover, the Arab Higher Committee and Arab supporters of this Palestinian Arab body not only rejected partition but by late September rejected the Federal solution of the minority report as well. They suggested only a unitary state where, “The Jewish minority would be afforded adequate protection and safeguards.”
On November 13, 1947, The British announced they would withdraw from Palestine by August 1, 1948, and would wind down their civil administration well before then. Britain was withdrawing without voting for partition, but still had hopes that the UN might offer Britain the right to continue there through a trusteeship of the area, in essence a reaffirmation of British control.
Truman, under pressure from many sources to endorse partition, had banned all visits to the Oval office by Zionist officials except one. His former business partner Eddie Jacobsen had persuaded Truman to see Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann pleaded the Zionist case. When the partition vote was held on November 29, 1947, the US voted yes along with the USSR and France, while the British delegate abstained. The vote was 33-13 with 10 abstentions, obtaining the required two-thirds majority. It followed the defeat of the Arab proposal for a unitary state.

Reactions to the UN Partition Vote
The Zionists were jubilant while the Palestinian Arabs and leaders of Arab and Moslem states were indignant. In making preparations to withdraw, British officials in Palestine were decidedly pro-Arab in their sympathies, making it all the more difficult for the Jewish Agency. Jewish civilian settlements and institutions found themselves in immediate civil strife with local Arabs and prepared for war against neighboring Arab states.
Before the UN General Assembly adjourned on November 29, it appointed a five member commission to implement partition. The commission proved useless. Adding to the growing chaos in Palestine, Britain withdrew its civilian administration. The UN Security Council, because of the changes that took place in its composition in early 1948, no longer had a majority to implement to the partition resolution.
The day after the resolution was passed, Arabs attacked Jewish property in Palestine while riots broke out against Jewish communities in Damascus, Aleppo, Cairo, Beirut, and Aden, where in some cases synagogues were destroyed. A Holy War was declared by the leaders of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The first phase of Israel’s independence war had begun.
At the conclusion of Israel’s Independence War and for decades afterwards, the partition resolution became a benchmark in international affairs when the Palestinian issue or Israel’s legitimacy was raised. The resolution was repeatedly presented as evidence of Israel’s international legitimacy, as support for an Arab state in Palestine, and as proof that had the Arab states not rejected partition in 1947, an Arab state in Palestine would have been created, and a Palestinian Arab refugee problem not created. In October 2011, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said that “it was an Arab mistake as a whole” to reject the partition plan. The partition plan was also used as a model of how Jerusalem as a city and its holy places should be treated, namely governed through some international administration. That reality never materialized. Jerusalem, divided as a consequence of the 1948-49 war was not reunited as one municipality until after the June 1967 war, and no international administration was applied to its governance.

Ken Stein, January 2010