Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Missed Peace II: UN Partition Plan

The majority proposal by UNSCOP is often citied as one of the “opportunities to miss an opportunity” by the Palestinians.[1] But was it? The proposal put down that the Jews would get 55% of the land, the Arabs would get 42% and the around 3% was to be the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area under a corpus separatum to be governed under UN Trusteeship Council.[2] The area that was allotted to each side were determined by the Jewish state having as few Arabs as possible and the Arab state having as few Jews as possible – i.e. demographics.[3] However, it also took account of contiguity and, for the Jewish state, immigrant absorbent capacity.[4]


The plan looks reasonable but then comes the fact that the Jewish state had 45% Arab population.[5] The population of Mandatory Palestine in its entirety was only 37% Jewish, meaning that the majority of the population was being denied what they wanted: a one state solution (or so it is presumed).[6] The question of morality and democracy arises. But the answer is plain: there was no other alternative. The only other option was the unitary state. However, the Committee had determined the need for two separate states. A unitary state would have led to a complete halt to immigrant absorption and probably to the complete lack of rights afforded to the Jews.[7] The Arab minority in the proposed Jewish state would also become less of the population because of the expected immigration. There is also another problem in saying that the whole of the Mandatory should have been allotted what they wanted: where do you draw the line? In a stateless area, everyone’s voice should be heard according to specific areas. The same principle applies to what is/has happened in Northern Ireland – sure the whole of Ireland wants it to be unified but the majority of those in Northern Ireland do not. It is more democratic to assign majority positions in certain areas than it is denying them. It is no surprise that the international community shunned the minority report (Resolution 181[I]).

There are still questions of fairness though: the Jews only owned 7% of the total land available (the Arabs owned 20%).[8] This point largely doesn’t take into account that the remaining land was state-owned land – meaning that 73% of Mandate Palestine’s land was to be inherited to the state that would accept it. It also fails to understand that the issue isn’t private land, but sovereignty – the Arabs in the Jewish state were not having lands taken away from them.

The final point is the Negev. Why would the Jews be given an area where there were practically no Jews in?[9] The simple answer is immigrant absorption, aside from the fact that the Negev was sparsely populated.[10] But is that moral? This question heavily relies on your ideology: Zionists would say yes; the Arabs had been allotted Jordan and had vast areas of other Arab lands and Zionism was worth this price. However, this question becomes largely redundant when we consider the responses.


The Arabs said no.[11] They even walked out of the General Assembly when they had lost the vote.[12] It wasn’t a matter of the Negev, or even the percentages of land that was going to be given. They wanted all of Palestine.[13] As Tom Segev explains;

In any case, still hostage to the rejectionist position they had adopted in 1917, they opposed partition and continued to demand independence in all of Palestine, promising to respect the rights of the Jewish minority.[14]

The Arab response was wrong, not only because the partition was arguably fair but because they completely flouted the idea of partition – based on any lies. Indeed, this was expected: they had already turned down 80%.[15] They had also missed a tactical opportunity to regroup.[16]

The Jewish response is much more complex. They officially accepted the plan and rejoiced at it.[17] However, the question remains how sincere it was. Tom Segev maintains that it was a “tactical step” and that everyone knew that the borders that were assigned could not stay the way they were.[18] This was true, considering that the Arab response was expected – Ben-Gurion knew war would ensue.[19] However, Ben-Gurion’s response was more “sincere” and even though he didn’t accept fully the border, he only wanted to make minor defensible changes.[20] It should be noted that Ben-Gurion only wanted changes in war. Meaning that it is unknown whether Ben-Gurion would have taken any steps to expand if the Arabs had accepted.

The question of whether the UN Partition Plan was a missed peace depends on (1) it being a reasonable deal (at the time, without hindsight) and (2) it being accepted by one side. I have tried to argue that it was a reasonable deal. Ben-Gurion wanted more than what was allocated to him in the partition but he could only achieve these in war – a war which he did not initiate. The reason I say that this was a missed peace is because the lack of acceptance in the lines was only implemental as a result of war, i.e. Arab rejection. There is also the point that if the Arabs had accepted the plan, Ben-Gurion might have counted his blessings and left things as they were.[21] Thus, another missed peace – even if only temporary.

[1] http://www.factsofisrael.com/blog/archives/000491.html

[2]1948, Benny Morris, p.63 (Yale University Press, 2008)

[3]Ibid., p.47

[4] Ibid., p.47-8

[5] http://www.mideastweb.org/unscop1947.htm

[6] Morris, p.65 – The Arab leadership all declared their idea for a complete unitary government.

[7] One State, Two State, Benny Morris, p.87-109

[8] ‘Details and Lies’ by Benny Morris: “Jews owned about 6 to 7 percent of Palestine's land surface, and the Arabs owned around 20 percent, and the rest was public or state-owned. And, given that no Palestinian Arab state was established, Israel was Mandate Palestine's successor state and heir to the state lands.”

[9] History of Palestine, Gudrun Kramer, p.307 (Princeton University Press, 2008)

[10]Ibid., p.307

[11] There isn’t any doubt about this whatsoever: Power, Faith and Fantasty, Michael Oren, p.491 (Norton, 2007), One Palestine, Complete, Tom Segev, p.496 (Abbacus, 2002), The Iron Wall, Avi Shlaim, p.27 (Penguin, 2000).

[12] Righteous Victims, Benny Morris, p.186 (Vintage, 2001)

[13] Kramer, p.307

[14] Segev, p.496 can also be found here: http://www.passia.org/seminars/2000/israel/part3.html

[15] Peel Commission (One State, Two State p.87-109) – I understand that one objection was to do with transfer but, as Segev stated, even without that deal would have be turned away because the Arabs rejected partition.

[16] Segev, p.496

[17] Shlaim, p.25

[18] Segev, p.496

[19] Righteous Victims, Morris, p.186

[20] One State, Two State, Benny Morris, p.78 and Shlaim, p.29

[21] Only speculation but given that what Ben-Gurion would have done in the absence of Arab rejectionism being unknown, it is the only thing I can do.


Matt said...

Good article, thanks for posting.

As I understand it the hope amongst the Yishuv was that given time and peace between the new Israel and its Arab neighbours, borders would cease to be an issue anyway.

Given the ensuing history this sounds a bit naive, but is it a fair assessment of the mindset at time?

Folderol said...

Thanks for commenting :)

The Yishuv thought is a lot like how you explain it. Essentially what they wanted to do was maintain the status quo with the armistice lines for quite a while - they didn't want to run to peace, they wanted to walk to it because the "Arabs would eventually come round". In any case, David Ben-Gurion has "more important" things on his mind (like immigrant absorption).

I will however be making a 'Missed Peace' post on the possibilities for peace from 1948-1954 soon.

Can I ask who you are from TSR? Also, if you haven't read the articles before the first one you commented on, feel free to read! I'd like to know what you think.

mrzee said...

Where in the UN Charter did they derive the right to partition the country? Its no coincidence that with over 1 million dead in fighting between the Hutu and Tutsis in Rwanda that no one has ever suggested partition. They've got absolutely no authority to do so.

Partitioning Western Palestine was a violation of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine which the UN was, and still is, required to enforce. Resolution 181 was illegal from the start. The Yishuv went all with it for practical reasons, but the UN vote meant nothing

Folderol said...

My article is merely expressing that this was a missed opportunity for peace - nothing is mentioned about the legality because I'm in the process of compiling a mega-post about international law and the conflict.

As far as the UNGA's authority is concerned, they do not have the authority to dictate - and they never have. They have the authority to recommend - and their recommendations can only be made bind by a acceptance by boths sides (pacta serv sunda). Given that if the Arabs had accepted, Israel would have in effect agreed to sign away its rights to other parts.

However, I completely understand your point.

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