In 1937, an official British report first proposed the partition of Mandate Palestine. The story behind it helps to explain why the Arab-Jewish conflict remains unresolved.
In this epochal year of Zionist anniversaries—the 120th of the First Zionist Conference in Basle, the 100th of the Balfour Declaration, the 70th of the 1947 UN Partition Resolution, the 50th of the Six-Day War—there is yet another to be marked: the 80th anniversary of the 1937 British Peel Commission Report, which first proposed a “two-state solution” for Palestine.
The story of the Peel report is largely unknown today, but it is worth retelling for two reasons:
First, it is a historic saga featuring six extraordinary figures, five of whom testified before the commission: on the Zionist side, David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and Chaim Weizmann, the leaders respectively of the left, right, and center of the Zionist movement; on the Arab side, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem; and on the British side, Winston Churchill, who gave crucial testimony in camera. Louis D. Brandeis, the leading American Zionist, also played a significant role.
Second, and perhaps even more important today, the story helps to explain why, a century after the Balfour Declaration, the Arab-Jewish conflict remains unresolved.
The history and prehistory of the Balfour Declaration has been notably covered in anniversary pieces in Mosaic by Martin Kramer, Nicholas Rostow, Allan Arkush, Colin Shindler, and Douglas J. Feith. In November 1917, as Britain fought the Ottoman Turks in the Middle East during World War I, the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, formally declared British support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration, as it came to be known, was issued after extensive consideration by the British cabinet and consultation with Britain’s allies, including the United States, whose president, Woodrow Wilson, approved it in October 1917. In 1922, the League of Nations incorporated it into the Mandate for Palestine that the League entrusted to Britain, and the Declaration thereby became an established part of international law.
The Palestinian Arabs rejected both the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate, even after Britain in 1923 severed the larger portion of Palestine, east of the Jordan River, and recognized Emir Abdullah of Transjordan as its new ruler. In 1929, Arabs rioted in Jerusalem, massacred Jews in Hebron and Safed, and attacked Jews elsewhere in the land. In 1936, in a substantial escalation, the Arabs called a general economic strike, sabotaged trains, roads, and telephone lines, engaged in widespread violence against Jews, destroyed their trees and crops, and conducted guerrilla attacks against the British Mandate authorities.
In May 1936, the British announced their intention to establish a commission to “ascertain the underlying causes of the disturbances” and make recommendations for the future. Arab violence continued through October, delaying the arrival in Jerusalem of the commission, led by Lord Peel, until November. While it was on its way, the Arabs declared they would boycott its proceedings.
Recognizing that the future of their national home was at stake, the Jews presented to the commission a major defense of the Zionist cause: a 288-page printed memorandum, together with five appendices, covering the history of Palestine, the legal basis of the Mandate, and the extensive Jewish accomplishments in Palestine in the two decades since the Balfour Declaration. The memorandum emphasized the urgency of the hour—the Nazis had been in power for three years and had stripped German Jews of their civil rights. The memorandum stressed that Jews were “not concerned merely with the assertion of abstract rights” but also with “the pressure of dire practical necessity”:
The conditions now prevailing in Germany are too well known to require lengthy description. . . . But it is not only in Germany that the Jews are living under [such] conditions. . . . About five million Jews . . . are concentrated in certain parts of eastern and southeastern Europe . . . for whom the visible future holds no hope. The avenues of escape are closing. . . . What saves them from despair is the thought [of the Jewish national home].
Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, and Jabotinsky testified before the commission between November 1936 and February 1937. Taken together, their presentations constituted the most forceful and eloquent defense of Zionism since Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress 40 years earlier. Weizmann’s two-hour presentation was perhaps the finest in his long career as head of the Zionist Organization. The “six million people . . . pent up in places where they are not wanted,” he said, faced a world “divided into places where they cannot live and places into which they cannot enter.” The Jews sought but “one place in the world . . . where we could live and express ourselves in accordance with our character, and make our contribution to civilization in our own way.”
Ben-Gurion’s testimony was, if anything, even more forceful. The rights of the Jews in Palestine, he reminded the commission, were derived not from the Mandate and the Balfour Declaration but from the history chronicled in the Bible:
[T]he Bible is our Mandate, the Bible which was written by us, in our own language, in Hebrew, in this very country. . . . Our right is as old as the Jewish people. It was only the recognition of that right which was expressed in the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate. . . . [We are] re-establishing a thing which we had, which we held, and which was our own during the whole history of the Jewish people.
Jabotinsky’s turn came at the commission’s last public hearing, held in London on February 11, 1937. The London newspapers reported that “hundreds of Jews queued up outside the House of Lords” to hear his testimony, and “more people [were] turned away than could be admitted.” Notables in the audience included William Ormsby-Gore (the new secretary of state for the colonies) and Lady Blanche Dugdale (Lord Balfour’s niece). Jabotinsky, the foremost orator among the Zionists, spoke of the urgent imperative of rescue:
We have got to save millions, many millions. I do not know whether it is a question of re-housing one-third of the Jewish race, half of the Jewish race, or a quarter of the Jewish race . . . but it is a question of millions. . . . It is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would prefer Palestine to be the Arab State No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6—that I quite understand—but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.
In additional testimony delivered in camera, Weizmann also addressed Arab demands. In his view, the Arabs would not be satisfied with anything less than eliminating the Mandate altogether. “They got three kingdoms”—namely, Syria, Iraq, and Transjordan—“out of the [world] war,” he said, and now “they begrudge us whatever we have today in Palestine.” Referring to the mufti, he warned that this was a leader who “does not want a single Jew to come in” and that further British concessions to him would be counterproductive:
[T]he whole history of the Mandate, and of the Balfour Declaration, is a history of whittling down . . . of cajoling and coaxing the Arabs into accepting some sort of compromise, and it [has] operated on them exactly in the opposite direction. They [have] said: “If we can by one pogrom, two pogroms, or three pogroms achieve that much, we will bide our time and we shall find the proper moment at which to destroy [the Jews]. . . . [Their position has always been]: “We are against the Balfour Declaration, we are against the Mandate, we cannot discuss it.”
Indeed, that was precisely what the Arabs did say upon canceling their boycott of the proceedings in January and deciding to testify after all. The mufti, appearing as their leader, informed the commission that the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate were wholly invalid, the result of “undue Jewish pressure” on the British government and of a Jewish plan to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple on Arab holy places. Declaring that Palestine was “already fully populated,” he deemed it impossible to accommodate “two distinct peoples” in the same country—a point on which the commissioners then interrogated him more closely:
Q. [I]f the Arabs had [a state in Palestine], would they be prepared to welcome the Jews already in the country?
A. That will be left to the discretion of the government which will be set up. . . .
Q. Does His Eminence think that this country can assimilate and digest the 400,000 Jews now in the country?
Q. Some of them would have to be removed by a process kindly or painful as the case may be?
A. We must leave all this to the future.
On March 12, 1937, Winston Churchill, appearing in camera, forcefully confirmed to the commissioners the underlying vision of the Balfour Declaration. “[C]ertainly it was contemplated and intended,” he said, “that [the Jews] might in the course of time [establish] an overwhelmingly Jewish state” in Palestine, and that this “great Jewish state” might be “numbered by millions.” Churchill pleaded with the commissioners: “Do not be diverted from your purpose.”
In the months after the commission completed its hearings, its members began considering a partition of Palestine. Weizmann had been queried about such an idea during his private appearances before the commission. He had responded that he couldn’t comment officially, but that he personally thought it might offer a way forward.
On June 8, 1937, a month before the commission’s report was released, Sir Archibald Sinclair, the head of the British Liberal party, hosted a dinner for Weizmann and the key pro-Zionist British leaders of all parties: Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Leopold Amery, Josiah Wedgwood, and James de Rothschild. A secret memorandum summarizing the dinner conversation recorded that Churchill, along with all the other British guests except Amery, had expressed a “very emphatic disapproval” of the whole partition idea:
[Churchill] warned those present that the [British] government was untrustworthy. . . . [Under partition,] the Jewish state would not materialize; the Arabs would immediately start trouble, and the government would run away again. With this proposal, they were incubating a bloody war. The only thing the Jews could do was persevere, persevere, persevere!
The memorandum noted both Weizmann’s diplomatic response to Churchill—namely, that the partition plan was “the only way out which seemed to commend itself to the commission”—and Churchill’s emphatic rejoinder: “the whole thing [is] a mirage . . . and the Jews must hang on.”
On July 7, 1937, the British Cabinet released the Peel Commission Report. Its 435 pages traced the 3,000-year Jewish connection to Palestine; found that building the Jewish national home had been advantageous to the Arabs, who had benefited from the investment of Jewish capital and Jewish economic activity in Palestine; noted the very large increases of the Arab population in Jewish urban areas, as contrasted with virtually no growth in Arab towns such as Nablus and Hebron; observed that Jewish hospitals and clinics served both Arabs and Jews; and recognized that Jewish anti-malaria efforts throughout Palestine had aided everyone.
As for the ongoing Arab revolt, its underlying cause, the report concluded, was the implacable Arab opposition to the Jewish presence in Palestine. The Arab leaders’ views had “not shifted by an inch from that which they adopted when first they understood the implications of the Balfour Declaration.” Instead, the Arabs were continuing to “deny the validity of the Balfour Declaration [and] the right of the Powers to entrust a Mandate to Great Britain.” And these views were enforced from the top. Indeed, the report stated, the “ugliest element in the picture” was not terrorism against Jews—“attacks by Arabs on Jews, unhappily, are no new thing”—but attacks by Arabs on Arabs who were suspected of insufficient adherence to the mufti’s views.
In that connection, the report cited an example: the visit by gunmen to “the editor of one of the Arabic newspapers last August shortly after he had published articles in favor of calling off the ‘strike’” initiated by the mufti. And that visit was hardly an isolated event:
Similar visits were paid during our stay in Palestine to wealthy Arab landowners or businessmen who were believed to have made inadequate contributions to the fund which the [mufti’s] Arab Higher Committee were raising to compensate Arabs for damage suffered during the “disturbances.” Nor do the “gunmen” stop at intimidation. It is not known who murdered the Arab acting mayor of Hebron last August, but no one doubts that he lost his life because he had dared to differ from the “extremist” policy of the Higher Committee. The attempt to murder the Arab mayor of Haifa, which took place a few days after we left Palestine, is also, we are told, regarded as political.
In short, the commission found, Arab nationalism in Palestine, rather than arising from “positive national feeling,” was “inextricably interwoven with antagonism to the Jews.” Thus, even if the Jewish national home were “far smaller, . . . the Arab attitude would be the same.” Nor could Arab “moderates” facilitate a peaceful settlement, since on major issues they invariably ended up siding with the extremists. All in all, therefore, the commission was “convinced that no prospect of a lasting settlement can be founded on moderate Arab nationalism. At every successive crisis in the past that hope has been entertained. In each case it has proved illusory.”
Given the commission’s findings, what was to be done? In 1923, capitulating to Arab rejection of the Balfour Declaration, Britain had already ceded to the Arabs all of Palestine east of the Jordan River, territory that had originally been intended to be part of the Jewish national home. Now, in the face of the commission’s own candid acknowledgment of the Arabs’ continued intransigence and murderous intentions toward the Jews, the British cravenly proposed yet another act of pro-Arab appeasement.
This renewed capitulation was expressed in the commission’s partition plan, intended to replace the Mandate for a Jewish national home with a minuscule Jewish state. The Arabs, already in possession of all of Palestine east of the Jordan River, would now be further rewarded with most of Palestine west of it as well. The city of Jerusalem, with a corridor to the Mediterranean represented in green on the map alongside, would continue to be controlled by the British. As for the Jews, they would be restricted to a “dwarfish area” (to quote Jabotinsky’s apt description)—a crowded coastal principality that would leave no room for further Jewish immigration.
The reaction of pro-Zionist British public figures to the Peel Commission report was scathing. David Lloyd George—who had been prime minister at the time of the Balfour Declaration—called it “scandalous” and “a lamentable admission” of British failure. Viscount Herbert Samuel, the British high commissioner for Palestine in the 1920s, harshly criticized it in the House of Lords. In the Commons, Winston Churchill, Archibald Sinclair, and James de Rothschild all categorically opposed partition.
In America, Louis D. Brandeis urged Zionists to oppose the partition plan with all their might. In a July 26, 1937 letter to Felix Frankfurter, his close friend and fellow Zionist, Brandeis related that Josiah Wedgwood, one of the pro-Zionist British party leaders who had attended the dinner with Weizmann, had said that “Weizmann was selling us for a mess of porridge, and that at a dinner held not many days before, several Christian members of Parliament had told [Weizmann] so in unmistakable language.”
In his 1949 autobiography, Weizmann would write that with the Peel Commission report, “Arab terrorism had won its first major victory,” having succeeded in getting the British to declare that the Mandate was unworkable. It was “hard to describe,” he wrote, “the heartsickness and bitterness of the Jews as they watched the larger Hitler terror engulf their kin in Europe, while the gates of Palestine were being shut as a concession to the Arabs.” In 1937, however, he believed the offer of Jewish state should be seized, even if it would be much smaller than the national home envisioned at the time of the Balfour Declaration.
In his address to the Twentieth Zionist Congress in Zurich, which opened three weeks after the Peel Commission report was issued, Weizmann rejected the commission’s specific plan but urged the 484 delegates to approve the idea of partition, which he called “a revolutionary proposal.” He told the delegates that “If the proposal opens a way [to a Jewish state], then I, who for some 40 years have done all that [lies within] me, who have given all to the movement, then I shall say Yes, and I trust that you will do likewise.” The ever-shrewd Ben-Gurion also supported partition, believing a small Jewish state could be expanded later, one way or another.
The ensuing debate was the most contentious since 1903, when the Sixth Zionist Congress had rejected Herzl’s proposal for a Jewish state in Uganda. The American delegation opposed partition, as did the Jews living in the Arab lands of the Middle East, as well as various delegates sympathetic to Jabotinsky. The Congress finally voted 300-158 in favor of a resolution directing its leaders “to resist any infringement of the rights of the Jewish people internationally guaranteed by the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate,” but expressing “the readiness of the Jewish people to reach a peaceful settlement with the Arabs of Palestine” and authorizing further negotiations on a partition plan. Implicitly, the Zionist movement had accepted a two-state solution.
As for the Arabs, they dismissed the Peel Commission report out of hand. They would not recognize any Jewish sovereignty whatsoever in Palestine, no matter how dwarfish the area. Arab violence continued for the next two years, until Britain issued a new “White Paper” in 1939, withdrawing its previous partition proposal and pledging, in a breathtaking breach of its Mandate obligation, to convert Palestine instead into a single Arab-majority state. In the hope of further mollifying the Arabs, the British proceeded to impose draconian new restrictions on Jewish immigration, promising to phase it out entirely, and severe restrictions on any future Jewish purchases of land.
Three months after the issuance of the White Paper, World War II broke out in Europe. During 1940, Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion each undertook a mission to America, seeking support for a Jewish army to join the fight against Hitler. For his part, Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Nazi Germany to discuss plans to bring the war to Palestine as soon as possible. In 1941, he reached a secret agreement with Hitler to work together in what they called a “common cause”: the elimination of the “Jewish element” in Palestine.
Following World War II, the Palestinian Arabs rejected a two-state solution once again in 1947 (UN Resolution 181), and then, even after the state of Israel’s creation, rejected it three times more: in July 2000 (Israel’s Camp David offer), in January 2001 (the Clinton parameters), and in September 2008 (the Olmert offer). Palestinian negotiators have long been instructed never to use the phrase “Jewish state,” “homeland for the Jewish people,” or any similar phase that might recognize Jewish sovereignty anywhere in historical Palestine.
In his 2016 address to the UN General Assembly, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas demanded that Britain apologize for the Balfour Declaration, and he reiterated that position in his address to the UN on September 25 of this year. He has repeatedly asserted (in 2011, 2014, and 2016) that he will “never” recognize a Jewish state.
Eighty years after the first proposal for a two-state solution, even “moderate” Palestinian Arab leaders still reject its basic premise. They want a Palestinian state, but not if the price is recognition of a Jewish state. On that issue the Palestinian position, to use the language of the Peel Commission report, “has not shifted by an inch.”