Israel/Palestine: the 70% 70 year old solution

December 9, 2007

The problem of Israel/Palestine was solved 70 years ago. Amazing but at least arguably true. It was determined then that the establishment of two states within the land then known as Palestine was the only feasible or practicable way to resolve the murderous impasse between Arabs and Jews. Depressingly enough, that prospect seems as distant now as it must have been back then.

What has inspired this train of thought was a very interesting book I was reading over the weekend, Mandate Days, by A.J.Sherman, published ten years ago. Sherman based his book primarily on the hitherto unpublished private correspondence, records and diaries of British officers and other ranks deployed to Palestine between 1918 and 1948 to execute the Mandate with respect to Palestine conferred on Britain by the League of Nations following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

To my reading, Sherman is scrupulously fair, as unflinching about Jewish terrorism in the immediate post-WWII period as he is about Arab terrorism during the Arab Rebellion of 1936-39.

The Mandate, as is well known, was based on the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Over the years of the Mandatory Government, it became clear that it was impossible to reconcile the two wings of the Declaration: a national home for the Jews, and preservation of the rights of the indigenous Arabs. Yet Britain was bound by the Mandate to struggle for the achievement of both.

The British officers posted to Palestine to implement the Mandate saw clearly their task was impossible. The hatred between Jews and Arabs could, even then, be cut with a knife. It smouldered below the surface like an inextinguishable fuse.

The British didn’t care for the Zionists by much. Accustomed to the more amenable “natives” of India and Kenya (even if such existed only in their imaginations), they found the Jews — especially those born in Palestine — hard, brash, arrogant, pushy. Most of all, and quite unlike the Arabs, they lacked the proper spirit of deference. They didn’t know their place. To the upper-middle and upper classes of the Empire, effortlessly possessed of a sense of their own social and cultural superiority, this was both puzzling and offensive. In the words of Reader Bullard (see this post), the unintellectual, sport-loving British found a natural affinity with the Arabs, and reserved their distrust for the “intellectual, complicated Jew”. Sherman’s correspondents are almost universally pro-Arab.

From the first, the British on the ground tried to turn Palestine into the kind of colony they were familiar with, complete with hunts (for jackals!), parties, “at homes” and the endless social round. They seemed not to understand that the Mandate did not confer upon them imperial powers, but only administrative responsibilities.

For their part, the Zionist Jews were uninterested in becoming the subjects of Empire. They busied themselves, instead, with fulfilling their part of the Mandate — the construction of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. They bought land from absentee Arab landlords, usually domiciled in Damascus or Cairo, drained the swamps, rescued the sand dunes and, as even the British grudgingly recognised, really did make the deserts bloom. They built a state within a state, with its own schools, language (Hebrew), administrative machinery and taxation to fund their education and health infrastructures. Undoubtedly this was in preparation for the formal establishment of a Jewish state (as opposed to a mere “homeland”).

Meanwhile, the Arabs of Palestine too had their aspirations. Like Arabs elsewhere, they longed for national self-determination. This they had been promised by the British in return for their help in defeating their overlords, the Ottomans. By the late 1930’s, Syria and Iraq were on the verge of achieving it. But in Palestine, the terms of the Mandate made it impossible, for their land had, perforce, to accommodate a national home for the Jews. This the Palestinian Arabs hated above all else. They watched the increasing pace of Jewish immigration and land acquisition with fury and fear, as their land was sold from under them, and the remorseless logic of demographics foretold they would soon be a minority in their own land. The dream of self-determination would be gone like drifting smoke.

The British in Palestine, torn between pro-Zionist policy directives from Whitehall and a profound local conviction that both the Mandate and the Declaration upon which it was based it were profoundly mistaken and unworkable, tried hopelessly to keep the irreconcilable parties apart. Violence erupted throughout the 1920’s, with a series of massacres perpetrated against Jewish populations of Hebron and and other towns in 1929, and culminating in a serious, territory-wide uprising by the Arabs beginning in 1936, urged on by the anti-Semitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini.

It was then, in 1937, that the solution to Israel-Palestine was proposed: partition. Lord Peel was appointed to lead a Royal Commission into the causes of the Arab Rebellion. The Commission’s report is a model of impartiality, diligence, good sense and good governance. The summary of the report is here.

In short, Peel concluded that the Mandate had failed, that the differences between the peoples were irreconcilable, and that the only feasible solution was the establishment of two states, one for the Arabs, and one for the Jews.

The problem cannot be solved by giving either the Arabs or the Jews all they want. The answer to the question which of them in the end will govern Palestine must be Neither. No fair-minded statesman can think it right either that 400,000 Jews, whose entry into Palestine has been facilitated by the British Government and approved by the League of Nations, should be handed over to Arab rule, or that, if the Jews should become a majority, a million Arabs should be handed over to their rule. But while neither race can fairly rule all Palestine, each race might justly rule part of it.

Seventy years later, now as then, it remains the only solution. And seventy years later, now as then, the Jews accept it, and the Arabs do not.

Other highlights of the Peel Commission’s findings are below the fold. They’re rich in insight and well worth reading.

In order to obtain Arab support in the War, the British Government promised the Sherif of Mecca in 1915 that, in the event of an Allied victory, the greater part of the Arab provinces of the Turkish Empire would become independent. The Arabs understood that Palestine would be included in the sphere of independence.In order to obtain the support of World Jewry, the British Government in 1917 issued the Balfour Declaration. The Jews understood that, if the experiment of establishing a Jewish National Home succeeded and a sufficient number of Jews went to Palestine, the National Home might develop in course of time into a Jewish State.

The Jewish National Home is no longer an experiment. The growth of its population has been accompanied by political, social and economic developments along the lines laid down at the outset. The chief novelty is the urban and industrial development. The contrast between the modern democratic and primarily European character of the National Home and that of the Arab world around it is striking. The temper of the Home is strongly nationalist. There can be no question of fusion or assimilation between Jewish and Arab cultures. The National Home cannot be half-national.


Arab nationalism is as intense a force as Jewish. The Arab leaders’ demand for national self-government and the shutting down of the Jewish National Home has remained unchanged since 1929. Like Jewish nationalism, Arab nationalism is stimulated by the educational system and by the growth of the Youth Movement. It has also been greatly encouraged by the recent Anglo-Egyptian and Franco-Syrian Treaties.


The evidence submitted by the Arab and Jewish leaders respectively was directly conflicting and gave no hope of compromise.

The only solution of the problem put forward by the Arab Higher Committee was the immediate establishment of all independent Arab Government, which would deal with the 400,000 Jews now in Palestine as it thought fit. To that it is replied that belief in British good faith would not be strengthened anywhere in the world if the National Home were now surrendered to Arab rule.

The Jewish Agency and the Va’ad Leumi asserted that the problem would be solved if the Mandate were firmly applied in full accordance with Jewish claims: thus there should be no new restriction on immigration nor anything to prevent the Jewish population becoming in course of time a majority in Palestine. To that it is replied that such a policy could only be maintained by force and that neither British public opinion nor that of World Jewry is likely to commit itself to the recurrent use of force unless it is convinced that there is no other means by which justice can be done.

The shortage of land is due less to purchase by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population. The Arab claims that the Jews have obtained too large a proportion of good land cannot be maintained. Much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamps and uncultivated when it was bought.

The continuous impact of a highly intelligent and enterprising race backed by large financial resources on a comparatively poor, indigenous community, on a different cultural level, may produce in time serious reactions. The principle of economic absorptive capacity, meaning that considerations of economic capacity and these alone should determine immigration, is at present inadequate and ignores factors in the situation which wise statesmanship cannot disregard. Political, social and psychological factors should be taken into account. His Majesty’s Government should lay down a political high level of Jewish immigration. This high level should be fixed for the next five years at 12,000 per annum. The High Commissioner should be given discretion to admit immigrants up to this maximum figure, but subject always to the economic absorptive capacity of the country.

Tel Aviv has unique problems of its own caused by its phenomenal growth during the last five years. The objectives which the people of Tel Aviv have set before them in the way of social services are in themselves admirable, and the ratepayers have shown a commendable readiness to bear high rates for their realization. The town has been faced with, and to a considerable extent surmounted, exceptional difficulties without seriously impairing its financial position.

The Arabs of Palestine, it has been admitted, are as fit to govern themselves as the Arabs of Iraq or Syria. The Jews of Palestine are as fit to govern themselves as any organized and educated community in Europe. Yet, associated as they are under the Mandate, self-government is impracticable for both peoples. The Mandate cannot be fully implemented nor can it honourably terminate in the independence of an undivided Palestine unless the conflict between Arab and Jew can be composed.

The application to Palestine of the Mandate System in general and of the specific Mandate in particular implies the belief that the obligations thus undertaken towards the Arabs and the Jews respectively would prove in course of time to be mutually compatible owing to the conciliatory effect on the Palestinian Arabs of the material prosperity which Jewish immigration would bring in Palestine as a whole. That belief has not been justified, and there seems to be no hope of its being justified in the future.

An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. There is no common ground between them. Their national aspirations are incompatible. The Arabs desire to revive the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews desire to show what they can achieve when restored to the land in which the Jewish nation was born. Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.

As I said at the beginning, Lord Peel and his colleagues had the whole thing pegged seventy years ago.


One comment

  1. Yeah. Looking at some other conflicts of similar kind (North Ireland comes to mind), it need a few hundred years to come to a semblance of a settlement. Do we have these few hundred years, I wonder?

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