Secrets and Lies: Scenes From the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine

Two states for two peoples, one state for both peoples or perhaps only a Jewish state or an Arab one? Behind the scenes of the Partition Plan the United Nations approved 72 years ago, which paved the way for Israel’s establishment, there was a lively trade in ideas and plans that were thrown into the ring but ultimately left on the cutting room floor of history.

In this case, that floor is some 9,000 kilometers from Jerusalem, in the UN archive in New York. Thousands of documents — letters, memoranda and meeting minutes that lay unexamined for decades offer a glimpse into one of Zionism’s foundational moments: the proceedings of the UN Special Committee on Palestine, which was appointed to decide the land’s fate in 1947 and produced the Partition Plan.

Elad Ben-Dror, the head of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle East Studies, spent many hours poring through those documents in an attempt to follow the debates among committee members that preceded the historic recommendation. His doctoral dissertation, which has just been published in Hebrew under the title “The Road to November 29 – UNSCOP and the Beginnings of UN Involvement in the Arab-Israeli Conflict" (Ben-Zvi Institute), offers fascinating material.

One of his discoveries is that the committee chairman and some of its members opposed the plan to divide the land into two states. The chairman, Emil Sandstrom of Sweden, thought the territory’s educated Arab population was anti-Semitic, so he proposed a different solution — establishing a Jewish state in part of the land while annexing the remainder to Jordan, rather than establishing a separate, independent Arab state.

“The committee later sought to cover up this disagreement,” Ben-Dror said. “But the issue comes up clearly in the reports I read.”

According to Ben-Dror, Sandstrom “didn’t believe in the chances for Jewish-Arab cooperation,” and that is also apparently why he objected to the idea of one state for two peoples. In addition, the UNSCOP chairman thought the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea could not support two states economically; he said the economic problems would have to be solved in another way, though he didn’t elaborate.

David Ben Gurion testifying before the UNSCOP members in Jerusalem. Hans Pinn / GPO

It was while he was trying to determine what this other way was that Ben-Dror discovered Sandstrom’s view that the areas the Partition Plan assigned to an Arab state should instead be annexed to Jordan and made a district or province of that kingdom.