This is a year of multiple anniversaries for the Middle East. It is 100 years from the famous Balfour Declaration, in which a British government viewed”with favour” the emerging Zionist project for Jewish self- determination. It is also the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, when Israel conquered its belligerent Arab neighbours in a stunning display of military power, and 40 years from Sadat’s famous speech to the Knesset.
For those with longer memories, this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan, when a majority in the General Assembly voted to carve out a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine, a vote the Zionists accepted jubilantly and the Arab world unhesitatingly rejected. If the Arab world had shown some willingness to compromise, the Palestinians would today be celebrating 70 years of their respective state.
But many forget that 2017 also marks the 80th anniversary of the first major plan for the division of the Jewish home, known as the Peel Commission Report. Its failure should have taught western policymakers valuable lessons about the real causes of the impasse.
The Peel Commission arrived in Palestine during the Arab revolt that was then engulfing the country. The revolt was a campaign of unrelenting, murderous terror unleashed by the viscerally antisemitic Grand Mufti, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, and the Arab Higher Committee over which he presided.
The Commission, headed by the Viscount Peel, a former Secretary of State for India, was sent to examine the causes of the violence. It concluded that the ‘irrepressible conflict’ between the Arab and Jewish national movements necessitated only one outcome: the termination of the mandate and the partition of the land into an Arab and Jewish state, with a British controlled corridor between Jaffa and Jerusalem. An exchange of populations was proposed, involving the transfer of 225,000 Arabs and some 1,250 Jews.
The proposed Jewish state, separated into two parts, included the Jezreel Valley, the Galilee and much of the coastal plain but constituted less than one sixth of the country (and even that was less than one quarter of the original Palestine mandate). The Commission’s hope was that the plan would do “justice to the rights and aspirations of both the Arabs and the Jews” and bring “the inestimable boon of peace”.
The Peel proposal generated a fierce debate among Zionist leaders. At the 20th Zionist congress in Zurich, the principle of partition was backed though not the proposed borders of the Jewish state. In other words, two states would be accepted, provided that more favourable terms could be achieved.
What is striking, even today, is the sheer depth of Arab rejectionism, marked by the most intense hostility to the Zionist movement. Egypt’s Prime Minister, Nahas Pasha, said that his country “could not regard with equanimity the prospect of an independent Jewish state…” Both the Saudi King and the Iraqi prime minister denounced the partition proposals, with the latter declaring that any person who led a post-partition Palestine would “stab the Arab race in the heart” and “be regarded as an outcast throughout the Arab world”.
The Arab Higher Committee declared the proposals “incompatible with the justice promised by the British government” and called on neighbouring states to show unity in the face of such “injustice.” When the Mufti appeared before the Peel Commission to give evidence, he made it clear that Palestine had to be handed over to a sovereign Arab body, that such a body would not digest the country’s Jewish population and that Arab-Jewish cooperation was impossible. The Peel Commission expressed regret that “not once since 1919 has any Arab leader said that co-operation with the Jews was even possible”.
In many ways, peacemaking has come a long way since 1937. Israel has diplomatic relations with some Arab states, backed by peace treaties, and there is extensive co-operation with the Palestinians in some areas. Meanwhile, Israel and the PA have tried to negotiate a final settlement of the conflict in recent decades.