Author, “Palestine 1936”
In 1937, more than a decade before Israel’s birth, the British authorities governing Palestine proposed splitting the Holy Land in two. Had they succeeded, that entire Middle East conflict may have developed differently. Indeed, it might not have developed at all.
A year earlier, in spring 1936, Palestine had erupted in rebellion – the Great Arab Revolt – targeting both the local Jewish community and representatives of the British Mandate that for two decades had midwifed the Zionist project. Within months the Crown appointed a Royal Commission to probe the causes of Palestine’s first “Intifada.”
The commission – known as the Peel Commission after its chairman, Lord Robert Peel – spent months in Palestine and interviewed dozens of witnesses. It spoke to Zionist leaders, British administrators, and Arab grandees including Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who would later gain infamy as a Nazi ally in World War II. The 400-page report that it produced was a rare feat: a paper both pragmatic and elegant, meticulous and readable. But it is remembered by history mostly for its last 14 pages, in which commissioners recommend a drastic solution to the burgeoning Jewish-Arab dispute: Separation.
“The disease is so deep-rooted that, in our firm conviction, the only hope of a cure lies in a surgical operation,” they wrote. “Partition seems to offer at least a chance of ultimate peace. We can see none in any other plan.”
The guiding principle was that areas of Zionist-owned land should go to the Jews, most of the rest to the Arabs. For the Jews that meant an N-shaped swath starting just south of Tel Aviv and extending to Haifa, then southeast across the Jezreel Valley and north again along the upper Jordan River to the Galilee panhandle. As a sweetener for the Jews, it also granted them the Galilee – at the time, overwhelmingly Arab – based on their historic ties to Safed and Tiberias and to allow future “population growth.” Britain would retain Palestine’s holiest terrain – Jerusalem and Bethlehem – with a passage to the sea just north of Jaffa (the city itself would join the Arab state).
The world’s preeminent power now officially backed a two-state solution to the quarrel over the Promised Land.
The 1937 proposal prompted raucous debate among the Yishuv – Palestine’s Mandate-era Jewish community. Many, including members of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s right-wing Revisionist Zionists, saw a betrayal – Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration had promised a “Jewish national home in Palestine,” not just a small slice of it. But the Zionist leaders who mattered most – David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, heads of the Jewish Agency and world Zionist Organization respectively – cast their lot with partition. They too grumbled over the Jewish state’s diminutive dimensions, but with the Fascist threat looming over their brethren in Europe, they believed the chance must be seized even if their polity were the size of a “tablecloth.”
Palestine’s Arabs, unsurprisingly, felt more betrayed still. Throughout the 1930s their Arab neighbors in Egypt, Syria and Iraq had been steadily moving from colonialism toward independence; only in Palestine, it seemed, were Arab aspirations not just stalled but under mortal threat by Britain’s commitment to Zionism. A line in the report suggesting the prospect of a population transfer (which the British publicly disavowed shortly after) appeared to confirm their worst fears of imperialist designs for their homeland.
And yet there was also a significant number of influential Arabs who recognized that the Jewish presence in Palestine – already nearing a third of the population – was an established fact, and that separation was the best means to halt Zionism’s rapid advance. The powerful Nashashibi family – which led the opposition camp to the mufti – held that view, as did its allied mayors in Jaffa and Haifa, and in Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarem – today hubs of Palestinian militancy in the West Bank. All of them told the British privately that they accepted the plan. Jerusalem Mayor Hussein Khalidi – an independent, neither openly aligned with the mufti or the opposition – felt the same.
So did the editor of Jaffa’s influential Arab-nationalist newspaper Filastin, and – with reservations – the Arab-nationalist intellectuals Musa Alami and George Antonius. Abdullah, the Hashemite emir of Transjordan, backed partition (though he stood to gain politically and financially from it), as did the leaders of Syria’s main nationalist movement the National Bloc. Lebanon’s president, a Christian anxious over his own minority’s fate in a Muslim-majority region, was so moved that he toasted Weizmann as “the first president of the future Jewish state!”
But in the end it was up to the one man in Arab Palestine whose word mattered above all: the grand mufti. The Jews, he said, were: “a minority of intruders… whose political connections therewith had been severed for almost 2,000 years.” The supposedly “surgical operation” would be fatal, as “an amputated limb dies even though the trunk with the vital organs may live.” The whole project was “humiliating, impracticable and fraught with danger,” and would rank among the catastrophes of Arab history.
Erstwhile Arab backers of partition promptly fell in line, denying their previous support. The assassination of a string of Arab moderates – universally attributed to the mufti’s circles – made clear the risk of falling out of line. Hajj Amin, wanted by the British for stoking the flames of violence, moved into the plaza around Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, redoubled his ties to Hitler and would soon flee the country altogether.
The British – led by skeptics in the Foreign Office – walked back the partition policy over subsequent months, and by the following year it was a dead letter. Their 1939 White Paper codified the turnaround, severely limiting Jewish immigration, explicitly keeping the Jews a minority and dangling the prospect of an independent, Arab-majority Palestine within five years. World War II intervened, and the final reckoning between Jews and Arabs would ultimately wait until nearly a decade later – what Israelis would remember as their War of Independence, and the Palestinians as the Nakba of their defeat, dispossession, and dispersal.
What might have been
The Peel plan of 1937 served as the ideological template for all later partition schemes – from the UN’s exactly a decade later, through the Clinton Parameters, the Trump “deal of the century,” and the official policy of the Biden administration. The inevitable question arises: How would history have unfolded had this original “two-state solution” succeeded? Might everything have been different?
Many years later, as Israel’s prime minister, Ben-Gurion argued that had that original plan succeeded, “the six million Jews in Europe would not have been exterminated. Most of them would have been alive in Palestine.”
It is a damning allegation, but ultimately unpersuasive. Palestine of the late 1930s and early 1940s was unequipped to absorb millions of immigrants at once – much less so the sliver of the country that Peel had offered the Zionists. Be that as it may, his successor Golda Meir’s claim that “hundreds of thousands of Jews – perhaps many more” could have been saved is far more difficult to deny.
And what of the Palestinians? It would be naïve to expect them to have celebrated the proposal at the time. To most of them, then as now, the land between the “river and the sea” is their own indivisible patrimony. Nonetheless, with the benefit of hindsight, and in light of all the Palestinians have endured since, does cutting a deal with Zionism in 1937, however painful, not look like it would have been a vastly superior choice?
A two-state solution in 1937 would have meant there would be no need for the 60 Palestinian refugee camps that still, to this day, dot the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Gaza and its environs – now one of the world’s most densely-populated territories, with 1.2 million refugees and their descendants – would be part of the Arab state comprising the bulk of historic Palestine, no different than Jaffa, Hebron or Nablus.
And though history rarely rests on the shoulders of one person, one nonetheless wonders what could have been had someone else – someone more moderate than Hajj Amin al-Husseini – been serving as grand mufti (on this the British are to blame, having hand-picked him in the 20s in one of the greatest blunders in the Holy Land’s history). Perhaps such a leader, after approving partition, might have wound up on the wrong end of an assassin’s gun. That was the fate that awaited Jordan’s Abdullah, felled by Palestinian gunmen after the 1948 war over rumors (likely true) that he planned to bury the hatchet with Zionism. That too was the end of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat after signing the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.
We will never know.
Yet one edifying lesson from the Palestine of the 1930s is that there were multiple crossroads at which different paths could have been taken. That Jews and Arabs were not fated for endless strife. And the fact that things could have gone differently in the past suggests they still can. Even now, in our dismal, blood-soaked present and our daunting, uncertain future.