The 1947 Partition Plan: The Palestinians’ Biggest Missed Opportunity

Prof. Elie Podeh November 2017
Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

The United Nations Partition Plan, which marked its 70th anniversary on Wednesday, was rejected by the Arabs and the Palestinians. Everyone knows that. What is less well known is that not all the Arabs and Palestinians objected to the Partition Plan.

At least two Arab groups can be found that had an interest in the establishment of a Jewish state: Abdullah I, the king of Jordan, who reached a secret agreement with representatives of the Zionist movement about the division of the land of Mandatory Palestine between Jordan and the Jews; and the Maronite Christians in Lebanon who, as a Christian minority in Muslim surroundings, saw a shared fate with the Jews, which led to the signing of a secret agreement between the Maronite Patriarch and representatives of the Zionist movement in 1946.

Among the Palestinians who did not object to the partition were members of the Nashashibi family and its supporters, who were the rivals of the al-Husseini family that headed the most important Palestinian institutions. But at the moment of truth, all of these secret supporters on the Palestinian-Arab side disappeared, or more accurately, went silent. It seems they preferred to be swept along with the raging “street,” so as not to lose the legitimacy of their rule. The murders of and threats against those who cooperated with the Zionists also had an effect.

The Partition Plan decision was a historic opportunity to solve the conflict, for a number of reasons: The British decision to end the UN mandate promised that the local actors, the Palestinians and Jews, could fill the political vacuum it would create. Similar to the period after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, an opportunity to establish new facts on the ground was once again created; and the fact that the United Nations appointed a commission of inquiry to deal with the problem promised that the solution agreed upon would receive legitimacy from the international community.

For the Zionist movement the plan was especially attractive because it offered it most of the territory, even though the Palestinian population was twice as large and they owned most of the land. As far as the Palestinians were concerned, the plan may have been less attractive but it was the first time that an international institution proposed an independent state for them that was not tied to Jordan.

The Palestinian-Arab refusal to accept the Partition Plan was a mistake and also a missed opportunity because it was possible to implement the plan. Despite the internal Palestinian split and the declining influence of the former Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Husseini because of his collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, he remained the recognized and legitimate leader of the Palestinians and could have brought about acceptance of the plan.

If only Husseini had understood the changes that had occurred in the international arena and had learned the lessons of past Palestinian rejectionism (particularly in the case of the Peel Commission partition plan of 1937), the 1947 Partition Plan would have been adopted by the international community – and could possibly have prevented the war. It was the Palestinians’ biggest missed opportunity in history.

Palestinian historians rarely repent their sin of missing opportunities. Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi wrote in an article in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Partition Plan: “No, the UN 1947 partition was not the legal, moral, fair, balanced, pragmatic, practicable ‘compromise’ formula that it is made out to be.” Khalidi wondered how fair a plan could be if over half the territory was given to the Jews, who numbered less than a third of the population and owned only 7 percent of the land; while the Arab majority owned most of the land and received only 45 percent of the territory.

In comparison, Philip Mattar, a Palestinian-American who wrote a biography of Husseini, claimed the Mufti’s policy was a failure and he unintentionally contributed to the dispossession of the Palestinians. While Israeli-Palestinian historian Mustafa Kabha wrote in an article marking the 60th anniversary of the Partition Plan that Husseini did not succeed in understanding the important change that occurred in the global and regional political situation.

Historian Ilan Pappe, who is usually known for his support of the Palestinian side, also wrote about Husseini’s lack of pragmatism and inability to seize a historical opportunity. Pappe said too that Husseini did not understand that instead of rejecting the plan out of hand, it would have been better for the Palestinians to be a party to the arrangement, even if only a minimal one.

In backrooms and off the record, Palestinians are willing to admit the mistake they made in rejecting the 1947 Partition Plan. In the talks between Israel and the Palestinians held at Camp David in 2000, the Palestinians feared they might once again be missing out on an opportunity in the same way they missed out in 1947. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, took a major step when he admitted in an interview in 2011 that the Palestinians made a mistake when they rejected the Partition Plan. He added that nevertheless they should not be punished for this mistake.

The Palestinian recognition of the historic mistake of rejecting the UN Partition Plan is the first step on the road to accepting a reduced size partition plan, based on the May 1967 borders. Not all the Palestinians are willing to do so.

The problem is that the opposite process is underway on the Israeli side: More and more Jews have abandoned the partition plan, whether for ideological reasons or out of despair. The 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan is an opportunity to remember that even if the borders of the partition have changed, the concept of partition is still valid.

(originally published in Haaretz)

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