by Barry Rubin
First published december 22, 2009, A Palestinian Arab Sate in 1939.
The greatest opportunity ever to prevent Israel’s creation and instead make the entire land a Palestinian Arab state took place in 1939, specifically on May 17, 1939, seventy years ago.
What is truly remarkable is that the debate at that time and on that specific day was almost precisely identical to the situation on the day you’re reading this article. If you can understand these events, it is possible to comprehend why the conflict has ended this long with no end in sight.
Let’s set the scene. The British knew that another war was on the horizon with Germany and Italy ready to disrupt their control of the Mediterranean and Middle East. Fearful of Arab revolts in alliance with their fascist enemies, London was ready to give lots of concessions to them.
On the Palestine issue, the British government was so desperate that it offered an amazing deal. A single Palestine state (the British had conceded to Arab opposition over the word “federal”) would be established in ten years with an Arab majority. Land sales to Jews would be prohibited in most of the country and Jewish immigration would be strictly limited. If the Arabs had agreed, Israel would never have been established. As it was, the British implemented the immigration restrictions any way, dooming hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe to horrible deaths.
But the Arabs in Palestine rejected the proposed political deal to put them in charge of the government with a timetable for turning the country over to them. They walked out of negotiations with Britain, ostensibly over the ten-year waiting period. Most importantly, they believed that their goals could be achieved more quickly and completely through a combination of an Arab uprising and an Axis military victory in the coming war.
The Egyptian government thought this was a terrible mistake and urged the Palestinian Arabs to make the deal. On May 17, Egyptian Prime Minister Muhammad Mahmoud and Ali Mahir, who would be the next one to hold that job, met the Palestinian Arab delegation to try to talk them into changing their minds.
Mahir told them that they should accept the British plan. The reason the Jews were so much against it, he explained, was that it was so favorable to the Arab side. Most important of all, it was a tremendous opportunity: the best deal the Arabs could obtain. Cooperation with Britain was better than being,
At the mercy of the Jews. Once the Palestinian Arabs had a state, sympathetic Arab regimes would help them ensure their total control.
Getting an independent state, Mahir continued, required training administrators, preparing for defense, and achieving
legitimacy on the international scene. A transitional period, Mahir suggested might do the same for the Arabs. The best way to win was to advance step by step. It was like a war in which,
One army is vacating some of its front trenches . Would you refrain from jumping into them and occupying them?
But like a Greek chorus, the Palestinian representatives retorted,
If we accept, the revolution will end.
So Mahir tried again to explain reality to them.
Do you believe, he asked,
that Great Britain is unable to crush your revolution, with all its modern satanic war inventions? Is it not better for you to come nearer to the British authorities and get them to forsake the Jews? Then the Arabs wouldn’t have to ask London to stop Jewish immigration, they’d control it themselves and not even a single Jew could enter the country. The Arabs would control key positions in the government and after a few years in a parliament as well.
Next Mahmoud weighed in with his arguments. If they made a deal right now, he insisted, the Palestine Arabs could have their way but soon there would be a war and they would be in a weaker position. Britain would lose patience and invoke martial law. Arab countries would be too involved with their own problems to help. In fact, Mahmoud and Mahir could not have been unaware that the Arab revolt which had begun two years earlier, was being stamped out by a British offensive and was almost dead.
Again the Palestine Arabs said
When the revolt started, we had aims in view to attain. We cannot now tell our people, Stop the revolution because we got some high posts ….
You can tell your people, Mahir answered,
that you shall be able to control your country’s government; to stop persecution, deportations, and harsh measures by the British
You could set Palestine’s budget, limit the Jewish population to one-third, and point to the Arab governments advice for your accepting the deal. The Palestine Arabs would not even have to sign anything, but would merely have to agree to cooperate with the White Paper. None of his arguments made any headway.
There can be no doubt that the 1939 White Paper did go a very long way toward satisfying Arab demands. If they had agreed, taken over much of the government, and worked closely with the British, there never would have been a partition and the Palestine Arabs would almost certainly have won. Instead, their leaders—including Amin al-Husseini—collaborated with the Germans against the British. Nothing constructive was done by them, no real preparation for statehood, no cooperation with the British or the White Paper framework. In 1948, they would make the same mistake and reject getting a state of their own. And many times thereafter.
Today, the Egyptian government is still trying to explain reality to the Palestinians. They are still rejecting anything short of everything. They have largely thrown away the opportunity to build an effective and popular government on the basis of the 1993 Oslo agreement. They said
no at Camp David and to the Clinton plan in 2000.
Indeed, the philosophical and strategic lines of argument have basically changed not at all since 1939, almost down to the smallest detail.
About the Author:
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).