Archive for category Sandbox

Two more seconds from “The Crown”

On Thursday, Mosaic Magazine published my piece on the treatment of the Suez cover-up in the hit Netflix series The Crown. I didn’t write much about the collusion itself—the story has been told countless times—but I focused on the aftermath. Anthony Eden didn’t just lie about the collusion, he sought to destroy the evidence for it—to be precise, the Sèvres Protocol, drawn up among Britain, France, and Israel at the insistence of David Ben-Gurion. When Eden mentions its existence to the Queen (unlikely; see my piece), The Crown cuts away to the protocol being burned by an unseen hand. But Ben-Gurion had put away another copy in his vest pocket—and so put Eden there as well.

The ten-person fact team of The Crown put a lot of thought into these cutaways. Here’s another example. While Eden describes the Sèvres Protocol to the Queen, we see a clacking typewriter. For a flash of less than a second, we even see the typebars from above.

French typewriterNow the Sèvres Protocol was typed in French. And if you capture this fleeting image, you’ll see that the typewriter is a French one. How so? On an English keyboard, the number 7 shares a key with the ampersand (&). On a French keyboard, the 7 shares a key with the letter e under a grave accent (è). So someone at The Crown went to the trouble of finding a French typewriter, because the Sèvres Protocol was typed in French, in France. I may be the only viewer who’s noticed this—and yet someone on the fact team of The Crown thought it was an important detail that the show absolutely had to get right.

But the remarkable thing about The Crown is that within the space of a few moments, it can be fanatically faithful to some arcane detail, and then totally disregard a much more significant one.

So, when Eden begins to admit the collusion to the Queen, there’s a cutaway to British, French, and Israeli negotiators arriving at what Eden calls “a small village on the outskirts of Paris”—that would be the suburb of Sèvres—and entering a château to conclude their secret deal. The stand-in used by the filmmakers is the imposing Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, a Disneyesque pile built by one of the Rothschilds to resemble a famed Loire château. (For the frame, see illustration, top.)

chateau versus villaThis is a disappointing choice. The French hosts convened the negotiation in a modest villa (illustration, bottom). This house had great symbolic significance. It was the family home of a young Frenchman who, in 1942, assassinated Admiral François Darlan, a Vichy collaborator second only to Pétain. The young man, Fernand Bonnier (de La Chapelle), was summarily executed. During the Nazi occupation, Resistance members used the place as a safe house. They included the French minister of defense in 1956, Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury.

Mordechai Bar-On, Israel’s note-taker at the meeting, explained that for the French negotiators, who were almost all veterans of the Resistance, the villa stood for

the resolve and courage they deemed to be their heritage. During the Suez crisis the French leaders, as well as Anthony Eden’s group, compared President Nasser of Egypt with Hitler or Mussolini. They referred often to the cowardly submission to Hitler’s demands over Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938. The living room of the villa, where most of the meetings took place, held a prominent reminder of the need to resist arbitrary dictators who encroached on the interests of the free world: a bust on the mantelpiece of the young Bonnier de La Chapelle, flanked by two candlesticks and surrounded by flowers.

Fernand’s room in the villa was kept exactly as he left it.

The other Israeli participants, in their memoirs, could not but comment on the deep symbolism of the venue. This world-shaking secret pact was negotiated in the living room of a Resistance safe house, before a shrine to a martyr! The setting inspired righteous moral conviction. Alas, The Crown, preferring to locate the negotiation in a luxurious fantasy castle, misses that entirely.

Now at this point, I could sink into philosophical reflection. It’s impossible to reconstruct or reenact the past; it’s all an approximation. So at what level of resolution should the filmmaker attempt it? And with what degree of consistency? Is it acceptable to get the French typewriter exactly right, but get the French villa exactly wrong? Which details enhance meaning, and which only add verisimilitude? And how much distance is admissible between known fact and its representation, before history becomes “fake”?

But I won’t go there. As Robert Lacey, historical adviser to The Crown, openly admits, the show includes “outright invention—what you could call dramatic license, or as I would prefer to put it, dramatic underlining.” (Underlining!) In other words, dear viewer, The Crown shifts the burden of determining the historicity of events to you. You must rush to Google and Wikipedia if you wish not only to be entertained, but to be educated.

Some people are worried you won’t bother. Hugo Vickers, a royal historian who’s written a quick book on fact and fiction in The Crown, is one of them: “I do not approve of The Crown because it depicts real people in situations which are partly true and partly false; but unfortunately most viewers take it all as gospel truth.”

It’s hard to argue with that, but as the New York Times reviewer has written, “No one’s really watching The Crown for the stories that made it into history textbooks.” Anyway, the industry of which The Crown forms a part is flourishing and profitable, so sniffing one’s disapproval is a losing proposition. It’s probably best to see each such production as an opportunity for critics to show a wider public how history is best practiced.

I want to end this addendum by emphasizing how much my piece owes to Mordechai Bar-On, the last surviving Israeli participant of the Sèvres negotiations. As I mentioned, he took Israel’s notes at the meetings, and he has used them several times to produce detailed and knowing accounts of the proceedings. This meticulous chronicler stands head and shoulders above any other witness. He’s now 89, and while I studied everything he wrote on the subject, in English and Hebrew, I still wanted him to see the piece before publication. He did, and while I alone am responsible for it, I’m gratified that he found no fault with it.

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Kept secret from “The Crown”?

Suez 1956Have you seen (or binge-watched) the Netflix series The Crown? And wondered whether this conversation or that reenactment is “true” to the historical record? For example, did British prime minister Anthony Eden really hope to keep Queen Elizabeth II in the dark about Suez? (He almost does just that in The Crown.) And why, when he comes clean to her about the secret “collusion” with Israel and France, are we shown a lighter setting fire to a document? I tell the secret-within-the-secret, of the cover-up, and how David Ben-Gurion kept it—and used it.

“How True is The Crown on the Suez Cover-Up?” appears at Mosaic Magazine. Read here.

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A defense treaty between the US and Israel? Just say no

This is a response to an essay by Charles Freilich on U.S.-Israeli relations, published in Mosaic Magazine.

Trump and NetanyahuCharles Freilich has produced an astute and savvy analysis of the forces driving the U.S.-Israel relationship. It’s no surprise: all who know him regard him as one of the most thoughtful (and critical) students of Israeli decision-making, and his writing is a model of care and restraint.

But the reader encountering Freilich for the first time is bound to be confused, because his major operative conclusion seems at odds with his analysis. After explaining at length how it would best serve Israel to be less dependent on the United States, he then proposes that it strive to conclude a formal defense treaty with that same United States. Having noted that the stature of the United States in the Middle East “is at its nadir,” he urges Israel to “cement” its understandings with the waning superpower. What gives?

The explicit rationale offered by Freilich is that such a treaty would be valuable to Israel in deterring Iran. Indeed, he writes, it “might prove to be the only partially effective response to a nuclear Iran.” If that were the case, such a treaty would be an existential necessity. But I find it improbable that Freilich really believes this, because in many other op-eds and interviews he’s asserted the opposite: that Israel is perfectly capable of independently deterring Iran, were that country to cross the nuclear threshold. “Israel’s own deterrence should suffice,” he has written. If so, a defense treaty with the United States would add no value to Israeli deterrence of Iran, and so would be totally unnecessary.

Then there are threats that fall short of the nuclear. But Israel, as Freilich knows, is capable of dealing with these threats on its own, and when its estimate of such threats differs from Washington’s, it presently has the leeway to chart its own course of action. Even Freilich is reluctant to sacrifice this freedom, however infrequently Israel exercises it. That’s why he writes that “a treaty could be crafted that would explicitly not apply to cases of low- to medium-level threats and hostilities.”

So if a treaty isn’t necessary to deter high-level threats, and wouldn’t apply to medium- and low-level threats, just what would it add? I could profess to be puzzled, but I’m not. That’s because I’m an avid reader of everything Freilich writes, so I hope he won’t object if I put his Mosaic essay in a broader context.

Elsewhere Freilich has argued consistently that Israel is headed for perdition if it doesn’t separate from the Palestinians. To achieve that separation, he has written, “Israel will have to agree to withdraw from virtually all of the territory [of the West Bank], other than limited land swaps, to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and to divide Jerusalem.” Since there is no Palestinian partner to an agreement, Israel should work to “keep the two-state solution alive” by the transfer of additional territory to the Palestinians “and above all [by] a halt to settlements outside the ‘blocs’ and [by] provision of incentives to settlers to begin ‘coming home,’ even without a final settlement.” Eventually, Israel will have to be prepared “to move the 100,000 settlers who live outside the blocs.” Unless Israel does so, it will be headed down a one-way street to a binational state—if it hasn’t turned that corner already.

Why is this relevant to Freilich’s essay on U.S.-Israeli relations? Because it is his view that no agreement with the Palestinians will ever be reached without the United States. “Peace will be achieved, if at all, only with American assistance.” And the only way for the United States to achieve results is “to confront both sides and ‘crack heads.’” Freilich doesn’t say this in his Mosaic essay, but he’s said it elsewhere, and it explains his otherwise most puzzling proposal that Israel should seek a formal treaty with the United States.

The explanation is made explicit in this crucial passage:

A defense treaty might constitute the kind of security assurance and strategic “carrot” that could increase the willingness of a highly skeptical Israeli electorate to accept the risks, and dramatic concessions, necessary for peace with the Palestinians.

This sentence appears in an earlier iteration of Freilich’s Mosaic essay. It was titled “How Long Could Israel Survive Without America?” and was published last July in Newsweek. The sentence reveals that the real significance of the defense treaty isn’t its contribution to Israel’s security. Rather, the treaty fits into a future public-relations strategy for wooing the Israeli center into concessions, so that Israelis won’t entirely recoil when the Americans start “cracking heads.” It’s the carrot to accompany the stick, something a future Israeli prime minister can dangle as compensation when time is ripe for the next big push for “peace.”

This linkage of the defense treaty to the Palestinian issue is, however, completely missing from the Mosaic essay, and that has the effect of making Freilich’s entire proposal nonsensical. For if you think that now is the time for Israel to assert its independence vis-à-vis the United States, and if you argue, as Freilich does, that Israel should even give up U.S. military assistance, why would you argue for a defense treaty, which would only shackle Israel even more tightly to the United States? The seeming contradiction is resolved as soon as the missing rationale is restored. The treaty has nothing to do with Israel’s real security needs. It’s the psychological part of the compensation package a future Israeli government will need, when it prepares to divide Jerusalem and turn 100,000 settlers out of their homes so that they can “come home.”

Let’s give Israel’s electorate more credit: they know that a defense treaty wouldn’t add substantially to Israeli security. And Freilich anticipates this by making another argument: a treaty may not add to Israel’s security, but its absence could subtract from it. Why?

Because, he answers, U.S.-Israel relations may have peaked, and, absent a treaty, U.S. support for Israel might slip. Freilich emphasizes the erosion of support for Israel on the left end of the American political spectrum, before making this argument: “A defense treaty would symbolize and cement the ‘special relationship’ at a time when signs indicate it may not continue to be as deep as it is now.” By constituting “a binding commitment to Israel’s security,” a treaty would “ensure the ongoing availability of weapons, remove any residual limitations on the supply of arms and technologies, and assure Israel’s long-term qualitative military edge”—even if the relationship goes from “deep” to shallow.

Freilich says a treaty would “cement” the relationship; another common expression is “lock in.” Robert Danin, a former U.S. diplomat and negotiator, used just that phrase in a 2016 Foreign Affairs article: Israel and the United States could

drift apart as each undergoes demographic, political, and social changes. This may be happening already. . . . There is no guarantee that the strong pro-Israel consensus that has long been a bipartisan feature of U.S. politics will endure forever. Now is therefore the time for Israel to lock in the existing benefits of its relationship with Washington.

So we are supposed to believe that even if support for Israel in America were to erode away, the United States would continue to “pay out,” as if a defense treaty were a Treasury bill.

This is a charmingly naïve approach to American foreign policy. In the vast spectrum of promises of all kinds issued by the United States, the T-bill is the most reliable; the foreign treaty is the least. You can “lock in” an interest rate for 30 years and sleep soundly. Sign a treaty with the United States? Don’t close your eyes for a moment.

It’s not that the United States is less reliable than other nations. It’s that interests aren’t interest rates, and when they shift (or the perception of them shifts), no treaty in the world can hold up under the stress. If the assessment in Jerusalem is that the United States is going to drift away from Israel, the last thing Israelis should want is a defense treaty. Israel would end up imploring some future administration to keep commitments it would rather forget, and for which there’s dwindling public support.

Given Freilich’s own doubts about the stability of American politics and policy, it’s remarkable he continues to propose this. He has called Donald Trump “probably the most ill-suited president ever elected in American history, glaringly incompetent, a danger to the American people and to the world.” The American president, he has written, “is motivated by fleeting political and personal gain, rather than deep strategic thought.”

If one believes this, why would one continue to advocate a defense treaty with a polity whose electorate has shown itself capable of putting such a “dangerous” man at the helm? Perhaps the rules of American politics have changed? Does Israel want to be handcuffed to a polarized and weakened power? Don’t misunderstand me: it’s not I who’ve passed this judgment on the Trump administration. But if I had, I wouldn’t be pressing for a defense treaty with a state whose foreign policy has just fallen unexpectedly into “dangerous” hands and might easily do so again.

Freilich has argued that it would be a betrayal of Zionism were the Jews to become a minority in their own state. I think he’s right. But I also think it would be a betrayal of Zionism if the only sovereign Jewish state were to become a satrapy. I agree fully with Freilich: Israel’s independence has eroded, and it must work systematically to restore its freedom of maneuver. But a U.S.-Israel defense treaty would be precisely the wrong way to go about it.

• See the original response at Mosaic Magazine, right here.

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The fantasy of an international Jerusalem

This article first appeared at Mosaic Magazine, here.

In the uproar over President Trump’s announcement of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, one constant refrain has been the insistence that, by longstanding international consensus, the city’s status has yet to be decided. In the portentous words of the recent UN General Assembly resolution protesting the American action, “Jerusalem is a final-status issue to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant United Nations resolutions.”

The most “relevant” of those prior resolutions was the November 1947 resolution proposing partition of Palestine and envisaging, in addition to two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish, an entirely separate status for Jerusalem as a city belonging to no state but instead administered by a “special international regime.”

One might have thought that the wholesale Arab rejection of the entire partition plan, in all of its parts, would also have put paid to the idea of an internationalized Jerusalem. Evidently, however, this fantasy is too convenient to lie dormant forever.

That is why it’s useful to know that, almost exactly three decades before the 1947 UN plan, internationalization of Jerusalem was killed—and killed decisively. Who killed it? Thereby hangs a tale, but here is a hint: it was neither the Arabs, nor the Jews.

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Two-and-a-half weeks ago, Jerusalem marked the 100th anniversary of the surrender of the city to British General Edmund Allenby. On December 11, 1917, Allenby crowned his military success in wresting Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks and their German ally in a ceremony that resonates to this day.

In a show of seeming humility, Allenby entered the city’s Jaffa Gate on foot, without flags or musical fanfare. Mounting the platform at the entrance to the Citadel (the Tower of David), he then read a straightforward proclamation: the city would be placed under martial law, and the status quo in regard to the holy places would remain in place. After shaking hands with a selection of Jerusalem’s notables, he departed, having spent all of a quarter-hour in the city.

The Illustrated London News carried a photograph, later famous, of Allenby striding on foot into Jerusalem; it depicted the scene as the conqueror’s “simple and reverent entry into Jerusalem.” In fact, the photo op had been carefully stage-managed to create a propaganda point against the German enemy. Kaiser Wilhelm II, upon visiting Jerusalem in 1898, had entered on a white steed, banners flying. So, three weeks before Allenby arrived there, he received this instruction from his superior, General William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff:

In the event of JERUSALEM being occupied, it would be of considerable political importance if you, on officially entering the city, dismount at the city gate and enter on foot. German emperor rode in and the saying went ’round [that] “a better man than he walked.” Advantage of contrast in conduct will be obvious.

It was obvious indeed, and well-documented in British propaganda photos and films. This is why, even now, the victors’ procession and Allenby’s declaration take pride of place in the memory of that December 1917 day. Two weeks ago in the Old City of Jerusalem, before an enthusiastic audience of hundreds, both the procession and the proclamation were reenacted.

But another event also took place on that same day in 1917, away from the cameras but just as noteworthy. Indeed, that second event offers the best explanation for why internationalization of Jerusalem never stood a chance in 1947, or at any time since.

When Jerusalem fell, the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 was still in force. That agreement, for the partition of the Ottoman empire, had been reached by the major Allied powers: Britain, France, and Russia. Because of the October Revolution, just weeks before Jerusalem’s capture, Russia had dropped out, but that still left Britain and France (as well as Italy, which jumped late into the alliance).

Since Britain and France both laid claim to Palestine, and wanted to forestall a clash in advance of its conquest, they had decided to share it. By agreement, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and the zone between them were to have an “international administration,” the form of which would be decided through Allied consultation. Sykes-Picot was thus the very first plan for the internationalization of Jerusalem.

But as the war progressed in Palestine, British imperial forces did nearly all of the fighting and dying in battle against the Turks. Lloyd George, the British prime minister, recoiled at the idea of sharing a British conquest with the French. In April 1917, he told the British ambassador to Paris that “the French will have to accept our protectorate; we shall be there by conquest and shall remain.”

The French, however, were just as determined to assert their rights under the Sykes-Picot accord. And so, when the victors’ procession entered Jerusalem on December 11, not only did it include a small French military contingent. It included François Georges-Picot, the French diplomat who had negotiated the agreement.

Picot had just been named by his government as “High Commissioner of the French Republic in the Occupied Territories of Palestine and Syria.” He also had precise instructions from the French prime minister: “You will have to organize the occupied territories so as to ensure France an equal footing to that of England.” In November 1917, Picot proceeded to remind Allenby’s political officer, Brigadier General Gilbert Clayton, of these facts.

“[O]ver a year ago,” Clayton would report Picot as saying, “it was agreed between the British and French governments that, pending the final settlement of the peace terms, any conquered portions of Palestine should be jointly administered.” Moreover, Clayton added, Picot himself operated “in the full conviction that he was to be the French representative in a joint Anglo-French provisional administration which was to govern occupied enemy territory in Palestine until the end of the war—when some sort of international arrangement would be made.”

That is why Picot had set off for Jerusalem on the coattails of Allenby’s victorious army. But Allenby also had his orders. Chief of Staff Robertson had instructed him two weeks earlier that he must “not entertain any ideas of joint administration.” The way around the French was to keep Jerusalem and the rest of the country under a military regime as long as the war lasted. Since Allenby was the commander-in-chief, military rule meant Allenby’s own rule, exercised through any military governors he might appoint.

And that’s just what Allenby announced in his famous proclamation on the steps of the Tower of David. Jerusalem, he told the assembled crowd, had been occupied “by my forces. I therefore here and now proclaim it to be under Martial Law, under which form of administration it will remain so long as military considerations make it necessary.”

But just what did this mean? And did it exclude the French? After the ceremony adjourned in Jerusalem, Allenby, Picot, and the other chief participants retired to lunch at military headquarters just outside the city, near Ein Karem. Major T.E. Lawrence (that is, “Lawrence of Arabia”) attended as well, having come up from Aqaba at Allenby’s bidding. In his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence described the scene:

On us fell a short space of quiet, to be shattered by Monsieur Picot, the French political representative permitted by Allenby to march beside Clayton in the entry, who said in his fluting voice: “And tomorrow, my dear general, I will take the necessary steps to set up civil government in this town.”

It was the bravest word on record; a silence followed, as when they opened the seventh seal in heaven. Salad, chicken mayonnaise, and foie-gras sandwiches hung in our wet mouths unmunched, while we turned to Allenby and gaped. Even he seemed for the moment at a loss. We began to fear that the idol might betray a frailty. But his face grew red: he swallowed, his chin coming forward (in the way we loved), whilst he said, grimly, “In the military zone the only authority is that of the commander-in-chief—myself.” “But Sir Grey, Sir Edward Grey . . . ,” stammered M. Picot. [Grey, by that time Lord Grey, had been British foreign secretary in 1916, when the Sykes-Picot agreement was concluded.] He was cut short. “Sir Edward Grey referred to the civil government which will be established when I judge that the military situation permits.”

It is widely acknowledged that Lawrence’s reliability as a witness to events out in the desert leaves much to be desired. But this episode occurred on Allenby’s side of the Jordan, and in the presence of other British officers. His account, then, however colorfully phrased, may be regarded as trustworthy.

Indeed, Lawrence may even have softened the edges. Philip Chetwode, commander of a corps in Palestine, also attended the lunch; in a 1939 letter to another officer who had been there, and who was writing a biography of Allenby, Chetwode wrote:

I wish to goodness you could put in what the Frenchman said to Allenby and what Allenby said to him, when the Frenchman said he was going to take over the civil administration of Jerusalem at once. However, that, of course, can never appear in a book.

Since a version had already appeared in Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the bit of Allenby’s put-down that could “never appear in a book” might well have been gruffer still. (Louis Massignon, a French officer attached to Picot, wrote that “Allenby threatened Picot harshly with arrest if he interfered.”)

This didn’t exhaust Picot’s efforts, but the die had been cast. Ten days later, Picot complained that there had been no progress toward “Anglo-French civil administration,” and told a British interlocutor that “he would never have agreed to come out [to Palestine] if he had known.” Although Picot’s French Commission tried to (re)assert a “religious protectorate” over Catholic holy places (mostly in opposition to the Italians), there would be no “international administration” in Jerusalem, only exclusive British control.

Moreover, while Allenby had invoked military necessity, the British soon developed a full-blown thesis as to why they, and only they, were qualified to rule Jerusalem. The British, they averred in brief, were purely neutral. As Lloyd George put it, “being of no particular faith [we are] the only power fit to rule Mohammedans, Jews, Roman Catholics, and all religions.”

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Thus did the first agreement to internationalize Jerusalem come to naught.

Why is this significant today? Had Allenby wavered, and had some sort of joint administration come into being after World War I, it might have created institutions of international governance. These might have accumulated 30 years of experience by 1947, when the United Nations recommended the partition of Palestine and the internationalization of Jerusalem. Instead, during those decades, the British preferred to rule Jerusalem exactly as the Ottomans had done before them—namely, by dictate.

In 1947, internationalization thus had no precedent, no bureaucratic foundation, and no mechanism for implementation. As in 1916, it wasn’t a true option, but a placeholder for indecision.

In the century since Allenby entered Jerusalem, the city hasn’t known a single day of international administration. Indeed, it hasn’t had such a day in 3,000 years. The idea that it constitutes a kind of default solution for the future of Jerusalem is but one more example of a petrified piety. Internationalization became irrelevant over lunch a century ago, and it has remained so ever since.

A Franciscan monk reads a French translation of Gen. Edmund Allenby's proclamation putting Jerusalem under martial law, December 11, 1917. Allenby at center; François Georges-Picot, on far right.

Image: A Franciscan monk reads a French translation of Gen. Edmund Allenby’s proclamation putting Jerusalem under martial law, December 11, 1917. Allenby at center; François Georges-Picot, on far right. Matson Collection, Library of Congress.

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Celebrating partition

This post first appeared in the English-language opinion section of Israel Hayom on November 29. It is a précis of a more in-depth essay published in Mosaic Magazine on November 27.

UNSCOP Palestine partition map, 1947Earlier this month, the governments of Britain and Israel marked the centennial of the Balfour Declaration with great fanfare. In London and Jerusalem, prime ministers, parliamentarians and protesters weighed in.

In comparison, notice of this week’s 70th anniversary of the 1947 U.N. partition resolution, the first international legitimation of a Jewish state, has been relatively subdued. Why?

A centennial is certainly a rare thing, and the Balfour Declaration makes for dramatic telling. But the vote over the partition resolution had plenty of drama, too. Many people alive today recall it vividly, and the excitement of it is easily retrievable on YouTube.

So why, one asks again, did the Balfour Declaration’s 100th anniversary resonate, while the partition-vote anniversary does not?

First, the subsequent 70 years have been marked by repeated assaults on Israel’s legitimacy, launched from within that very same United Nations. This reached an obscene climax in 1975, when the General Assembly passed a resolution defining Zionism “as a form of racism and racial discrimination.” And while the General Assembly revoked that resolution in 1991, U.N. bodies continue to defame Israel through hateful resolutions.

The second cause for reticence is the notion that the resolution wasn’t all that important anyway, so why bother? By 1947, the Jews in Palestine were 600,000-strong and unstoppable. For those who wish to emphasize Israel’s birth as the result only of battlefield grit and sacrifice, there is a logical prejudice against celebrating the U.N. vote as a watershed.

Third, the other half of the U.N. resolution poses a problem for some Israelis and supporters of Israel: It recommended the establishment of an Arab state as well as a Jewish one. Israeli leader Menachem Begin called it a “dismemberment contract,” and promised that it would “never be recognized.” Not surprisingly, for Zionist opponents of partition today, it is nothing to celebrate.

But even Israelis who favored partition might not be in a mood to celebrate. This is because the partition plan came with a map, a division that would have left all of Jerusalem under international control, surrounded on all sides by the proposed Arab state. It also would have cut the Jewish state into three chunks, linked at two points. Zionist centrists accepted partition but bristled at the proposed borders.

When, in the spring of 1948, the Arabs went to war to throttle Israel, Israel countered by seizing part of the territory allotted to the Arab state and pushed through a corridor to the besieged Jews in western Jerusalem. Israel then insisted that the Arabs, by going to war, had nullified the partition plan and its map. In 1949, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the resolution “null and void,” bereft of all “moral force.”

In this view, Israel did not arise from the U.N. resolution but emerged upon its death. Why then celebrate a dead letter, strangled at birth by the Arabs, and then buried by Israel?

All these reasons explain why relatively little attention is being paid to the 70th anniversary of the U.N. vote.

But this is a missed opportunity.

Most obviously, the Balfour Declaration spoke only of a “national home” for the Jews, which the British later interpreted to be less than a state. The 1947 U.N. resolution, by contrast, explicitly recommended a Jewish state.

But there is another compelling reason to emphasize the 1947 resolution: The Arabs rejected it. And because they did, preferring war, they cannot escape their share of responsibility for the war’s consequences: their “Nakba” (“Catastrophe”).

Prior to the vote, the General Assembly empowered a “special committee,” comprising representatives of 11 member states, to investigate the situation and make recommendations to the General Assembly. The Zionists wooed the committee, but the Palestinian Arab leaders boycotted it. Then not only did Arab leaders reject the committee’s majority report, which recommended partition, they even rejected the minority report, which proposed a federated, binational state. In the Arab view, the Jews had no right to anything – not a single immigrant, not a shred of self-government.

Their second mistake compounded the first. The Arabs misread the significance of the partition vote. The two rising superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, drove the “aye” vote forward. This, despite the fact that the Soviets had been hostile to Zionism and supportive of the Arabs all through the 1920s and 1930s. The sudden Soviet turnabout showed how strongly the wind was blowing against the Arabs.

Why did the Arabs reject the resolution? Because they thought that once the British left, they would defeat the Jews. An example is the testimony of the late Palestinian academic Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a native of Jaffa, who left an account of the mood there on the eve of the war. The Arabs thought that “as the country belonged to them, they were the ones who would defend their homeland with zeal and patriotism. … There was a belief that the Jews were generally cowards.”

This is why the Arabs refused to accept partition, or a federated state, or any plan that recognized any Jewish rights at all. Why concede anything to the cowardly Jews? The people of Jaffa, Abu-Lughod said, believed that “if they made ready a bit … then they were sure to emerge victorious.”

Instead, the Palestinians went down to an ignominious defeat, dragging the Arab states with them. Indeed, their conduct in the war conformed almost precisely to the conduct they had expected of the Jews, making them contemptible in their own eyes and in the eyes of other Arabs.

It took more than 60 years for a Palestinian leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to describe Palestinian and Arab rejection of partition as a “mistake,” which he did in an interview in 2011. But this is far from a full accounting.

That is why it remains important to mark this 70th anniversary, and every anniversary to come. It isn’t just a reminder of Israel’s legitimacy; it’s a reminder of Arab responsibility.

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