Israel Turns 50: a Key U.N. Official Recalls Drama of the Partition Plan
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Israel Turns 50: a Key U.N. Official Recalls Drama of the Partition Plan

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It was 50 years ago, but William Epstein still remembers the speech David Ben-Gurion made in the fall of 1947 to the United Nations committee deciding the fate of Palestine.

Many of the Zionist leaders had already spoken before the Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine.

Epstein recalls that Chaim Weizmann impressed the committee members with the gentle nature of his diplomatic appeal, as did Abba Eban with his eloquence.

But even though there was nothing special about Ben-Gurion’s appearance – – Epstein remembers the Zionist leader’s trademark bald head with its shock of white hair and his ordinary suit — Ben-Gurion’s “short, sharp” speech impressed the young Canadian.

It lasted no more than 15 or 20 minutes, and ended in part, as Epstein recalls it, with the following words: “We want a Jewish state in Palestine and an Arab- Jewish alliance.”

By the end of November, the fledgling international body had granted Ben-Gurion — and the rest of the Zionist community — part of his goal.

Fifty years ago this week, on Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, giving international legitimation to a modern Jewish state.

“It was an electrifying moment. The Jewish people had waited for 2,000 years, and the highest authority in the world had decided to grant them a Jewish state,” says Epstein.

And the young civil servant played an important behind-the-scenes role in its creation.

His report recommending partition, written while he was working in the Middle East and Africa affairs section, caught the eye of then-U.N. Secretary-General Trygve Lie and was used by the U.N.’s committee on Palestine.

A remarkably spry 85-year-old who still reports for work every day at the U.N. complex on Manhattan’s East River, Epstein, the international body’s longest- serving employee, is a living historical archive to the United Nations.

In his more than half-century there, he has become an expert on disarmament, authoring several books and publishing more than 300 articles on the subject.

He is currently a consultant for Richard Butler, the executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission dealing with the disarmament of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

He has also been a member of the Canadian delegation to the U.N.’s General Assembly six times and was honored in 1989 by being appointed an officer of the Order of Canada — an equivalent to British knighthood.

A Canadian artillery officer during World War II — and a lawyer by training – – Epstein was in London in 1945, working to settle claims against the Canadian government for damages committed by its soldiers. He received a telephone call from the Canadian high commissioner, offering to recommend him for a position with the preparatory committee that was working to establish the United Nations.

He was first assigned to the U.N.’s Security Council Department. Soon after the United Nations moved its offices to New York in the spring of 1946, however, Epstein, the son of a Zionist leader from the Canadian city of Calgary, was assigned to the department’s Middle East and Africa section.

Those were heady — and optimistic — times in the international community, particularly for those interested in Palestine.

The United Nations had just been created, and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the question of Palestine was one of the main questions on the new organization’s agenda.

In fact, the United Nations held a special session on the Palestine question in the spring of 1947 at the request of the British, which had controlled the area since World War I under a League of Nations Mandate.

The assembly created a United Nations Special Committee on Palestine to look into the issue. The Arabs opposed UNSCOP’s work, believing that the policies would leave the Jews with a state and the Palestinian Arabs without one.

Attaining international support for a Jewish homeland was a difficult task.

The support of the United States was not guaranteed. Indeed, there were many within the State Department that staunchly opposed the creation of such an entity.

And both Britain and France had ties through their colonies to the Arab world.

Of the superpowers, in fact, the Soviet Union was the country most unambiguously in favor of a plan that would lead to Jewish sovereignty.

While the Communist state was anti-nationalist, the Soviet Union saw the end of the British Mandate as a way to weaken Britain in the Middle East.

Epstein was one of three advisers on the Palestine issue in the Security Council Department. As the Jewish adviser, he was assigned to interact with the Jewish Agency, the pre-state authority of Jewish Palestine.

He also wrote one of three reports on the Palestine question — the other two were written by an Arab and a Englishman. Epstein’s report was the only one that proposed partition, and the one favored by Secretary-General Lie, a Norwegian who was familiar with the horrors of Nazism.

It wasn’t always clear sailing being a Jew — or an Arab, for that matter – – working on the Palestine issue.

In June of 1947, an UNSCOP delegation went to Palestine on a fact-finding mission. Epstein and his Arab counterpart, Saleh Mahmoud of Egypt, were kicked off the trip at the last moment — presumably to avoid possible complaints about their objectivity.

The trip went ahead with Eban, who became one of Israel’s most famous politicians and effective diplomats, as one of the guides, representing the Jewish Agency.

The UNSCOP delegates were not always well informed. Eban remembers that after visiting a kibbutz, the Indian delegate said to him, “All right, we have seen a Jewish kibbutz; I assume that we shall be seeing an Arab kibbutz tomorrow?”

On Aug. 31, UNSCOP made its recommendation: Seven of the 11 members favored two independent states, separate politically but in economic union, and a separate status for Jerusalem.

UNSCOP’s decision motivated the United States to come out publicly in favor of the plan for the first time.

Zionist leaders spent the rest of the autumn convincing members of the United Nations that they should vote for the partition plan.

“It was touch-and-go,” says Epstein.

The vote was scheduled for Nov. 27, but Zionist leaders did not have the requisite number of votes. After a day of filibustering, the General Assembly’s president, Oswaldo Aranha of Brazil, postponed the vote until the 29th, the day after Thanksgiving.

The United States, under instructions from President Harry Truman, and Zionist leaders spent the days cajoling leaders from countries as far-flung as Haiti and Liberia to support the plan, which gave roughly 60 percent of Mandatory Palestine for the Jewish state.

On the evening of Nov. 29, when the vote was announced — 33 in favor, 13 against, with 10 abstentions — cheers rang out in the hall.

Arab countries stormed out of the room.

Those who had been unable to get into the General Assembly — and thousands of other Jews in New York, Jerusalem and around the world — danced in the streets.

Eban, along with Chaim Weizmann and other yishuv leaders, drank a bottle of champagne.

The excitement that engulfed them — and the Jewish community — however, soon gave way to a more sobering reality. Just three days later, Arabs attacked Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa.

But Eban says that half a century later, the partition vote remains historic.

“Its importance has increased with time,” he believes. “The Israeli state has always had a problem with legitimacy, and legitimacy is the one thing the U.N. does define.”

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