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In the aftermath of World War I, Great Britain was granted a mandate over Palestine by the League of Nations. By 1947, however, the violence directed at British officers by Jews and Arabs, and the financial drain on the declining imperial power after World War II, moved Great Britain to turn to the United Nations for help. In April 1947 the Arab nations proposed at the United Nations that Palestine be declared an independent state, but that measure was defeated and instead, at Washington's suggestion, a UN commission was set up to study the problem.
The defeat of the Arab proposal is important to an understanding of subsequent events. During World War I the British sought Arab support against the Ottoman Turks, who ruled much of the Arab world. In return for their support, the British promised the Arabs their long-sought independence. The British, however, also made promises about the same territory to the Zionists who sought to establish a Jewish state on the site of Biblical Israel. The Balfour Declaration, issued on November 2, 1917, stated that "His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object. . . ." Significantly, however, the sentence ended with the words, "it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." (The U.S. Congress endorsed the Balfour Declaration, using similar language, in 1922.)(44) Toward the end of World War I, however, the Bolsheviks exposed a secret Anglo-French agreement to divide the Ottoman Empire between Great Britain and France. Arab independence had never been seriously intended. Meanwhile, Great Britain was preparing to allow Jewish immigration into Palestine.
Violence among Jews, Arabs, and British officials in Palestine before and after World War II led London to ask the United Nations in 1947 for a recommendation on how to deal with the problem.(46) The murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis and the deplorable state of the Holocaust survivors had stimulated the international effort to establish a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine, and American Zionists had declared in 1942 (in the Biltmore Program) "that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world."
In November 1947 the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recommend partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. The two states were to be joined in an economic union, and Jerusalem would be administered by the United Nations. The Arabs would get 43 percent of the land, the Jews 57 percent. The proposed apportionment should be assessed in light of the following facts: The Jewish portion was better land; by the end of 1947 the percentage of Palestine purchased by Jews was less than 7 percent; Jewish land purchases accounted for only 10 percent of the proposed Jewish state; and Jews made up less than one-third of the population of Palestine. Moreover, the Jewish state was to include 497,000 Arabs, who would constitute just under 50 percent of the new state's population.
The United States not only accepted the UN plan, it aggressively promoted it among the other members of the United Nations. Truman had been personally moved by the tragedy of the Jews and by the condition of the refugees. That response and his earlier studies of the Bible made him open to the argument that emigration to Palestine was the proper remedy for the surviving Jews of Europe. Yet he acknowledged later, in his memoirs, that he was "fully aware of the Arabs' hostility to Jewish settlement in Palestine."(49) He, like his predecessor, had promised he would take no action without fully consulting the Arabs, and he reneged.
Truman's decision to support establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was made against the advice of most of the State Department and other foreign policy experts, who were concerned about U.S. relations with the Arabs and possible Soviet penetration of the region. Secretary James Forrestal of the Defense Department and Loy Henderson, at that time the State Department's chief of Near Eastern affairs, pressed those points most vigorously. Henderson warned that partition would not only create anti-Americanism but would also require U.S. troops to enforce it, and he stated his belief that partition violated both U.S. and UN principles of self-determination.