On May 14 1948, in what is now Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, David Ben Gurion signed the most remarkable statement in over 2,000 years of Jewish history: the announcement of an independent state for the Jews in Palestine.
Three days earlier, Ben Gurion’s cabinet-in-waiting had debated their position in a 13-hour meeting and agreed unanimously to go ahead with announcing independence.
That, however, is not the normally accepted story. It is usually suggested that Ben Gurion had single-handedly strong-armed his 10 colleagues into accepting his view and that a vote — six to four in favour — followed.
But there is no record to support this romantic picture of the leader, and the minutes make no mention of a vote. In truth a decision had already been taken a month earlier by the Zionist Central Council and the population at large — and there would have been uproar if it had not gone ahead.
Menachem Begin threatened to announce independence himself with Irgun, backed by public support, if Ben Gurion did not do so. So there was little choice; a decision had already been taken and there was no disagreement amongst the ten.
There was indeed a vote. But this was on a different issue, the decision not to include anything in the Declaration about the new state’s borders.
The absence of defined borders would have worked against Israel if it had lost territory in the war that followed independence. But it worked to Israel’s considerable advantage as it grew with its conquests. Much later, Ben Gurion spoke of his pride at this decision.
But external pressure was severe. United States President Harry Truman, having supported the UN Partition Plan of November 1947, was now beginning to vacillate. Pressed by his immediate advisors not to accept Israeli independence and to go instead for some form of United Nations or US oversight, he hesitated.
Britain’s Ernest Bevin, still stinging from the impact of the activities of Irgun that had hastened Britain’s departure by exposing its vulnerability, was pressing Truman not to accept Israeli statehood.
Truman in turn was refusing access to any of the Zionists clamouring to see him. Chaim Weizmann, by now old and ill, was in despair of gaining a hearing.
Weizmann spoke to a major American Zionist supporter, Dewey Stone, who connected him to Eddie Jacobson, a long-time business partner and friend of Truman, and he in turn persuaded the President to meet Weizmann.
Weizmann worked his charm, Truman seemed convinced and the US becane the first nation to recognise the new state.
But there were many strings attached. Truman’s Secretary of State, George Marshall — always sceptical about the prospects for statehood — had on May 8 warned Moshe Shertok (who as Moshe Sharett later became Israel’s second prime minister) that the US would not come to Israel’s aid when the Arabs attacked.
Furthermore, Marshall was convinced that the Jews would then lose the war and their state. To make matters worse, Truman later placed an arms embargo on Israel in its War of Independence.
It is possible that it was the position adopted by Russia that finally persuaded Truman to rush to recognise the new state. It had been a huge surprise when Russia’s ambassador to the UN, V Mikhailovich Molotov, had without warning spoken strongly in favour of an independent home for the Jews in Palestine. There was shock, amazement or delight, depending on the perspective.
It is true that Weizmann had had several meetings much earlier with the Russian ambassador to Britain, Ivan Maisky, who seemed to have been impressed by Weizmann and by what he saw later as a form of socialism in action in a kibbutz on a visit to Palestine.
But while a socialist state in the Middle East may have been an attractive prospect for Russia, it seems unlikely that Stalin had suddenly come to a fondness for the Jews or a respect for the Zionists. More likely he was keen to loosen Britain’s hold over the Middle East when it was already in a strong position in Jordan and Egypt.
Whatever Stalin’s motives, it may well have convinced Truman to try to stay ahead of Russia, not being keen on a gain for communist influence in the Middle East. So he was first to announce support for Israel’s independence. Russia was second — and indeed proved a more reliable ally for the next two years. While America exerted its arms embargo, Russia encouraged Czechoslovakia to provide arms that the new state desperately needed.
It is always difficult to understand the motives of international players but they are almost always based on self-interest and the machinations of the USA and Russia in 1947 and 1948 bear this out.
It remains little short of miraculous that Israeli statehood was gained and that it survived the immediate onslaughts.
A combination of steady, quiet diplomacy continued over many years, exerted first by Weizmann and later by others, together with attacks by the Irgun to hasten Britain’s departure (later by the Palmach) allowed Israel to emerge against all the odds.
Beyond the Balfour Declaration by Lord Turnberg is published by Biteback