The Election that Saved the Negev

Beersheba, Ashkelon, and Eilat would have been Arab cities, and the Dead Sea would have been controlled by an Arab navy, according to an American-supported Mideast peace plan in 1948. A presidential election intervened.

Dr. Rafael Medoff

OpEds Dr. Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoff
צילום: INN:RM

The United Nations partition plan of 1947 proposed narrow, precarious borders for the Jewish state. But at least it gave Israel the 4,700-mile Negev desert, with all its potential for development and room for new immigrants.
Israeli control of the Negev was soon endangered, however--not by war, but by a proposed peace.
As Israeli troops fought off five invading Arab armies, a United Nations envoy, Count Folke Bernadotte, put forward a peace plan that was heavily loaded with Israeli concessions:
* Jerusalem --including the western part of the city, which Israel controlled-- would be placed under international rule.
* The hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who fled to neighboring Arab countries would be permitted to return, making Israel's population about 45% Arab.
* Israel would keep the small area it captured in the western Galilee during the war, but the entire Negev would be given to the Arabs. The result: a Jewish state of just 2,180 square miles, about one-third of the area awarded by the U.N. plan.
Today's Israel would have looked very different if Bernadotte's plan had been imposed. Beersheba, Israel's seventh-largest city and home to Ben Gurion University, would be an Arab city. So would Eilat, Israel's famous resort town, and Ashkelon, Israel's 14th-largest city. And the Dead Sea, one of Israel's most important tourist attractions, would be the property of the Arab state.
Israel strongly objected to the Bernadotte plan. It would "deprive Israel of the only land reserves available for development cripple existing and potential prospects for the scientific utilization of natural resources, and stunt Israel's progress and growth for generations to come," the Ben-Gurion government asserted.
Brushing aside Israel's objections, President Harry Truman on September 1 instructed the State Department to support Bernadotte's plan. Truman initially kept the U.S. position secret. He knew that Jewish votes would be crucial in New York, the state with the largest number of electoral votes in that November's election.
But when a special United Nations session on Palestine opened in Paris on September 21, the U.S. had to state its position. Secretary of State George Marshall publicly endorsed the Bernadotte plan.
Furious American Jewish groups responded with petitions, protest rallies, and a torrent of telegrams to the White House. Full page-ads placed in major newspapers by the American Zionist Emergency Council were headlined "Another Reversal--Another Betrayal" and "Mr. Truman: Where Do YOU Stand on This Issue?"
Truman carefully avoided saying where he stood. When his old friend Eddie Jacobson caught up with him in Oklahoma City, in the midst of his famous whistle-stop train tour, Truman told him, falsely, that Marshall had acted without authorization.
Jacobson bluntly warned the president that he would "lose millions of [votes] in New York and Pennsylvania" if he backed Bernadotte in pressing for surrender of the Negev. New York State Democratic Parry chair Paul Fitzpatrick predicted Truman would be unable to win in any city with a large Jewish population.
White House aides reported that Democratic Party representatives were being "booed and heckled" at public gatherings in New York City. A front page editorial in the New York Star --a daily that endorsed Truman-- charged that the administration's Israel policy was "hurting the chances of carrying New York City in the coming national elections." And losing New York City probably meant losing New York State.
To make matters worse, third party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace was making a serious pitch for the Jewish vote in New York. Wallace tried to position himself as the most pro-Israel candidate, repeatedly criticizing Truman's arms embargo against Israel. The New York Times reported that Democratic strategists in New York were less concerned about Republican nominee Thomas Dewey than the need "to keep in the Democratic column two groups to whom the Wallace party has been making an open appeal, the Negro and Jewish voters."
At a campaign rally in Madison Square Garden just days before the election, Truman made his move. Pledging to help make Israel "large enough, free enough and strong enough to make its people self-supporting and secure," the president declared his support for the Democratic Party's plank on Israel--which called for Israel keeping the Negev. Once Truman had publicly taken that position, there was no going back. Surrender of the Negev was off the table for good.