Israel/Palestine – One or Two States:

Part I – WWI to the 1937 Peel Commission Report

Preview: Parts I, II, III and IV will cover the thirty-year period 1917 to 1947 zeroing in on the Balfour Declaration, the Peel Report (1936), the Wedgewood Report (1938), the White Paper (1939) and the UNSCOP Report (1947) to unveil the history of One and Two-state solutions prior to the creation of the State of Israel. Section B blogs will cover the period from independence to the present.

The Balfour Declaration

The possibility of one state in Mandatory Palestine had been proposed going back over a century ago to the Balfour Declaration. Preceding that document, however, in 1915 Henry McMahon, British Commissioner in Egypt, had promised the Sharif and Emir of Mecca,  Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī al-Hāshimī, that Palestine would be a part of an independent Arab state that would arise after World War I. Thus, an actual two-state solution is also over a century old. What has varied is the political source of the division, the beneficiaries, and the boundary lines

Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the UK in December 1916 expressed public support for Zionism to Chaim Weizmann. In a letter, known as the Declaration (2 November 1917), for that is what it was initially, a letter addressed to Lionel Rothschild. British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour offered British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This Balfour Declaration was incorporated as a preamble to article 2 of the Mandate for Palestine as part of the Paris Peace Agreement (1919). Of that portion of the former Ottoman satrap, 77% went to Transjordan. Article 25 stated that, in the territory east of the Jordan River, Britain could withhold or postpone those articles of the Mandate related to a Jewish national home. It chose to withhold. On 22 July 1922, at a meeting of the Council of the League of Nations in London, Transjordan, as a protectorate of Britain, and the Palestie Mandate covering the remainder of the territory to which the Balfour Declaration now applied, were approved.

As Britain explained in 1922 with respect to the territory to be the homeland of the Jewish people, during the last two or three generations, the Jews re-created in Palestine a community numbering 80,000. “The community has its own political organs; an elected assembly for the direction of its domestic concerns; elected councils in the towns; and an organization for the control of its schools…its political, religious, and social organizations, its own language, its own customs, its own life, has in fact ‘national’ characteristics.”[1]

Jewish nationality was not being imposed upon the inhabitants of all of Palestine. Rather, given the core of Jews in Palestine, with the assistance of Jews in other parts of the world, Britain assumed that only the Jewish people could, on grounds of religion and race, have the best prospect of free development to provide a full opportunity for the Jewish people to display its capacities. Britain insisted that Jews were in Palestine as of right and not on sufferance. Therefore, a Jewish National Home in Palestine should be internationally guaranteed and should be formally recognized to rest upon an ancient historic connection.

The motives were clear; a deep-seated Christian Zionist conviction[2], but also an effort to get Jewish support in both neutral U.S. and liberal revolutionary Russia. The goal or vision, however, was not immediately as clear. Did a Jewish homeland entail a Jewish nation-state, that is, a Zionist state under British protection? Or would it be a politically autonomous Jewish political entity within what was planned and expected to be a British mandated territory controlled by Britain? Or would it simply be a place to which Jews in Europe would be permitted/encouraged to migrate? Whichever of these three options, or others, the main geopolitical goal was a land bridge controlled by Britain connecting Egypt to the Far East. Anti-Zionists, like the Jewish Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, while supporting the last goal, objected to a Jewish state fearing accusations of double loyalty against Jews in the galut, politely known as the diaspora.

The wording of the Balfour Declaration was as follows: “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, 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 last clause was intended to satisfy Montagu’s fears. The second last clause that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” was abundantly clear. The political rights of the existing non-Jewish population remained unrecognized. Right up to and including the 1931 British census, the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine was recognized as a nation; the Arab and Bedouin subjects were not.

What appeared murky, became clear, especially when seen through the eyes of Christian Zionists. A Jewish state was envisioned in which minorities would live with their religious and civil rights protected. This was the first iteration of a One State Solution. Although the territory referred to initially included what is now called Transjordan, it was also very clear that after 1920-1922 it did not; Palestine was restricted to the area west of the Jordan River.

One week after Lord Balfour issued his declaration in November 2017 (October 25 on the Julian calendar – hence the October Revolution), the Bolsheviks overthrew the liberal Russian state. The Jews that were part of that revolution had no sympathy for Zionism. In stark contrast, Woodrow Wilson as President of the United States (1913-1921) was a Christian Zionist as well as a racist;[3] he believed that God wanted Jews to return to their home in Palestine. It took one hundred years for Princeton University to finally face up to the racist reality of the man who was the president of the university (1902-1908)[4] before he became president of the USA.

Wilson came by both his racism[5] – he denied African Americans the right to enroll in Princeton – and his pro-Zionism honestly. His father was a Christian Presbyterian minister who supported the Confederacy in Virginia where he was born. Wilson became an ardent supporter of the Balfour Declaration. “To think that I, son of the manse [minister’s house], should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people.”[6]

However, Wilson’s fourteen points (8 January 2018) declared as the outcome of the war included the promise of self-determination: “nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” Consistency was not Wilson’s forte. Arabs had been promised self-determination both by Britain and by America. But an effort was made to back peddle by both parties by restricting the promise of self-determination to the European peoples of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires. This was, of course, just racism extended to the Middle East.

Except, was it? Yes, in part. As Winston Churchill argued before the Peel Commission in 1937 (see below), “I do not admit that wrong has been done to these people [Arab Palestinians] by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put in that way, has come in and taken their place.”[7] But, he argued, Zionism was not akin to colonialism as in North America or Australia. Only in the land of Palestine, he claimed, could the Jewish people achieve political freedom. More significantly, the Jewish people are indigenous to Palestine because of their historical presence and the continuity of that presence in and on the land. 

Israel was clearly a product of many forces: a type of racism, geopolitical power, legal, historical, sociological and religious factors, but also events on the ground – both historical continuity and recent settlement. In 1850, as stated above, according to Alexander Scholch, Palestine had about 350,000 inhabitants, 85% Muslims, 11% Christians and 4% Jews. By 1920, that population had doubled; the percentage of Jews had increased by over 50%. The British Government’s Interim Report on the Civil Administration of Palestine that year listed almost 700,000 people living in Mandatory Palestine. Compare that to the estimated 2.3 million Jews who lived in Palestine during the rule of Emperor Claudius (41-54 BC) before the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews.

The Peel Commission

In the years after World War I, the Jewish population in Palestine increased, but not as some have described it, “dramatically”. 38,000 Jews were naturalized in 1922 joining an older population of just over 7,000 Jews, and, therefore, 6.5% of the population were Jewish citizens. There were almost an equal number of Jewish non-citizens so that Jews then constituted just 12% of the population. There were 90,000 Jews (just over 12%) and 610,000 non-Jews (just over 87%). Between 1920 and 1936, the Jewish population grew to 367,845 (15,000 migrated per year on average to Palestine), about the same population as Transjordan. Though only 33,304 non-Jews legally immigrated to post-1922 Palestine in the same period, as a result of non-legal immigration and a high birth rate, the Arab population of Palestine grew from 670,000 in 1922 to over one million or almost 75%. By 1937, the ratio had shifted to 30% Jewish and 70% non-Jews.

After the Shaw Commission had published its report in 1930 following the Arab uprising in 1929, after the Sir John Hope Simpson Report in October 1930 on immigration, after the White paper of 1930, the political outcome remained a murky quagmire. Halfway through the 1922-1948 period, in 1935 (12 December), the British government proposed a unitary legislative council for the western portion of the territory. Hence, de facto partition, but not even into a Jewish and Arab state, but a mandatory unitary state of both Arabs and Jews and an eastern territory west of the Jordan River remaining under total British control.  The council in the eastern severed territory was to be made up of 11 Muslims, 7 Jews and 3 Christians. The Arabs would have a controlling share of the three-quarters of elected seats while Britain would appoint the final quarter, 7 of the total of 28 seats on the council. The Chair as well would be a British subject.

The Arabs in Palestine were appalled. They wanted and demanded full self determination. Britain set up the Peel Commission in response and it reported in July 1937. The Peel Commission, in addition to the division of the Palestine Mandate, recommended a transfer of populations or ethnic cleansing, overwhelmingly of Arabs – the Arabs from the area of the Jewish State (approximately 225,000) and the Jews in the Arab-designated area (about 1,250) would be relocated using the Greek-Turkish population exchange after WWI as a precedent.[8]

The Arabs rejected the proposal outright, both because they did not obtain self-determination in all the territory and because, even in the partitioned western portion, they claimed that the number of seats did not reflect their proportion of the population. The Arab Higher Committee (AHC) also did not want the eastern portion ceded to Transjordan. Further, since Jewish immigration to Palestine had significantly increased since the Nazi coup in Germany in 1933, they demanded a complete cessation of Jewish immigration. When their demands were rejected, they revolted. In sum, the proposal for an independent Jewish state and division or secession reversed the initial idea of a Jewish unitary polity west of the Jordan River, a One-State solution. Arabs would have their religious and civil rights protected but would not have any political rights. However, fifteen years after the rationale and the conception of a One-State solution had been formalized in 1922, a two-state solution had been put on the table with a substantial Arab minority in the Jewish State (about 188,000) and a very small number of Jews and Christians in the eventual Arab territory that would be annexed to Transjordan.


[1] Command Paper No. 1 700 of the 1 July 1922.

[2] Cf. George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda (1878). British Christian Zionism is both a religious belief that can be traced back to the Puritans in the seventeenth century based on Biblical prophecy concerning the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, and a political conviction that the only solution to the Jewish “problem” in Europe was the restoration of the Jews to their historical homeland. For many, the conviction was an admixture of religion and politics. In America, the emphasis was primarily on the gathering of the Jews in Israel as a prelude to the Second Coming of Christ.

[3] Cf. Jonathan D. Sarna (2020) “Woodrow Wilson was a hero to Jews. What should we do with his racism?” The Forward, 2 July; and Lawrence Davidson (2020) “Woodrow Wilson’s Racism: The Basis for His Support of Zionism—An Analysis,” U.S Foreign Affairs, 12 July.

[4] The university just this year removed Wilson’s name from the School of Public Policy and International Affairs, to which I was affiliate, as well as from sub-colleges and buildings, a process that began when I was there (2003-2005).

[5] For Wilson, Blacks were an “ignorant and inferior race.” 

[6] Thus, Zionism thereafter became linked with racism and anti-Zionism with the anti-racism of a significant number of African Americans. Davidson explicitly endorsed Zionism as racism.

[7] Shaul Bartal (2017) “The Peel Commission Report of 1937 and the Origins of the Partition Concept,” Jewish Political Studies Review, 28:1-2, 14 November.

[8] The agreement between Turkey and Greece (1922-1923) transferred 1,300,000 Greeks from Turkey and 400,000 Turks from areas controlled by Greece.

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