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Palestine Conference (Government Policy)

Volume 433: debated on Tuesday 18 February 1947

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Sir, I am very sorry to have to inform the House that the Conference with the Arabs and the consultations with the Zionist Organisation about the future of Palestine which have been proceeding in London have come to an end because it has become clear that there is no prospect of reaching by those means any settlement which would be even broadly acceptable to the two communities in Palestine. Ever since they took office the Government have laboured incessantly to find a solution of the Palestine problem. Most Members on this side of the House believed that no solution was to be found along the lines of the White Paper of 1939; and the Government therefore addressed themselves at once to the task of devising a different approach on which they could negotiate with the parties concerned. In view of the keen interest shown by American Jewry in the aspirations of Zionism, it was thought desirable that the Government of the United States should be associated with this endeavour; and as a result the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry was appointed in November, 1945. At the same time it was decided that Jewish immigration into Palestine should be temporarily continued at the rate of 1,500 a month notwithstanding the limit set by the White Paper, and an additional 21,000 Jews have been admitted since the White Paper terminated; and since July, 1945, 29,000 have been admitted.

When the Report of the Anglo-American Committee was received, we agreed with the United States, Government that it should be examined by British and American officials. They jointly recommended the plan of Provincial Autonomy which was described in this House by my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council on 31st July, 1946. This plan gave a basis for negotiation with the parties concerned; and no time was lost in inviting them to confer with us. Neither of the two communities in Palestine accepted this invitation, but a conference with representatives of the Arab States was opened in London in September of last year. After an adjournment, due to the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Conference was resumed in January, the Palestine Arabs then joined in the discussions. The Jewish Agency have throughout refused to participate in the Conference, although informed that all proposals would be open for discussion, but it has been possible in this last phase to have conversations on an informal basis with representatives of the Agency.

From the outset, both Arabs and Jews declined to accept as a basis for discussion the provincial autonomy plan put forward by His Majesty's Government. The Arabs put forward an alternative proposal, under which Palestine would achieve early independence as a unitary State with a permanent Arab majority. His Majesty's Government, seeing no prospect of negotiating a settlement on that basis, put forward new proposals of their own. These envisaged the establishment of local areas, Arab and Jewish, with a substantial degree of autonomy within a unitary State, with a central government in which both Arabs and Jews would share. These proposals provided that Jewish immigrants should be admitted over the next two years at the rate of 4,000 a month, and that thereafter the continuation of the rate of Jewish immigration should be determined, with due regard to economic absorptive capacity, by the High Commissioner in consultation with his advisory council, or, in the event of disagreement, by an arbitration tribunal appointed by the United Nations. This plan, while consistent with the principles of the Mandate, added an element which has hitherto been lacking in our administration of Palestine, namely, a practical promise of evolution towards independence by building up, during a five year period of trusteeship, political institutions rooted in the lives of the people. It was offered as a basis of discussion. These three solutions have already been made known in broad outline, and we intend to lay before the House later in the week a White Paper describing each of them in greater detail.

The latest proposals of His Majesty's Government were rejected outright by both the Arab delegations and the representatives of the Jewish Agency, even as a basis for discussion. I think it important that the House should understand clearly the reasons which prompted the two sides to reject this solution. For the Arabs, the fundamental point is that Palestine should no longer be denied the independence which has now been attained by every other Arab State; and that, in accordance with the accepted principles of democracy, the elected majority should be free to determine the future destiny of the country. They regard the further expansion of the Jewish National Home as jeopardising the attainment of national independence by the Arabs of Palestine, which all Arab States desire; and they are therefore unwilling to contemplate further Jewish immigration into Palestine. They are equally opposed to the creation of a Jewish State in any part of Palestine.

The Jewish Agency, on the other hand, have made it clear that their fundamental aim is the creation of an independent Jewish State in Palestine. With this in view they first proposed that His Majesty's Government should continue to administer the mandate on a basis which would enable them to continue to expand the Jewish National Home until such time as they had attained by immigration a numerical majority in Palestine and could demand the creation of an independent Jewish State over the country as a whole. When it was made clear, that His Majesty's Government were unable to maintain in Palestine a mandatory administration under the protection of which such a policy could be carried out, the representatives of the Jewish Agency indicated that, while still maintaining the justice of their lull claim, they would be prepared to consider, as a compromise, the proposal for the creation of "a viable Jewish State in an adequate area of Palestine." While they were not themselves willing to propose a plan of partition, they were prepared to consider such a proposal if advanced by His Majesty's Government.

His Majesty's Government have thus been faced with an irreconcilable conflict of principles. There are in Palestine about 1,200,000 Arabs and 600,000 Jews. For the Jews the essential point of principle is the creation of a sovereign Jewish State. For the Arabs, the essential point of principle is to resist to the last the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine. The discussions of the last month have quite clearly shown that there is no prospect of resolving this conflict by any settlement negotiated between the parties. But if the conflict has to be resolved by arbitrary decision, that is not a decision which His Majesty's Government are empowered as Mandatory to take.

His Majesty's Government have of themselves no power, under the terms of the Mandate, to award the country either to the Arabs or to the Jews, or even to partition it between them. It is in these circumstances that we have decided that we are unable to accept the scheme put forward either by the Arabs or by the Jews, or to impose ourselves a solution of our own. We have, therefore, reached the conclusion that the only course now open to us is to submit the problem to the judgment of the United Nations. We intend to place before them an historical account of the way in which His Majesty's Government have discharged their trust in Palestine over the last 25 years. We shall explain that the Mandate has proved to be unworkable in practice, and that the obligations undertaken to the two com- munities in Palestine have been shown to be irreconcilable. We shall describe the various proposals which have been put forward for dealing with the situation, namely, the Arab Plan, the Zionists' aspirations, so far as we have been able to ascertain them, the proposals of the Anglo-American Committee, and the various proposals which we ourselves have put forward. We shall then ask the United Nations to consider our report, and to recommend a settlement of the problem. We do not intend ourselves to recommend any particular solution.

Though we shall give immediate notice of our intentions, we see great difficulty in having this matter considered by the United Nations before the next regular session of fthe General Assembly in September. We regret that the final settlement should be subject to this further delay, particularly in view of the continuing strain on the British Administration and Services during this further period. We trust, however, that as the question is now to be referred to the United Nations all concerned will exercise restraint until their judgment is known.

Are we to understand that we are to go on bearing the whole of this burden, with no solution to offer, no guidance to give—the whole of this burden of maintaining law and order in Palestine, and carrying on the administration, not only until September, which is a long way from February, not only until then, when the United Nations are to have it laid before them, but until those United Nations have solved the problem, to which the right hon. Gentleman has declared himself, after 18 months of protracted delay, incapable of offering any solution? How does he justify keeping 100,000 British soldiers in Palestine, who are needed here, and spending £30 million to £40 million a year from our diminishing resources upon this vast apparatus of protraction and delay?

I very much regret this rhetorical display about protracted delay; because, if any two men, the ex-Colonial Secretary, now the First Lord, and I, have devoted, in the middle of a world crumbling to disaster from the war, efforts to solve this one problem, we have. I think for any hon. Member or right hon. Member to accuse us of protracted delay in trying to grapple with this problem, is totally unjust. The problem raised by the right hon. Gentleman is a matter which has got to be considered So far as I can see from the constitution of the United Nations, it is rather difficult to get procedure other than that of the Assembly. But we have not communicated with them yet. There may be preliminary work that may be done; there may be improvised action, or something. But I assure the House we are not going to neglect it. I have a feeling that both the Jews and the Arabs, if they want to maintain dignity in their case, should be careful of their actions during this interim period. So far as immigration is concerned, at least 1,500 a month will go on. I have made that perfectly clear.

I beg pardon. I understand the point now. Fifteen hundred, guaranteed during the interim period, will continue to go in.

I do riot understand. At the moment I commit myself to the 1,500 a month, nothing further, nothing less. I cannot give any other pledge. I do not think the Government have done badly, with, since the end of the war, 29,000 Jews transported. I realise the difficulties in Europe. I think neither the country nor the world realises what we have done in admitting those people. I still want to make one further appeal to other countries in the world—to the United States of America and to everybody else—to help us with these displaced persons.

No one would suggest that the right hon. Gentleman does not give his full attention and strength to the discharge of his extremely complicated and painful duty. We all bear witness to the exhaustive efforts he has made, and to speak of delay is in no sense a reflection on his personal devotion to duty. But I am entitled to ask the question whether what has been announced today does not mean that at least a year will pass, while the British Government remain, on their own confession, without any solution of the Palestine problem, before any solution is provided from another quarter; and whether that is not exposing us to an unduly heavy burden, both in the absorption of our manpower, and in the further depletion of our financial resources? If this policy is right today—and this is another question I wish to ask—why could it not have been announced 12 months ago?

Would not the situation have been greatly simplified if the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) had stuck to his own White Paper of 1922?

I think that the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford could provide us with a very gay time. I think it would be a fatal policy for Great Britain, with all the leadership she has shown in the world and all her history, to have gone to the United Nations without attempting to exhaust every possibility. After all, the right hon. Gentleman was, I believe, in office, and he had a hand in this business right at the end of the last war, in the Lloyd George Coalition; and other hon. Members opposite have also had a hand in the administration of this great problem. Let me say this: I know the cost and I know the difficulties, but if we handle this well at the United Nations and exercise care, and if in the end the problem of the Jews and Arabs can, in some way, be settled after 2,000 years of conflict, 12 months will not be a long delay.

Perhaps I may be permitted, by way of personal explanation, as the hon. Gentleman opposite has made a statement, to say that I had nothing to do with that White Paper—

It is quite true. I stand entirely by the White Paper of 1922. I am entirely opposed to the other White Paper which was issued before the war, and always have been. May I ask when an opportunity will be given to Debate this difficult and entangled problem?

I understand that question will be dealt with through the usual channels, and that an opportunity will be given.

Pending the remitting of this question to the United Nations, are we to understand that the Mandate stands. and that we shall deal with the situation of immigration and land restrictions on the basis of the terms of the Mandate, and that the White Paper of 1939 will be abolished?

No, Sir. We have not found a substitute yet for that White Paper, and up to the moment, whether it is right or wrong, the House is committed to it. That is the legal position. We did, by arrangement and agreement, extend the period of immigration which would have terminated in December, 1945. Whether there will be any further change, my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary, who, of course, is responsible for the administration of the policy, will be considering later.

In order to be correct, it is not a fact that the right hon. Gentleman extended the period? The period lapsed during the time of the Coalition Government and it was extended by them. I think that the right hon. Gentleman meant to say that he had added to the numbers.

No, Sir. I stand to be corrected, but I understand that the White Paper came to an end on 31st December, 1945, and one of my first duties as Foreign Secretary was to take the whole thing up, about continuing immigration, with the Arabs and with the Arab States at that time. [An HON. MEMBER: "What was the number?"] The number was 75,000. I am really saying the same thing. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman has forgotten that he was out of office at that time.

The right hon. Gentleman should, at least, be accurate. What happened was that there were two things in the White Paper. There was the number, the 75,000, and the time they had to be in; after which it stopped. The time ran out while I was Colonial Secretary, and it was extended by the Coalition Government. The number ran out in 1945, and was extended by the Foreign Secretary

Are we to understand from my right hon. Friend that nothing is going to be done, during the period between now and the decision of the United Nations, to enable the moderate Jewish majority to control the minority? Is he aware that if the present circumstances continue, it is inevitable that there will be an appalling amount of terrorist activity in Palestine?

Are we to take it from the statement that after 30 years' delay the Balfour Declaration is recognised to be utterly unrealistic?

On the question of procedure, are we to understand that this question is to go to the United Nations under the head of "trusteeship"? is there any reason why it should not go to the Security Council as a matter endangering international peace? It certainly does that, much more than the Spanish situation of which the Security Council took cognizance.

When the League of Nations was wound up, there was a guarantee by the Mandatory Powers that they would carry on their Mandates and treat the United Nations as if they were the League of Nations. Therefore, I have to have regard to that. I do not think it is endangering the security of the world, and I do not think, personally, it is a Security Council matter. I am aware that Spain and other things went to the Security Council, but it was rather a new toy that. year.

I would not for the world ask an argumentative question at this stage, but I should like to ask whether, with due respect for our normal protocol, we might not ask the acting Leader of the House to let us know now, when and where, and in what form, we are to debate this question so that we can keep our argumentative questions till then? Can we know that now?

On a point of Order. Has the acting Leader of the House any right to suggest that you, Sir, have countenanced disorderly practice?

I meant to say, "tendency,'' Sir. I do not see why I should be challenged about this, because on two occasions I have said that at the earliest opportunity this subject should be debated. This is Tuesday, and I object to Members asking me, on a Tuesday, to state Business which would normally announced on a Thursday. I can assure tile House that a Debate will be held fairly early next week, but discussion have to go on, through the usual channels, about the alteration of Business for next week.

Will the Foreign Secretary bear in mind that the House generally will be appreciative of the careful attempt he has made to state the conflicting views of the two sides? Further, will he say whether—in view of His Majesty's Government's experience over so many years—in arriving at that conclusion, there does not lie a moral responsibility on the Government to offer some advice to the United Nations, instead of merely flinging this problem at their heads without offering any suggestions?

We have carefully studied this matter, and put forward proposal after proposal. They are there, and I personally do not think that we can offer to the United Nations any more proposals. We shall leave them on the table. They, in turn, may have better ones, but this is the best we can do.