London Conference of 1939
The London Conference (1939), or St James's Palace Conference, which took place between 7 February-17 March 1939, was called by the British Government to plan the future governance of Palestine and an end of the Mandate. It opened on 7 February 1939 in St James's Palace after which the Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald held a series of separate meetings with an Arab and a Jewish delegation, because the Arab delegation refused to sit in the same room as the Jewish delegation. When MacDonald first announced the proposed conference he made clear that if no agreement was reached the government would impose a solution. The process came to an end after five and a half weeks with the British announcing proposals which were later published as the 1939 White Paper.
After the strike, the British government established the Peel Commission, chaired by Lord Peel, to investigate its causes and to make recommendations to the British government in the light of commitments made in the Balfour Declaration for the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. The commission concluded that the only solution was to partition the country into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The two main Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, had convinced the World Zionist Congress to approve equivocally the Peel recommendations as a basis for more negotiation.
The partition idea was rejected by the Arabs. On 1 October 1937, with a resurgence of violence after the publication of the Peel Commission proposals, the HNC and all nationalist committees were outlawed. Five prominent Palestinians, including Yacoub Al Ghussein and three members of the HNC where deported to the Seychelles. The remaining members of the HNC were either already out of the country or, like Haj Amin Husseini, went into hiding and then into exile in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut.
Over the summer of 1938, antigovernment and intercommunal violence in Palestine reached new heights. Arab militants controlled large areas of the countryside and several towns, including the Old City of Jerusalem. The Jewish underground set off a series of lethal bombs in Arab markets across the country, and the Jewish Special Night Squads launched their first operations. In the autumn, the British authorities launched a counteroffensive. More British troops were sent, and martial law was declared.
In 1938, the Woodhead Commission was sent to Palestine to report on how to implement the partition proposals. The commission, chaired by Sir John Woodhead, was boycotted by the Palestinian Arabs, whose leaders had been deported or were in exile and who had no wish to discuss partition. The commission considered three different plans, one of which was based on the Peel plan. Reporting in 1938, the Commission rejected the Peel plan, primarily on the grounds that it could not be implemented without a massive forced transfer of Arabs, an option that the British government had already ruled out. With dissent from some of its members, it instead recommended a plan that would leave the Galilee under British mandate but emphasised serious problems with it that included a lack of financial self-sufficiency for the proposed Arab state. The British government accompanied the publication of the Woodhead Report by a statement of policy rejecting partition as impracticable for "political, administrative and financial difficulties".
Coinciding with the publication of the Woodhead Commission's report on 9 November 1938, the government issued a statement that it wished to end the Mandate and that Britain would continue to govern Palestine until a new regime was established. To that end the Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, invited a mixed Arab and Jewish delegation to London to discuss what form of government should be established. The statement concluded that if agreement was not reached with the two delegations, the government would put forward and implement its own proposals. The Arab delegation was to include Palestinian Arabs as well as representatives from five pro-British Arab regimes. The Jewish delegation was selected by the Jewish Agency and included Jews from the Jewish diaspora as well as the Yishuv.
By the winter of 1938, British thinking was dominated by the territorial expansion of Nazi Germany. If World War II occurred in Europe, it would be essential for Britain to maintain control over Egypt, Iraq and Palestine. It was certain that concessions would be offered to the Arabs and that the Zionists would be disappointed.
Some Palestinian leaders welcomed the proposed conference but it soon became clear that there was not going to be any alternative to dealing with the disbanded Higher National Committee (HNC) and former Mufti of Jerusalem Amin Husseini. On 23 November the Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, repeated his refusal to allow Amin Husseini to be a delegate, but announced his willingness to allow the five Palestinian leaders held in the Seychelles to take part in the conference. This was part of an agreement made in London following informal meetings between MacDonald and Musa Alami to ensure a Palestinian Arab presence at the conference. MacDonald also assured Alami that the Mandate would be replaced with a treaty. The deportees were released on 19 December and allowed to travel to Cairo and then, with Jamal Husseini, to Beirut where a new Higher National Committee was established. Amin Husseini, who was living in Beirut, was not a member of the resulting delegation but it was under his direction. This can be seen in the refusal to accept any delegates from the National Defence Party (NDP). Attempts to form an alternative, more pro-British and less militant, Palestinian delegation led to two additional NDP delegates being added to the Palestinian representation after the start of the conference.
The five Arab regimes invited were the Kingdoms of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and the Emirate of Transjordan - all within the British sphere of influence. Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia had been instrumental in ending the 1936 strike.
The Zionists had reacted negatively to the proposed conference and debated whether they should attend. Their delegation was led by Chaim Weizmann in the name of the Jewish Agency. To emphasise its claim to represent all Jews, and to counterbalance the presence of representatives from the Arab states, the delegation included members from the USA, Europe, Britain, South Africa, and Palestine.
The conference was opened by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain on 7 February 1939 at St James's Palace, London. The Arab delegation refused to attend any joint sessions with the Jewish Agency delegation so there were two ceremonies. This was at the insistence of the Palestinian Arab delegates. The first ceremony, for the Arab delegation, was at 10.30 a.m., the second for the Jewish Agency delegation was at 11.45.
Meetings with Arab Delegation
The Arab delegation was led by Jamal Husseini and consisted of Awni Abd al-Hadi, Yacoub Al Ghussein, Husayin al-Khalidi, Alfred Roch and Musa Alami. They were accompanied by George Antonius and Fu'ad Saba, who were to act as secretaries. The Egyptian delegate was Aly Maher, and Iraq was represented by Prime Minister Nuri Said. The Saudis were represented by Prince Faisal and Prince Khalid, both of whom later became kings of Saudi Arabia.
The Palestinian delegates had meetings with the representatives from the Arab states in Cairo from 17 January. Despite pressure from the other delegates, the Palestinian group refused to include any representatives from the moderate National Defence Party (NDP) of Raghib al-Nashashibi. A campaign of violence between the rebels and the NDP's supporters led to 136 deaths in 1939. The NDP claimed to represent most of the upper classes and demanded representation at the London conference. The British let it be known that if agreement could not be reached, they would talk to two Palestinian Arab delegations. Nashashibi and Farraj joined the Arab delegation two days after the opening ceremony.
Although the Arabs delegates refused to have any contact with the Jewish Agency, some meetings took place with other Arab delegates.
On 9 February, Jamal Husseini put forward the Arab position:
- No Jewish national home in Palestine
- Replacement of the Mandate by a treaty
- End of Jewish immigration
The first task the conference set itself was to establish the meaning of a series of letters, written in Arabic in 1915 to 1916, between the British government and the governor of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. Known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, the letters are credited with encouraging Husseini to call for the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. An Anglo-Arab committee was set up, presided by the Lord Chancellor, Frederic Maugham, to examine the issue. An official version of the letters was published for the first time. The committee concluded that the Arab perspective had been downplayed and that as of 1918, the British government had no authority to ignore the views of the existing inhabitants in what would become Palestine. However, the two sides failed to agree on the exact meaning of some of the territorial references, particularly whether or not "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Hamah, Homs and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from the proposed delimitation" included Palestine.
On 6 Marchh, a member of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry flew from Cairo to Beirut to try to get Amin Husseini to approve concessions that were considered by the delegation. Husseini insisted to continue to reject the British proposals.
On 17 March, after he had warned the delegation a day earlier, MacDonald read a statement outlining the British proposals and closed the conference. There had been 14 British-Arab sessions. The British proposals were published two months later in what became known as the 1939 White Paper.
Meetings with Jewish Agency delegation
The Jewish Agency delegation was led by Chaim Weizmann, the chairman of the World Zionist Organization, but it was David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish Agency, who dominated decisionw. It was Ben Gurion who argued that the delegation should be in the name of the Jewish Agency, rather than the Jewish delegation. However, since it claimed to represent all Jews, it included some non-Zionists such as Sholem Asch and Lord Melchett as well as the president of Agudat Yisrael. American Zionists included Rabbi Stephen Wise and Henrietta Szold. British Zionists included Selig Brodetsky. A sign of Ben Gurion's power was his success in blocking Lord Herbert Samuel's membership in the delegation.
The conference marked Ben Gurion's becoming the prime mover in Zionist policy-making. It also saw a change in his thinking towards what he called "combatitive Zionism". He believed that the Yeshuv in Palestine was strong enough to defend itself. Out of its 440,000, around 45,000 were armed. His priority was continued and increased immigration, particularly young people of military age.
After the opening ceremony, the meetings were chaired by MacDonald. Weizmann's presentation of the Jewish Agency position reduced to four points:
- Lack of minority status for Jews in Palestine
- Continuation of the Mandate
- Continuation of Jewish immigration, governed by the capacity of the country to absorb the incomers
- Investment to speed up development in Palestine
The delegation was willing to accept the partition of the country, as recommended by the Peel Commission, under protest. The two main Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, had convinced the World Zionist Congress to approve equivocally the Peel recommendations as a basis for negotiation.
Despite the Palestinian Arab boycott of the Jewish Agency, some meetings took place with Arabs. On the evening of 7 March, the British managed to hold an informal meeting between three Arab delegates and four of the Jewish delegates with MacDonald and three other British officials. The Egyptian delegate, Aly Maher, appealed for a reduction of Jewish immigration and an end to the violence. Weizmann replied by suggesting that they might find common ground but was interrupted by Ben Gurion, who insisted that there could be no reduction. The meeting soon ended.
The closed meetings' events were difficult to keep secret. At one point, the Jewish Agency was upset by reports of a remark made to the Arab delegation by MacDonald that was taken to be anti-Semitic.
At the 24 February 1939 meeting, Ben Gurion laid out the Jewish Agency's minimum terms, the continuation of the Mandate and the rejection of anything that would imply Jewish minority status. The meeting also had MacDonald announce the outlines of the British policy: after a transition period, Palestine would become an independent state allied to Britain, and the Jewish minority would have protected status. On 26 February, both delegations received a written summary of what was planned. That evening, the Jewish Agency refused to attend a government ceremonial dinner in its honour. On 27 February, the Mapai newspaper in Palestine, Davar, published a cable from Ben Gurion: "There is a scheme afoot to liquidate the National Home and turn us over to the rule of gang leaders". On the same day, a co-ordinated series of bombs across Palestine killed 38 Arabs. The delegation refused to hold any further formal sessions and reduced its involvement to informal meetings in MacDonald's office.
St John Philby, an advisor to the Saudi delegates, held a lunch at his home on 28 February with Weizmann, Ben Gurion and Faud Hamza, the Saudi foreign affairs official. Philby put forward his own proposals, but no further meetings took place though he had discussions with Weizmann and Shertok later that year.
On 3 March, Ben Gurion failed to get the delegation to disband, and it was agreed to remain in London. On 4 March, he became ill and had to withdraw for several days. By 16 March, many of the delegates had left London.
On 17 March, Weizmann sent a letter to MacDonald: "The Jewish delegation, having given profound consideration to the proposals placed before it by His Majesty's Government on 15 March 1939, regrets that it is unable to accept them as a basis for agreement, and has therefore decided to disband".
Two days before the end of the conference, the German Army occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia.
These were Colonial Secretary's final proposals, which were published on 17 May 1939:
- A limit to Jewish immigration for five years after which numbers would be set with agreement with the Palestinian Arabs
- Restrictions on Jews buying land.
- Gradual introduction of Palestinians, both Jews and Arabs, into senior administrative posts.
- Transfer after ten years of all powers to a representative government
The proposals were conditional on the end of violence in Palestine. If after ten years, no agreement had been reached about the form of government, the British would reconsider the situation.
After the delegations had left London, the British made a further attempt to get Arab approval by suggesting a faster transfer of power conditional on an end to violence and the involvement of the League of Nations if conditions were unsuitable for independence after ten years. In May, the HNC delegation announced its rejection of the White Paper, with Amin Husseini imposing the decision on the majority of delegates that wad in favour of accepting. That tactical blunder did not help the Arab National Council in any way. It has been suggested that he had to refuse to deal with the British to maintain his leadership of the actual rebels in Palestine.
On 17 April, the Histadrut announced the launch of a campaign against the proposals. In the first month after the end of the conference, over 1,700 Jewish illegal immigrants entered Palestine. On 17 May, to mark the publishing of the White Paper, telephone wires were cut and government offices attacked. There were riots in Jerusalem, and Jewish attacks on Arabs and government property continued through the summer. The Jewish underground Etzel claimed to have killed More than 130 people during that period. There was also an increase in illegal immigration, with 6,323 arriving between April and October, leading to a peak in Jewish unemployment.
- William Roger Louis, Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez, and Decolonization, 2006, p. 391
- Benny Morris, One state, two states:resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict, 2009, p. 66
- Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 48; p. 11 "while the Zionist movement, after much agonising, accepted the principle of partition and the proposals as a basis for negotiation"; p. 49 "In the end, after bitter debate, the Congress equivocally approved – by a vote of 299 to 160 – the Peel recommendations as a basis for further negotiation."
- Abcarius. p. 197
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- "Woodhead commission report".
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- Sykes. p. 205. An accurate translation had been printed in Antonius' "The Arab Awaking", 1938, as well as in extracts in the Daily Mail in 1922.
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- Israel Pocket Library, p. 70. Two pictures of delegations in identical poses.
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- Survey. p. 51
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- Sykes. p. 232
- Sykes. p. 207
- Segev. p. 449
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