April-06-2018 Israel’s 70th anniversary (4)
by Martin Kramer
The May 1948 Vote that Made the State of Israel
III. Thirteen Hours
What exactly happened in that thirteen-hour meeting? For the first 30 years after independence, the most thorough account was that prepared by a little-remembered man named Zeev Sharef. Regarded in his day as Israel’s “number-one civil servant,” Sharef had orchestrated the bureaucratic transition to statehood. He then served as Israel’s first cabinet secretary from 1948 to 1957, and from the 1960s as a cabinet minister, holding the portfolios of commerce and industry, housing, and (briefly) finance. He also implemented the first overhaul of Israel’s internal-revenue system.
It was Sharef (with the help of two stenographers) who kept the minutes of the May 12 meeting of the People’s Administration. Later these minutes would serve him as a partial basis for a book on the birth of Israel entitled Three Days (1959; English translation 1962). Since, at the time, the classified minutes had not yet been released, the relevant chapters of Sharef’s book (in the section entitled “The First Day”) were long considered the insider source for the events of May 12.
Those chapters (like the minutes themselves) are at times confusing, perhaps because, as Sharef writes, “neither the subject matter nor the agenda [of the meeting] had been determined in advance—[instead,] the agenda developed out of the proceedings” as the meeting, chaired by Ben-Gurion, wandered from subject to subject. But some of the major highlights as recounted in the book would become famous.
For example, there was a report by Golda Meyerson (later Meir) on her secret meeting the previous day in Amman with King Abdullah of Transjordan. The bottom line: the king would be joining in the war. “I am very sorry,” she quoted him as saying, apologetically: “I deplore the coming bloodshed and destruction.” Then Shertok briefed the meeting on the American position. His bottom line: people in the know in Washington had reassured him that Marshall didn’t have the final word, and the yishuv “shouldn’t compromise and shouldn’t fear.”
Causing deep unease was the military briefing by Yigal Sukenik (later Yadin). As chief of military operations for the Haganah, and later to become the IDF’s chief of staff, Sukenik assessed that if the Arab armies invaded, “the chances are very much equal” (others would translate that to mean “50-50”). But, he continued, “if I am to be candid, the [enemy’s] advantage is large, if they bring all their fighting force to bear.” Ben-Gurion asked whether a truce would be advisable militarily; Sukenik said yes, it could be, but only if the time could be exploited to prepare for the next round.
The situation of the Jews in besieged Jerusalem also prompted concern. Not only were they cut off (indeed, two members of the People’s Administration were unable to make it to the meeting in Tel Aviv), but the Transjordanian Arab Legion had laid siege to nearby Gush Etzion. In fact it would fall the next day, and its defenders would be massacred—the first decisive loss to an invading force.
Ben-Gurion gave a presentation that seemed at first to echo Sukenik’s doubts. There would be more battlefield defeats and losses, he said, and these might undermine morale. Central command was weak. But he then laid out the conditions for victory. If manpower, weapons, planes, and guns could be mobilized, “it won’t be the ‘picnic’ to which the yishuv has become accustomed lately, but from the perspective of our dynamism . . . we can overcome.” A truce within Palestine would only hinder the Jews’ needed mobilization, while the neighboring Arab states would be free to arm and prepare. His bottom line: “I don’t see any advantage to a truce.”
Sharef himself points to the meandering character of the discussion: “Actually, consideration of an epochal and fateful issue [of declaring the state] was interwoven into the discussion on [a cease-fire in] Jerusalem.” And “the question of whether to accept the American truce proposal at the UN was intercalated into the discussion on the creation of the state.” Every issue, when raised, seemed to bleed into another one, over which opinions divided differently.
“A vote was taken. It was decided by six to four to reject the proposal for a truce.” This is the account that went down in history.
But then, according to Sharef’s book, the meeting came to a decisive culmination in a vote “by a simple show of hands by all ten members of the [People’s] Administration present at the meeting”:
A vote was taken. It was decided by six to four to reject the proposal for a truce. Acceptance would imply postponing the declaration of the state. Rejection, by the raising of hands, meant ipso facto that in two days’ time the state would come into formal being, within the comity of nations.
And this is the account that went down “in history” as the standard version. Over the decades, Israelis would encounter it in a vast array of canonical sources, from the authorized account of the 1948 war, Sefer Toldot Ha-haganah (The History of the Haganah, part 3), to the 1981 documentary film series Amud Ha-esh (Pillar of Fire, episode 19). Ben-Gurion’s biographers, most notably Michael Bar-Zohar, Dan Kurzman, and Shabtai Teveth, also told the same story, with various degrees of embellishment.
Other historians would add details that cast the vote in an even more dramatic light. Zeev Tzachor, Ben-Gurion’s last private secretary, and later a historian at Ben-Gurion University, claimed that nine of the ten members entered the meeting leaning toward delay—and that only Ben-Gurion thought otherwise:
This was Ben-Gurion’s finest hour. Four of the ten didn’t budge from their opposition to the declaration (including two from Mapai, his own party), but he persuaded the other five, who had either wavered or opposed the declaration, and they backed his position. Now there were six supporters against four opponents. The American proposal was rejected.
Ben-Gurion thus won this “dramatic vote, perhaps the most important in our history,” and he won it alone.
The story is also repeated, with variations, in just about every standard English-language history of Israel’s birth, from best-selling journalists like Dan Kurzman in Genesis 1948 (1970) and Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in O Jerusalem! (1972) to scholars like Martin Gilbert in Israel: A History (1998), Anita Shapira in Israel: A History (2012), and Daniel Gordis in Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (2016). Here are excerpts:
• Kurzman (who admits to “using the techniques of the novelist”):
“And now we will vote on whether to accept the armistice proposal,” Ben-Gurion declared. Had he made them understand? Could they hear the whispers of the fainthearted millions who had perished? . . . When the vote was taken, Ben-Gurion announced the result with the same calm he might have shown in setting the date for the next meeting. Six of the ten council members present had voted to reject the truce plan. Ben-Gurion glanced with the faintest smile at Shertok, who had cast the deciding vote. A state would be proclaimed.
• Collins and Lapierre, in a chapter entitled “By Just One Vote”:
Transfixed by the magnetic personality of their chief, the other leaders fell silent. . . . At his call for those in favor of accepting the truce, Ben-Gurion saw four hands go up. The motion had failed by just one vote. On that one vote had hung the rebirth of the Jewish state.
• Gilbert, in a book published on Israel’s 50th anniversary:
By six votes to four, the proposal [in favor of postponement] was rejected. . . . Midnight had come and gone. A historic decision had been made. A Jewish state—the first for 2,000 years—would come into being,
The discussion was protracted. . . . In the end the decision was six to four to declare statehood, with Ben-Gurion putting all his weight behind it. The council members were taking a tremendous gamble.
Ben-Gurion . . . adamantly opposed any delay. . . . Yet some members of the yishuv’s leadership disagreed. . . . Ben-Gurion insisted that for Jewish sovereignty it might be “now or never” . . . By a slim margin of 6-4, the People’s Administration voted in Tel Aviv on May 12, 1948, to declare the first sovereign Jewish state since Judea had fallen two millennia earlier.
And this is just a sampling; the story has been endlessly repeated because its drama is simply irresistible. Indeed, it is a modern iteration of the story of Exodus, with Ben-Gurion in the role of Moses, prodding doubters to believe in themselves and defy the dangers on the route to freedom in their own land.
(To be continued.)