In the months before the U.N. vote to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states in November 1947, the Jewish Agency leadership had to overcome a series of foreign policy obstacles to the establishment of a Jewish state.
Thus, little time was devoted to writing Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Evolving a declaration was put off until a month before the state was declared May 15, 1948.
Pressing political and strategic matters prevailed. At the United Nations before the partition vote, Jewish Agency diplomats lobbied feverishly to obtain first the U.N. proposal to suggest a two-state solution, then again the necessary two-thirds majority (33-13 with 10 abstentions) in favor of partition.
Almost immediately, the British and Americans colluded to try to reverse the partition vote, seeking to maintain control of Palestine through a trusteeship. Having either the British or Americans take control in some form of trusteeship would have reversed the partition’s vote for a Jewish state.
Zionists in America worked as hard to have a majority vote on partition taken as they did to keep it from being reversed.
In late spring 1948, Britain took the view that its troops could not be expected to enforce the partition resolution against the will of its Arab allies or the Arabs in Palestine. London told its military leaders in Palestine to hand over bases, equipment and road crossings to Arab irregulars. Some of the fiercest fighting in the coming war took place where the British turned over strategic assets to Arab fighters.
In early 1948, the U.S. State Department actively sought to delay the creation of the Jewish state, believing that the small Jewish armies would go down to quick defeat at the hands of hostile Arab neighbors.
The highest-ranking State Department officials feared that a massive Jewish defeat would mean having to send as many as 50,000 American troops to rescue the Jewish population, and that in turn could spawn a Soviet intrusion into the Middle East. That would put Washington and Moscow on an inevitable collision course.
Though Truman recognized Israel within minutes of its statehood declaration, it took the State Department until the end of June 1948 to come to the realization that the Jewish state would succeed.
Zionist efforts to engage in some sort of diplomatic compromise with Arab leaders failed.
In September 1947, two months before the partition resolution passed, Azzam Pasha, the head of the Arab League, said no to members of the Jewish Agency who were seeking a two-state compromise.
He said: “Nations never concede; they fight. You won’t get anything by peaceful means or compromise. You can perhaps get something, but only by the force of arms. We shall try to defeat you. I’m not sure we’ll succeed, but we’ll try. We were able to drive out the Crusaders, but on the other hand, we lost Spain and Persia. It may be that we shall lose Palestine. But it’s too late to talk of peaceful solutions.”
By January 1948, the newly formed Arab Liberation Army attacked northern Jewish settlements at Dan and Kfar Szold.
Golda Myerson (Meir), a key member of the Jewish Agency’s foreign affairs team, tried to persuade Jordan’s King Abdullah not to join the fight with Israel. Brutal clashes between Jewish and Arab forces continued until 1949 when armistice agreements were signed between Israel and four neighboring Arab states.
No agreement was signed with a Palestinian delegation, in part because the Arab League would not allow them to be represented in talks with Israel. The reasons for Palestinian losses and flight from Palestine, as well as those for Zionist successes, are well documented by authoritative Palestinian writers and reputable Israeli observers, including Yigal Allon.
Diplomatic and military issues preoccupied Jewish leaders in the half-year before statehood. Final decisions about the state’s name, the capital and the wording of the declaration were put off until April and May.
Ten members of the provisional government of the new state, led by David Ben-Gurion, decided May 12 to go forward with the decision made a month earlier by the Zionist Executive Council, the highest body of the Zionist Organization, to declare independence as of May 15.
Moshe Shertok (Sharett), who served as the head of the political section of the Jewish Agency, was the primary author of the declaration’s first draft. It recounted Jewish and Zionist history and relied on the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution for conceptual and language guidance.
Ben-Gurion reportedly secured a safe deposit box at a bank in Tel Aviv before reading the declaration at 4 p.m. Friday, May 14, so that the original document could be immediately placed there for safekeeping during the expected Egyptian air force bombing of the city.
The Israeli Declaration of Independence is divided into four parts, explaining the historical and international legal case for the existence of a Jewish state in the land of Israel; the self-evident right of the Jewish people to claim statehood; the actual declaration of statehood; and statements about how the state would operate with citizen rights.
Comparisons of the American and Israeli declarations are instructive.
Both assert the right to control their destinies and be free of despotic abuses. Both proclaim the importance of liberty and freedom, stating them as basic human and natural rights. Both promise safeguards for the individual and state the objective to foster economic well-being. Both say nothing about national borders.
Unlike the American declaration, the Israeli version contains a list of historical benchmarks linking the people to the land. American colonists at most had a century and a half linking them or their ancestors to the land where they wanted a state. The Jewish link to Eretz Yisrael was a re-establishment of Jewish kingdoms. The Israeli declaration also includes centuries of survival against those who sought Jewish physical annihilation.
Unlike the American document, the Israeli declaration proclaims legitimacy to sovereignty from actions by international organizations, namely the League of Nations and the U.N. General Assembly vote in November 1947. No such organizations existed in 1776.
While there were skirmishes between Americans and the British when the American Declaration of Independence was signed, Israel declared its independence in the midst of a full-fledged war for survival with the local Arab population and surrounding Arab countries.
The Israeli declaration includes a statement offering “peace and amity” to its neighbors and a request “to return to the ways of peace.”
Both declarations make reference to a higher authority. The Israeli declaration does not mention religion, but it closes “with trust in the Rock of Israel” (Tzur Yisrael), a reference to G-d in II Samuel 23:3. The American declaration appeals to the “Supreme Judge” and “protection of the Divine.”
The Israeli declaration appeals to Diaspora Jews for support and encourages immigration to Israel. Later, when a constitution was not ratified, the phrase “guaranteeing freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” became the foundation for civil liberties in Israel. Civil rights were later stipulated in Israel’s Basic Laws.
Eight hours after Ben-Gurion read the declaration, Egyptian planes dropped their first bombs on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Zionist state builders and Israeli political leaders had for half a century kept their eyes on the prize.
In the 50 years after Theodor Herzl published “Jewish State,” Zionists with considerable difficulty built the physical and demographic infrastructure for a state.