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Daniel Mandel: Interviewed about his new book, The Undercover Zionist

Frontpage Interview's guest today is Daniel Mandel, a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and Director of the ZOA Center for Middle East Policy. He is the author of the new book, H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist.

FP: Daniel Mandel welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Mandel: Pleasure to be here, Jamie.

FP: What inspired you to write this book?

Mandel: I'm a historian with a long interest in the making of the modern Middle East yet I came to this subject almost by accident. In the 1990s, when looking at possible topics for my doctorate, I recalled once reading in passing that Herbert Vere Evatt, a statesman well-remembered in Australia but not widely abroad, had played a possibly major role in the passage of the 1947 UN partition resolution that sought to create Arab and Jewish states on the territory of the British Palestine Mandate.

So I delved into what little was written of the subject by two or three predecessors who had examined some Australian and Israeli documents. They had clearly established that when the matter was turned over by Britain to the UN at the start of 1947, Evatt had decided to take an active role on the issue, but they differed on his motives and conduct. Interestingly, one of these researchers came to the conclusion that Evatt was actually a foe of Zionism; others thought otherwise. So I wanted to answer the historian's question – 'What actually happened and why?" and to that end I decided to examine not only Evatt's own private papers and the Australian and Israeli archives as my predecessors had done, but also those of the British, the Americans, the UN itself and other sources on which I could lay my hands and compose a consecutive account – a narrative, so much out of favor these days with many of my fellow historians – to answer these questions.

FP: Tell us a bit about Evatt and the role he played in the establishment of Israel.

Mandel: Evatt was Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs in the Australian Labor governments from 1941 until 1949. Distinguished lawyers sometimes pass from politics to the bench; Evatt reversed the usual progression. He was a distinguished jurist who had come to politics from the bench of the highest court in the land, the High Court of Australia, to which he had been appointed a justice at the youthful age of 36. He first came to international notice with his remarkable performance at the 1945 San Francisco Conference which established the United Nations, at which he had been not only one of the architects of the UN Charter but additionally had played an astonishing role in defense of the rights of smaller powers.

Evatt was not an attractive personality. He was brilliant but erratic. Israel's Abba Eban said of him that, "Behind an abrasive exterior lurked an abrasive interior." One of his political opponents also put it well – "He was aggressive, selfish, suspicious, tortuous and extremely inconsiderate of others, including those who worked for him." Some of these subordinates and contemporaries, almost none of them now living, shared with me anecdotes of their demeaning and traumatic experiences.

Evatt was additionally a man of contradictions, both an idealist and schemer. He was also extremely secretive – many of his meetings with foreign diplomats are not recorded in the Australian documents – so without seeing the other archives mentioned, it would have been hard to piece together with just whom he talked and what had passed between them. Evatt later published an account of his UN work, Task of Nations, but at least on this issue, it is almost uniformly bland and unrevealing and sometimes misleading.

When the British turned over Palestine to the UN, most governments were reluctant to deal with the problem, so an investigative committee composed of representatives from eleven nations, including Australia, was dispatched to investigate. When this committee reported back, it voted 7-3 in favor of partition with one abstention – Australia. With his eye on the UN General Assembly presidency, Evatt was fearful of alienating the Arab bloc, so he had instructed his delegates to abstain. However, when he lost the vote for the presidency later that year, he was compensated with the chairmanship of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question, which had the task of producing a recommendation for the General Assembly to put to a vote.

It was here that Evatt played not only an important role, but one that could be said to be decisive. There were so many forces at work to delay a decision and to prevent the adoption of partition that Evatt resorted to all sorts of stratagems to outwit its opponents while trying also to cover his tracks so that he wouldn't incur Arab displeasure. He succeeded in the former but not, ultimately, in the latter. Nevertheless, he managed to win the General Assembly presidency the next year, without Arab support, something unthinkable today.

Evatt insisted on his committee completing its work and recommending partition so the General Assembly could put it to a vote before the end of the 1947 General Assembly session. On the last day of its session, November 29, 1947, the Assembly approved partition by a vote of 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions. Both the US and USSR voted for partition and were the first to recognize Israel. With the Cold War emerging, this proved the last time that the two superpowers cooperated for years to come. Despite the pressures and trying to be all things to all people, Evatt did what he had privately told the Zionists he would do – have partition adopted.

FP: Why is the partition resolution so important? Wouldn't Israel have come into existence pretty much as it did by force of arms anyway?

Mandel: That argument has been made before, but I believe it to be mistaken. Israel's existence was secured on the battlefield, but what would have occurred if partition had not been adopted? Would the superpowers still have supported Israel? It has been argued that their support, based on self-interest, would have flowed regardless, but this is highly unlikely. The US and USSR both had strong reasons to act otherwise; the scales were almost evenly matched. In the US, President Truman had to contend with the opposition of much of the State Department, the Secretary of State, George Marshall, the Defense Secretary, James Forrestal, the combined military service chiefs and so on. In the Soviet Union, Stalin had any number of reasons to support the Arabs states and was later to do so. The partition decision allowed both to support Zionism in a way not otherwise open to them on congenial terms.

In those days, UN decisions carried a gravitas unimaginable today. If for example the UN had established a trusteeship or awarded the whole of Palestine to Arab control, would Truman have extended recognition to a Jewish state arising in defiance of such decisions? It is most unlikely. Israel might still have come into existence – but have been gradually snuffed out. As it is, it had to wage a bitter war of survival – though that would be unknown to readers today wholly dependent on the writings of the so-called 'new historians' of the first Arab-Israeli war.

FP: In American terms, Evatt was a liberal. So were a number of significant supporters of the Jewish state idea. Many of its opponents, in contrast, were conservatives. This is largely the opposite of the situation today. What do you see as the reasons?

Mandel: It might surprise people today, but the most viscerally pro-Zionist major publication in America at the time was the Nation, then under the editorship of Freda Kirchwey. Kirchwey and Evatt were very close and Kirchwey's papers, now deposited at Harvard, show that she interceded often and strenuously with Evatt to support Zionism at different points. Liberals were not tepid in their support for Zionism, which they saw as a righteous cause for a small, endangered people trying to build a state on egalitarian principles in the face of reactionary Arab hostility. In contrast conservatives, whether isolationist or not, tended to see Zionism as a tiresome complication for American foreign policy.

Today, many conservatives have recoiled from isolationism and adopted a muscular form of liberal internationalism. This has meant that spreading and supporting democracy has become a conservative idea. It is therefore unsurprising that conservative 'realists' like Brent Scowcroft are far cooler towards Israel than conservative leaders today. Without doubt, there is a liberal influence to be found in today's conservatism. Conversely, that heritage still means something to some liberals – Tony Blair's support for removing Saddam could be described as Wilsonian internationalism revisited. Unsurprisingly, he is better disposed towards Israel than many liberal leaders today and certainly more so than much of his party.

Today's liberals are suspicious of supporting democracies at war or under siege. Since Palestinian society came under the control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, the rule of law is unknown and the population has been remorselessly radicalized. Successive Palestinian polls show consistent support for diverse measures, peaceful and violent, to eliminate Israel. In these circumstances, support for Israel ought to come naturally to liberals. Yet attitudes have changed because liberalism has been infected with radicalism and its accompanying moral and cultural relativism that have led it to retreat from ideas of supporting democracy or opposing totalitarianism.

Many contemporary liberals are therefore unable to assert that the Arab world is wrong to seek to eliminate an Israel it sees as an illegitimate colonialism. An earlier type of liberal would have vigorously disputed this formulation. Latter-day liberals tend to lack the confidence or conviction to do so. Even where they do, many of them are still prone to identify Israeli conduct, not Palestinian intention, as lying at the root of continuing conflict. An exception would be the current Australian Labor leader, Kim Beazley, who launched my book when it appeared. But the usual tendency is to regard the solution as consisting of empowering Palestinians at Israel's expense. Incidentally, this wishful thinking has infected some conservatives. To judge from many of its statements, the Bush Administration seems to believe that Palestinians merely want a state alongside Israel and seems willing to help them build it. If so, I call this the Israel exception, because the Administration policy of eradicating terrorist regimes does not correspond with serving as midwife to a new one.

FP: What was the campaign that supported the "internationalization" of Jerusalem and why did Evatt support it?

Mandel: The idea of internationalizing Jerusalem – placing a multinational UN authority in control of the city rather than Jews or Muslims – became an element of the partition plan largely at Evatt's insistence. The reason for his insistence lay in domestic Australian politics: the Catholic vote, both in Australia and within Australian Labor, was highly influential, evidenced by the fact that 9 of 19 of his cabinet colleagues were Catholic, and once the Vatican came out in favor of complete internationalization of the city, Catholic countries supported this stance.

In discussion with the Israeli representative in Australia, Evatt argued that internationalization need not harm Israel's interests; what mattered would be how much authority Israel actually continued to exercise. But as the Vatican was pushing for nothing less than full international control over the city, Evatt felt obliged to support it and Australia actually introduced the resolution at the UN calling for Jerusalem's full internationalization.

However, there is more to the story than that. For reasons I give in my book, there are grounds to believe that Evatt was attempting to look like he was supporting full internationalization but doing so in a way that would not actually result in this occurring. However, Evatt's resolution was altered substantively in a UN committee and the sight of Australia, a non-Catholic country, backing the Vatican position pressured Catholic countries into supporting it. The result was that full internationalization was adopted, despite the opposition of the controlling powers, Israel and Jordan, the US and Britain and a much of the Commonwealth. It is this position – which probably would not have been adopted but for Evatt's conduct, in turn motivated by domestic political calculations long forgotten – that is still advocated in many quarters and which has led most countries not to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The law of unintended consequences is alive and well.

FP: Daniel Mandel, thank you for joining us today.

Mandel: A pleasure to have spoken with you.

Read entire article at Frontpagemag.com