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Dr. Mandel is associate director of the Middle East Forum. He earned his PhD from the University of Melbourne (Australia), where he is also a fellow. His articles have appeared in Australian and U.S. publications, including the Middle East Quarterly. He is the author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (London: Routledge, 2004). He addressed the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on June 15, 2004.

Israel's creation depended heavily on the actions of H.V. Evatt, the enigmatic Australian statesman who served as president of the U.N. General Assembly at the time of Israel's admission to the United Nations. A brilliant jurist and Labor attorney-general and external affairs minister, Evatt first came to international prominence as an architect of the U.N. Charter at the 1945 San Francisco conference, which saw the world body established. The New York Times named him the "outstanding figure of the conference."

Evatt then guided the 1947 Palestine partition plan through the U.N.; in so doing, he transformed the history of the modern Middle East. Yet researching his role is unusually difficult, because Evatt was a cagey individual who kept no diary, corresponded little and had a tendency to appropriate official papers. He was given to spying on his own bureaucracy and engineered friends and associates into positions of power. It was thus that he placed his confidante, Sam Atyeo, and a career diplomat, John Hood, to handle the Palestine brief when the British turned the mandate over to the United Nations.

The Context

When Evatt became president of the General Assembly, the U.N. was still in its infancy and was invested with a lot of hope and respect by its then democratic majority. With Palestine turned over to the U.N., 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 commission reported back it voted seven to three in favor of partition with one abstention – Australia. With his eyes on the U.N. presidency, Evatt was fearful of alienating the Arab bloc. However, when he lost the vote that year he was compensated with the chairmanship of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question. As the pressures increased and the State Department maneuvered to torpedo partition, Evatt moved the competing proposals into two separate sub committees. This allowed a detailed partition plan to be prepared unobstructed by the Arab states and their supporters.


Evatt's committee ended up recommending partition to the General Assembly, but only after the narrowest of defeats for an Arab proposal to refer the issue to the International Court of Justice. Evatt insisted on recommending partition 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. With the Cold War emerging, this proved the last time that the two superpowers cooperated for years to come.

After Israel's emergence in May 1948, Evatt opposed tenaciously Britain's efforts to prevent the entire British Commonwealth from recognizing her. In the end, Britain had to bow to the verdict of Israel's survival on the battlefield and in March 1949, in the last week of Evatt's presidency of the Assembly, Israel was admitted to the U.N.

The Internationalization of Jerusalem

The idea of internationalizing Jerusalem had been made an element of the partition plan, largely at Evatt's insistence. The reason for his insistence was domestic Australian politics: the Catholic vote, both in Australia and in his own party, was highly influential, evidenced by the fact that 13 of his 20 cabinet colleagues were Catholic, and once the Vatican came out in favor of full internationalization, Catholic countries supported this stance.

Although Evatt saw that full internationalization would be very difficult to put into practice and recognized that a war had changed the landscape, he remained committed to the idea of internationalization. In discussion with the Israeli representative in Australia, he argued that internationalization would not harm Israel's interests; what mattered would be how much authority Israel obtained in the territory it sought.

Thus, Evatt introduced a resolution at the U.N. for Jerusalem's internationalization. The sight of Australia, a non-Catholic country, backing the Vatican position pressured Catholic countries into supporting it. However, Evatt's resolution, which contained a subtle clause requiring an international committee to meet in 12 months to review the issue, was omitted in subsequent bargaining. The result was that full internationalization was adopted, a position that is still advocated in many quarters and which has led most countries not to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Evatt, perhaps more than anyone else, was responsible for the partition plan being navigated through the U.N. His role demonstrates the sometimes decisive part played by individuals in affecting the course of history and provides an insight into one of the reasons Jerusalem remains such a vexed issue to this day.

This summary account was written by Matt de la Fuente, a research assistant at the Middle East Forum.