On hearing the news, Jews were dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv. The dancing celebrated the November 1947 United Nations partition vote that created a Jewish homeland. At last, Jews would have a safe haven to escape a world that had persecuted them for centuries, fatally compounded by the Holocaust.
While the celebration went on, David Ben Gurion said that he felt like a mourner at a wedding. His acerbic comment on the news was, “But I could not dance. I knew that we faced war and that we would lose the best of our youth.” With his usual political insight, Ben Gurion was right. For the six months following the November partition vote, Britain would retain control over Palestine and serve as a shield between the newborn Jewish state and five Arab countries posed to attack it. At the end of those six months, the British shield would be gone and Israel would be an open target.
Ben Gurion was not alone with his fear about a multi-Arab nation attack on Israel. The United States and Great Britain were equally worried. Both nations had just gone through a world war that left Britain close to bankruptcy. Neither country wanted to be forced into another war in the dusty corner of the Middle East. No less a military expert than General George Marshall, President Truman’s secretary of state, predicted that unprepared Israel could not win a war with the national armies of five Arab states. Marshall was also concerned that because of the ensuing chaos in the Middle East, Russia would gain a long sought-after opening to exert influence there.
During the six-month interim period, the United States introduced a motion before the Security Council that the UN should take control of Palestine under a UN Trusteeship, thereby revoking the previous UN statehood vote. Ben Gurion immediately renounced the Trusteeship proposal with his strongly worded statement, “It is we who will decide the fate of Palestine.…. The Jewish state exists because we will defend it.”
The launch of Jewish statehood was further called into question, this time by Jews themselves. As that fateful day of May 15, 1948 approached when Israel would announce its independence to the world, doubts arose about the wisdom of declaring formal statehood. Along with General Marshall’s warning about fighting the combined forces of five Arab armies, Marshall also made it clear that America would not rescue Jews from an Arab invasion. This, and the sobering thought of heavy Jewish losses, was a major consideration of Jewish leaders.
On May 12, two days before the independence announcement was to be made, Ben Gurion convened 10 members of the Provisional Council, the Jewish government in waiting, to debate the question as to whether this was the right time to declare the independence of the Jewish state. When General Galili, head of the Haganah, was asked whether the Jews could win the upcoming war, he replied, “The situation will be very grave …the best we can tell you is that we have a fifty-fifty chance.”
The heavy question loomed of whether to call for statehood, knowing the sacrifice that Jews would have to make, or put off the decision to a more politically opportune time. The decision would be difficult and epic; a reborn Israel hung on the vote.
Before calling the fateful vote by the Council, Ben Gurion asserted his leadership by saying, “Flouting the experts, I dare to believe in victory.” The vote was taken. There were six votes for statehood; four votes against. By a matter of just one vote, the historic decision was made to establish a Jewish state.