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London Conference (1939)


London Conference (1939)

London Conference, St. James' Palace, February 1939. Palestinian delegates (foreground), Left to right: Fu'ad Saba, Yaqub Al-Ghussein, Neville Chamberlain presiding. To his right is Lord Halifax, and to his left, Malcolm MacDonald

The London Conference (1939), or St James Palace Conference, was called by the British Government to plan the future governance of Palestine and an end of the Mandate. It opened on 7 February 1939 in St James's Palace after which the Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald held a series of separate meetings with an Arab and a Jewish delegation, because the Arab delegation refused to sit in the same room as the Jewish delegation. When Maconald first announced the proposed conference he made clear that if no agreement was reached the government would impose a solution. The process came to an end after five and a half weeks with the British announcing proposals which were later published as the 1939 White Paper


  • Background 1
  • Preparation 2
  • Meetings with the Arab Delegation 3
  • Meetings with the Jewish Agency Delegation 4
  • Outcome 5
  • notes 6
  • References 7


On 1936 Arabs in Palestine went for a 1936 general strike. During the strike, Palestinian Arab leaders formed the Higher National Committee (HNC).

Following the strike the British Government established the Peel Commission, chaired by Lord Peel, to investigate the causes of the general strike, and to make recommendations to the British government, in the light of commitments made in the Balfour Declaration, to the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The commission concluded that the only solution was to partition the country into a Jewish State and an Arab State . The two main Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and Ben Gurion had convinced the Zionist Congress to approve equivocally the Peel recommendations as a basis for more negotiation.[1][2][3]

The partition idea that was rejected by the Arabs. On 1 October 1937, with a resurgence of violence following the publication of the Peel Commission proposals, the HNC and all nationalist committees were outlawed. Five prominent Palestinians, including three members of the HNC where deported to the Sechelles. The remaining members of the HNC were either already out of the country or like Haj Amin Husseini went into hiding and then into exile in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut.[4]

Over the summer of 1938, anti-government and inter-communal violence in Palestine reached new heights. Arab militants were in control of large areas of the countryside and controlled several towns including the Old City, Jerusalem. The Jewish underground set off a series of lethal bombs in Arab markets across the country and the Jewish Special Night Squads launched their first operations.[5] In the autumn the British authorities launched a counter-offensive. More British troops were sent and Martial Law was introduced.[6]

In 1938, a second commission was sent to Palestine to report on how to implement the partition proposals. This commission, chaired by Sir John Woodhead, was boycotted by the Palestinian Arabs whose leaders had been deported or were in exile and who had no wish to discuss the partitioning of the country.[7] The Woodhead Commission considered three different plans, one of which was based on the Peel plan. Reporting in 1938, the Commission rejected the Peel plan primarily on the grounds that it could not be implemented without a massive forced transfer of Arabs (an option that the British government had already ruled out).[8] With dissent from some of its members, the Commission instead recommended a plan that would leave the Galilee under British mandate, but emphasised serious problems with it that included a lack of financial self-sufficiency of the proposed Arab State.[8] The British Government accompanied the publication of the Woodhead Report by a statement of policy rejecting partition as impracticable due to "political, administrative and financial difficulties".[9]

Coinciding with the publication of the Woodhead Commission Report on 9 November 1938, the government issued a statement that it wished to end the Mandate, and that Britain would continue to govern Palestine until a new regime was established. To this end the Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald invited an Arab and a Jewish delegation to London to discuss what form of government should be established. The statement concluded that if agreement was not reached with the two delegations the government would put forward and implement its own proposals.[10] The Arab delegation was to include Palestinian Arabs as well as representatives from five, pro-British, Arab regimes. The Jewish delegation was selected by the Jewish Agency and included Jews from the Diaspora as well as the Yishuv.

By the winter of 1938 British thinking was dominated by the territorial expansion of Nazi Germany. In the event of a European war it was essential that Britain maintained control over Egypt, Iraq and Palestine. It was certain that concessions would be offered to the Arabs and that the Zionists would be disappointed.[11]


HNC leaders prior to their release from exile in the Seychelles, December 1938. Hussein al Khalidi seated left, Fuad Saba standing right. Ahmad Hilmi centre.

Some Palestinian leaders welcomed the proposed conference but it soon became clear that there was not going to be any alternative to dealing with the disbanded Higher National Committee (HNC) and former Mufti of Jerusalem Amin Husseini. On 23 November the Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, repeated his refusal to allow Amin Husseini to be a delegate, but announced his willingness to allow the five Palestinian leaders held in the Sechelles take part in the conference. This was part of an agreement made in London following informal meetings between MacDonald and Musa Alami to ensure a Palestinian Arab presence at the conference. MacDonald also assured Alami that the Mandate would be replaced with a treaty.[12] The deportees were released on 19 December and allowed to travel to Cairo and then, with Jamal Husseini, to Beirut where a new Higher National Committee was established. Amin Husseini, who was living in Beirut, was not a member of the resulting delegation but it was under his direction. This can be seen in the refusal to accept any delegates from the National Defence Party (NDP). Attempts to form an alternative, more pro-British and less militant, Palestinian delegation led to two additional NDP delegates being added to the Palestinian representation after the start of the conference.[13]

The five Arab regimes invited were the Kingdoms of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and the Emirate of Transjordan - all under the British sphere of influence. Egypt, Iraq and Saudi had been instrumental in ending the 1936 strike.[14]

The Zionists had reacted negatively to the proposed conference and debated whether they should attend.[15] Their delegation was led by Chaim Weizmann in the name of the Jewish Agency. To emphasise its claim to represent all Jews, and to counterbalance the presence of representatives from the Arab states, the delegation included members from the USA, Europe, Britain, South Africa, and Palestine.[16]

The conference was opened by the Prime Minister, Nevil Chamberlain on 7 February 1939 at St James Palace, London. The Arab delegation refused to attend any joint sessions with the Jewish Agency delegation so there were two ceremonies. This was at the insistence of the Palestinian Arab delegates. The first ceremony, for the Arab delegation, was at 10.30 a.m., the second for the Jewish Agency delegation was at 11.45.[17][18]

Meetings with the Arab Delegation

The Palestinian Arab delegation was led by

  • A Survey of Palestine - prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. Reprinted 1991 by the The Institute of Palestine Studies, Washington. Volume one: ISBN 0-88728-211-3.
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  • Antonius, George (1938) The Arab Awakening. The Story of the Arab National Movement. Hamish Hamilton. (1945 edition)
  • Barbour, Nevill Nisi Dominus - A Survey of the Palestine Controversy. First published 1946. The Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut 1969. Reprint series No. 3.
  • Bar-Zohar, Michael (1978) Ben-Gurion. Translated by Peretz Kidron. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London. ISBN 0-297-77401-8. Originally published in Israel 1977. p. 94
  • Cohen, Aharon (1970) Israel and the Arab World. W.H. Allen. ISBN 0 491 00003 0.
  • Israel Pocket Library (1973) History From 1880. Ketter Books, Jerusalem.
  • Kayyali, Abdul-Wahhab Said (1981) Palestine. A Modern History Croom Helm. ISBN 086199-007-2.
  • Khalidi, Walid (1984) Before their Diaspora: A photographic history of the Palestinians, 1876-1948. Institute of Palestine Studies. ISBN 0-88728-143-5.
  • Marlowe, John (1946) Rebellion in Palestine. The Cresset Press, London.
  • Segev, Tom (2000) One Palestine, Complete - Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate. Little, Brown & Co. ISBN 0-316-64859-0.
  • Teveth, Shabtai (1987) Ben-Gurion. The Burning Ground. 1886-1948. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-35409-9.
  • Weizmann, Chaim (1949) Trial and Error. Hamish Hamilton. (2nd edition. April 1949).


  1. ^ a b William Roger Louis, Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez, and Decolonization, 2006, p. 391
  2. ^ a b Benny Morris, One state, two states:resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict, 2009, p. 66
  3. ^ a b Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 48; p. 11 "while the Zionist movement, after much agonising, accepted the principle of partition and the proposals as a basis for negotiation"; p. 49 "In the end, after bitter debate, the Congress equivocally approved – by a vote of 299 to 160 – the Peel recommendations as a basis for further negotiation."
  4. ^ Abcarius. p. 197
  5. ^ Cohen. pp. 210,211
  6. ^ Kayyali. pp. 214,215
  7. ^ Survey of Palestine, p. 47; Abcarius, p. 197; Cohen, p. 213
  8. ^ a b "Woodhead commission report". 
  9. ^ Statement by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, Presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament by Command of His Majesty November, 1938. [2]
  10. ^ Marlowe, p. 208
  11. ^ Marlow. pp. 208, 219; Teveth, p. 697
  12. ^ Abcarius. p. 204.
  13. ^ Marlowe. pp. 209–215
  14. ^ Abcarius. p. 203
  15. ^ Cohen. p. 213
  16. ^ Marlowe. pp. 214, 215.
  17. ^ Bar-Zohar, p.94
  18. ^ Teveth, Burning Ground. p.696; Marlowe. p.215.
  19. ^ Marlowe. p. 12
  20. ^ Weizmann, p. 502
  21. ^ Khalidi, p. 230
  22. ^ Marlowe. p. 213; Survey. p. 49
  23. ^ Marlowe. p. 215
  24. ^ Sykes. p. 205. An accurate translation had been printed in Antonius' "The Arab Awaking", 1938, as well as extracts in the Daily Mail in 1922
  25. ^ Barbour, pp. 200, 201
  26. ^ Cohen. p. 232; Abcarius. p. 205; Survey. p. 50. "unable to reach agreement upon an interpretation of the correspondence."; Marlowe. p. 216
  27. ^ Sykes. pp. 203,204
  28. ^ Marlowe. p. 217
  29. ^ Abcarius. pp. 205,206; Survey. p. 51; Marlowe. p. 218
  30. ^ Israel Pocket Library, p. 70. Two pictures of delegations in identical poses.
  31. ^ Teveth, The Burning Ground. p. 696; Cohen. p. 213
  32. ^ Teveth, Burning Ground. pp. 698, 705
  33. ^ Teveth, Burning Ground. pp. 681,699.
  34. ^ Marlowe. pp. 215, 216
  35. ^ Sykes. pp. 202, 204; Abcarias. p. 197; Cohen. p, 209
  36. ^ Bar-Zohar, pp. 96, 97
  37. ^ O'Brien. p. 237.
  38. ^ Sykes. pp. 202, 203
  39. ^ Sykes. p. 204; Cohen pp. 213, 214; Marlowe. p. 216
  40. ^ Survey. p. 50
  41. ^ Monroe, Elizabeth (1973) Philby of Arabia. Faber & Faber. (1980 Quartet edition).ISBN 0-7043-3346-5. pp. 219, 221, 222
  42. ^ Teveth, Burning Ground. pp. 702, 703, 704
  43. ^ Teveth, Burning Ground. p. 695.
  44. ^ Marlowe. p. 218
  45. ^ Bar-Zohar, p. 98
  46. ^ Teveth, Burning Ground. p. 705.
  47. ^ O'Brien. p. 238; Sykes. p. 207; Survey. pp. 90–99. Full text of White Paper.
  48. ^ Survey. p. 51
  49. ^ Khalidi. pp. 115–117; Marlow. p. 217
  50. ^ Survey. pp. 51–54; Segev, p. 441
  51. ^ Sykes. p. 232
  52. ^ Sykes. p. 207
  53. ^ Segev. p. 449


Ben Gurion wrote in his diary: "This is not the last word." He later claimed that the Prime Minister, Nevil Chamberlain, had explicitly told him that the policy would not outlive the war.[53]

In Zionist circles Herbert Samuel was accused of being responsible for some of the ideas in the White Paper.[52]

On 17 April the Etzel, claimed to have killed more than 130 people over this period.[50] There was also an increase in illegal immigrants, with 6,323 arriving between April and October, leading to a peak in Jewish unemployment.[51]

Ben Zvi addresses anti-White Paper demonstration, Jerusalem, 18 May 1939

After the delegations had left London the British made a further attempt to get Arab approval by suggesting a speeded up transfer of power, conditional on an end to violence, and involvement of the League of Nations if conditions were not right for independence after 10 years.[48] In May the HNC delegation announced its rejection of the White Paper, with Amin Husseini imposing the decision on the majority of delegates who were in favour of accepting. This was a tactical blunder which did not help the Arab National Council in any way. It is suggested that he had to refuse to deal with the British in order to maintain his leadership of the actual rebels in Palestine.[49]

These proposals were conditional on the end of violence in Palestine. If after ten years no agreement had been reached about the form of government the British would reconsider the situation.[47]

  • A limit to Jewish immigration over the following five years after which numbers would be set by agreement with the Palestinian Arabs; restrictions on what parts of the country Jews could buy land.
  • Gradual introduction of Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, into senior administrative posts.
  • After a period of ten years the British would transfer all powers to a representative Government.

The Colonial Secretary's final proposals, which were published on 17 May 1939, were:

Two days before the end of the conference Hitler's army began its occupation of Czechoslovakia.


On 17 March Weizmann sent a letter to MacDonald: "The Jewish delegation, having given profound consideration to the proposals placed before it by His Majesty's Government on 15 March 1939, regrets that it is unable to accept them as a basis for agreement, and has therefore decided to disband." [45][46]

On 3 March Ben Gurion failed to get the delegation to disband and it was agreed that they should remain in London.[42] On 4 March Ben Gurion became ill and had to withdraw for several days.[43] By 16 March many of the delegates had left London.[44]

St John Philby, who was present as an advisor to the Saudi delegates, held a lunch at his home on 28 February with Weizmann, Ben Gurion and Faud Hamza, the Saudi foreign affairs official, at which Philby put forward his own proposals. No further meetings took place though Philby had discussions with Weizmann and Shertok later in the year.[41]

At the meeting on 24 February 1939 Ben Gurion laid out the Jewish Agency's minimum terms which were the continuation of the Mandate and the rejection of anything that would imply Jewish minority status. At the same meeting MacDonald announced the outlines of the British policy, which was that, after a transition period, Palestine would become an independent state allied to Britain and the Jewish minority would have protected status.[39] On 26th both delegations received a written summary of what was planned. That evening the Jewish Agency delegation refused to attend a government ceremonial dinner in their honour. On 27 February the Mapai newspaper in Palestine, Davar, published a cable from Ben Gurion: "There is a scheme afoot to liquidate the National Home and turn us over to the rule of gang leaders." On the same day a coordinated series of bombs across Palestine killed 38 Arabs.[40] The delegation refused to hold any further formal sessions and reduced its involvement to informal meetings in MacDonald's office.

What went on in the closed meetings was difficult to keep secret. At one point the Jewish Agency delegation was upset by reports of a remark made to the Arab delegation by MacDonald which was taken to be anti-Semitic.[38]

Despite the Palestinian Arab boycott of any meetings with Jewish Agency delegates some meetings did take place with Arab delegates. On the evening of 7 March the British managed to hold an informal meeting between three Arab deligates and four of the Jewish delegates with MacDonald and three other British officials present. The Egyptian delegate, Aly Maher, appealed for a slowing down of Jewish immigration and an end to violence. Weizmann replied suggesting they might be able to find common ground but was interrupted by Ben Gurion who insisted that there could be no slow down. The meeting ended shortly afterwards.[36][37]

The delegation was willing to accept the partition of the country, as recommended by the Peel Commission, but under protest. The 2 main Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and Ben Gurion had convinced the Zionist Congress to approve equivocally the Peel recommendations as a basis for more negotiation.[1][2][3][35]

  • no minority status for the Jewish community in Palestine
  • the Mandate to remain in place
  • Jewish immigration to continue, governed by the capacity of the country to absorb the incomers
  • investment to speed up development in Palestine[34]

After the opening ceremony the meetings were chaired by MacDonald. Weizmann's presentation of the Jewish Agency position reduced to four points:

The Conference marked Ben Gurion becoming the prime mover in Zionist policy-making. It also saw a change in his thinking towards what he called "combatitive Zionism". He believed that the Yeshuv in Palestine was strong enough to defend itself. Out of a population of 440,000 around 45,000 were armed. His priority was that there should be continued and increased immigration. In particular young people of military age.[33]

Also attending were Moshe Sharett, Doris May, Leonard Stein, Berl Katznelson and Blanch Dugdale.[32]

The David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish Agency, who dominated decision making. It was Ben Gurion who argued that the delegation should be in the name of the Jewish Agency rather than be called the Jewish delegation. But since they claimed to represent all Jews it included some non-Zionists such as Sholem Asch and Lord Melchett, as well as the president of Agudat Yisrael. The Zionists from American included Rabbi Stephen Wise and Henrietta Szold. The British Zionists included Selig Brodetsky.[30] A sign of Ben Gurion's power was his success in blocking Lord Herbet Samuel's membership of the delegation.[31]

Meetings with the Jewish Agency Delegation

On 17 March, having warned the delegation the day before, Colonial Secretary MacDonald read a statement outlining the British proposals and closed the conference. There had been fourteen British-Arab sessions. The British proposals were published two months later in what became known as the 1939 White Paper.[29]

On 6 March a member of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry flew from Cairo to Beirut to try to get Amin Husseini to approve concessions being considered by the delegation. Husseini insisted that they continue rejecting the British proposals.[28]

One option discussed with both delegations was the idea of a Jewish canton as part of a Greater Syria - this proposal was quickly rejected by both sides.[27]

The first task the conference set itself was to establish the meaning of a series of letters, written in Arabic, during 1915–1916, between the British Government and the governor of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. Known as the McMahon Correspondence they are credited with encouraging Husseini to call for an Arab revolt against the ruling Ottoman Empire. An Anglo-Arab committee was set up, with the Lord Chancellor presiding, to examine the issue. An official version of the letters was published for the first time.[24] The committee concluded that the Arab perspective had been down-played and that, as of 1918, the British Government had no authority to ignore the views of the existing inhabitants of what was to become Palestine.[25] But the two sides failed to agree on the exact meaning of some of the territorial references, in particular whether "the parts of Syria extending west of Damascus, Hamah, Homs and Aleppo districts" included Palestine.[26]

  • Independence
  • No Jewish National Home in Palestine
  • Replacement of the Mandate by a Treaty
  • End to Jewish immigration[23]

On 9 February Jamal Husseini put forward the Arab position:

Although the Palestinian delegates refused to have any contact with the Jewish Agency delegation some meetings did take place with other Arab delegates (see below).

The Palestinian delegates had meetings with the representatives from the Arab states in Cairo from 17 January. Despite pressure from the other delegates the Palestinian group refused to include any representatives from the National Defence Party (NDP) of Raghib al-Nashashibi. A campaign of violence between the rebels and supporters of the NDP led to 136 deaths in 1939. The NDP claimed to represent a majority of the upper classes and demanded representation at the London conference. The British let it be known that if agreement could not be reached they would talk to two Palestinian Arab delegations. Raghib al-Nashashibi and Yacoub Farraj joined the Arab delegation two days after opening ceremony.[22]

[21], both future kings of Saudi Arabia.Khalid and Prince Faisal The Saudis were represented by Prince [20].Nuri Said and Iraq was represented by its Prime Minister, Aly Maher The Egyptian delegate was [19]

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