Many Israelis celebrated Wednesday as a “holiday” marking the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Partition Plan. In the eyes of much of the Israeli public, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 marked the first time in two millennia that the world gave its approval to independence for the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland.
But on November 29 there was another significant anniversary, one that Israelis — and even Palestinians — curiously neglected to mark: Exactly five years ago, the very same General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized “Palestine” as a state, and called for an Israeli withdrawal from all territories it captured in 1967.
Both resolutions were not legally binding but laden with symbolism, triggering strong emotions — either hopes or fears — among Jews and Arabs.
In 1947, 33 of 57 UN member states voted in favor of the original Partition Plan. It called for the establishment in Mandatory Palestine of a Jewish and of an Arab state, and for the internationalization of Jerusalem. Thirteen countries opposed and 10 abstained.
The history of the resolution is well-known: The Jews accepted it and the Arabs rejected it, and thus it was never implemented. It took another six months before the State of Israel was finally proclaimed, on the day the British Mandate ended.
And yet, Israel this week celebrated November 29, 1947, as a major milestone on the way to independence. The day is generally viewed as on par or perhaps even surpassing in importance the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the UK promised to support a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
“For Israel it was a moment that turned an age-old dream of self-determination into a real-life miracle,” Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon declared Wednesday at a special General Assembly session to mark the vote.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday called the Partition Plan “a prelude to Israel’s rebirth as an independent nation.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon waxed biblical in describing the vote.
“To us, it is a moment of intense emotion, and despite the fact that 70 years have gone by, we still live those moments as if they just happened now,” he said in a video message posted to his Twitter account. “In the long history of the Jewish people, from the kingdoms of Judea and Israel to the modern State of Israel, we will never forget that historical moment and we will cherish it forever.”
#UNVotesIsrael @Tweeting1947 – 70 years to @UN vote on the creation of #Israel . The #UN fulfilled the vision of our prophets and recognized the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty ???????? pic.twitter.com/GbMPWTacTX
— Emmanuel Nahshon (@EmmanuelNahshon) November 29, 2017
Unsurprisingly, the Palestinians mourned the 70th anniversary of the Partition Plan, lamenting what they see as the first portent of their nakba the following year.
“With the partition of historic Palestine, the victimization and suffering of the Palestinian people began,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the PLO’s executive committee. “The State of Israel was created at the expense of the indigenous people of the land who were violently uprooted.”
The Palestinian envoy to Great Britain, Manuel Hassassian, said Resolution 181 was “racist” and “led to… ethnic cleansing and dispossession” and the “daily systematic violence, discrimination and regime of fear of Israel’s brutal occupation.”
They and other top Palestinian officials noted that 40 years ago the UN designated November 29 as the “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.” They took the vote’s 70th anniversary this week as an opportunity to urge the world to take concrete steps to force Israel into a full withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Jewish state captured in 1967.
But in countless statements marking the event, neither Israelis nor Palestinians noted UN General Assembly Resolution A/67/L.28, which was passed in 2012.
Besides according “Palestine” nonmember observer state status in the UN, the resolution reaffirmed “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to independence in their State of Palestine on the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967.” It also endorsed the Palestinians’ desire to become full-fledged members of the UN (though that can only be effected by the Security Council, where so far the US has vetoed all such attempts).
Nearly three-quarters of voting countries — 138 — backed the text; only nine opposed and 41 abstained.
Israel, of course, vehemently rejected the resolution. The only way to achieve Palestinian statehood is by “direct negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah that would lead to a secure and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Israel’s then-ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, said at the time.
Invoking the 1947 Partition Plan, which he said “became the birth certificate for Israel,” Prosor noted that Palestinian officials to this day refuse to recognize a Jewish state, as had been stipulated by plan.
Resolution 181 mentions the words “Jewish state” 30 times; the 2012 resolution makes no mention of the concept.
“They have never been willing to accept what this very body recognized 65 years ago,” Prosor said in a speech following the vote.
Israel, on the other hand, continues to believe in partition, he argued, noting Netanyahu’s professed support for the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
“That’s right. Two states for two peoples,” Prosor said.
Netanyahu never formally rescinded the position, which he first formulated in a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. But since the election of US President Donald Trump last year he has painstakingly avoided re-endorsing it, leaving some to argue he no longer believes in a two-state solution.
Israeli critics of the 2012 resolution posited at the time that a vote at the UN General Assembly would change nothing on the ground. That assertion was only partially correct. Palestine is still not an independent country, to be sure, but the new status conferred on it by the General Assembly opened the door for Ramallah to gain membership in international organizations such as the International Criminal Court (where it continues to pursue charges against Israeli leaders) and Interpol (where it now has access to the agency’s secure global police communications network).
Much changed between 1947 and 2012. And the world has shifted again in the past five years. But Israelis celebrating UN General Assembly Resolution 181 as a harbinger of Jewish statehood ignore the same body’s 2012 partition plan at their own peril.
Seventy years ago, a comfortable majority of the world’s nations backed a two-state solution accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs. Today, the tables have turned: The Arabs now profess acceptance of a two-state solution, which much of the Israeli government opposes. The international community, however, still overwhelmingly endorses partition, to an even larger degree than in 1947.
Seventy years after it first affirmed the idea of an Arab state existing alongside a Jewish one in the Holy Land, the world is growing increasingly impatient about its implementation. As a consequence, parts of the international community have started calling for sanctions against Israel, such as boycotts and blacklists.
As Israelis extol the UN’s past endorsement of partition, maybe it’s time for them to contemplate whether Israel is still in favor of the idea, and if so, how to go about bringing it to fruition.