Whoever thinks that U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 – the famous Partition Plan – from Nov. 29, 1947, is for historians of the Middle East alone, is not aware of the role that the 64-year-old resolution still plays to this very day. As Israel's ambassador to the U.N. in 1999, I had to deal with an effort by the PLO observer to revive the territorial map of Resolution 181 as a substitute for U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 from November 1967, which had served as the agreed basis of the peace process until then.
This Palestinian initiative began on March 1, 1999, when the German ambassador to Israel, who represented the European Union when Berlin held the EU's rotating presidency, sent a surprising message in a "non-paper" to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He confirmed that the EU still was of the view that Jerusalem – both east and west – should be a Corpus Separatum (an internationalized separate entity).
This term comes right out of Resolution 181, and apparently still influenced the diplomatic doctrines of some European countries, who believe that at the end of the day Jerusalem should become an internationalized city.
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The German message was leaked to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. Within a few days one the heads of the Palestinian negotiating team at the time, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), responded in the Palestinian Authority official newspaper, al-Ayyam, saying that the European note "confirms that both parts of Jerusalem – west and east – are occupied territory."
The Europeans had managed to harden the Palestinian position. Within a short time, the new Palestinian position was taken up in New York by the PLO Observer, Nasser al-Qidwa, who wrote an official letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which demanded that "Israel must still explain to the international community the measures it took illegally to extend its laws and regulations to the territory it occupied in the war of 1948, beyond the territory allocated to the Jewish State in resolution 181 (II). Such a situation has not been accepted by the international community." The areas to which the Palestinian representative was referring included what are today Israeli cities like Beersheba, Ashkelon, Nazareth, and others. They also included Jerusalem.
As with any formal letter to the secretary-general, the letter was distributed subsequently to the representative of every member state of the U.N. The hard-line stand that the Palestinians were now taking on the territorial issue before the entire international community was not the Palestinian representative's idea alone. At the time when he drafted and sent the letter, he was hosting the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat in New York. Arafat went to see Annan and spoke with him about Resolution 181. Upon exiting the secretary-general's office, he held a brief press conference in Arabic and made reference to Resolution 181 (we sent an Arabic-speaking diplomat to listen).
In order to prepare the Israeli response to this new Palestinian move, I needed instructions from the highest levels in the Foreign Ministry. I called Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who referred me to the address of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to the Knesset on Dec. 3, 1949, at the end of Israel's War of Independence. Ben-Gurion opposed the voices in the international community that were still calling for Jerusalem's internationalization: "...we can no longer regard the U.N. Resolution of 29th November as having any moral force. After the U.N. failed to implement is own resolution, we regard the resolution of the 29th November concerning Jerusalem to be null and void." I took Ben-Gurion's words and put them into a letter to Annan that was distributed to every U.N. member.
It is important to recall that U.N. General Assembly resolutions are only recommendations and do not bind member states under international law. Moreover, the Arab states had rejected Resolution 181 in its entirety, especially its call for establishing a Jewish state. Ben-Gurion understood the moral importance of Resolution 181 because of its recognition of the right of the Jewish people to a state. But he also recalled the failure of the U.N. to stop the aggression of the Arab states in 1948. Moreover, it was not the U.N. that legally created the Jewish state with Resolution 181, but rather Israel's own declaration of independence in 1948 a year later. So what then happened to the borders that Resolution 181 proposed, especially with respect to Jerusalem? Did the concessions that the Jewish leadership made in 1947 survive that period?
When leadership of the Jewish Agency accepted Resolution 181 in 1947, it was willing to acquiesce to its proposal for internationalizing Jerusalem for ten years as an interim measure. This was the price that it had to pay for gaining international support for Jewish independence. But the Jewish leadership at that time also knew that according to Resolution 181, there would be a referendum after the ten-year period, and given the Jewish majority in Jerusalem, the residents of the Corpus Separatum, could seek to be annexed to the Jewish state. In short, the Jewish people had not relinquished their rights to Jerusalem by accepting the Partition Plan.
In any case, the situation with Resolution 181 changed dramatically in 1948. When Jerusalem came under attack and was struck by the artillery of the Egyptian Army to the south of Jerusalem and by the Arab Legion to the northeast, Jewish representatives at the U.N. demanded in March 1948 that the Security Council intervene to halt the shelling of the Old City of Jerusalem, which was concentrated on the Jewish Quarter. Dozens of synagogues and Talmudic study halls were being systematically destroyed. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and even the Dome of the Rock were hit by the shells of the Arab artillery. Many of the details were presented to the U.N.
In the end the U.N. did not lift a finger to halt the attacks on Jerusalem and save the lives of 100,000 of Jewish residents who were under siege. The only force that came to save Jerusalem from this assault were the Jewish underground armies that became the Israel Defense Forces, after Israel's independence. These were the historical details that led Ben-Gurion to utterly reject the internationalization of Jerusalem, contained in Resolution 181, and move the governing institutions of the nascent State of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 1949.
The borders proposed by Resolution 181, especially with respect to Jerusalem, were simply superseded by realities on the ground. Those borders simply were no longer relevant. Indeed, the terms of reference of all Arab-Israeli diplomacy changed accordingly, when the 1949 Armistice Agreements replaced the past references to Resolution 181. The point of departure of Arab-Israeli diplomacy changed yet again after the 1967 Six-Day War with U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which became the only agreed basis for Arab-Israeli agreements.
But these facts did not prevent the Palestinians from taking Resolution 181 out of the archives, even though they had rejected it along with the Arab states when it was adopted. In light of recent Palestinian statements about Resolution 181 beginning in the 1990s, it is especially important to look at the letter Mahmoud Abbas gave to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-.oon on Sept. 23 of this year, which requested that the U.N. accept a Palestinian state as a full member. Abbas notably based his request on Resolution 181 and didn't write a word about Resolution 242.
True, in the address he gave at the U.N. General Assembly that very same day, Abbas stated that the Palestinians were seeking a state in the territories that Israel had captured in the Six-Day War. But if his U.N. speech is taken together with the language of the letter that he submitted, it is clear that Abbas aspires to a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines, without conceding his "rights" to the territories that he insists were allocated to the Palestinians under Resolution 181.
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