November 29 is a noteworthy date for all those interested in Israel and the Middle East.
Sixty-eight years ago, following the recommendation of a decisive majority of the 11-member United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, the UN General Assembly met to consider Resolution 181. The measure called for the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states in the land west of the Jordan River, which for decades had been governed by Great Britain under a mandate, first, from the League of Nations, then the UN.
The final vote was 33 countries in favor, 13 against, and ten abstentions.
To this day, it remains important to recall how each UN member state at the time voted.
Those in support were: Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Byelorussian S.S.R., Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, Liberia, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Sweden, Ukrainian S.S.R., Union of South Africa, United States, U.S.S.R., Uruguay, and Venezuela.
In opposition were: Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen.
Abstaining were: Argentina, Chile, China, Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Mexico, United Kingdom, and Yugoslavia.
Among the proposal’s supporters, the eloquent words of Ambassador Enrique Rodriguez Fabregat of Uruguay stand out to this day: “Both peoples [Jews and Arabs] are fully ripe for independence. We are not here to give lessons in organization to two peoples in their infancy, two peoples whose destinies are just beginning. The Jewish effort in Palestine is, in many respects, exemplary, and this is confirmed in both the reports of the Special Committee on Palestine. And the ability of the Arabs to shape their own destiny by their work, their initiative and their courage is shown not only by their present achievements but by their glorious past. Those of us who are voting for partition are not voting against either of these two peoples, against either of these two sectors of social reality in Palestine. We are voting for both of them, for their progress, their civic development, their advancement within the community of nations, so that they may not only never come into conflict, but may combine in a multitude of productive undertakings, thus ensuring that economic unity for which the plan under discussion definitely provides.”
He laudably chose to strike a note of optimism, believing that both Jews and Arabs could fulfill their respective national aspirations through this two-state resolution. And he earnestly hoped that the end result would not be conflict, but mutually beneficial cooperation.
Alas, his vision was not quite fulfilled.
The Arab nations categorically rejected the resolution, denied any Jewish link to the land that was, in fact, associated with the Jewish people for millennia, and declared they would not be bound by its terms. They chose to go to war, with the goal of seizing all the land and preventing a Jewish state from coming into being. Despite vastly larger populations and territories, they did not succeed in their quest.
There are at least five important takeaways from this dramatic chapter in history.
First, actions have consequences. The Arab world opted for confrontation, not compromise. They gambled and lost. They paid a price, as have all defeated aggressors in history. They could not have it both ways – losing a war they began, then claiming victimhood.
Second, as the Uruguayan envoy stated, another path was possible. There could have been two states living side by side – one Jewish, the other Palestinian (though the UN language at the time referred to an Arab, not a Palestinian, state) – in peaceful coexistence for the past 68 years. The Jews, joined by a clear majority in the international community, sought precisely that outcome, but the Arab world rejected it out of hand. It turned into a clash in this instance between Arab maximalism and Jewish pragmatism. The latter won out.
Third, the UN recognized the validity of a Jewish state. In November 1947, no one knew what the name of the state would be – it was only announced on May 14, 1948, the actual date of Israeli independence – but what was clear to all was that it would be a Jewish state, and rightly so. The Jewish people fully merited a sovereign home in their ancient land and had every right to chart their own destiny, the UN General Assembly affirmed. Insofar as there is some debate today about the “legitimacy” of a Jewish state, that question was, in fact, addressed 68 years ago by the UN General Assembly.
Fourth, much is still made of the Arab refugee population from the 1947-48 period, which resulted from a number of factors in a tumultuous era. For 65 years, there has been a special UN body, UNRWA, to deal with the issue, but not, it must be noted, for purposes of resettlement, as with all other refugee groups in the world, but rather to keep alive the issue from generation to generation as a festering wound and permanent grievance against Israel. At the same time, some Arabs chose to stay in Israel after its creation in 1948. Today, their share of the total population is approximately 20 percent, and they enjoy equal rights and protection under the law.
Meanwhile, less well-known, there was a second refugee group from the very same years – roughly an equal number of Jews from Arab countries who were forced from their homes, expelled from the ancestral lands where many had lived long before the Arab invasion and conquest in the seventh century, and too often victims of deadly pogroms.
Why has so little been heard about the 750,000-850,000 Jewish refugees? Among other reasons, because they were offered a haven in Israel (and other countries) and opted to start anew, rather than follow the Palestinian example of remaining in camps as wards of the international community, while nurturing dreams of revenge against the detested Jewish state.
And fifth, the Israel that emerged from this defining period was only a part of the land under discussion in the 1947 UN debate. The West Bank and eastern Jerusalem were entirely in the hands of Jordan, while the Gaza Strip was controlled by Egypt.
During the ensuing years, Egypt and Jordan had uncontested power to create a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, precisely what the Palestinian leaders today claim they seek. But, alas, no such state emerged. To the contrary, Jordan annexed its territory, a step recognized by only two other nations in the world. Meanwhile, Egypt imposed harsh military rule on Gaza.
In other words, the history of the past 68 years could have been very different, but the all-or-nothing approach of Arab leaders at the time was a calamity for the Palestinian people, the larger Middle East, and the course of modern history.