Palestinian Unilateralism and the 1947 Partition Resolution

Aaron Jacob on AJC.ORG

June 10, 2011

It has been suggested that there is equivalence—political, legal and moral—between the current Palestinian initiative to achieve UN recognition for a unilaterally declared Palestinian state and the UN partition resolution of 1947, which conferred international legitimacy on a Jewish state. According to this argument, the Palestinians today have the same right that the founders of Israel had, and exercised, more than six decades ago.

At first sight, this argument may seem compelling, but it ignores the fundamental differences between the two situations. From the beginning of the Zionist enterprise in early 20th century, Zionist leaders sought to reach a compromise that would allow coexistence between the Jews and the local Arab population, but the Arab leadership repeatedly turned them down, claiming sole ownership over all of Palestine. The partition plan, dividing mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, was conceived in the face of this uncompromising Arab position. When the General Assembly voted in favor of partition on November 29, 1947, the Palestinian leadership rejected the resolution and the Palestinian militias launched hostilities to prevent the emergence of a Jewish state.

On May 15, 1948, the day after the Zionist leaders declared the establishment of the State of Israel, the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq invaded Palestine—in defiance of the will of the international community, as embodied in the partition resolution—and attacked the Jewish state. The army of Jordan, the fourth invading army, occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the core of the territory earmarked in the partition resolution for Palestinian Arab statehood. The Palestinians failed to declare statehood, and, after the war, Jordan did not allow the Palestinians to establish a state and instead formally annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Egypt emerged from the war in control of the Gaza Strip.

When the Zionist leadership declared an independent Jewish state in 1948, it was in full compliance with the UN partition resolution. In addition, the establishment of Israel did not violate any prior agreement with the Palestinians or any other party. Indeed, the Zionist movement had made efforts to reach such an agreement but the Palestinian leadership had repeatedly turned these efforts down.

Conversely, the Palestinian initiative to obtain UN recognition for a unilaterally declared Palestinian state will contravene international law: the Palestinian Authority does not clearly satisfy the traditional criteria for statehood, including effective control over defined territory or over a permanent population, and the capacity to freely engage in foreign relations. Palestinian ability to maintain order in the territories depends in large measure on the IDF. (The argument could be made that the Palestinian society did not meet these criteria in 1947 either; but the partition plan, reflecting the international community’s eagerness to address the escalating situation in Palestine, nevertheless stipulated an Arab state alongside a Jewish state. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the Jewish community in Palestine, the Yishuv, had all the attributes of a state.)

A unilateral action attempt to acquire statehood would also violate UN Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), which called for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Furthermore, it would violate existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements that clearly state that “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank…pending the outcome of the Permanent Status negotiations.”

The 1947 partition resolution was overtaken by historical events, foremost among them the war of 1948, which was instigated by the Palestinian leadership and neighboring Arab states. There is a sad irony in the current Palestinian attempts to use that resolution as a justification to a unilateral action that could bring about a new cycle of violence and further frustrate Palestinian national aspirations.
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