Friday was 29 November, the 72nd anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s passage of resolution 181, the “partition resolution” which recommended the division of the Palestine Mandate into a Jewish and an Arab state. You will see this date on some calendars in Israel as a sort of holiday, called caf tet b’november.
When I learned about this as a child, I was told “that is the date the UN decided to give the Jews a state.”
I think a lot of people used to think – look at comic books and science fiction of the 1950s – that the UN was sort of a world government that can do things like give people a state or take one away. I am sure that a lot of people, even today, would like it to be so.
The truth is that the UN operates in accordance with international law, and international law is also not what people think. It is not law imposed on countries by some higher authority, because there is no such authority. Almost everything in international law is based on prior agreement of the parties concerned. For example, the common (and unsound) argument that “Israeli settlements are illegal” is based on an interpretation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has ratified. If Israel had not agreed to accept the Convention, then it would not be possible to make that argument at all.
When a country agrees to join the UN it agrees not to threaten or use force, except in self-defense. The UN can enforce this requirement by the Security Council passing a resolution under Chapter VII of its Charter, “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.” Such resolutions are binding, and can be enforced by economic sanctions or even military action by UN members. In this way, and only in this way, can the UN establish international law (the UN does reserve the right to act against non-members, but this is technically outside the realm of law).
General Assembly resolutions, passed by a majority vote of UN member states, are non-binding. The partition resolution recommended the division of the land between the river and the sea into an Arab state and a Jewish state – with boundaries even less defensible than the pre-1967 cease-fire lines that Abba Eban called “Auschwitz borders.” The Arabs in a sense did Israel a favor by rejecting partition and preventing it from being implemented, because such a “two-state solution” would have been both strategically unstable and economically unviable.
So if the partition resolution does not constitute a justification in international law for the establishment of a Jewish state in the territory of the former British Mandate, what does?
The usual answer is the San Remo resolution, which established the Mandate for Palestine (as well as Syria and Mesopotamia at the same time). The Balfour Declaration, which called for a Jewish National Home in Palestine, was incorporated into the Mandate, and Britain accepted the responsibility for seeing that its provisions – including “close Jewish settlement on the land” – were implemented. The League of Nations approved the Mandates, as did the US separately (since it was not a member). When the UN came into being, the mandatory obligations were carried forward by Chapter 80 of its Charter.
But while the Mandates for Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq) “provisionally” declared them as states, the Mandate for Palestine only called for a “National Home,” which could be a state, but which also could be something less than one.
The British did not want to give up control of Palestine for practical, imperial, reasons: the port of Haifa, access to the Suez Canal, a land route to India, and to keep Jerusalem in Christian hands. So they did their best to sabotage the intent of the Balfour Declaration insofar as it might lead to independence for a Jewish state. In 1936-9 the Arabs of Palestine revolted against the British, demanding among other things an end to Jewish immigration. The British put down the revolt quite brutally, but in 1939 issued a White Paper that sharply restricted Jewish immigration and “signaled Britain’s readiness to relegate the Jews in Palestine to minority status in a future majority-Arab state.”
By limiting Jewish immigration in the years preceding the Holocaust, their desire to keep Palestine part of the Empire was responsible for at least tens of thousands of deaths. But they could still claim that they were aiming to fulfil the terms of the Mandate by providing a “National Home.” Some home.
The left-wing labor movement that ruled the pre-state yishuv, led by David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, wished to avoid violent conflict with the British before, during, and after the war, and hoped to obtain a state by diplomatic means. But the underground Etzel and Lehi movements continued attacking British interests until the British were forced out in May 1948.
Yehuda HaKohen argues (video, 36 min.) that the main reason the British cut and ran was the human and financial cost of the unceasing Jewish terrorism. In particular, he says that the March 1947 Lehi sabotage of the refinery in Haifa, through which the British were processing oil from Iraq, made continuing the occupation unprofitable.
On 15 May 1948 Ben-Gurion and his left-wing friends – Etzel and Lehi leaders were not invited – declared the independence of the State of Israel. In the Declaration of Independence, they recalled the partition resolution several times:
On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.
This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.
Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish Community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel. …
The State of Israel is prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November, 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel.
On the face of it, this is nonsense. The partition resolution, as we’ve noted, didn’t “require” anyone to do anything. If the right of self-determination is a “natural right,” then why do we need a resolution at all? And since the representatives of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab nations have already categorically rejected the resolution, how can it be implemented? It also appears to imply, unfortunately, that the boundaries of the state will be those in the partition resolution.
I think the correct answer to the question of where the legal justification for the state comes from is “not from any piece of paper.” Once she expelled the colonial British, Israel met the normal criteria for statehood and this was recognized by numerous states, including the major world powers. And now she has successfully defended her territory numerous times.
At best the partition resolution simply means that at a certain moment in time, a majority of nations accepted the idea of a Jewish state. If the UN were to vote today on whether there should be a Jewish state, I’m certain we would lose.
So why did Ben-Gurion mention the partition resolution several times in the Declaration of Independence? And why is this day considered memorable? There have been countless General Assembly resolutions which have not been implemented and which nobody remembers.
Yehuda HaKohen says that there was a simple reason: Ben-Gurion and the left-wing establishment that ruled every aspect of life in Israel from its founding until the electoral upset of 1977 when Menachem Begin became Prime Minister, wanted to emphasize the importance of the peaceful diplomatic path to statehood that they had chosen. They wanted to deemphasize the role of the Etzel and Lehi, the underground military movements that fought, until almost the last day, to get the British out so that there could be a Jewish state.
Without the underground, there would have been no state, says HaKohen, and I think he’s right. But there’s more: today Israel is in a continuing struggle to keep the state that was established at such great cost. And today’s Left wants us to believe that the best way to do that is by diplomacy, by negotiations with the PLO and Hamas mediated by the great powers, and by territorial concessions which will be guaranteed by them. So naturally they hold up the diplomatic achievement of the partition resolution as a great triumph that we should repeat today!
In fact, it was nothing, a paper triumph. Nobody “gave us” a state. The State of Israel had to be established and defended by blood, not paper. And so it is today, which is why caf tet b’november is nothing to celebrate.