In 1947, the United Nations passed a resolution calling for the partition of the British Mandate for Palestine into two states—a Jewish state and an Arab state. Due to the violent Arab opposition to U.N. Resolution 181, it was never implemented. Yet the resolution constitutes one of Israel’s four foundational documents, along with the 1897 First Zionist Congress’s platform, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence.
Unlike its two predecessors—the Zionist platform and the Balfour Declaration—which respectively called for a Jewish “homeland” and a “national home for the Jewish people,” the U.N. resolution specifically proposed the establishment of a “Jewish state.” Adopted with a required two-thirds vote, the resolution constituted the first modern-day, international recognition of full Jewish statehood in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.
Although Britain prevailed in World War II, the war critically depleted its treasury and manpower. Subsequently, London began to divest itself of much of its worldwide empire, beginning with problematic places where large British forces were needed to suppress local revolts. The British Mandate for Palestine, awarded by the League of Nations in 1920, was one such place given the local Jewish community’s armed struggle for independence and the need to restore order following frequent skirmishes between Jews and Arabs.
In response to a British government decision in February 1947 to terminate the Mandate and request the U.N. General Assembly to “make recommendations…concerning the future government of Palestine,” the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was formed three months later. Composed of 11 neutral countries, it produced a report for the U.N. by that September. Most notably, its recommendations included the partition of the Mandate territory into a Jewish state and an Arab state.
In 1947, the U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency all vehemently opposed Jewish statehood. They—and many other opponents of a Jewish state—argued that it would undermine U.S. relations with the Arabs. Arab nations, they claimed, would turn to the Soviet Union, with disastrous consequences for Mideast oil supplies, U.S. military bases and business interests. These Americans also believed that a nascent Jewish state would be unable to withstand an Arab invasion, forcing America to intervene militarily.
Supporters of Jewish statehood argued that partition was fair, there was no reasonable alternative, it would provide a home for Jewish refugees mired in displaced-persons (DP) camps in Europe, and that recommendations by an organ of the newly created U.N. should be supported.
In addition, although presidential elections were still nearly a year away, President Harry Truman may have been influenced by the strong American public support for Jewish statehood following the recent tragedy of the ship Exodus 1947, whose passengers—thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe—were forced by the British Navy to return from Palestine to Germany, where they were forcibly removed from the ship and taken to two DP camps. After much vacillation, Truman decided to support the UNSCOP recommendation to partition Palestine.
Yet the U.S. bureaucracy continued to resist. The State Department first suggested that the United States recommend transferring the Negev desert to the proposed Arab state. When this suggestion failed, the department did nothing to persuade U.N. members to support partition, evidently hoping to prevent the formation of the required two-third majority.
A few pro-Zionist U.S. officials, headed by Special Assistant to the President for Minority Affairs David Niles and Special Counsel Clark Clifford—at their own initiative—lobbied U.N. member states to vote for partition, as did American Zionist supporters outside the government.
The historic vote on Resolution 181 took place on Nov. 29, 1947. Virtually the entire Jewish world followed the dramatic vote on the radio with baited breath. Thanks in part to American and Soviet support, the U.N. adopted the resolution by a 72-percent majority—33 to 13 (with 10 abstentions and 1 absent)—thereby approving UNSCOP’s recommendation to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. In addition to the United States and the Soviet Union, all Western nations except Britain and Greece voted in favor of the resolution, as did all Eastern Bloc states except Yugoslavia, and most of the Latin American delegations. All Arab and other Muslim-majority countries voted against, as did India, Greece and Cuba. Among the abstentions, the most significant were Britain, China, and Yugoslavia.
The Resolution and its Aftermath
Stripped to its essence, the resolution divided the British Mandate for Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state to be joined by economic union, with the Jerusalem region, including Bethlehem, to come under international control.
Some have wondered why the resolution called for an Arab, not a Palestinian, state alongside the Jewish state. The reason: Under the British Mandate for Palestine, all residents—Arabs and Jews alike—were officially termed “Palestinian nationals.” Thus, the Jewish-owned Jerusalem Post was then called Palestine Post, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was then the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra. Use of the term “Palestinian” exclusively for Arabs came later.
Despite its many flaws—from both Arab and Zionist perspectives—the resolution was immediately accepted by the leadership of the local Jewish community, headed by future Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Throughout the country, Jews danced in the streets as soon as the results of the vote became known.
Arabs, however, unanimously rejected the resolution and vowed to prevent its implementation. Within hours, armed Palestinians launched attacks on the Jewish community. In addition, the Arab League, composed of all Arab states, vehemently rejected Jewish statehood and vowed to destroy it. The league’s secretary general, Azzam Pasha, was quoted as saying on Oct. 11, 1947, “It will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongol massacres and the Crusades.”
Several months later, just hours after the British Army left Palestine and Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, the armies of five Arab states—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan (then known as Transjordan), and Lebanon—invaded the newborn Jewish state with the explicit goal of destroying it. Over the next nine months, three weeks and two days, Israel fought for its survival, ultimately signing separate armistice agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
Even a quick glance at the 1947 U.N. Partition map makes plain that the borders assigned to the Jewish state were extraordinarily restrictive, with three sections just touching on each other with no geographical contiguity. Much of the Galilee, part of northwestern Negev, and the southern coastal area (including today’s Ashdod and Ashkelon) were to go to the Arab state, which also would have incorporated an area much larger than today’s West Bank, including Ramle, Lod and Beersheba; and Jaffa was to become an Arab enclave. Most important, the jewel in the crown—Jerusalem—was to be a separate international entity surrounded by the Arab state, with no access from the Jewish state. Had the partition plan been implemented, in time, Jerusalem would have likely been taken over by the surrounding Arab state.
Nonetheless, the Jewish community joyously accepted the partition plan while the Arabs rejected it, seeking instead to destroy the Jewish state by force. The ensuing Arab-Israeli war led to more secure boundaries for Israel, officially known as the 1949 Armistice Lines, and—inaccurately—as the pre-1967 borders.
Israel’s detractors have presented these improved boundaries as evidence of “Zionist expansionism.” Left unmentioned is this fact: Had the Arabs accepted partition as did the Jews, Israel would have lived within the narrow partition borders. The expansion of Israel’s territory stemmed from its defensive War of Independence, which came about solely because of the Arabs’ failed military attempt to annihilate it in defiance of the U.N. resolution. The 1949 Armistice Lines, which were agreed upon by all of Israel’s Arab neighbors, simply reflected the deployment of the opposing forces at the end of the war.
In addition, some detractors have argued that the U.N. resolution was unfair because the Arab majority in Palestine was to receive less than half the land. In fact, the U.N. not only assigned the territory of each state according to its majority population, but also balanced the larger size of the Jewish state by including in it much of the barren Negev desert to constitute more than half its territory. At the time, the Negev was regarded as economically worthless.
Few issues have been used more consistently to demonize Israel than the enduring existence of Palestinian refugees. Detractors argue that Israel expelled Palestinians during the war, which the Arabs call Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), thus Israel is legally and morally bound to allow the refugees and their millions of descendants to “return” to land within its borders.
Missing in this narrative is the key point: All Palestinian refugees became refugees because of the aggressive war that the Palestinian leadership and the Arab governments waged against Israel. There were no refugees on Nov. 29, 1947—the day the partition resolution was adopted. Had the Arabs accepted the resolution as did the Jews, there would have been no war and hence no refugees.
During the war itself the record was mixed. The vast majority of the refugees simply ran for their lives because of the fighting; some heeded the call of Arab leaders to leave in order to facilitate the Arab invasion; and others were displaced from highly strategic locations within Israel, particularly around what became Israel’s sole international airport near Tel Aviv.
But the main point is that the fundamental responsibility for the refugee problem lies exclusively with the Palestinian leadership and Arab governments, which initiated and fought an unjust war that caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to become refugees. In addition, the problem has been exacerbated in two ways: by Arab nations that deliberately prevented the assimilation of Palestinian refugees, relegating them to refugee camps; and by the creation of a U.N. agency (UNRWA) that has perpetuated, aggravated and expanded the problem by granting refugee status to all descendants of male refugees.
Seventy years after its passage, the momentous historic importance of the 1947 U.N. partition resolution remains undiminished. By conferring, for the first time, full international legitimacy on the creation of a Jewish state in the historic Land of Israel, the resolution helped pave the way to Israel’s Declaration of Independence less than six months later. The resolution’s violent Arab rejection led to Israel’s War of Independence, which tragically cost more than 6,000 Jewish lives, but resulted in much safer boundaries for Israel than those envisioned by the resolution. It also caused the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, an issue that is still unjustly exploited by Israel’s detractors.
Yet Israel would have never been established in any boundaries had the Jewish community failed to create effective civilian and defense institutions under the British Mandate, which enabled Israel to emerge as a viable state and defeat the invading Arab armies. This outcome was immensely helped by President Truman’s decision to vote for partition and, subsequently, to recognize the State of Israel just minutes after its Declaration of Independence.
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