Critical Currents: The partition plan revisited

UN General Assembly Resolution 181 has outlived its fiercest detractors.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The Annapolis conference held this week coincides with the 60th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations' Partition Plan. The principle of two states for two peoples laid down then is - despite the time that has elapsed, the changes that have occurred in the interim, the missed opportunities, and the continuation of violent conflict - as valid today as it was when it was adopted in 1947. Israelis and Palestinians have traditionally marked November 29 in very different ways. For Israel, the historic vote on UN General Assembly Resolution 181 paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel. The tension accompanying the ballot and the exhilaration in its aftermath are part and parcel of the national heritage. For Palestinians, the date is a tragic reminder of a decision that, from their perspective, led to the nakba - the catastrophe of destruction and dispersion that ensued. These two diametrically opposed narratives have become so deeply embedded that they blur the essence of Resolution 181 and underplay its ongoing significance. The concept behind the partition plan was - and continues to be - all about the establishment of two sovereign entities living side by side in peace. The key ingredients of this dense, nine-page document still deserve close scrutiny 60 years later. The termination of the United Nations mandate for Palestine was to be accompanied by the emergence of independent Arab and Jewish states (along with a special international regime for Jerusalem). Israel owes its existence to the prescience of David Ben-Gurion, who insisted on agreeing to the plan in the face of immense opposition within the Yishuv (and in his own party). Its legitimacy derives from this internationally binding document. The Palestinian right to self-determination in their own free state - the Arab rejection of Resolution 181 notwithstanding - derives precisely from the same source. The one claim cannot be asserted without recognition of the other. Indeed, all key subsequent UN resolutions on the Arab-Israel conflict rest on the conceptual foundation ingrained in the 1947 plan. United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) call for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories for exactly this reason. Further iterations are even more explicit. Security Council Resolution 1397, passed in 2002, presents "...a vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized boundaries." The latest resolution, UNSC 1515 adopted in 2003, continues in the same vein. The Annapolis conference has once again reaffirmed - on a much broader, consensual, basis - the very core of the original plan. IT MAY be useful, therefore, to delve further into some of its details. The complexity of the relationships between Jews and Arabs in 1947 was not lost on the drafters of Resolution 181. This is readily apparent in the precise, extensive verbal delineation of the boundaries of the two states ensconced in Part II, which still makes for fascinating reading. It is also evident in the complicated discussion on Jerusalem. The notion of setting the city apart as a corpus separatum never had particular resonance for its Jewish and Arab residents; the recognition of the centrality of Jerusalem for any accord is still more than relevant. Indeed, the essential idea of sharing Jerusalem - not as a detached unit but as a capital for two states - remains particularly germane. Other obstacles on the road to the resolution of the conflict were also envisaged in the Partition Plan. Of special note are the problems of economic interaction (addressed in 1947 by an elaborate recommendation for the creation of an Economic Union that would foster the free flow of peoples and goods) which still remain legion, along with issues related to access to holy sites and places of worship. However, the most intriguing - and sadly forgotten - aspects of the plan relate to the character of the proposed states, and to their guiding values. The November 29 vote called for the creation of emphatically democratic Arab and Jewish states. The new governments were to be constituted via the ballot box in elections based on proportional representation (with women pointedly guaranteed the right not only to vote, but also to be elected). The respective leaders were charged with the task of drafting democratic constitutions which would safeguard equality, human rights, "…and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion, language, speech and publication, education, assembly and association." IN FACT, although each state was conceived of as predominantly Jewish or Arab in composition, it was required to protect minority rights. "No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants on the grounds of race, religion, language or sex." Specific provisions were to be made to ensure freedom of conscience, education, language and culture for Jewish and Arab minorities. These precepts were to be enshrined in fundamental laws which could not be contravened by any subsequent legislation or dictate. A spirit of openness and tolerance thus permeates the resolution of the conflict as envisaged in the Partition Plan. Some components of the proposal adopted on November 29 are totally anachronistic today; others are completely inapplicable. Nevertheless, the substance of the plan (a two-state solution), its vision (sovereign entities cooperating with each other) and its normative underpinnings (equality and mutual respect) have outlived its fiercest detractors. The parameters laid down in another era, in different circumstances, are as apt today as ever before. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone full circle. The successful completion of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following Annapolis may, finally, complete the process which began with the adoption of the Partition Plan 60 years ago. No better alternative exists.