In February 1947, Great Britain, which had controlled the mandatory territory since 1917, decided to turn the issue of the Palestinian Mandate over to the United Nations. The UN established a Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP), which recommended the establishment of two states - Arab and Jewish - in the area and Jerusalem as an international enclave.
The Jewish population - while dissatisfied with the small size of the territory allotted to their state in contradiction to the promises made by the League of Nations in 1922, as well as the plan to sever Jerusalem from the state by internationalizing it - accepted the compromise. In sharp contrast, the Arab states and the Arab residents of the Mandatory territory rejected UNSCOP’s recommendations out of hand.
The UN General Assembly held a vote on the partition plan and on 29 November 1947 UNGA Resolution 181 was adopted by 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions.
The Post-Resolution 181 Era
The Arab rejection of the partition plan was not confined to a political act. The Arabs of the Mandate territory launched a large-scale terrorist campaign against their Jewish neighbors. This was followed by the invasion of Israel by five Arab armies who wanted to destroy Israel when it proclaimed its independence on 14 May 1948. The Jewish population defended itself against the Arabs' declared plans to "throw the Jews into the sea" but at a heavy cost of 1% of their total population and great damage to the new state.
The Arab population of the Mandate territory also suffered as a result of their refusal to accept the partition plan. Many heeded their leaders' calls to flee, others left after being caught up in the fighting. The large numbers who stayed in Israel became full citizens, with equal rights. Nevertheless, the Palestinian refugee problem had been created. It was to be kept alive artificially by the Arab and Palestinian leadership till the present day, while the comparable Jewish refugee problem was resolved by the nascent state of Israel.
At war's end, Egypt had control of the Gaza Strip and Jordan annexed the West Bank. Neither saw fit to establish a Palestinian state in the territory they were to control for 19 years.
While UNGA Resolution 181 expressed the will of the international community for the establishment of a Jewish state, Israel still had to meet all the requirements of UN membership to be accepted into the organization. After Security Council approval, Israel took its seat as the 59th member of the United Nations on 11 May 1949.
The Relevance of Resolution 181
The General Assembly resolution had three primary elements that retain their relevance till today:
• Resolution 181 constituted recognition by the international community that the Jewish people deserve their own state, a Jewish state, in their historical homeland.
• The resolution called for the establishment of two states for two peoples - Jewish and Arab - between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, each fulfilling the national aspirations of its respective populations. That formula remains Israel's position with regards to peace negotiations. However, the Arabs of the British mandate territory refused to accept a state because it meant compromising. Today the Palestinians continue to refuse to compromise to achieve a state. Then as now, a Palestinian state will not be established without the willingness to compromise and negotiate.
• The refusal by the Arab population of the mandate territory to accept resolution 181 demonstrated that they were not interested in establishing their own state if it meant allowing the existence of a Jewish state. This opposition to acknowledging the right of a Jewish state to exist in the Middle East lies at the core of the conflict. Even today, the Palestinian leadership rejects calls to recognize Israel as the Jewish state, a refusal that will prevent any resolution to the conflict.
If the Palestinians had chosen the path of compromise in 1947, the suffering on both sides could have been prevented. It is not too late to return to direct negotiations, which can bring about a better future for the two peoples.