Today, November 29th, marked the 65th anniversary of UN Resolution 181, calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab (not “Palestinian”) states. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, desperately trying to reclaim the limelight from Hamas after its fanciful claim of a Gaza “victory,” was expected to request his consolation prize from the General Assembly, welcoming the Palestinians as a non-member observer state, with the Vatican as its solitary partner.
But a General Assembly vote would be a hollow gesture. While it might be considered a promotion from the mere observer status the Palestinians have held since 1974, it is a nebulous title nowhere mentioned in the UN Charter. Any attempt to revive the authority of UN Resolution 181, wrote international law expert Julius Stone more than three decades ago, is “an undertaking even more miraculous than would be the revival of the dead.” But Abbas needed to say more to bolster the deflated image of the Palestinian Authority.
As Arab delegates enthusiastically cheered Abbas, they might have recalled their own role in dooming Palestinian statehood. In 1947 Zionists exulted over Resolution 181, the fulfillment of the 2000-year-old dream of the Jewish people to return to their ancient homeland and rebuild their shattered nation, even within truncated, porous, and precarious borders.
But Arab states showed no regard for a “Palestinian” people deserving a state of their own. They launched an invasion to eradicate the fledgling Jewish state and carve up the territory to suit their own wishes. King Abdullah of Jordan seized land from Palestine that became known as the “West Bank” while Egypt gobbled up Gaza.
Nineteen years later, confronting another looming attack from Arab states, Israel won a stunning victory in six days. Jerusalem and the biblical homeland were once again theirs. By now, 350,000 Israelis live in Judea and Samaria, as they have every right to do under international law that eighty years ago, under the auspices of the League of Nations, assured Jews the right of “close settlement” west of the Jordan River.
Ever since, Palestinians “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” (as Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban memorably quipped). Rejecting any possibility for their own statehood that required recognition of the State of Israel, they have preferred to lament the Naqba, the 1948 tragedy of their defeat and dispersion, rather than become state-builders.
Mahmoud Abbas’s General Assembly speech was mostly familiar boilerplate. Recognition of Palestine would represent “a victory for truth, freedom, justice, law, and international legitimacy.” All blame rests upon Israel, for its “colonial military occupation of the land of the Palestinian people” and its “brutality and racial discrimination.” The only unexpected insertion was his announcement that he had submitted an application for the admission of Palestine as a “full member.” But that requires unanimous Security Council approval, which the United States is unlikely to support.
The young men in Ramallah who gleefully display signs proclaiming “The State of Palestine” are likely to discover that little has changed. Words in New York are not facts on the ground until the Palestinian Authority negotiates an agreement with Israel that recognizes the existence and borders of the Jewish state. The lurking presence of Hamas, still pledged to the annihilation of Israel, will not be easily ignored. Perhaps Abbas should make peace with Hamas before he negotiates with Israel.
If Palestinians settle for non-member observer state status “Palestine” can pursue legal action against Israel in the International Criminal Court. But Israel, like the United States a decade ago, recognized the ideological and political bias of the ICC and withdrew from its jurisdiction.
The lingering question is whether the Palestinians can heal their own internal divisions and finally, after 65 years, accept the reality of Israel. Can they finally relinquish their identity theft from Jewish history and develop an independent Palestinian identity?
Ever since 1948 Palestinians have constructed their identity on the foundation of Jewish history, archeology, texts, holy sites and, of course, land. Ironically, even as Israel was targeted for incessant Palestinian terrorist attacks Zionist state building inspired Palestinian emulation. November 29th hardly was a random choice by the Palestinian Authority. It is, after all, the day when Israelis celebrate international recognition of their right to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel – not in the land of Palestine.
Jerold S. Auerbach is writing a book about Israel’s legitimacy struggles.