We’re now approaching the 70th anniversary of UN General Assembly Resolution 181, what is also known as the Partition Plan which was adopted on November 29, 1947. It is often incorrectly asserted that the United Nations created the State of Israel by means of Resolution 181. That is completely untrue.
UN Resolution 181 took the idea that first began to emerge around the 1917 Balfour Declaration, emerged also with the League of Nations Mandate from 1922, but now called explicitly for an independent Jewish state alongside of an Arab state. What Resolution 181 did 70 years ago was it provided international legitimacy for the Jewish claim to statehood. It was a morally significant action, but like all UN General Assembly resolutions, it was not legally binding.
But what established Israel were not the actions of the United Nations. What actually established Israel was the Declaration of Independence by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, on May 15, 1948. To this day, what establishes states are not actions in the UN, despite what Mahmoud Abbas might hope. If you look at recently established countries – East Timor, Kosovo, South Sudan – all of them were established by a declaration of independence of their leaders. Even more recently in Kurdistan there was no declaration of independence. They don’t have an independent state.
Resolution 181 has a very important section that calls for the internationalization of Jerusalem by creating a separate entity known in Latin as a corpus separatum. This is not just an issue for historians because the internationalization proposal contained in Resolution 181 kept resurfacing over the years. For example, on March 1, 1999, the German ambassador to Israel wrote a note verbal to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel which stated that the basis for any resolution of the issue of Jerusalem would be the corpus separatum from 1947 from Resolution 181. Germany at the time had the presidency of the European Union so it wasn’t just the opinion of one country; it conceivably could have represented all European states.
Shortly thereafter, a campaign began at the United Nations which called for reviving Resolution 181, led by the Palestinian UN Observer, Nasser al-Qudwa. Yasser Arafat actually had been at the UN headquarters visiting Secretary-General Kofi Annan. When I saw this happening as Israel’s ambassador at the time, I turned to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon for instructions – and I remember as though it was yesterday.
Sharon said to me, “Go back to Ben-Gurion’s speech in the Knesset from December 1949, because Ben-Gurion made clear that those clauses in Resolution 181 that called for the internationalization of Jerusalem were now null and void.” Why was it null and void? Why was that a proper reaction? Because the UN appeared to be taking responsibility for Jerusalem through Resolution 181, yet when Arab armies converged on the nascent State of Israel, put Jerusalem under siege, and bombarded the Old City from artillery positions near Bethlehem in the east and to the north, the UN did nothing. As Ben-Gurion stated in his speech to the Israeli Knesset in December 1949, “The UN didn’t lift a finger.”
As a result, Ben-Gurion declared, “We cannot regard the decision of the 29th of November 1947 as being possessed of any further moral force since the UN did not succeed in implementing its own decisions. He then reminded the UN, “The people which faithfully honored for 2,500 years the oath sworn by the Rivers of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem – this people will never reconcile itself with separation from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem had to be part of Israel.
Eight days later he announced to the world that “for the State of Israel there has always been and always will be one capital only – Jerusalem the Eternal.” Ben-Gurion wasn’t dealing with the location of embassies. In December 1949 he moved the capital of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem just as the Jewish state was being reborn.