Tuesday, November 27, 2007

From partition to Annapolis - Sixty years on

Full Text of the Guardian Comment is Free piece from yesterday

Is it just a coincidence or was someone at the US state department indulging himself in a nerdish jape with the timing of the Annapolis peace conference this week? Thursday sees the 60th anniversary of UN Resolution 181, which divided Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. It was a bitterly contested vote, whose consequences have reverberated down the decades.

The resulting map broke many existing principles - not least of cartography. It produced a checkerboard state, without consulting the occupants directly. So, for example, the Jewish state held barely a majority of Jews and thus incorporated, presumably against their will, 400,000 Palestinian Arabs.

Jerusalem, in a decision worthy of the setting for Pontius Pilate's famous manual ablutions, was to belong to neither. It was to become a "corpus separatum" under UN direction - which is why today, except for a few banana republics, no country in the world, not even the US, will build an embassy there, or recognise it as Israel's capital, eternal or otherwise. Indeed, it is a telling argument against Palestinian claims to the city as its capital - but for obvious reasons it is not one that Israel and its supporters are likely to make.

The resolution passed in the general assembly, but in the modern age, any such crucial decision would now go to the security council, where the US can wield its veto. Indeed, Israel and the US now argue that general assembly resolutions are not binding. This is something of an anomaly for a state whose raison d'etre is based on historical claims, since if general assembly resolutions are not binding, then the creation of Israel as a Jewish state was not binding on the Arabs.

The resolution does in fact say that any breach by any party is a threat to peace and security to be dealt with by the security council - which is of course still "dealing" with it 60 years later.

On the contrary, of course, Palestine's supporters have somersaulted in the opposite direction and argue that general assembly resolutions are binding - but tend to overlook Resolution 181, which the Arab states in the UN at the time disregarded. It was certainly unjust in terms of self-determination, but legal.

David Ben-Gurion and Israel's founding fathers took a lot of flack from their diehard supporters for accepting partition but deflected it by pointing out quietly that they had no intention of restricting themselves to those boundaries - which in truth made little sense in any topographic, ethnographic or any manner. The partition would not be final, Ben-Gurion said, "not with regard to the regime, not with regard to borders and not with regard to international agreements."

While Resolution 181 may seem anachronistic, its drafters presciently realised the Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg nature of the boundaries, and drew up plans for an economic and customs union with free transit, which would almost make a two-state solution feasible. It allowed people to reside in one state while holding citizenship of the other, which points to solutions to populations left behind any new boundaries established.

Maybe it is the time for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to draw a line on the road map between the initial resolution and the final status. He should apologise for the failure of the Arab states to accept Resolution 181 and its determination that there should be a Jewish state. But he should use the resolution's map as the starting point for negotiations to get back to the 1967 armistice line rather than start at the latter and negotiate backward to the separation wall.

For more comment on the Annapolis conference click here.

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