Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January-February 2008, pages 28-29
United Nations Report
Annapolis Conference Coincided With Resolution 181, Har Homa Anniversaries
By Ian Williams
A week after the Nov. 27 Annapolis conference, and a decade after the Clinton administration vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning a new illegal Israeli settlement at Abu Ghneim/Har Homa outside Bethlehem, Israel announced plans to expand it by 300 homes. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex).
THE ANNAPOLIS PHOTO-EVENT took place as scheduled, and since no one had any concrete expectations from the event, it was a great success. In fact, it was such a hit that we can expect to see many more repeat performances.
Everyone turned up for it—except the winners of the last Palestinian elections, who were not invited—and pretty much everyone went away empty-handed, except perhaps the U.S. and Israel, who could tell the world that they were doing their best with yet another lap of the road map.
One can never be sure about anniversaries and their significance, but the week of the conference coincided with several which the schedulers in the State Department either overlooked or puckishly giggled at when they set the date.
It was the 60th anniversary of U.N. Resolution 181, where the international community forced partition on the participants. Within a week, we also saw the 40th anniversary of Security Council Resolution 242, which is cited much more often than 181. It is interesting how this has developed.
Resolution 181, which established a Jewish state, was a General Assembly resolution. Since the U.S. lost its automatic majority in the Assembly, it has become usual to say that its resolutions—including the one accepting the International Court of Justice’s finding that Israel’s annexation wall is illegal—are non-binding.
This is something of an anomaly for a state whose raison d’être 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 or anyone else. 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.
Supporters of Palestinian rights have somersaulted in the opposite direction, however, arguing that General Assembly resolutions are binding—but they tend to overlook Resolution 181, which the Arab states in the U.N. at the time disregarded. It certainly was unjust in terms of self-determination, but legal.
The Jewish state held barely a majority of Jews and thus incorporated, presumably against their will, 400,000 Palestinian Arabs. The resulting map broke many existing principles—not least that of cartography. It produced a checkerboard state, without consulting the occupants directly.
For a non-binding resolution, 181 certainly has had some strong repercussions, not least international legal support for a Jewish state, which still exists, but also about the status of Jerusalem. Under the resolution it was to become “corpus separatum” under U.N. direction—which is why today, except for a few banana republics, no country in the world, not even the U.S., will build an embassy there, or recognize 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, not one that Israel and its supporters are likely to make.
On the other hand, Israel’s legal claim to the strip of land along Lake Tiberias that Syria occupied from 1948 to 1967 is based solely on 1947’s resolution's apportioning that to the Jewish State.
Of course, the Syrian claim, such as it is, actually falls in line behind that of the Palestinian Authority, if it is accepted that the 1948 armistice line is now the basis of negotiation.
To add to the sense of historical irony, it is also 10 years since the U.S., under President Bill Clinton, vetoed a Security Council resolution against Israeli settlement building in the Abu Ghneim/Har Homa area. The General Assembly subsequently passed the resolution.
A week after Annapolis, as if to celebrate, Israel announced that it was building 300 more homes in the illegal settlement. It is worth remembering what now presidential contender and then U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson said on behalf of the Clinton administration when he cast the veto: that the United States “shared the concerns expressed about the decision of the Israeli Government to begin construction on the East Jerusalem site,” but “it disagreed on the best method of addressing the situation.
“The United States opposition to the resolution should not be interpreted as an expression of support for the construction in East Jerusalem,” Richardson continued. “Construction on the site was not helpful to the peace process. The parties must take special care to avoid pre-emptive actions that could be seen to prejudge the outcome of negotiations. The decision on East Jerusalem was regrettable. The controversy would not be resolved, however, by interference from the Council. It could only be resolved by the parties themselves.”
So there we are. Some 15 years after Oslo and the so-called peace process, and the Clintonian decision that the parties should negotiate their differences, the illegal settlement is up, running and expanding in defiance of the latest pledges from the Israeli government to their American sponsors, who are still pushing the Palestinians into negotiations with no legal preconditions.
Perhaps now 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 apologize for the failure of the Arab states to accept Resolution 181 and its determination that there should be a Jewish state. But he should then state his intention to 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.
While Resolution 181 may seem anachronistic, its drafters realized that the boundaries made no geographic or economic sense, 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. Abbas might offer to allow the settlers to stay under Palestinian jurisdiction, after suitable compensation for the value of the land that was stolen to settle them—in return for the settlement of an equal number of Palestinians on the other side of the Green Line.
The Palestinian Mission to the U.N. has consistently realized the importance of international law and United Nations resolutions, and so, obliquely, do the Israelis and the Americans. They know that the only way to legalize a settlement is for the United Nations to accept it, and that the only way that can happen is if the Palestinian representatives give away their legal rights.
Hence the emphasis from Clinton onward on “negotiations” with no legal context, and the continuous efforts of Israel and the U.S. to find Palestinian negotiators to talk to who will give up those rights. The Israeli subtext has always been that they will talk only to people who they think will give them what they want.
The sad thing is that the United Nations, as a body, far from asserting its own decisions and principles, has been roped in, by being included in the “Quartet,” in an attempt to bend and break the world body.
But almost unobserved across the world, the tide might be turning. In the European Union, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone, leaving behind a trail of party funding scandals that keep returning to active pro-Israeli groups, and in Poland the government that always agreed with Bush has also lost, so there is now a possibility for a slightly more assertive European Union policy. The Australian government of John Howard, which swung to support both Bush and Israel, also has been ousted. Maybe there is hope yet for international law.
Ian Williams, a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations, is working on a book about U.N.-Haters in the U.S., and has a blog at