It was one of the most dramatic moments in the modern history of the Middle East — the world’s nations voting one by one in the U.N. General Assembly to partition the Holy Land into separate Jewish and Arab states.
Exactly 60 years later, the concept remains at the heart of renewed attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this week’s U.S.-sponsored peace conference outside Washington, Israel and the Palestinians again pledged efforts to wrap up a peace treaty that would set up the two states envisioned in 1947.
Three full-scale wars and two bloody Palestinian uprisings have failed either to change the two-state formula or bring it much closer to reality.
Violence has marked the process from the outset. When the General Assembly voted to partition the land on Nov. 29, 1947, it was clear it would set off a war between Jews and Arabs.
The day of the vote is legendary in Israel. Its 600,000 Jewish inhabitants huddled around their radios to listen to the live broadcast from the United Nations. Many kept score nervously in “yes” and “no” columns as the representatives called out their votes on the partition resolution.
It was no done deal, participants recalled in an Israel TV documentary that aired Wednesday. Israeli delegates scampered from room to room trying to garner enough support, while avoiding the British, who considered their very presence in the building illegal as long as they ruled Palestine under a U.N. mandate.
Suzy Eban, widow of legendary Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, Israel’s first ambassador to the U.N., described the tension. With a two-thirds vote required, the key, she said, was persuading France to back the partition — swaying the votes of its allies in Africa and elsewhere.
In the end, the partition was approved, 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions.
Celebrations ahead of war preparations
That set off wild Jewish celebrations in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, though their leaders were preparing for the war they knew would follow. With the end of the British mandate on May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence, and Arab armies invaded from three directions.
The two-year war that followed cost Israel 10 percent of its population in war dead, but its ragtag forces beat back the invaders, expanding the territory allotted to it under the U.N. partition plan. The 1949 cease-fire lines held until the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured additional territory — the West Bank, Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Sinai desert, which was returned to Egypt under a 1979 peace treaty.
Local Arabs, charging that the Zionists stole their land, responded to the 1947 vote with violence, launching a series of attacks that left dozens of Jews dead. Nov. 29 is considered a day of sadness by Palestinians, and they mark May 14 as the “day of catastrophe,” because about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes during the war that followed.
Today, some regret the Arab rejection of the partition.
“If they had accepted the partition plan, it seems to me that long ago there would have been two states for two peoples,” an unidentified resident of the Israeli Arab town of Um el-Fahm told Israel Army Radio. “We would have been spared all the wars and the mess since then.”
Today about 1 million Arabs are Israeli citizens, another 4 million live under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza, and hundreds of thousands still languish in refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Painfully slow progress
Political progress over the decades has been painfully slow. Forty years passed before the main Palestinian organization, the PLO, recognized Israel and abandoned its stated goal of destroying the Jewish state. In 1993, Israel and the Palestinians signed their first interim accord, setting out a formula for peace talks to resolve the conflict.
But since then, mediation efforts by the United States, Europe, United Nations and others have failed to nudge the two sides toward a solution of their key disagreements: borders, Jerusalem and refugees.
Even so, Israeli historian Tom Segev said the process is moving glacially in the direction of a settlement.
Once Palestinians refused to talk to Israelis, Israel refused to consider a Palestinian state and Palestinians rejected Israel, Segev wrote in the Haaretz daily. “All that is behind us. Most Israelis and most Palestinians agree in principle to dividing the country between them.”