Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine: Resolution 181

Official UN map of the Partition Plan of 1947
Official UN map of the Partition Plan of 1947

On 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a Partition Plan for Palestine, three months earlier recommended by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). The plan provided for a Jewish State on 56.47 percent of the territory (excluding Jerusalem) with circa 650,000 Jewish and 325,000 Arab inhabitants, and an Arab State on 42.53 percent of the territory (excluding Jerusalem) with 807,000 Arab and 10,000 Jewish inhabitants. The Partition Plan also provided for an international trusteeship for Jerusalem as a Corpus Separatum.

The New York Times of 30 November 1947 commented: ‘The decision was primarily a result of the fact that the delegations of the United States and the Soviet Union, which are at loggerheads on every other important issue before the Assembly, stood together on partition.’ Andrei Gromyko, representing the USSR, and Herschel Johnson, the American ambassador at the United Nations, both urged the Assembly ‘not to agree to further delay but to vote for partition at once’.

The American historian Bernard Lewis, professor of Near East Studies at Princeton University, gave this explanation for the Soviet support in his book The Middle East, published in 1995: ‘Stalin in those days still regarded Great Britain, not the USA, as his principal world adversary, and saw in the new state of Israel the best chance of undermining the British position in the Middle East. In pursuit of this objective, he allowed Czechoslovakia, then a Soviet satellite state, to provide the weapons that enabled Israel to survive its first war. (…) An important element in Soviet policy from the mid-fifties, and more strongly in the sixties and seventies, was their support for the Arab case against Israel – diplomatically, at the United Nations and other international fora, militarily, by the provision of sophisticated weaponry and technical and logistical support for the Arab armies. This in turn lead the United States to enter into a new and closer strategic relationship with Israel, of which it became the principal source of diplomatic, strategic, and in time also financial, support. These developments made the Arab-Israel conflict a major issue of the Cold War.’

One finds a somewhat different conclusion that the Cold War played an important role the Middle East in A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (1991), scholar at Oxford: ‘The United States, which now, in the period of the Cold War and economic expansion, believed that its interests in the Middle East could be protected only through close relations with local governments prepared to link their policy with that of the Western alliance. Many [Arab] politicians and political groups argued, however, that the only guarantee of independence in the post-colonial world would lie in maintaining neutrality between the two armed camps [Soviet Union and United States]. Since the Western camp was linked with memories of imperial rule [Great Britain and France], and with the problems of Palestine and Algeria which still festered, and since it was from this side that the main pressure to make defense agreements came, the desire for neutrality carried with it a tendency to incline more in the direction of the other camp [the Soviets] (…) For the United States government in the era of the Cold War, refusal to join a Western defense alliance in the Middle East was in effect to join the Eastern bloc.’

The General Assembly accepted Resolution 181 with 33 Member States (59 percent) in favour (Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Belorussian SSR, Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Iceland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Sweden, South Africa, Ukrainian SSR, United States of America, Soviet Union, Uruguay, Venezuela, Haiti, Liberia and Philippines), 13 Member States (23 percent) against (Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Yemen), and 10 abstentions (Argentina, Chile, Republic of China, Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Mexico, Great Britain and Yugoslavia). One Member State, Siam (Thailand), was absent from the session.

The resolution called for an UN Palestine Commission to select and oversee provisional governments for both new states by 1 April 1948. The British Mandate was to end by 1 August 1948 at the latest. Shortly afterwards, London announced that the mandate would be terminated on 15 May 1948.

Fanack Water Palestine