Sixty-five years ago, the Zionist movement scored the greatest success in its history—recognition on November 29, 1947, by the United Nations General Assembly, of the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. U.N. General Assembly resolution 181 called for the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab State, with Jerusalem as an international protectorate. It was this diplomatic act that brought the State of Israel into existence.
Last week, on November 29, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly was the site of another triumph, when it voted overwhelmingly—138 to 9, with 41 abstentions—to affirm the status of Palestine as a non-member observer of the U.N. Rather than greet this news as a long-awaited affirmation of the principle of partitioning Palestine into two states, Israel, backed by the U.S., led a tiny group of opponents of the resolution.
The parallels between the two events—and between the Zionist and Palestinian movements—are striking. Indeed, it seems as if Palestinian leaders took a page directly ouf the ZIonist playbook in turning to the United Nations. The latter day Zionists, for their part, didn't want in on the game, and seem intent on preventing Palestinian statehood at all costs. In doing so, they are turning their back on the historical wisdom of their forbears—and threatening the very future of the Jewish State.
The 1947 U.N. decision, which prompted Jews to take to the streets in celebration the world over, marked the culmination of intensive diplomatic efforts by Zionist officials in Palestine, Europe, and the United States. They were mobilized to the task of lobbying countries, including the United States and Soviet Union, whose votes were needed to muster the two-thirds majority required of passage. The resolution passed with 33 nations in favor, 13 opposed, and 10 abstentions.
Neither President Truman nor his leading political and diplomatic advisors were initially supportive of the idea of a Jewish state, preferring some form of federation shared by Jews and Arabs. Truman was subjected to repeated pressure by Jewish advocates of a state, and wrote in October 1947: "I received about 35,000 pieces of mail and propaganda from the Jews in this country while this matter was pending. I put it all in a pile and struck a match to it—I never looked at a single one of the letters because I felt the United Nations Committee was acting in a judicial capacity and should not be interfered with." Notwithstanding this intense lobbying, Truman came around to support Resolution 181. So too did the Soviet Union, whose ambassador, Andrei Gromyko, proved to be surprisingly sympathetic to arguments in favor of a Jewish state.
What is perhaps most curious in this tale is that many Zionists were themselves deeply ambivalent about the principle of partition, preferring a more maximalist territorial claim to Palestine. Leading figures, from David Ben-Gurion to Abba Hillel Silver, continued to voice concern about the boundaries proposed for partition. But at the end of the day, they supported the principle and embraced U.N. Resolution 181. The Arabs rejected it and commenced military action against the Jewish community in Palestine. As a result of that armed conflict, the State of Israel came into existence, and the Palestinians entered a long and dark period of displacement and statelessness.
The events at the United Nations last week represented an historic and quite bewildering reversal of positions. It is the Palestinians who, through their request for recognition by the U.N. General Assembly affirmed the long-standing principle of partition. By seeking sovereignty in territories currently occupied by Israel, they are affirming the ideal of two states, Jewish and Palestine, dwelling side by side.
Like the Zionists in 1947, the Palestinians overcame ambivalence within their ranks to move forward and seek recognition. And like the Zionists, they assiduously and effectively lobbied the nations of the world to support the resolution. In making the case, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, noted in advance of the vote: "We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a State established years ago, and that is Israel; rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of the State that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine."
The tragedy of this situation lies not only in the historic role reversal by Israelis and Palestinians, but in the fact that it may be too late to salvage the original ideal of partition. The Israeli settlement project—and the political and moral blindness that have driven it—may have gone too far. What is particularly striking is the total absence of diplomatic sagacity and willingness to compromise among Israel leaders today, those very qualities that led Zionist leaders to their great triumph in 1947. Perhaps the only factor that can alter the equation at this late stage is a second-term U.S. president. Whether President Obama chooses to spend his time and political capital reversing his own administration's policy—and the self-defeating and imprudent policy of Israel—is a very large open question. If not, he and Israel will find themselves on the wrong side of history.