U.N. decision on same day as partition of Holy Land in 1947

November 29 — when the U.N. General Assembly was due to vote on membership for the state of Palestine — is one of the most resonant dates in the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

No one involved in the frenetic diplomacy surrounding the decision can be unaware that it was on that day in 1947 that the fledgling world body voted to partition the Holy Land into Jewish and Arab states. The timing was deliberately chosen by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, because of that echo.

Back then the U.N.’s temporary headquarters in New York witnessed a vote which deserves the overused adjective “historic”. Intense lobbying by the Zionist movement and the U.S. cajoled waverers such as Haiti and Paraguay into the majority of 33, the two-thirds required. Pressure and propaganda were rife.

Thirteen members, including Arab and Muslim states, were opposed. The 10 countries that abstained included Britain, which had just decided to abandon its 30-year mandate over Palestine. Curiously, and for different reasons, the U.K. may abstain again today — triggering outrage from MPs and human rights groups.

In 1947 support for the Zionist cause was driven by a combination of western remorse over the six million dead of the Holocaust and early Cold War strategic calculations by the Soviet Union. The Arab side was disorganised and divided. Jubilation in Jewish areas of Palestine was matched by dismay and anger on the Arab side. The Arab League warned of terrible consequences.

Sixty five years ago the outcome of the vote was uncertain. It was followed at once by the outbreak of the first stage of the war that in 1948 secured Israel’s independence and caused the Palestinian Nakba — the “catastrophe” — whose human and political consequences persist, through half a dozen wars, to this day.

The result of the U.N. vote, however, was not in doubt: 132 of the U.N.’s 193 member states have already recognised a putative state of Palestine. The U.S. is against. What remained to be decided was what Britain, a permanent member of the Security Council, would do. France has pledged to vote yes, Germany no, thus splitting the EU vote. Russia and China are in the yes camp.

High principle is at stake here. Justice for the Palestinians enjoys very wide international support these days. The recent fighting in Gaza was a painful reminder of the huge risks of impasse. But pragmatic considerations are at work too.

The U.S. and Israel warn that U.N. membership for Palestine will prejudge the outcome of peace talks and have hinted at retaliation. But there have been no substantive negotiations for years in part because Israel has refused to stop building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — and the U.S. has failed to challenge Israel.

Mr. Abbas looks desperately weak compared with his rivals in Hamas, triumphant after eight days of firing rockets from Gaza into Israel’s heartland. Western governments understand that he badly needs their support.

U.N. status would certainly have profound symbolic significance. “The Palestinian appeal to the U.N. is meant to make us a non-member state, thereby upgrading our status from that of ‘disputed territory’ — which is how we are widely perceived by Israel — to that of an occupied state,” Mr. Abbas has said. It would go far beyond Yasser Arafat’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1988.

The big question, though, is whether this November 29 will do anything to help resolve the conflict — and deserve to go down in history again. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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