Partial partitions: Reflections on divisions of Palestine/Israel imagined and realized

Guest Column

Partial partitions: Reflections on divisions of Palestine/Israel imagined and realized

Jubilant Residents Celebrating The United Nations Decision On Partition, 1947. (Photo: Pinn Hans/Israeli National Photo Collection; cropped) Courtesy of Government Press Office of Israel

Seventy years after the United Nations voted to partition the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian states, Visiting Assistant Professor Daniel Stein Kokin sees striking similarities between modern efforts to resolve territorial disputes and the original partition plan.

UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, November 29, 2017 - The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration this past November 2nd has rightfully received a great deal of attention. But November 2017 also marks a round birthday for a text of no less significance for Israelis, Palestinians, and their ongoing conflict: On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to approve the partition plan calling for the establishment of Jewish and Palestinian Arab nation states on the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine.

To mark this occasion, I recently did something I had never previously bothered to do, namely read the full text of this resolution. It is a document remarkable in its audacity to divide this land once and for all, as well for its implicit admission that no complete partition between Palestine's Arab and Jewish claimants is possible. 70 years later, the simultaneous drive for a final division and recognition of its ultimate impossibility rings no less true.

For starters, the sovereignty offered by the partition plan to its Jewish and Arab recipients was subject to significant limitations. The respective territories allotted to each state enjoyed only the most tenuous of territorial continguity, in each case amounting to three practically separate, mutually-interlocking territories. And there was an additional partition within the partition, as the majority Arab city of Jaffa, Tel Aviv's twin to the south, was separated off as a tiny enclave of the Palestinian state virtually surrounded its Jewish counterpart. This aspect is either missing from or easily overlooked on most maps of the plan.

Furthermore, though often forgotten today, an economic union was envisioned between the two states, involving not only a joint currency and customs union, but also "operation in the common interest on a non-discriminatory basis of railways; inter-State highways; postal, telephone and telegraphic services, and port and airports involved in international trade and commerce." A joint economic board was to be set up, including three members of each state, as well as three additional foreign members appointed by the United Nations. This board would be responsible for the division of customs revenue and was to have the power to withhold these funds or implement further sanctions should one of the states fail to cooperate with the plan's stipulations.

But most strikingly, the partition scheme ran aground at precisely the spot where it would have been most needed: greater Jerusalem (encompassing Bethlehem), which was to come under international control (administered by the United Nations) as a corpus separatum. In its prescribed special status for Jerusalem, the UN plan unwittingly revealed the cruel paradox that lies at its core: partition was deemed necessary because of the inability of the two nations to reconcile their respective aspirations, but at the same time could not be implemented at the very religious and historical epicenter of those aspirations.

In one form or another, this same paradox has bedeviled virtually all other schemes to set a border between Israelis and Palestinians, down to the present. The Peel Commission Report of 1937 was the first to propose respective Jewish and Arab states in Palestine, but also recommended maintaining the British Mandate in a zone stretching from Jaffa to Jerusalem, and another around the city of Nazareth.

Even the "Clinton Parameters" from late 2000, which famously aimed to partition Jerusalem, with Jewish neighborhoods for Israel, Arab neighborhoods for Palestine--including the political division of the Old City--came up against a wall, namely the Western Wall. The American president proposed "Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram and Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall and shared functional sovereignty [emphasis added] over the issue of excavation under the Haram and behind the Wall such that mutual consent would be requested before any excavation can take place."

Alas, shared sovereignty is a recipe for disaster, for if two are in charge, then no one is really in charge. Finally, the 2003 Geneva Initiative or Accord backtracked somewhat in stipulating that "The Temple Mount will be Palestinian, but an international force will ensure freedom of access for visitors of all faiths. However, Jewish prayer will not be permitted on the mount, nor will archaeological digs. The Western Wall will remain under Jewish sovereignty and the 'Holy Basin' [the area encompassing the Old City of Jerusalem and immediate vicinity] will be under international supervision."

It thus seems that even the most detailed and ambitious proposals to divide the land cannot avoid some modicum of non-partition in the heart of Jerusalem, at the site most critical to both sides.

By the same token, even as Israel declared sovereignty over the entirety of Jerusalem as its eternal, unified capital in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War (rather implicitly in 1967, most explicitly in 1980), it was quick after that conflict to return de facto control over the Temple Mount to the Islamic Waqf and prohibit Jewish prayer atop it. Thus at the very heart of Israel's strident insistence upon an undivided Jerusalem lies an admission of limitation and division. The most bold Israeli attempt to defy the logic of partition de jure fell back upon it de facto.

Where does this analysis leave us? The mainstays of contemporary discourse on the future of Israel/Palestine oscillate between the two-state solution (essentially the updated version of partition) and the one-state or bi-national solution favored or feared by those who do not expect or desire the establishment of a Palestinian State alongside Israel. As such, they aspire either to the final consummation of partition or to its ultimate abandonment.

The historical record suggests that both outcomes are unlikely: it is hard to envision that a complete division of national sovereignty between Israelis and Palestinians will ever be able to be realized and equally unimaginable that the two sides will ever agree of their own free will to shared sovereignty, whether over the Temple Mount, Holy Basin, or entirety of the land.

In short, on this, the 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, we can appreciate that this and all other plans have--for all their ambitions--been but partial, and that a complete and final partition of Israel/Palestine is as unlikely as ever. Policy makers and their publics may aspire to a resolution of the conflict that is comprehensive and permanent, but for the foreseeable future we will all likely have to settle for agreements and progress that are provisional and piecemeal.

Daniel Stein Kokin is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies where he is teaching a wide range of Israel Studies courses and continuing his research. He is also Junior Professor of Jewish Literature and Culture at the University of Greifswald in Germany and in 2015-16, he served as the Viterbi Professor of Mediterranean Jewish Studies at UCLA.