181 means no right of return

In 1990, when the thaw in relations between Israel and the Soviet Union (soon to be succeeded by Russia) was just beginning, the Jaffee Center hosted a groundbreaking visit to Israel by a delegation of very senior Soviet intelligence officers. In the course of the visit I guided one of them, deputy head of Soviet military intelligence (GRU), on a tour of parts of the country. Driving down from Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley/Dead Sea area, we pulled over at a good vantage point so I could explain the terrain. My guest removed a map from his briefcase and asked that I point out for him where we were standing.

I stared at the map in total disbelief. The borders outlined on it in heavy purple lines, crisscrossing Palestine/Eretz Yisrael in roughly triangular shapes, were not Israel’s borders; yet they looked vaguely familiar.

"Where did you get this map?" I asked.

"I removed it from the wall of my office in GRU headquarters in Moscow", replied the affable lieutenant general. "This is our standard map".

"But these are the 1947 partition borders", I protested. "They were never operative. Where are the 1948 armistice lines, the green line?"

He found them for me, etched onto the map in a near invisible dotted line. I recovered my composure and asked for his map as a souvenir, offering to buy him a new, up to date one in return. Except that I couldn’t find an Israeli map that showed the green line. In the post-1967 era we had blotted out the armistice lines, the effective border between 1948 and 1967, in order to show all of Palestine under our control, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

What can we learn from this joint exercise in the politicization of maps of Israel’s borders? For years Soviet intelligence apparently based its assessments of the Israel-Arab situation on jaded and inoperative concepts like the 1947 lines–which may explain why it was so frequently wrong and misleading in its behavior toward its Arab allies, as in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel, on the other hand, elected after 1967 to ignore the extraordinary permanency of the 1948 armistice lines. Only now, some 37 years later, are legal and international pressures and the vicissitudes of yet another Jewish-Arab war reminding us of the enduring relevancy of the green line.

The 1947 lines are indeed dead. So is almost everything else outlined in UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947. A large part of UNGAR 181 is devoted to an Arab-Jewish two-state economic union (that includes an abortive third entity, the "Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem"); rereading it today reminds one of the failed economic integration provisions of the 1993 Oslo Accords and brings a wry smile to one’s face. Another major segment describes in great detail what those impossible 1947 borders would look like–borders so impractical and unrealistic that they never saw the light of day.

What remains valid is the history-making, all-important heart of UNGAR 181: the establishment in Mandatory Palestine of "Independent Arab and Jewish States". And not just any Jewish state. For while at the outset Israel would have roughly equal Arab and Jewish populations, UNGAR 181 clearly demands that the British hasten to evacuate a "seaport and hinterland" to facilitate "substantial [Jewish] immigration", thereby making clear its intention that the Jewish state indeed be Jewish in nature.

This explains why UNGAR 181 has in recent years regained a place of distinction in the Israeli collective consciousness. In May 1948 Jews danced in the streets of Tel Aviv to celebrate the first Jewish state in nearly 2000 years. Some 57 years later Israelis confront the dramatic failure of the Oslo process, and particularly the ongoing Palestinian insistence that Israel recognize the right of return of the 1948 refugees, and sense that the current crisis is largely connected to the inability of the Palestinian national leadership, then as now, to come to terms with the real meaning of the partition of Palestine and the creation by the international community of separate Jewish and Arab states in the two peoples’ historic homeland.

Were Israel to recognize the right of return of those refugees to its sovereign territory, even "in principle" as Palestinian moderates insist, it would be implicitly acknowledging that in 1947 a Jewish state was born in sin, and implicitly agreeing that there be one and a half Palestinian states and only half a Jewish state. That is not what UNGAR 181 intended. Everything in the logic of UNGAR 181 points to the "Arab state" in historic Palestine as the place where Palestinian refugees should be absorbed, just as UNGAR 181 deliberately laid the foundations for the absorption of Jewish refugees in the Jewish state.

What remains is for Israel to remove settlements and withdraw more or less to the 1967 lines, thereby ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish state and that a viable Palestinian state can emerge. Only then will there truly be "Arab and Jewish States" here.