Israel: Back to the Future

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The centenary that has just been marked of the San Remo Conference reminds us that, among other things, the statecraft that produced the State of Israel way predates the United Nations. It is a moment to grasp that in partitioning Palestine after World War II, the United Nations took a step back. And set the stage for the war against the Jews that has sizzled in the Middle East ever since.

This is beautifully sketched this week by famed law professor E.V. Kontorovich, writing in the Jerusalem Post. He suggests that the parley that took place at the end of April, 1920, at San Remo, Italy, is finally getting the attention it deserves. San Remo had been attended by the main victorious allies of World War I — Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. America, which had just rejected the League of Nations Treaty, was there as an observer.

“In San Remo,” Mr. Kontorovich writes, “the League of Nations decided to turn much of the former Ottoman Empire into new nation-states: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan all emerged from this process, along with Israel.” He notes that none of those previously existed as states and that today “their legitimacy is unquestioned” because “they arose from the mandate process” of the League itself.

More importantly, Mr. Kontorovich wirtes, “all the states that arose from mandates inherited the Mandatory borders.” So, he points out, “San Remo explains why Israel’s borders include Judea and Samaria.” For San Remo, says Mr. Kontorovich, “created Mandatory Palestine as a ‘national home’ for the Jewish people, and promised Jewish migration and ‘settlement’ throughout Palestine, including Judea and Samaria.”

The galling thing, Mr. Kontorovich suggests, is that “in the collective memory,” it is the United Nations General Assembly vote in November 1947 to partition Palestine that is “more closely linked with the establishment of the state.” In fact, what the United Nations did, in partitioning Palestine, amounted to “essentially repudiating much of San Remo.” Mr. Kontorich suggests the UN vote was “at best meaningless.”

Mr. Kontorovich does not ignore the fact that Resolution 181 — the number of the article by which the world body voted for partition — was celebrated by Jews throughout the Milky Way. After all, the way to a state lay open. The mandates given at San Remo had also “delighted the Zionist leadership,” Mr. Kontorich notes, but after World War II, as Mr. Kontorovich puts it, they’d grown “diplomatically inconvenient.”

They still are, we gather. Just this week, Arab members of the Knesset tried to shout down another member, Zvi Hauser, for extolling San Remo. Mr. Hauser, the Jewish Press reports, responded that the Arabs didn’t accept the decision for a Jewish homeland in 1920, in 1947, in 1948, in 1967, and “don’t accept a Jewish homeland now either, a hundred years later — even as they sit in the Knesset in the Jewish state.”

Had the UN rejected partition, Mr. Kontorovich writes, “it would have given broad international legitimacy to Arab opposition to a Jewish state in any borders.” Yet the “practical effects,” he reckons, “would have been much the same: an invasion by the Arab states and their defeat by the Jews.” In the end, as we see it, the mandate was for Israel to defend — by arms, and alone, when necessary — its own legitimate claims.

What we savor about this moment is that it reminds us all that we can learn from mistakes and find, in the past, markers for the future. We are coming to a moment when the world may yet be remade, through reform or war. We have no regrets about America’s rejection of the League of Nations (it was way too big a breach of American sovereignty). We can, though, do better than the UN, and the sooner we start, the better.


Drawing by Elliott Banfield, courtesy of the artist.

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