100years since San Remo

Prof. Eugene Kontorovich , The Jerusalem Post | April 30, 2020


In San Remo, 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.

The 1920 international conference in San Remo, Italy, is finally getting some of the attention it deserves. That conference created Mandatory Palestine as a “national home” for the Jewish people, and promised Jewish migration and “settlement” throughout Palestine, including Judea and Samaria. Yet in the collective memory, the United Nations General Assembly vote in November 1947 to partition Palestine – essentially repudiating much of San Remo – is more closely linked with the establishment of the state. It is important for Israel to use this centenary occasion to upgrade the memory of San Remo and its importance – putting it ahead of the UN vote that was at best meaningless. In San Remo, 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. None of these previously existed as states, but today their legitimacy is unquestioned because they arose from the mandate process. More importantly, all the states that arose from mandates inherited the Mandatory borders: so San Remo explains why Israel’s borders include Judea and Samaria. UN Resolution 181, was a legally non-binding suggestion to take most of that away from the Jews. The difference in how they are remembered may be due to the different contemporaneous reactions to the events. Certainly the League of Nations Mandate delighted the Zionist leadership, which talked about making it an annual holiday. The reaction to the UN vote was even more intense. It was reported on by radio in real time, and led to dancing in the streets of Jerusalem. It is important to understand why the partition proposal was greeted with such joy. After World War II, and as the Cold War set in, the guarantees made to the Jews beforehand had grown diplomatically inconvenient. The numerous Arab states had precious oil, and the Jews were broken and ever-more dispersed. Thus, much of the international community regretted the Mandate, and hoped to undo it. Two main options were considered: recommending the complete abandonment of a Jewish-majority state (and blocking the immigration of Jewish Holocaust refugees to ensure that result), or splitting up Mandatory Palestine a second time to create another Arab Palestinian state (in addition to Jordan) and a Jewish one. If the UN had voted against partition, it would have given broad international legitimacy to Arab opposition to a Jewish state in any borders. Today we see that the practical effects would have been much the same: an invasion by the Arab states and their defeat by the Jews. In 1947, however, many thought it impossible that the Arabs would attack in the face of a UN recommendation of partition, and thus the Jews danced in the street. At the United Nations the following year, Abba Eban tried to use Resolution 181 to ward off hostile initiatives at the UN, claiming Israel “possess[es] the only international birth certificate” in the world. Of course, that would mean that Israel’s borders are limited to the absurd cantons of the partition proposal. So it is not surprising that Yasser Arafat used the same “birth certificate” point when he spoke in the same forum forty years later. If we are indeed “children” of the United Nations, we should submit to its scolding and reprimands. Thus, on this centenary of San Remo, it is time to correct our historical view of the relative importance of the San Remo conference and Resolution 181. Correcting historical narratives takes time but one easy place to start would be on the street. Streets in Jerusalem and other major cities are named “Kaf Tet be-November” in honor of the Resolution. Yet despite the far greater significance of the League of Nations mandate, there is no street in Israel named after San Remo. It is time to upgrade the memory of San Remo; it deserves at least its own street. We can begin to demonstrate that we do not regard our presence in Judea and Samaria as an occupation, or our sovereignty in the land as a concession by the UN, by renaming Kaf Tet be-November Street in Jerusalem to “April 26 Street” or “San Remo Street.” The writer is a professor at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School and Director of International Law at the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.

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