Recent threats by Yasser Arafat to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on May 4 or soon thereafter have been accompanied by Palestinian attempts to refocus world attention on UN Resolution 181. Among the more obvious motivations behind these references to a UN decision historically rejected by the PLO is the more favorable boundaries allotted to the "Arab state" in the UN's 1947 map of partition. By reviving Resolution 181, Arafat is laying claim not only to Judea/Samaria and Gaza, but also to Nazareth, Beersheva and huge swaths of Israel proper. A glance back at Arafat's first attempt to declare statehood in 1988 reveals a similarly confusing legal artifice.As the year 1988 opened, Yassar Arafat and the PLO were just beginning the struggle for control from their Tunis headquarters of the chaotic intifada ignited spontaneously three weeks earlier by Palestinians living back in the administered territories. The PLO saw much potential if it could harness the escalating violence against Israeli rule, but radical Islamic elements were competing for control of the Palestinian streets as well. Soon, Arafat also would be trying to recover from Israel's penetration of his Tunis stronghold to assassinate his number two man and ace terrorist, Abu Jihad.
By years' end, worldwide media coverage of the uprising had won new international sympathy for the Palestinian cause, reaching beyond the traditional Arab/Islamic and Soviet blocs. At a Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers, held November 12-15, 1988, Arafat sought to capitalize on the ground swell of support by taking the extraordinary step of declaring a state. The Algiers conference also pledged to "provide all means and possibilities for the intensification of the uprising, with a view to ensuring its continuation and its escalation."
The Palestine National Council based the Algiers declaration of Palestinian statehood on UN Resolution 181, the 1947 Partition Plan which divided Mandate Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. But by citing this UN decision, the Palestinian leadership was on shaky ground, as it contradicted their own Palestinian Covenant, which declared in Article 19 that "the partition of Palestine in 1947… [is] entirely illegal… and [is] inconsistent with the principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations." Indeed, for decades the Palestinians and Arab states uniformly claimed that Resolution 181 was "null and void" at various UN forums. In arguing the Palestinian case, jurist Henry Cattan proclaimed that "at no time was the partition resolution accepted by the Palestinians or by the Arab states." Similarly, the Seminar of Arab Jurists on Palestine, meeting in the same Algiers some years earlier, had declared that the resolution was "absolutely null and void."
Arab rejection of Resolution 181 and initiation of hostilities in 1947-48 had prevented implementation of the UN's recommendation. For its part, Israel was the only relevant party prepared to uphold the terms of Res. 181 at the time.
Nonetheless, the PLO's permanent representative at the UN submitted the Algiers declaration to the world body on December 15, 1988 for a vote. Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reacted by telling the UN: "[I]n the complex and fragile setting of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the Algiers resolutions seem to have further complicated prospects for a solution. They have violated the essential prerequisite: that no unilateral step can substitute for a negotiated settlement. Hence, any recognition or legitimization of these declarations can only serve to reinforce the illusion that the outcome of the desired negotiations can be prejudged by unilateral acts or declarations."
UN General Assembly resolution 43/177, citing the Algiers declaration, stated that the Palestinian people have the right to declare a state according to Resolution 181. The vote passed with 104 in favor, two against (United States and Israel) and 36 abstentions. The UN decision also included a provision raising the PLO's observer status another notch by replacing references to the "Palestine Liberation Organization" with "Palestine" in all UN bodies.
The vote was largely a symbolic victory, as the PLO lacked several incidents of statehood, such as control of the claimed territory. This despite the fact that, over the course of a month, 89 nations (including Turkey, Greece, India, China, the Soviet Union, Pakistan and Austria) recognized the independent state of "Palestine."
The real significance of the Algiers declaration may lie in the impetus it gave to PLO overtures to the United States. Following the Algiers conference, Arafat was invited to address the UN General Assembly in New York, but US Secretary of State George Schultz refused to grant Arafat an entry visa, citing Arafat's "associations with terrorism." This decision was widely condemned by the international community, and the General Assembly voted to receive Arafat at a "rump session" in Geneva, Switzerland.
Using prominent US Jews as a back channel for communications, the US let it be known that if Arafat would renounce terrorism and explicitly recognize the State of Israel, the US was prepared to enter into a substantive dialogue with the PLO. In Geneva, Arafat publicly accepted UN Resolutions 181, 242 and 338 and "renounced" the use of terrorism. The US, in turn, acknowledged that all its preconditions had been met and opened direct talks with PLO/Tunis.