After the founding of Israel, its international relations with other countries were hampered by its lack of membership in the United Nations. Many factors thwarted Israel’s immediate acceptance into the UN, including the fact that its borders were neither established nor internationally recognized, mostly because it was still at war with Arab countries – all of whom were UN members and voted in the General Assembly.
Nonetheless, Israeli leaders wasted no time. On May 15, 1948 – one day after it declared its independence – Israel filed an application for UN membership. Citing Israel’s alleged “inability to prove its viability as a state,” however, the Admissions Committee declined to support the application, which was subsequently rejected by the Security Council.
Israel filed a second application about half a year later, but on December 17, 1948, only five countries in the Security Council voted for its admission (Argentina, Columbia, the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the U.S.), one voted against (Syria), and five abstained (Belgium, Britain, Canada, China, and France).
After its 1949 elections, Israel filed yet a third application for membership, and this time the request was approved by the Security Council by a 9-1 vote on March 4, 1949. China, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Norway, and Ukraine voted in favor; Egypt voted no (its UN representative characterized even the possibility of Israel’s recognition as “an affront to humanity and a sacrilege to the organization which we are supposed to represent”); and Great Britain abstained.
But even after having successfully passed through the gates of the Admissions Committee and the Security Council, Israel was not yet a UN member because admission had to be approved by the General Assembly. The first step in this process was an examination of the issue by a UN Ad Hoc Committee, which was given jurisdiction over Israel’s application by the General Assembly on May 2, 1949.
Upon a motion by El Salvador, Israel was invited to address the Ad Hoc Committee, and Australia and Denmark offered amendments that revised the El Salvadorian resolution to facilitate the invitation of an Israeli representative. Argentina, meanwhile, introduced a resolution inviting the Holy See to submit a report on guarantees it considered necessary for the protection of holy places and safeguarding free access of Christians there.
How ironic that some member-nations were concerned about Israel’s protection of Christian holy places. Adding to the irony, Saudi Arabia, concerned with protecting Muslim sites in Eretz Yisrael, demanded that an invitation be extended to Muslim religious authorities, and Iraq requested an “advisory opinion” from the International Court of Justice on Israel’s right to even be considered for membership as a legitimate state.
Lebanon introduced a resolution that Israel’s application not be considered until it agreed to the internationalization of Jerusalem and the right of all Arab “refugees” (who had fled Eretz Yisrael at the order of the invading Arab armies and were promised a glorious return after the murder of every last Jew in Eretz Yisrael) to return to “their” land.
The odds against Israel seemed daunting, and many experts believe it never would have made it through the Ad Hoc Committee (and ultimately, through the General Assembly) but for a passionate two-hour-plus speech on May 5, 1949 by Abba Eban, Israel’s designee to plead its cause. Eban, who went on to become Israel’s first UN ambassador, argued passionately that while the Partition Plan called for the internationalization of Jerusalem, the Arabs had breached the terms of that Plan through their savagery and that it was therefore no longer binding on Israel.
He assured the Committee that while Israel would certainly protect the holy places in Jerusalem, it would not relinquish civilian control over its part of the city. As to the so-called “refugees,” Eban stated that while Israel was willing to cooperate in working toward a solution, that effort would have to depend on the formal establishment of peace and formal relations between Israel and its neighboring Arab states.
Although some member nations objected to Eban’s presentation, including notably Iraq and Yemen, which accused him of deception and mendacity, the speech is widely seen as an important final diplomatic push that led to Israel’s UN membership. For example, Roberto Urdaneta Arbelaez, the Colombian UN ambassador (he later served as president of Colombia) announced that Eban’s presentation “cleared up a number of important points” so that he could support Israel’s admission, and the Cuban delegate praised Eban, announcing that Israel’s representative had convinced him to back Israel’s application.
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Shown above are a series of incredible original documents related to the UN vote on Israel’s admission. First is the Ad Hoc Committee’s conclusion to its May 10, 1949 Report to the General Assembly:
Having received the report of the Security Council on the application of Israel for membership in the United Nations (A/818),
Noting that, in the judgment of the Security Council, Israel is a peace-loving State and is able and willing to carry out the obligations contained in the Charter,
Noting that the Security Council has recommended to the General Assembly that it admit Israel to membership in the United Nations,
Noting furthermore the declaration by the State of Israel that it “unreservedly accepts the obligations of the United Nations Charter and undertakes to honour them” from the day when it becomes a Member of the United Nations” (S/1093),
Recalling its resolutions of 29 November 1947 and 11 December 1948 and taking note of the declarations and explanations made by the representatives of the Government of Israel before the Ad Hoc Political Committee in respect of the implementation of the said resolutions,
The General Assembly,
Acting in discharge of its functions under Article 4 of the Charter and rule 125 of its rules of procedure,
Decides that Israel is a peace-loving State which accepts the obligations contained in the Charter and is able and willing to carry out those obligations;
Decides to admit Israel to membership in the United Nations.
Also displayed here is the General Assembly’s formal agenda for its May 10, 1949 session at the General Assembly Hall in Flushing Meadow, NY. The third agenda item (which I have highlighted with a red arrow) is “Application of Israel for Admission to Membership in the United Nations: Report of the ad hoc Political Committee.”
The next day, on May 11, 1949, the General Assembly held a formal vote and adopted General Assembly Resolution 273, admitting Israel as a member state and making it the 59th member of the United Nations. The vote was 37-12 in favor with nine abstentions, thus satisfying the two-thirds requirement.
Yet another document displayed here is an original UN “General Assembly Voting Sheet” on which an unidentified UN delegate tracked the vote of the member nations on Israel’s admission to the UN. The 37 nations that approved Israel’s admission were: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Byelorussia SSR, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Iceland, Liberia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Ukrainian SSR, USSR, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia.
The 12 nations against were: Afghanistan, Burma, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen.
The nine abstentions were: Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, El Salvador, Greece, Siam, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
The American ambassador to the United Nations who voted in favor of Israel’s admission was Warren Austin, who served in that capacity from 1947-53. Interestingly, he was appointed by President Truman in June 1946, but he could not immediately assume his post because of a provision in the U.S. Constitution barring a member of Congress from accepting an office created during his term (Austin was then serving as Senator from Vermont).
In discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Austin allegedly committed a humorous and undiplomatic faux pas when he announced, “I hope Arabs and Jews will settle their differences in a truly Christian spirit.” His deputy later claimed that Austin was misquoted by the press (“fake news”?) – that Austin was merely attempting to communicate his love as a Christian for peace and that he would never act with prejudice toward either Muslims or Jews.
Shown here is an original newspaper photograph of UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie congratulating Aubrey (“Abba”) Eban after the UN Security Council approved Israel’s application for admission to the United Nations. In the middle of the photo is Dr. Alberto Alvarez of Cuba (center), president of the Security Council.
Lie (1896-1968) played an important role in the establishment of Israel. With Lie’s support and encouragement, the UN General Assembly adopted the Partition Plan in November 1947 and, when the Arab States invaded Eretz Yisrael, severely criticized the hostilities as an “illegal aggression” and as “the first armed aggression which the world had seen since the end of the war.” He argued that the UN “could not permit such aggression to succeed and at the same time survive as an influential force for peaceful settlement and collective security.”