A Century on from the Balfour Declaration


November 2nd, 1917. Sixty-seven words issued by British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour change the course of history forever. The Balfour Declaration, addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, was the letter that promised a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, setting in course the proclamation of the state of Israel in May of 1948 and arguably the most complex and nuanced geopolitical-humanitarian crisis in human history.

Procurement of the letter

Following centuries of being assailed by the proponents of anti-semitism, a group of European Jewish leaders thought it appropriate that the Jews have their own state. Zionism, essentially the idea behind the righteousness and need for a Jewish state, had initially found traction in 1896 with the publication of Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). Herzl, considered the founding father of Zionism, had been inspired to what seemed like peculiar ideas at the time by the Dreyfus Affair. What followed in 1897 was the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, and the subsequent formation of the World Zionist Federation.

The key game-changer in England was a Chemistry lecturer at the University of Manchester by the name Chaim Weizmann. A Russian-Jewish immigrant, undoubtedly yet another victim of the vehement anti-semitism that was commonplace in Eastern Europe. British Jews had fought long and hard in England to establish their position as first-class citizens, and the prospect of a distinct Jewish national identity threatened to derail the quintessentially British identity of British Jews that had allowed for their full integration and influence within British society. Weizmann convinced Sir Herbert Samuel, Cabinet minister, fellow Jew, and future High Commissioner on Mandatory Palestine, that a national homeland for the unimpinged prosperity of the Jews was a necessity and a popular idea among British Jews.

Despite clear sympathy for the cause, there clearly were other overriding factors that led to the backing of Zionist aspirations. Historiography as to British priorities differ from source to source, but Weizmann’s role as a chemist and involvement in the production of acetone-a key ingredient in the making of bombs and other munitions-was surely convincing. The official declaration had been in question for months, with edits to specific words and clauses being paid very close attention to. As a matter of beating German influence out of the Middle East, the British Cabinet decided on October 31st, 2017, to issue the declaration after hearing that a similar German effort was in the making.

Moreover, the British had negotiated the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement with the French in 1916, carving up formerly Ottoman territory anticipating the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Although unanimity was achieved on the status of Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Syria, Palestine was a contested region due to its religious significance. Courting the Zionists would give the British Mark Sykes, in the face of the French François Georges-Picot, to take control over Palestine.

Winds of change in the Middle East

The promise of a Jewish homeland gave the British the reason to take Jerusalem from Ottoman control in December of 1917. General Edmund Allenby, previously the commander of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western front of Europe and later the High Commissioner for Egypt, had taken Gaza in November.

Even since before Allenby’s conquest of the holy city, Jews from Eastern Europe had been settling in Palestine in waves known as aliyahs, the religious term for return to the holy land. The sheer numbers of Jews that were entering Palestine shook up the demographic scene and the mass-purchase of farmland from Palestinians, coupled with the appointment of Jewish Sir Herbert Samuel as the High Commissioner for the League of Nations mandate, created unamendable distrust of the British by the Palestinians.

Another key reason for this distrust was that the British had also offered a geographically unclear proportion of roughly the same land to Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, and the man who had led the Arab Revolt in 1916-leading to the expulsion of the Ottomans from Arabia. As this distrust grew, exacerbated by the infamous Passfield White Paper of 1930 and a popular Arab Revolt (not to be confused with that of 1916) as well as a series of Zionist extremist guerrilla attacks such as the King David Hotel bombing in Jerusalem, the British were forced to abandon the mandate in 1948 due to the loss of their colonies after the Second World War.

In 1948 the state of Israel was declared by David Ben-Gurion, and this triggered a multilateral attack by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Despite all of this, due to superior coordination and a common cause as opposed to a desire to individually grab as much land as possible, Israel fought off the Arab armies.

This conflict resulted in the sometimes forced expulsion of roughly 700,000 Palestinians, very few of them ever return to their homes. Ethnic cleansings were at times used to clear Palestinian villages, perpetrated by Zionist terrorist groups such as Irgun, Lehi, and Stern Gang. Allegations also exist of ethnic cleansing of Jews by Arab forces, and roughly the same number of Jews were forced to leave Arab countries due to persecution when Israel was declared in 1948. The history of 1948 is so contested that there are those who call it An-Nakba (the catastrophe) as well as those who call it the Israeli War of Independence.

Looking to the future

Most recently in the news regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the reconciliation efforts between Hamas, an Islamist militant political party and recognized terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, the secular party that runs the West Bank. The two fell out severely in 2007.

By most accounts, this peace process between the two Palestinian factions already seems doomed because of the growing potential for distrust between Fatah and Israel. Fatah is the main point of contact with Israel due to the fact that Hamas’ previous charter has expressed some genocidal attitudes toward the Jewish people.

Fatah’s key promise to Israel was that a condition of Fatah-Hamas peace would be the disarmament of Hamas. Not only was no mention of this made during the talks or in the deal signed in Cairo, but Hamas representative Saleh al-Arouri took an official visit to Tehran. Tehran is a key backer of Hezbollah, another terrorist organization that has openly expressed its disdain of the Jews as a whole, as well as the sworn enemy of Israel.

On the Israeli side, we also see a Likud government under the stewardship of Benjamin Netanyahu that is bent on undermining the two-state solution, the only pragmatic solution to decades of trauma as well the most realistic way for Israel to be democratically Jewish. The constant of building of illegal settlements in the West Bank only makes it harder for a land-for-peace deal to be achieved in the future because of the infuriation of the Palestinians living in the West Bank.

What is more, Israel’s request that Hamas disarm before coming to the table is understandable and a just desire but lacks any sense of realism. It is unthinkable for Hamas to let its guard down before Israel makes any concessions, as it fears that Gaza will be annexed overnight if it isn’t to remain vigilant. This highlights the historical mistake with Arab-Israeli peace talks: the absence of an institution or coalition that threatens to punish either side for defecting. Talks have almost always taken place under the auspices of the United States, Israel’s unconditional ally, breeding a tendency among the Palestinian side to defect as opposed to cooperate. Palestinian leaders arguably feel as if Israel will not be punished for exploiting concessions that are made by Palestinians. This is highly analogous to the traditional prisoner’s dilemma, a lack of confidence that player B will be punished for defecting makes defection, as opposed to cooperation, the safest option for player A.

A more realistic option for bringing Hamas to the table is to use a sort of positive inducement, but Israel is also understandably not willing to make any sacrifices. The last time it did so, withdrawing military presence and all settlements from Gaza in 2005, Israel received over 2700 rockets from Hamas. What has never been put to the test historically, and what is urgently necessary to stop both sides from obsessing over their citizens’ very survival, is a coalition of states that agree to sanction either side for attacking the other. This will only work with a coalition that is balanced, and that is perceived by both the Israelis and the Palestinians as willing to respond to any misbehavior. In order to convince both sides that they will duly be punished for defecting, states that are perceived by the leaders of both sides to have a vested interest in peace must come together.

If this can be achieved, sides no longer need fret over their security. When defection is discouraged by the implied threat military force, both sides’ best option is to cooperate. When cheating the other side for respective security needs is far from the most rational option, we might no longer be trapped by the prisoner’s dilemma. Only then might the clause of equality between the Jews and other native Palestinian communities, central to the Balfour Declaration, be realized.

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