LONDON—It’s always tempting to go looking for the bad guys when history leaves you with a gigantic and seemingly intractable mess. Such is the case with the 67 words in which, 100 years ago, the world’s most powerful empire promised a national home to a people who owed it no allegiance in a country they had yet to occupy.
Next Thursday, Nov. 2, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, will attend a dinner in London to mark the centenary of a promise made to his people on the same date in 1917—in London.
“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the key phrase read. It was signed by the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, and became known as the Balfour Declaration.
It’s ironic that the event should be in London because, almost from the minute the declaration was issued it was undercut by labyrinthine British and French scheming to insure great power hegemony over the whole Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The legacy of those deals, particularly for the Palestinians, means that the renewed focus on the Balfour Declaration has ignited a storm of protests that demonstrate just what a quagmire the issue remains. Three days before the Netanyahu event, a group of clerics and academics are holding a rally in London to protest “Britain’s Broken Promise.” A dissident British Jewish group, Independent Jewish Voices, who support the two-state solution to give equal standing to the Palestinians, is promoting a documentary critical of Balfour using the Twitter hashtag #NoCelebration.
But anybody expecting the current British government to apologize for having fathered the Balfour Declaration—as was demanded in a petition signed by 13,600 people—has been quickly disabused.
“We are proud of our role in creating the state of Israel,” an official statement said. “Establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.”
That contrasts uncomfortably with British policy as bluntly stated after an Arab uprising in Palestine in 1937, protesting a wave of Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi repression in Europe: “His Majesty’s government now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish state.”
It’s fair to say that no nation has been established on the basis of language as slippery as in the Balfour text. It had been through many drafts. It had no legal basis. What was not said was as important as what was. Accommodating the idea of introducing a Jewish homeland in Palestine (“homeland” disappeared in the drafting in favor of “national home”) while simultaneously promising independence to the Arabs was patently a recipe for the turmoil that followed.
And it was not until President Truman decisively and unambiguously recognized the state of Israel in May 1948 that the nation was really born and became sovereign.
In truth, looking for the bad guys here is futile. There were competing factions among the most influential British players, and no will to reconcile them. If picking over the bones of British behavior at the time has any value we need to understand that what often looks like duplicity was usually the result of an incoherent policy—particularly in dealing with the Arabs.
In 1917 the future significance of the Middle East’s oil reserves was barely comprehended. But the British understood the ascendant power of the Saudis well before the Balfour Declaration and long before it was underwritten by their huge oil reserves. In 1915 Captain William Henry Shakespear, one of the small band of British desert explorers that included Gertrude Bell, the future architect of the state of Iraq, and T.E. Lawrence, journeyed to what was then the small fortress base of the Saudi tribe, Riyadh, and concluded an agreement with the tribal leader, King Ibn Saud, that recognized Saudi sovereignty over central and eastern Arabia, under British “protection.”
At the same time the British had made a separate deal with the principal Arab power waiting to assume control over large parts of Arabia in the event that the Ottomans were defeated, the Hashemites. Their ancestral domain included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Hashemites had agreed to support the British against the Ottomans and to provide the rebel forces that rode with Lawrence, pursuing, harassing, and slaughtering the Ottoman armies as they were driven out of Arabia.
These two pacts, with Ibn Saud and with the Hashemites, were simply irreconcilable. In the 1920s Saudi forces routed the Hashemites and gained control of Medina and Mecca. Under a secret Anglo-French stitch-up, the Hashemites were also deprived of the capital they coveted, Damascus. The British created the state of Transjordan, now Jordan, as the only consolation prize left for the Hashemites.
As for their commitment to the Jews in the Balfour Declaration, the British spoke out of both sides of their mouth. In December 1917 they drove the Ottomans from Palestine and took control in Jerusalem. By then the British military were already leery of the Jewish immigrants becoming a law unto themselves and in 1919 when the immigrants demanded the right to bear arms “for the defense of the Land and the Hebrew community in it” the British responded with an iron hand.
A 5,000-strong Jewish Legion, recruited by the Zionist activist Vladimir Jabotinsky to fight in Palestine in support of the British campaign, was disarmed and forbidden to defend Jewish communities against attacks by Arabs. In 1920 Jabotinsky was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for organizing armed Jewish resistance.
Jabotinsky’s militancy set a new tone in the Jewish determination to secure their growing presence in Palestine. A year after being sentenced he was released and deported and became the leader of the extreme Zionist Revisionist movement. To many Jews Jabotinsky was (and remains) the spiritual founder of militant Jewish resistance to oppression and the inspiration for the future underground resistance to the British administration in Palestine by the Stern Gang and the Irgun, an attitude carried over into today’s Israeli hardliners, including Netanyahu.
In 1917 the stateless Palestinians were obliquely included in the Balfour Declaration: “… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The word “Arab” did not appear. And, indeed, in the Arab world many of the Palestinians were relative outliers. They had far more in common with the cosmopolitan and urbanized Arabs of Egypt, the Lebanon and Damascus than they did with the desert Arabs who were only just beginning to move from their nomadic past to their more settled statehoods. And yet, as the maps of the Middle East were arbitrarily redrawn, it was these new Arab powers who carried geopolitical weight with the British, not the Palestinians.
Some of the most influential British policy makers also seriously misjudged Palestine’s potential for supporting greatly increased immigration. They regarded the land as largely barren, unaware that the wave of Jewish settlers who arrived from Europe in the 1880s had pioneered radical new ideas that would turn the desert green. And so the idea that Palestine could ever support the modern nation that Israel eventually became was simply beyond the imagination of the architects of the Balfour Declaration.
Then there was the impact of oil. Twenty years later, as a world war approached, the strategic importance of the Middle East oil fields was decisive. The rising Arab powers were not sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine or anywhere else. Iran, a non-Arab state, had become Britain’s first principal source of oil in the Middle East but Saudi Arabia had attracted both British and American oil companies and was clearly the force of the future. To both those countries, then and now, “Zionism” was code for a Jewish enemy.
It’s important to acknowledge that in 1917 the British did understand without question that Jewish leaders urgently wanted a safe haven for the many thousands of European Jews who had endured waves of anti-Semitic persecution. But their first idea for how to deal with this was truly bizarre.
In May 1903, a savage pogrom destroyed more than 1,500 Jewish homes in the southern Russian city of Kishinev. That same year, at the sixth international Zionist Congress, the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, announced that Britain had offered refuge for European Jews in Uganda, then part of British East Africa. Hertzl favored the idea as an expedient, not as an eventual solution, but the Congress rejected the proposal.
Chaim Weizmann, the Russian-born successor to Herzl as the leader of the Zionists, first met Balfour 1906, when Balfour was leader of the Tory party and Weizmann was a university chemist in Manchester. Weizmann made a deep impression on Balfour as he explained the Jewish claim to Palestine.
In 1917 Weizmann, who had pressed the British hard to make the Declaration, 20 years after the birth of Zionism, was disappointed by the final weasel wording. “I did not like the boy at first” he said. “He was not the one I expected. But I knew this was a great event.”
Clive Irving is the author of the 1982 novel Promise The Earth (Harper & Row) set amid the intrigues as Britain France reshaped the Middle East during and after World War I.