A fateful declaration

LesleyTurnberg4x3.jpgLeslie Turnberg on the centenary anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, negative consequences and hopes for the future

Arthur Balfour would have been aghast to know that a century after his declaration the Israeli/Palestinian conflict lingers on. But why in the middle of a war with Germany that was going badly wrong did Balfour and the British government come out in favour of a home for the Jews in Palestine? And having been so supportive in 1917, why in 1939 did the government publish the notorious White Paper that put a block on immigration at a time when Europe was becoming a death camp for many Jews? And why now is our government saying it will mark the Balfour centenary with pride rather than accede to Palestinian requests to apologize for it?

Many people consider the declaration as the massive error of judgement on the government’s part while others see it as the most magnanimous gesture towards a persecuted people that an Imperial nation could make.

Many reasons have been suggested why the British went ahead with plan. Was it to press American Jews to persuade the President Wilson to enter the war on the Allies side? But when they did, it had nothing to do with the Jews and everything to do with German pressure to persuade Mexico to invade the US and the torpedoing of ships by U-boats.

A more cogent explanation was Britain’s need to have a reliable ally in the Middle East to combat the Ottoman Empire. They could rely on the Jews but not on Arab tribes – some of whom had sided with the Turks. Like the Prime Minister at the time of the declaration Lloyd George, Balfour had been favourably disposed towards the Zionist cause well before the First World War. And on his deathbed, Balfour told his niece that what he had done for the Jews had been most worth his doing.

It is often thought that the declaration was a purely British proposal – something that flies in the face of the evidence that Britain could not have gone ahead without backing from its allies. The French had already given their written support, followed by the Italians and Russians; then finally the Americans. It clearly had international backing and surprisingly the Grand Shariff Hussein and his son Prince Faisal in Mecca did not object. Indeed, they welcomed immigration of Jews into what they regarded as a neglected corner of Arabian lands.

Once however, Hussein realized he had been duped by the British when it was revealed that Britain and France would take control of the Middle East under their mandates, all of that sweetness and light was lost. It was this manifestation of western imperialism that turned the Arabic leadership against the Jews, who became regarded as a local symbol of colonialism.

It was only later that the declaration was converted from a simple expression of support into a legally binding document – first at San Remo in 1920, and then in Geneva at the League of Nations in 1922. Britain was now mandated to provide a home for the Jews in Palestine with all 51 nations voting in favour. And this was the legal statement taken up by the United Nations in 1947 that finally led to the state of Israel.

Of course, it could have got lost in the meantime. During the 1920s and 1930s, Arab riots made Britain think of rescinding the declaration. It was too late but that did not stop our government curtailing immigration and land purchase by the Jews. And in the 1939 notorious White Paper, it put a complete block on immigration just as the Jews were being herded towards Hitler’s gas chambers.

It was almost miraculous that the Zionists’ dream survived. But aggressive acts of terror led by Menachem Begin and others helped persuade the British, by now eager to be rid of the poisoned chalice, to hand the mandate over to the UN. Then in 1947, the UN partition plan introduced – something the Jews accepted but the Arabs immediately rejected. It turned out to be a great mistake since it would have given the Palestinians a much greater slice of the land they are fighting for now and would have avoided much bloodshed.

Today, 100 years after Balfour promised a home for the Jews in Palestine, the more pragmatic Arab nations, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, have accepted the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East. If Israelis and Palestinians can reach an agreement, the advantages to both sides would be enormous.

Will it happen sometime soon? Hardly likely. Will it require new and braver leaders on both sides? Almost certainly. Is it worth all the effort? Absolutely.

Lord Leslie Turnberg is a Labour Peer. His book Beyond the Balfour Declaration: The Hundred Year Quest for Israeli-Palestinian Peace was published earlier this year by Biteback https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/the-balfour-declaration 

Published 18th December 2017

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