The Balfour Declaration still resonates all these years later.
The following article – published in Le Monde Diplomatique in November by Alain Gresh, archived here, and translated exclusively for this site by Sydney-based Evan Jones – provides a revealing context to the current conflict. History is a living and breathing beast. We are yet to unscramble the egg:
92 years ago, on 2 November 1917, the British government adopted the Balfour Declaration, a text which is at the origin of the Palestinian conflict. To understand the stakes, here is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Israël-Palestine, vérités sur un conflit (Fayard, 2001; 2007).
The conflict takes shape (1917-39)
A world collapses. The First World War begins its final year. Some age-old empires, the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, will not survive it. Tsarist Russia is already dead and the Bolsheviks prepare to take the Winter Palace and to install a regime whose duration will coincide with what the history books call the twentieth century. It’s the 2 November 1917 and Lord Arthur James Balfour [Foreign Secretary] of the powerful British Empire, puts the last touches to his letter. He hesitates a moment as to whether he will append his signature. Is he gripped with a gloomy premonition? Undoubtedly not, for the text, better known under the title the ‘Balfour Declaration’, had been much debated within His Majesty’s government. The text declares that it “favourably envisages the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and every effort will be employed to facilitate the realisation of this objective”. The declaration that, in a first version, evokes ‘the Jewish race’, specifies that, for the realisation of this objective, “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”. How to create a Jewish national home without affecting local Arab populations? Great Britain will never be able to resolve this contradiction and it will be the source of the longest conflict that the contemporary world has known.
The Balfour letter is addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, a representative of British Judaism, near to the Zionists. What is Zionism? I will revisit this issue in the next chapter. Suffice it to say here that this movement calls for a “rebirth of the Jewish people” and its “return” to Palestinian soil. The Balfour Declaration meets several preoccupations of the government in London. While the War intensifies on the Continent, it is a matter of gaining the sympathy of global Jewry, perceived as being in the possession of considerable power. This vision, historically ironic, is not too distant from that of the worst anti-Semites who detect everywhere the ‘hand of the Jews’. The British Prime Minister [David Lloyd George] in his Memoirs evokes the power of ‘the Jewish race’, guided by its singular financial interests, whilst Lord Balfour himself had been the promoter, in 1905, of a project of a law on the limitation of immigration to Great Britain, aimed in particular at Russian Jewry. Mark Sykes, one of the negotiators of the accords that partition the Middle East in 1916, wrote to an Arab leader: “Believe me, for I am sincere when I tell you that this race [the Jews], vile and weak, is hegemonic through the entire world and that one is not able to defeat it. Jews sit in each government, in each bank, in each enterprise.” [‘vile’ appears to have been a favourite epithet which Sykes used indiscriminately – translator]
The Balfour Declaration is addressed particularly to American Jewry, suspected of sympathy for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to Russian Jewry, influenced by revolutionary organisations that have overturned the Tsar in the spring of 1917. Many of them are favourable to the idea that Russia signs a separate peace. London hopes to prevent this ‘desertion’. Balfour even evokes the mission that will be entrusted to the Jews in Palestine: to ensure that the Jews of the world behave ‘appropriately’. This calculation will fail since, during the night of the 6th November 1917, the insurgent Bolsheviks seize power at Petrograd and demand an immediate peace.
But Great Britain, in comforting the Zionist movement, aims for a more strategic objective, the control of the Middle East. The dismembering of the defeated is negotiated between Paris and London, even though victory had not yet been achieved. In 1916, Paris and London sign, later ratified by the Tsar, the accords known as Sykes-Picot (Mark Sykes and Georges Picot are two high-ranking officials, the one British the other French) which specify the dividing lines and zones of influence within the Middle East. For London, Palestine ‘protects’ the flank east of the Suez canal, vital link between India, the jewel of the Empire, and the metropolis. The patronage accorded to Zionism allows the British government to obtain total control of the Holy Land.
But the British are not content with promises to the Zionist movement, they have also made some to the Arab leaders. The Ottoman Caliph (he exercises authority over the Arab territories of the Middle East and he is ‘the Commander of the Believers’) allies himself in 1914 with Germany and Austro-Hungary. He has even called for a holy war against the infidel. To retaliate, London arouses an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, fronted by a religious leader, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, then Emir of Mecca. In exchange, Hussein gets British support for Arab independence. But the promises only enlist believers … How, in effect, to reconcile Arab independence and the creation of a Jewish home? The Arab revolt will become celebrated in a distorted form concocted by a British agent who will play a major role, Thomas E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. His narrative, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, will be brought to the cinema by David Lean and Peter O’Toole as Lawrence.
The Middle East will be then partitioned between France and Great Britain. The League of Nations, created in 1920 and precursor of the United Nations, assembles some dozens of states, for the most part European. It invents the ‘mandate’ system which the League’s Charter defines as: “Certain communities, which formerly belonged to the Ottoman Empire, have attained a degree of development such that their existence as independent nations is able to be recognised provisionally, on the condition that the counsels and the assistance of a mandatory power guide their administration until the time when they will be capable of conducting their own affairs.” Thus some peoples considered as ‘minors’ should have need of tutors to accede, perhaps one day, to a majority.
On 24 July 1922, the League bestows on Great Britain the mandate over Palestine. The text foresees that the mandatory power will be “responsible for executing the original declaration of 2 November 1971 made by the British government and adopted by [the Allied Powers], in favour of the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people”. The son of Sharif Hussein, tightly controlled by London, installs himself on the thrones of Iraq and Transjordan (created by Britain to the east of the Jordan River), whilst the Lebanese and Syrian territories fall into France’s pocket. Egypt, formally independent since 1922, remains under British occupation.
All the actors of the Palestinian drama are in place: the dominant power, Great Britain, which hopes to maintain control over a strategic region, rich in petrol whose economic and military role magnifies; the Zionist movement, strong from its first great diplomatic success, and now organising Jewish immigration to Palestine; the Palestinian Arabs, not yet referred to as Palestinians, and who begin to mobilise against the Balfour Declaration; finally, the Arab countries, for the most part under British influence and which gradually come to involve themselves in Palestinian affairs.