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How the face of the Middle East Changed - A century after the Balfour Declaration

Translated Wednesday 15 November 2017, by Hannah Smith

100 years ago to the day, in the middle of the First World War, the British definitively opted for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people". In giving support to Zionism, London consolidated its control over an area which was also coveted by Paris and Berlin.

On 2nd November 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour, the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Britain and party leader of the Conservatives, published an open letter addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild. Rothschild was the representative of the Jewish community of Great Britain; a banker, and also the vice President of the Board of Jewish Deputies. The letter was a declaration, in which the Government of His Majesty King George V had favourably considered the establishment of "a national home for a Jewish people" in Palestine. This text is recognised as one of the founding acts of the state of Israel, fifty years before its creation. A century later, the Balfour Declaration is still causing division, and weighs heavily on the stability of the Middle East. Palestinians go so far as calling it an "Apartheid State". Today, the continuation of Israeli development in Jerusalem and in the West Bank does away with hope of a solution between the two states. But why was the British government so willing to make this declaration? And what are the consequences? Let’s look back on this historic act which shocked the Middle East, and also the world.

The international context

On the 29th of August 1897, the first global Zionist congress took place in Basel, Switzerland. Headed by Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, the participants made a list of several objectives. They included: the establishment of a national home for Jewish people in Palestine, a financial institution of the People’s bank, the foundation of the Global Zionist Organisation, and also the creation of a national anthem. Herzel made a diary entry on 1 September 1897, stating "If I want to summarise the meeting in Basel- which I refrain from doing publicly- it would be this: I founded the Jewish State through my actions in Basel. Such words spoken today out loud will certainly provoke universal laughter. Maybe in five years, but definitely in fifty, everyone will understand."

His first published book was in 1896, entitled The State for Jews, and was heavily influenced by the Dreyfus Affair in France. He wrote "In the long run, the people of the world cannot bear the thought of the Israeli people in their midst, nor their religious beliefs, nor their leaders, nor their mind set". He was convinced that "Anti-semitism is growing, particularly at a time when the Israeli people are realising what is happening. An adequate solution to the problem must be found sooner or later". The book foreshadows the ideas of Zionism, and Herzl outlines in his seminal work that "the powerful seem to be willing to grant the Jewish people a place of sovereignty and neutral territory." The solution was the allocation of two possible territories: Argentina and Palestine. It was therefore after the conference in Basel that the leaders of this movement tried to gain international support for the project. They met with many of the world’s diplomats, but Herzl wanted Great Britain to rally to his cause. This was due to its huge influence on the world’s stage. Herzl, however, died in 1904 without seeing the project through. It was his successor, Chaim Weizmann, who succeeded on the 2nd November 1907, with the signing of the Balfour declaration.

Why were the British in favour?

The Ottoman Empire had gone awry, leaving close to 35 million people and almost 5 million km2 the object of negotiation between France and Great Britain. The Society of Nations, which we know now as the United Nations, brought the mandate into force, except for "the people who are not yet able to govern themselves should be under the administration of developed nations". Palestine, a former entity of the Ottoman Empire, was a strategic stronghold for the British. It was a vital asset to the textile industry for the Empire, which also safeguarded the Suez Canal- the main transit point. It was also one of the major areas which could produce oil, all of which led to the discovery of its "virtues". Supporting the Zionist ambitions would be, in the eyes of British diplomats, maintaining control of the area.

Chaim Weizmann, the first President of the state of Israel, declared later "for a long time, we have said that to the English – and I will repeat this during my meeting with Lord Robert Cecil- a Jewish Palestinian would be a safeguard for England, particularly considering the Suez Canal". But the Balfour Declaration flouted two promises issued previously by the British. Promised to Hussein, Sharif of Mecca, and to Ibn Saoud, founder of the Saudi state, was the support for independence of Arabs in the region. And the French, through the Skyes-Picot agreement, had promised to share the Middle East, envisaging "independent states under mandate". Paris however took time to produce its vision for Syria, which encompassed southern Palestine.

But the dislocation of the Ottoman Empire doesn’t explain British support of the idea. In October 1917, His Majesty’s government received a report from the secret service which revealed a growing influence of the Jewish community in the Bolshevik Party : the new revolutionary movement which was quickly becoming the dominant force in Russia. Lloyd George, who was the British Prime Minister believed that the communists would disengage from the "Great War". The Americans had constantly refused to send a sufficient convoy of troops. And in line with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, made a political promise to seduce the Jews, before guaranteeing the support of Jewish citizens in North America and Great Britain. They also gained the support of Trotsky, Zinoviev, and about ten others, all of whom were very influential in Russia.

From this point, it all started to become very embarrassing for Westerners. In a pre-war context, more emphasis was placed on defending democratic values, while affirming that support for the Arab right to self determination following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. However, the publishing of secret meetings created an enormous suspicion in the Arab world, which was a prelude to the big revolts that followed. Sharif of Mecca and his closest aides understood that the English had fought for their own interests – control in the zone – but they had also promised big things to the French.

The consequences

Five years after the Balfour Declaration, the Society of Nations attributed the British mandate to Palestine, stating "the country must be placed in the correct political, administrative and economic conditions which will allow a national home for Jewish people. It must facilitate Jewish immigration, and encourage Jewish people to settle into the territory", with the exception of Eastern Jordan, which the British created.

"The proportion of Jews in the Palestine increased to 30%, from 10%. The agricultural area increased threefold, and the industrial sector by 50%. A state was formed with a language, public services, representative institutions and the birth of an army -TSA Hagana. It was the army that was very important in the repression of the Arab revolts between 1936 and 1939." claims Dominique Vidal, a journalist and expert in the Middle East.

Thirty years after the proclamation of the state of Israel, the Balfour Declaration had established the Hebrew state, while the Palestinian people had never been consulted as to their rights. The split of Palestine in 1947 and the subsequent creation of the Israeli state on the 14 May 1948 could not be avoided. 70 years later, the Israel-Palestine conflict has not ceased. Occupation and colonisation followed; a Palestinian state, despite promises and agreements, has never become a reality.

For generations of Palestinians, peace remains a mirage.

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