Balfour at 100: Nothing New for Palestinians

by Thomas W. Lippman

In this year of historic anniversaries—50 years since the Six-Day War, 100 since the U.S. entered World War I—another is fast approaching. As autumn comes, those who attempt to keep track of events in the Middle East will be reading more and more about a document that was written 100 years ago, during a critical period of World War I, the one they called the Great War or the War to End All Wars. On November 2, 1917, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour wrote the letter that came to be known as the Balfour Declaration.

The letter attracted little attention at first because of the history-making events sweeping across Europe at the time: empires were crumbling, the United States had entered the war, the Bolsheviks were taking over Russia. More than a month passed before it appeared in the British press. To the British government, the letter was just another maneuver in its clandestine efforts to ensure that when the Ottoman Empire broke up, as it surely would, the resulting map would be satisfactory to London. It seemed much less important than the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement with France, which had been reached the year before. And yet, as David Fromkin wrote in A Peace to End All Peace, his monumental history of that era, “It took on a life and momentum of its own.”

Balfour addressed his letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, described by as “Britain’s most illustrious Jewish citizen.” Its first clause has often been quoted by supporters of the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” But that was not the end of the sentence. The less-remembered second part said, “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.”

Negotiating a Conflict

In essence, that it what the argument is still about today: how to reconcile the aspirations of the Zionists who created the state of Israel with the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities,” namely the Palestinian Arabs. President Trump may be optimistic that his son in law, Jared Kushner, can find a solution to this conundrum when all others have failed, but if so, he is the only one.

When Balfour’s letter was made public, Fromkin noted, “Its character as a public document—issued with the approval of the United States and France and after consultation with Italy and the Vatican, and greeted with approval by the public and the press throughout the western world—made it a commitment that was difficult to ignore when the peace settlement was being negotiated.”

But it was a commitment that could not be fulfilled without violence because the Arabs, who had supported Britain during the war and felt betrayed, were mostly hostile to Zionism and to Jewish immigration into Palestine. President Woodrow Wilson, sensing the difficulties of parceling out former Ottoman lands among wartime allies while at the same time responding to Arab desires for independence, appointed a commission to go the region and advise him on how to proceed.

That panel was known as the King-Crane Commission after its co-chairmen, Henry King, president of Oberlin College, and Charles Crane, a plumbing-fixtures heir fascinated by the Arab world. The two clauses of Balfour’s sentence could not be reconciled, the panel said bluntly.

“A national home for the Jewish people is not equivalent to making Palestine into a Jewish state,” the commission found. “Nor can the erection of such a Jewish state be accomplished without the gravest trespass upon the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

The King-Crane report never had any impact on the territorial negotiations that followed the war because the U.S. Senate refused to endorse U.S. membership in the League of Nations, which oversaw the process. With that rejection and Wilson’s serious illness, the British and French were free to use the League to ratify their territorial aspirations. Far from delivering Palestine to the Zionists as a “national home,” the League gave Britain a “mandate” to govern the territory.

And in a quarter century as the mandatory power, Britain limited Jewish migration to Palestine, rather than encouraging it.

The Creation of Israel

But the issue returned to international jurisdiction a generation after Balfour, following another global war, World War II. Jews already in Palestine were clamoring for their own state, sometimes resorting to violence, and the traumatized remnants of Europe’s Jewish communities needed someplace to go. Britain, its power and colonial ambitions sapped by the war, announced its intention to relinquish the mandate. Thus the question of Palestine’s future was again placed in the jurisdiction of an international body, this time the United Nations.

In 1947, when the UN was considering a plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab zones, President Harry Truman faced the decision of whether to endorse the plan. In the same way that Wilson appointed the King-Crane Commission to advise him, Truman turned to an ostensibly neutral and presumably expert group, the Central Intelligence Agency.

The agency, created early that year when Congress reorganized the nation’s military and security apparatus, delivered a comprehensive assessment titled “The Consequences of the Partition of Palestine” that basically came to the same conclusion as King-Crane: any decision to deliver part of Palestine to the Zionists would result in war between the Jews and their Arab neighbors.

The Arabs would win that war, the agency forecast, because the Jews’ supply lines in the partitioned land could easily be severed and the Jews lacked the manpower to fight a war and raise their crops at the same time. The longest the Jews could hold out, the CIA said, was two years.

But the United States voted for the partition plan and persuaded several other countries to do so as well. Thus Harry Truman delivered what Arthur Balfour did not, “a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” Truman didn’t do it out of any particular sentiment in favor of the Zionists; he did it because his political advisers convinced him he would need the votes of Jewish Americans if he wanted to win re-election in 1948. Ironically, he became the first president since Wilson to win the presidency without winning the vote in New York.

Photo: Arthur Balfour (painting by John Singer Sargent)

Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.


One Comment

  1. How very welcome, to see an online post regarding the King-Crane report. Will fanatical Zionists succeed in preventing an independent Palestine from emerging (comprising the West Bank & Gaza Strip)?

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