The Balfour Declaration taught Israel an important lesson: It would have a free hand as long as it relied on a superpower patron
The oldest physical footprint left by the 100-year-old Balfour Declaration in what is today Israel is visible from my home in Nazareth. From my vantage point on a ridge above the Jezreel Valley, Balfouriya appears like a dark smudge below in the middle of the vast agricultural plain.
The small, exclusively Jewish farming community was established in 1922, five years after Britain’s foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, signed a letter pledging help to create “a national home for the Jewish people” in what was then Palestine.
Named in Balfour’s honour, Balfouriya was the first Jewish community to be founded in Palestine after the declaration was issued. Today, its 500 residents live in one of more than a dozen communities set up to “Judaise” a swath of land in the Lower Galilee, known in Arabic as Marj Ibn Amer, that Palestinians once farmed.
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At the time of the Balfour Declaration, the vast majority of Jews in Europe and the United States viewed the Zionists heading to Palestine, like those who founded Balfouriya, as something akin to a cult. But in truth, they were more like political opportunists, piggy-backing on the ambitions of the British empire as it sought to consolidate its colonial hold over the Middle East.
The major European powers were jostling for pre-eminence in the region, as the First World war neared its end and the Ottoman empire was crumbling. Balfour’s letter was, in part, intended to pre-empt the potential threat of France making a similar overture to the Zionists.
Britain was especially keen to cultivate support from the Zionist movement as a way to secure its imperial interests. Not least, Palestine offered control over the Suez Canal, the gateway to India and Britain’s other colonies, and access to the Persian Gulf, with its plentiful oil.
The British cabinet, imbued with a potent mix of Christian Zionism and anti-semitic assumptions about the global power of Jews, believed that the Zionists ought to be restored to their “ancient homeland”. But more immediately, Britain hoped to leverage pressure on the US and Russia from their respective Jewish communities to help in the fight against Germany and its Ottoman ally.
Palestine not for sale
Whatever Britain’s intention in issuing the Balfour Declaration, the Zionists seized the opportunity it presented to realise their goal of statehood.
These self-styled pioneers, however, faced a significant obstacle. As a Zionist fact-finding mission of the period reputedly concluded of Palestine: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” At the time, 90 percent of the local population were Palestinian Arabs.
The Zionist movement hoped the natives could be bribed to hand over the bride. On a small portion of Palestine, this approach worked. Much of the Jezreel Valley was purchased from absentee landlords in Lebanon. Balfouriya’s inhabitants, who enjoyed the support of wealthy investors in the United States, were soon nicknamed “the millionaires” for their ostentatious homes.
In a policy of “Hebrew labour”, Balfouriya and other Jewish communities denied Palestinians the opportunity to work the lands that had recently been acquired. The goal was, in the words of Theodor Herzl, the father of the Zionist movement, to “spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our country [Palestine]. … The process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly.”
But as quickly became evident most of Palestine was not for sale, and the natives were not about to leave quietly. A different approach was needed – one that would inevitably depend on the use of force.
Some 31 years after the Balfour Declaration, and under cover of war, Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion, unleashed a military operation, Plan Dalet, to expel Palestinians en masse. In 1948, Israeli soldiers forced 750,000 Palestinians out of their homes, transforming most of historic Palestine into the Jewish state of Israel – and the vast majority of Palestinians into refugees.
The small number who clung on to their lands became a Palestinian minority in Israel – a large and increasingly unwelcome one as their higher birth rates nullified the effects of waves of Jewish immigration. Nazareth was the only Palestinian city to survive the war relatively unscathed.
Britain, the main patron
The events of 1948, known by Palestinians as the Nakba, or Catastrophe, were only one front – the most visible – in the Zionist movement’s efforts to colonise Palestine. The Balfour Declaration was evidence of a parallel and related strategy – one the Zionists would rely on over the next century.
In 1923, as Balfouriya’s settlers began tilling the soil, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement, the intellectual spirit behind the modern Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, wrote an influential essay called “The Iron Wall”. He argued that the native Palestinians needed to be forced into submission – and that could be achieved only with an “iron wall of Jewish bayonets” and “British bayonets”.
The significance of the Balfour Declaration, he concluded, was that Britain had “committed itself to create such security conditions that the local population would be deterred from interfering with our efforts” to seize control of Palestine.
In setting out the necessary conditions for the Zionists to achieve statehood, Jabotinsky was conceding that the project depended not just on violence but on a colonial sponsor.
Under British patronage, the Zionists began building the institutions of a state, including a government-in-waiting, the Jewish Agency; a fund-raising arm, the Jewish National Fund, to buy land and colonise Palestine; and a proto-army known as the Haganah.
That lesson was not lost on subsequent generations. Israel’s success has depended on its close alliances with superpower patrons, persuading them that Israel can usefully advance their interests – or that its opposition could prove damaging.
During much of the Mandate period, Britain fulfilled the main patron role, facilitating mass Jewish immigration to erode Palestine’s native majority and create the footsoldiers for the coming ethnic cleansing campaign.
But Israel has proved unusually fickle in its attachments, and more than ready to cultivate multiple sponsors.
While the Zionist movement was pressuring Britain to increase Jewish immigration, the recent arrivals from East Europe – the pioneers of agricultural communities like Balfouriya – sought to impress the Soviet Union with their collectivism. A Jewish state of farming communes opposed to private property and with ties to Jewish communities in Europe and the US promised a potent propaganda weapon for Soviet-style communism.
That helps to explain why the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia began shipping arms to the Zionists in Palestine in 1947, as Britain prepared to depart. This weapons smuggling was pivotal in turning the tide of war in Israel’s favour a year later: the Czechs helped the fledgling Israeli army by violating an international arms embargo. The shipments, according to Ben Gurion, proved decisive in defeating the Palestinians.
First nuclear bomb
Israel was soon colluding again with Britain and France, in a last-gasp effort by these two fading European powers to re-assert themselves in the Middle East. Israel invaded Sinai in 1956 to provide Britain and France with a pretext for military intervention to regain control of the Suez Canal and overthrow Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Despite the failure of Suez – under joint pressure from the US and Russia, the three parties were forced to withdraw – Britain and France repaid their debt by supplying Israel with the technology to build a nuclear reactor. As a result, Israel would soon go on to develop its first nuclear bomb.
In 1967, Israel made headlines triumphing against its Arab neighbours in six days of war that initiated an occupation that has so far lasted five decades. But in a not-unrelated development, the same year also marked the moment Israel developed its first rudimentary nuclear warhead, over longstanding US objections.
These successes forced Washington’s hand into decisively assuming the role of Israel’s new patron-in-chief. The US was not willing to test whether it should take seriously Israeli threats to invoke the Samson option – resorting to its nuclear arsenal – should it find itself cornered by its Arab neighbours, or required to return the Palestinian territories now under occupation.
Washington has remained the dishonest broker of a supposed Middle East peace process ever since. Its billions of dollars annually of military aid have turned Israel into the pre-eminent regional military power, and alleviated it of any need to concede a Palestinian state.
Western diplomatic support
US dominance over Europe, and especially Britain, has secured for Israel a solid Western bloc of diplomatic support, allowing the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to entrench and the settlements to flourish. It is for this reason primarily that Britain and other leading European states continue to indulge Israel and pay only lip service to Palestinian statehood.
That has put them increasingly at odds with ever larger sections of their voting publics, outraged by the repeated attacks on the trapped population of Gaza and exasperated by Netanyahu’s arrogant refusal to engage with a peace process.
That tension has become politically toxic in Britain – as has been underscored by this week’s Balfour Declaration centenary.
In September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas used his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to call on Britain to apologise very belatedly for the declaration. His answer came on Sunday when British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the latest inheritor of Balfour’s title, wrote a commentary in the Telegraph newspaper stating that he was “proud of Britain’s part in creating Israel”.
In a master-class of understatement, Johnson conceded, however, that Britain’s promise to do nothing to “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” had, in his words, “not been fully realised.”
A sensitive issue
That short observation was presumably intended to refer both to five decades of Israel’s belligerent occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and to the severely degraded form of citizenship imposed on Israel’s large Palestinian minority.
In fact, Balfour did much worse. He failed to recognise the “existing non-Jewish communities” as the native Palestinian population and he denied them, but not recent Jewish arrivals from Europe, any national and political rights in their own homeland.
A flood of events across Britain criticising the Balfour Declaration and its legacy have proved discomfiting to Britain’s ruling elite. Despite British Prime Minister Theresa May’s protestations that Britain would mark the anniversary with “pride”, official events have intentionally been more low-key than celebratory.
May will host Netanyahu this week in London at a “private dinner” in the home of the current Lord Rothschild, heir to the recipient of Balfour’s letter. No media are invited. A small reception last week at the British ambassador’s home in Tel Aviv was similarly sequestered.
So sensitive is the issue that evidence of Britain’s ignoble role in Palestine has been kept out of public view on the capital’s underground trains and its buses. Transport for London censored an advertising campaign, Make It Right, that offered visual evidence of the ways Britain betrayed even the declaration’s paltry promise to protect the Palestinians’ “civil and religious rights”.
The repression of dissent on the Israel and Palestine issue has been even more evident in recent attempts to crack down in Britain (as well as the rest of Europe and the US) on the increasingly popular international boycott movement, known as BDS.
Europe’s practical expressions of displeasure with Netanyahu’s intransigence have amounted to nothing more than a pitiful intention to label the produce Israel exports to European markets from its illegal West Bank settlements.
Cheerleader for Israel
The increasingly difficult atmosphere for British governments in continuing to act as a cheerleader for Israel was evident in the decision of May’s predecessor, David Cameron, to resign from the post of patron of the Jewish National Fund’s UK branch in 2011. May, despite her fervent professions of support for Israel, has preferred not to become a patron, ending a tradition upheld by all recent prime ministers.
These tensions are growing apace. For the first time in modern British history, there is now a credible candidate for prime minister – the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn – who places the much-abused rights of the Palestinians well above Israel’s right to entrench its occupation. Corbyn has refused to attend the Balfour dinner with May and Netanyahu.
The backlash against Corbyn from Britain’s pro-Israel lobbyists has been truly savage. The party and his allies within it, including prominent Jewish anti-Zionist members, have faced a relentless campaign of accusations of anti-semitism, designed to discredit them and silence their – and Corbyn’s – criticism of Israel.
Notably, however, at last month’s Labour party conference, delegates reserved possibly their biggest applause for Corbyn’s statement in support of the Palestinians. He told them: “Let’s give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people, the 50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion and move to a genuine two-state solution.”
Change the discourse
Israel, like the Zionist movement 100 years ago, still depends on the patronage of big states. That is its current strength, but also a potential Achilles’ heel in the future. The withdrawal of support from its sponsors, or even the threat of it, could force a substantial and rapid change in Israeli attitudes and policy towards the Palestinians.
The British government is today far less influential than it was in Balfour’s day. Nonetheless, it could still do much, in addition to issuing an apology, to begin changing the discourse about Israel and the Palestinians – relics of the colonial language employed by Balfour.
The Palestinians are not simply “non-Jewish communities” and they deserve far more than simple protection of their “civil and religious rights”. They are a people and must enjoy the right to determine their own fate in their own land.
Britain could also remember its commitment, as a democracy, to freedom of speech and organisation – and use its voice to remind the US and other European states of their similar commitments. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is legitimate political activism, just as was the campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Finally, Britain could use its weight to push its allies to impose meaningful penalties against Israel for refusing to respect Palestinian rights.
Britain could start by campaigning to revoke the European Association Agreement, which gives Israel special trading privileges with Europe and is economically crucial. Israel is already clearly in breach of the agreement’s terms, which require that relations between the EU and Israel be “based on respect for human rights and democratic principles”.
Additionally, Britain could press for an embargo on the arms and technology supplied to Israel for use in the repression of the Palestinian people. Innumerable western firms are profiting from Israel’s occupation industry. Israel, in turn, is selling western states refinements in the weapons of war and the tools of oppression – developments it has achieved by testing them in “battlefield conditions” on Palestinians.
Admittedly, even proposing such punishments of Israel seems wildly naïve about the nature of Western power-politics. But that tells us only how little Britain – and the rest of Europe – have moved on from their shameful colonial pasts.