A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Balfour After a Century

A century ago:

Many commentators have already analyzed the Balfour Declaration before its centennial, and there is little point in repeating their observations here. Let me make just a few points:

As I noted just two days ago, the occupation of Beersheba by Allenby on October 31,1917, was the first real British foothold inside Ottoman Palestine (unless we count the occupation of Aqaba by the Arab Revolt). Beersheba was seen as the Biblical southern boundary of Ancient Israel (from Dan to Beersheba), and two days after Britain acquired a tenuous hold there, the British Foreign Secretary made a commitment, ambiguous and hedged with conditions as it is, to the future of Palestine, then still under Ottoman control.

Now, under the Sykes-Picot agreement France and Britain had envisioned an international regime for part of Palestine including Jerusalem. But Sykes-Picot was a secret agreement, unknown to Lord Rothschild or Chaim Weizmann on November 2. (But not for long: on November 23, the new Bolshevik regime in Russia published the text in Pravda and Izvestia.) And then of course there was the Hussein-McMahon correspondence which promised Sharif Hussein territories argued about ever since.

Generations have noted that the "Promised Land" was promised to several different parties, even though Britain did not even control the territory in question. But 1917 was still an age of imperialism, and the idea that Great Powers could decide the fate of "lesser" countries. (Bonus question: Has this really changed that much?)

Israelis today are more likely to point to the League of Nations Palestine Mandate and/or the 1947 UN Partition Resolution as the legal basis for the state, since these had international legitimacy, and were not simply the diktat of a single Great Power.

To save space, I will avoid the question of what a "national home" meant or how it could be created without prejudicing the rights of "the non-Jewish communties of Palestine."

Arthur James Balfour had served as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty before becoming Foreign Secretary. But despite his long political career, his name will forever be attached to a single, run-on 67-word sentence sent a century ago today.

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