How one letter — 67 words — changed the Middle East

How one letter — 67 words — changed the Middle East


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The Balfour Declaration was sent 100 years ago this week.
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LONDON — The Balfour Declaration was short — 67 words — but the letter sent 100 years ago Thursday from Britain’s foreign secretary to the head of an influential Jewish banking family has had far-reaching consequences for the Middle East. 

In fact, Arthur Balfour’s Nov. 2, 1917, missive to Lord Walter Rothschild eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel and marks the starting point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is still simmering today despite decades of diplomacy.  

The declaration is the first time a government supported, as it says, “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” At the time, Britain controlled the region. “Her Majesty’s Government” vowed to “use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.” And it did. Israel declared independence in 1948.   

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But that is far from the end of the story, even though British Prime Minister Theresa May and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will commemorate the centenary of the statement on Thursday with a banquet at London’s Lancaster House mansion.

While Israel views the declaration as a landmark endorsement of the Jewish homeland, Palestinians see the document as representing the formal beginning of a catastrophe that has resulted in their mass displacement, decades of hardship and bloodshed, and stifled their own hopes of securing recognition for an independent Palestinian state. 

In the Palestinian city of Ramallah on Thursday, about 3,000 protesters marched from the city center to the British Consulate, according to the Associated Press. Many waved black flags and banners with slogans such as “100 years of dispossession.”

Smaller demonstrations took place in east Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank.

“The land does not belong to Balfour,” said Rawada Odeh, a demonstrator who spoke to the AP in Jerusalem. “We are Palestinians, and we are living here and we are following our issue till we succeed.”

The letter itself is ambiguous on this point.

The declaration advocates for a home for the Jewish people, but it also says “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Speaking on a panel about the anniversary last week in London, Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian United Nations diplomat, said that in 1917 even though Britain was a major foreign power it “did not really have a foreign policy, only a national one. Balfour’s declaration was intended to serve Britain’s interests first and foremost.”

Brahimi added that “the aspirations of the Zionist movement were secondary to Britain’s competition with France in the Levant (the countries and islands of the eastern Mediterranean) and the need to secure the support of Jews in Europe for the war (World War I) effort. Of even less a priority were the pious words in the declaration about protecting the rights of Palestine’s non-Jewish residents.”

Hannah Weisfeld, another member of the panel discussion at the Chatham House think tank, said that 100 years later “we’re in a situation where we see a proliferation of celebration and condemnation” and “such conflicting perspectives on what the meaning and purpose of the declaration is.” Weisfeld is the director of Yachad, a Britain-based organization that supports a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It is very easy to view it in the context, and rightly so, of being a Colonial-era document much like many other that were carving up pieces of the world toward the end of the Ottoman Empire … But, I think it’s more complicated than that,” she added. 

 

 

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