Sunday,09 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Sunday,09 December, 2018
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

100 years after Balfour

Whereas in the past, the fate of the region was largely dictated by outside powers, today the region’s destiny lies mostly in the hands of the independent Arab peoples, writes Abdel-Moneim Said


اقرأ باللغة العربية


On 2 November, it will be 100 years since former British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour sent Lord Lionel Arthur Rothschild a letter asking him to convey to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland his pledge to establish a “national homeland” for the Jews in Palestine. In fact, this pledge, known as the Balfour Declaration, is not the only promise the British made during World War I concerning the region then known as the Near East (the term Middle East would come along later). They made many promises, another one being the pledge to create a United Arab Kingdom in the Fertile Crescent. This pledge was made in 1916 in the form of the “Hussein-McMahon letters”. Then there were the promises London made to Paris over dividing spheres of influence in this region as was laid out in the Sykes-Picot agreement. The actual object of these pledges and commitments that Britain was distributing left and right was the legacy of the moribund Ottoman Empire, or the “Sick Man of Europe” as it was nicknamed at the time. London was divvying out Ottoman lands to the Jews, Arabs, French, Greeks and others depending on how the “Great War” panned out.

The British promises were all contradictory and, indeed, conflicting. What largely determined how they were carried out was the skill and acumen of the pledgees. The Jews proved most successful. They turned the promise into an immigration permit and a “national homeland” into a “nation state”. They also turned a midget state, the borders of which were defined by UN General Assembly Resolution 181 on the partition of Palestine, into an empire that would seize and occupy territories of three Arab states in addition to the whole of Palestine. This reality would appear in the UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967 that established the ceasefire lines of the June war of that year. After World War I, the Arabs, Turks and Greeks managed to obtain chunks of the empire, but smaller than their dreams. Ataturk succeeded in inheriting some of the remnants of the empire. In all events, as was the case with the Balfour Declaration 100 years ago, the Partition Resolution 70 years ago and Resolution 242 50 years ago all generated waves of conflict and peace-making that the peoples of this region are still struggling with today.

Still, our subject at hand is the Balfour Declaration with all its repercussions from resolutions 181 to 242 and beyond. All of these combined have shaped a history that universities and research centres are still trying to understand and that poses such questions as whether it was inevitable that the parties involved had to endure all the sacrifices they made or whether there were other choices.

As we look back, the first lesson we learn is that the creation of realities on the ground is always stronger than legal or moral arguments. This helps identify a basic difference between the Jewish and Palestinian political elites. The difference does not just reside solely in the fact the Jews managed to appropriate and settle on land that had not been theirs and on which Palestinians were already living, but also in their ability to build political, economic and social institutions. In those days, the Jews did not have the international advantages they have today. It was prevalently believed at the time that the Jews killed Christ and the rising Nazi and fascist movements were vehemently anti-Semitic. Those were also times when Jews were unwelcome as refugees or as residents in many countries. By contrast, the Palestinians, who had Arab kin and cultural extensions in the region and were living in their own country and on their own land, did little to build the kernel of a Palestinian state. There were attempts, of course, but the difference in magnitude was great. Whether this was due to the British occupation or to deeply rooted underdevelopment or to other factors, the result was that by the time of the partition resolution, the Jews were ready to run a state and to kill for the sake of that state. The Palestinians, for their part, were dependent on Arab countries which also suffered from colonial occupation and an array of problems of their own. So, in the end, the All-Palestine Government in Gaza and unity with Jordan could not succeed in holding on to what remained of Palestine.

Lesson two is that military might, however strong, has limits and that it cannot, in and of itself, achieve the objectives of any of the parties of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arabs failed in 1948 and 1967, but the Israelis failed in 1956 and 1973. Moreover, the Israelis failed to repress by force the first and second Palestinian intifadas that only subsided due to political and diplomatic efforts. Regardless of its military victories, Israel has been unable to bring Palestinian people to their knees and drive them out of Palestine. Some 12 million people are living in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Half of them are Jewish Israelis and the other half are Arab Palestinians. They face each other down across the whole of Palestine and sometimes within a space as narrow as the Holy Mount that contains Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall. These demographic realities plus the holy sites that embody history and religious passions are also major realities on the ground.

The third lesson is that the Arab-Israeli conflict has a persistence and intrinsic impetus that has enabled it to keep going even as the whole world changes. The conflict began in World War I, survived World War II with its consequences for both Jews and Arabs and Palestinians, persisted through the Cold War with its vicissitudes and dragged on following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the upheavals that followed the attack against the World Trade Centre in New York. Along the way the combatants had to adjust to changing realities and to try to take advantage of everything new.

The result gives us lesson four which is that major shifts in the course of the conflict only occurred when there was direct dialogue between the Arabs and the Jews and between the Arab states and Israel. Examples are to be found in the Camp David talks and the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement that ended the Israeli occupation of Sinai, and then in the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement. Between these two landmarks were the Oslo Accords that led to the establishment of the first Palestinian National Authority on Palestinian land, creating a Palestinian reality on the ground. Unfortunately, this reality is not only threatened by Israeli violence but also by the Palestinians’ tendency to forget that their goal is to establish a state that is not based on the rift between the West Bank and Gaza or that surrenders to the forces of regional and kin allegiances that reduce the concept of the state into a pie to be carved according to rules and principles that have nothing to do with democracy and equal citizenship.

The 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, the 70 years since the partition resolution, and the 50 years since the June war all tell the story of a huge tragedy, but one that compels us to read it again rather than to lament over the ruins. More importantly, perhaps, is the need to reread with an eye fixed on the future. The Arab Peace Initiative may be the key to determining how to arrange things in a region that has never experienced order unless some outside powers imposed it, as was the case with Britain and its promises. After all, what is there to prevent us, the now independent peoples of this region, from undertaking this task today?


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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