The Balfour Declaration (Wikimedia Commons/British Library)

By Alistair Lyon

Arriving in Amman the other day, I boarded an airport taxi into town and began chatting with the driver.

I’ll call him Yusuf.

He told me he used to work as an engineer, calibrating ground instruments for the Jordanian air force. I mentioned that I had once lived in Jordan as a Reuters correspondent.

“Tell me,” said Yusuf, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, after I had let slip that I was British. “What do you think of the Balfour Declaration?”

We were barely acquainted, but this mild-mannered grey-haired man in his 50s was inviting me to step into a historical minefield at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There was a curious urgency about his demand for a stranger’s views on a 67-word letter delivered 100 years ago by a British foreign secretary to a Jewish community leader in Britain — a document that was to play a fateful role in Palestine’s future and the creation of Israel.

Like Yusuf, many Middle Easterners have strikingly long historical memories, often because their lives are still shaped, or mis-shaped, by events set in train by colonial powers long ago.

Yusuf’s parents lived in the Mediterranean port of Jaffa near present-day Tel Aviv until they they found themselves among hundreds of thousands of  Palestinians who were driven or fled from their homes before and after the war that accompanied the birth of Israel in 1948.

Yusuf has never seen his family’s ancestral home.

Legacy of conflict

The Balfour Declaration has fueled a century of intractable conflict between Arabs and Jews in the land both hold dear, yet British Prime Minister Theresa May takes unequivocal pride in it.

This month she celebrated its centenary by hosting a dinner for her Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu and praising Balfour’s “vision of a peaceful co-existence.”

She restated Britain’s commitment to a two-state solution, although this is surely already in the morgue thanks to the reality of Israeli power, occupation and settlement expansion, along with divisions among Palestinians.

“A hundred years after Balfour, the Palestinians should finally accept a Jewish national home and finally accept a Jewish state,” Netanyahu said in London. “And when they do, the road to peace will be infinitely closer.”

Since 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organisation has accepted a two-state solution. Most Palestinians have recognized Israel’s existence, but their demand for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in return has gone nowhere. The West Bank and East Jerusalem remain under de facto Israeli occupation, while Gaza is blockaded.

So for Palestinians, who have no realistic prospect of a state of their own, Balfour is a dirty word, a hated symbol of their  plight. They want a British apology, not a celebration.

Fateful words

When Lord Arthur Balfour issued what he called a “declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations,” Jews made up less than 10 percent of Palestine’s population.

His vaguely worded letter, drafted during World War One, promised Britain’s “best endeavors” to create “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine — then still part of the Ottoman Empire.

This entity’s borders were not defined, and no mention was made of Jewish statehood.

Nevertheless, it was the first time a major power had endorsed the idea, which Britain became committed to implement under its post-war Mandate over Palestine.

Balfour added the proviso “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” — without naming the Arab majority or acknowledging that it had any political rights.

So what was Britain up to?

British imperial strategists wanted to keep control of Palestine as a vital land bridge in the defense of Egypt, the Suez Canal and the all-important route to India.

War-time leaders in London were keen to win over Jews to enlist their influence, real or imagined, over world powers, especially the United States, in Britain’s favor.

Bible-reading British politicians such as Balfour and Prime Minister David Lloyd George  harbored an emotional sympathy for Zionism — just as nowadays right-wing evangelical Christians in the United States are among Israel’s staunchest supporters.

Double dealing

The Balfour Declaration galvanized Jewish support for the Zionist movement then led by Chaim Weizmann, who called it “the golden key which unlocks the doors of Palestine.”

It sparked predictable outrage among Arabs in Palestine and elsewhere.

But Balfour’s promise to Jews was scarcely compatible with other war-time pledges Britain had made on the future of the Middle East.

It had previously dangled the prospect of Arab independence to Sharif Hussein of Mecca as an inducement to lead a revolt against Germany’s ally, the Ottoman Empire.

And in stark contradiction, it had also struck a secret deal with France to carve the region into British and French spheres of influence after the war.

The two imperial powers, allies in Europe but bitter rivals in the Middle East, had failed to agree on which of them would rule Palestine, so their Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 compromised on the idea of international control.

To France’s chagrin, Britain emerged from the 1919 peace conference with a Mandate over Palestine and Mesopotamia, while it had to be content with a French one over Syria.

Neither country had any interest in an American proposal to canvas the views of people who actually lived in those former Ottoman territories.

Balfour warned Lloyd George that any such exercise would wreck British designs on Palestine, telling him: “If the present inhabitants were consulted they would unquestionably give an anti-Jewish verdict.”

“Never forget”

The British commitment to seek a national home for the Jewish people bore fruit in the creation of Israel in 1948 in line with a United Nations resolution to partition Palestine.

But for Palestinians, Balfour’s legacy is bitter. This was the “original sin” that led to dispossession, expulsion and occupation.

Despite decades of “peace” efforts, few believe Israel has any serious interest in an equitable two-state solution, let alone a unitary state in which Arabs and Jews would enjoy the same rights.

Yusuf the taxi-driver has lived his life in exile, but says he and his wife have made sure his now grown-up children know the story of how their grandparents lost their home.

“I tell them they must never forget Palestine,” he says. “And that one day they or their children might have to fight for it.”

alyonAlistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.

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