How Balfour’s great purpose led to conflict

A century after Britain supported a Jewish state, the legacy of its bungled implementation remains

Almost a hundred years ago, the British Government officially converted to Zionism. On 2 November 1917, a sixty-seven-word letter travelled 1500 yards from Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour in Whitehall to Lord Rothschild in Piccadilly. By ‘expressing sympathy’ for Jewish Zionist endeavours and viewing ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, the letter transformed the course of Jewish history by providing a stepping-stone to the establishment of the State of Israel. It was a bold, visionary statement, but after the war Britain lacked the resources and ingenuity to implement it by imposing a solution on the Zionists and the Arabs.

The roots of the extraordinary declaration have been debated for decades. Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour were inspired by their Christianity to enable the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. A goal given greater urgency by a new form of racial antisemitism, in Europe, and the humanitarian crisis of Russian Jewry, where tens of thousands were killed in pogroms. But they were also driven by the immediate mission to win the First World War and in that context supporting Zionism and gaining favour with Jewish communities across the world was considered a distinct advantage if they could influence decision making in America and Russia at the time. Above all, Britain was acknowledging the reality on the ground. Zionism was growing in popularity. Jews had already established thriving towns and successful farms in their historical homeland and the emergence of an autonomous entity in the future was increasingly likely.

Britain also faced competition. Zionist leaders were skilled diplomats and their requests for support were met favourably in Germany, Italy, France and the United States. The British Government knew that if they didn’t declare their support, another country would. But Britain had an edge over the competition. British forces were the only ones fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. By late 1917, General Allenby’s army had defeated the Ottomans at Gaza and Beersheva and was on his way to Jerusalem. The military gains chimed well with British plans for a post war settlement, including British control of vital shipping routes to India from Suez and a network of permanent bases in the Middle East.

At the end of the war, Balfour’s declaration was adopted in the San Remo treaty and Britain was granted a mandate from the League of Nations in the newly created territory of Palestine to enact it. The British Government now had to balance imperial strategy, wartime commitments and practical reality. Hugely in debt, overstretched and unable to commit fresh British forces abroad, Britain was now in control of vast territories in the Middle East, including Egypt, Palestine and another new creation – Iraq. Britain promised Sherif Hussein of Mecca that the Arabs would get independence in return for fighting the Ottomans, but also promised the Zionists a Jewish National Home in Palestine.

British rule in Palestine was hampered by these competing pressures, and the Government never developed a strategy to implement the Balfour Declaration. In 1921 the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill revised Palestine’s borders by ceding all the territory east of the Jordan River to create Transjordan. On a visit to Palestine, he told Arab leaders that the Balfour Declaration was ‘manifestly right’ but assured them the Jewish National home wouldn’t be created in all of Palestine. Intentionally or not, he created the impression that British policy was in flux. In May 1921, Arab-Jewish riots started in Jaffa and spread across the country for three weeks. The Governor Sir Herbert Samuel declared martial law, suspended Jewish immigration and announced that the Balfour Declaration did not mean Jewish Government. In 1922, a Government White Paper limited Jewish immigration to ‘economic capacity’ and announced that not all of Palestine would become a Jewish National Home without suggesting which part of Palestine it would be in.

The Zionists and the Arabs were bitterly disappointed and this set the tone for the next 25 years. Unable to work together in a shared national endeavour, they functioned autonomously and this incubated their conflict with increasingly tragic consequences.

The Arabs interpreted the British lack of clarity and constant changes as an opportunity. If they stood firm, opposed Jewish immigration and denied the Jewish connection to Palestine, they believed with the right mix of protest and violence the Jewish National Home policy would be abandoned. In the Palestinian narrative, Balfour is the start of a national disaster. But it was a disaster of their own design. They refused to accept Jewish autonomy, however small, never compromised and rejected every subsequent plan to share the land.

The Zionists learnt to adapt to each twist and turn in British policy, no matter how disappointing. They built strong institutions and prepared for conflict. Focused on the goal of Jewish self-determination, they compromised on almost every issue to achieve it, accepting severe limits on immigration, even when open borders could have saved millions of Jewish lives. They agreed a two state solution in 1937 and accepted the UN partition plan in 1947 that laid the foundation for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Balfour’s declaration was a promise with great moral purpose, but implemented in Palestine without clarity, vision or the necessary resources. The sad truth is that British rule amounted to conflict management when its focus should have been to design a two-state solution right at the beginning.

James Sorene is the CEO of BICOM and has written on British policy in the Mandate previously in Fathom. A version of this piece originally appeared in the Telegraph