A new Balfour Declaration for a new century

A new Balfour Declaration for a new century
Comment: The Balfour Declaration promised nothing, but was cited by those wanting a Jewish state in Palestine. What would happen if focus was shifted to Palestinians, asks Karl Sabbagh.
4 min read
29 Apr, 2015
Did Balfour have more pressing issues to think about? [Getty]
Last week I gave a talk in Jerusalem about the Balfour Declaration, a letter which was addressed to Lord Rothschild in 1917 and signed by Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, which is sometimes said by Zionists to be a binding promise by the UK to turn Palestine into a Jewish state.

If you read it you'd be surprised to discover that it is a rather bland little note, the kind of thing Balfour might have written to get the Zionists off his back, after months of pressure from Chaim Weizmann and his young men who wanted the British to support the aims of their small group of political Zionists.

In fact, this group were actually the people who wrote the Declaration. One can imagine Balfour signing this letter while his mind and those of the cabinet were on far more pressing issues such as World War I, which wasn't going very well.

After all, it wasn't as if it was some kind of official treaty between the government and some other party of equal stature. All it did was 'view with favour' the establishment in Palestine of a national home for Jews.

No one defined what 'national home' meant. The letter did certainly not say that the government was going to turn Palestine, a country whose population was 90 percent Arab, into a Jewish state.

At my lecture, I suggested that it might be time for a new Balfour Declaration, one that could be issued by the new Labour government which I expect to be elected next week, with a little help.

I made very few changes in the original declaration, but moving the focus from Jews to Palestinians, as I have done, brings home how feeble a document the original was and how deceitful Zionists and British politicians were over the years as they tried to persuade the Arabs that there was a binding commitment to give away Palestine and that there was nothing the government could do about it.

Here is a letter that I propose Ed Miliband writes to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's president:

Foreign Office
May 15, 2017

Dear President Abbas,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Palestinian Arab aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

Her Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Israel and Palestine of a national home for the Palestinian people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Arab communities in Israel and Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Arabs in any other country.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Palestinian National Council.

Ed Miliband

There are various things to say about this document. First, like the original, it promises nothing. If it were issued, Israel and other Zionists would have no difficulty saying that it was merely a mild expression of interest rather than a binding commitment, exactly what Arabs have always said about the original.

How could those bland phrases "viewing with favour" and "using best endeavours" ever commit a government to turning Israel back into Palestine, and handing the government over to the minority population, the 20 percent of Israelis who are Palestinians?

Second, of course, as is often pointed out, the original letter committed the British government to do nothing to "prejudice the civil and religious rights" of the Arabs. Their political rights were not even mentioned.

I thought of that phrase as I walked with the regular Friday protest march that took place in East Jerusalem a few hundred metres from the site of my lecture, where anti-Zionist Israelis and internationals demonstrated against the regular, systematic and government-sanctioned "prejudice" against the rights of the Palestinians whose homes had been stolen by Jewish settlers.

Of course, while this new declaration would not turn Israel/Palestine back into the land it was, it would be a stronger expression of British support for justice for the Palestinians than any government has given in the last 100 years.

I wonder if a new British government would have the courage to do it?