It was a minor news story when it broke in the summer of 2016. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced he was suing Great Britain over the Balfour Declaration, issued on Nov. 2, 1917. But as we prepare to observe the centennial of the document this week, it’s important to understand that although his lawsuit was a stunt, Abbas was serious. More than that, the symbolism of his protest tells us more about what is preventing peace between Israel and the Palestinians than any of the usual explanations about settlements, borders, the status of Jerusalem or criticisms of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As Elliot Jager, author of a new and timely book on the topic, “The Balfour Declaration: 67 Words, 100 Years of Conflict,” from Gefen Publishing House, has written, Abbas’s decision to focus on Balfour wasn’t a joke.
Ten decades after British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour publicly expressed his government’s “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations” and its support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the Palestinian Arabs are still unreconciled to the fact that this goal was realized with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. To Abbas and his Fatah party as well as their Hamas rivals, Balfour is the original sin of the Middle East that explains all the suffering of their people in the last century. More than that, it is, as Jager—a former Jerusalem Post editor and author—writes, the key to understanding why negotiations between Israel and the PA have remained stalemated in the more than two decades since the Oslo Accords.
“The 1993 Oslo Accords notwithstanding, the PLO covenant—with its denunciation of the Balfour Declaration—has never been legally amended, and for good reason. The problem Palestinian Arabs have with Israel is its existence—not ‘settlements,’ ‘occupied’ territory or the security barrier,” writes Jager.
“Abbas has consistently made the point that the Palestinians won’t recognize or accept Israel as a Jewish state. That would acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish national home and doing so would basically end the conflict.”
That means the conflict remains, as Jager notes, an “all or nothing (zero sum) clash.”
Jager’s addition to the list of volumes on the declaration’s origin provides an easy-to-understand guide for general readers. The British decision was based, in part, on genuine sympathy for the aspirations of a homeless people whose ties to the land was part of the bible that the English loved as well as Zionist diplomacy. But it was also the product of a mistaken belief—fueled by anti-Semitic myths—that the Jews had the power to aid the Allied war effort at a moment when the outcome of World War I was in doubt.
In truth, the Jews had no such power. It was Balfour that allowed them back onto the stage of world history and, following the Allied victory that brought Palestine under British control, gave them the opportunity to begin building a state in their ancient homeland and rectify the injustices of the past two millennia.
Yet it is not so much the events of 1917 as what followed that we need to understand.
Subsequent British governments not only whittled down the size of the Jewish home, but also betrayed their promise by limiting the rights of the Jews in order to appease the Arab and Muslim world. That led to a series of proposals for further dividing the land, but the Arabs refused every such offer, including the United Nations partition plan of 1947 that called for the creation of both a Jewish and an Arab state. Sharing even part of the country was unthinkable. To the Arabs, the return of the Jews was an injustice because it would mean that even a tiny sliver of the region they considered Muslim might be under the sovereignty of a dhimmi—a despised minority. That same spirit is why the Palestinians are still unreconciled to the consequences of Balfour’s promise. As Jager writes, “continued Arab rejection of the Balfour Declaration one hundred years on makes any compromise leading to a genuine conflict resolution impossible.”
Just as the Palestinians remain in denial about the impossibility of their dream of eventually eradicating Israel, it is just as important that they come to terms with the Jews’ 1917 diplomatic triumph and understand why the Jews also have a right to be there. Until that happens, they will remain doomed to live in a limbo in which they can neither reverse the verdict of history nor find a way to live in peace alongside those who benefited from Balfour’s historic promise.