One hundred years ago this week, the British Balfour Declaration—which recognized the Jewish rights to the land of Israel—became international law.
The Allies, the countries that defeated the Ottoman Empire in World War I, gathered in San Remo, Italy, in late April 1920 to carve up the Middle East. Basing their outlook on Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination, they set out to establish new would-be countries through a mentoring program called “mandates.” The Arabs, now free of the Turks, would get Syria, Lebanon and Mesopotamia (Iraq). The Jews would get “Palestine” (Palestine was a Jewish thing back then).
The language of the 1917 Balfour Declaration was put directly into the San Remo accords: “[T]he Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
This decision was soon unanimously ratified by 56 member states of the League of Nations, and later became part of the United Nations Charter, thus paving the way for the third Jewish commonwealth, reborn on its ancestral soil after 2000 years.
Yet this momentous occasion, on which the international community recognized and then ratified the inalienable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel for the first time in modern history, is often forgotten. Instead, attention is diverted to the radio broadcast of the U.N. vote for Partition on Nov. 29, 1947, where the U.N. General Assembly voted in favor of a resolution adopting the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) partition plan of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and for which 33 states voted in favor, 13 against and 10 abstained.
Legally speaking, the two events cannot be put on the same scale. The San Remo Accords were binding law, ratified by member states, which took quick effect. Even the United States, which was not a member of the League of Nations, took measures to recognize the accords.
Conversely, the UNSCOP Partition Plan was merely a non-binding resolution, voted on in the toothless General Assembly (not the Security Council), and was immediately rejected by the Arabs—in other words, the whole exercise of the partition plan vote was null and void.
The U.N. bundle narrative
The U.N. partition vote does have the distinction of being the immediate precursor to Israel’s declaration of independence. While David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency accepted the partition plan—ready to take what they could get for the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust—other Zionists rejected the plan outright as an abrogation of previous agreements. At the time, the U.N. resolution was instrumental, but that is a far cry from the portrayal of the U.N. partition vote as the foundational moment of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state.
So why does the empty U.N. partition resolution get so much play as compared with the real law of San Remo Accords? The answer lies in who is presenting the history—what they want Israeli policy to look like and what they want to say about Israel’s legitimacy.
For those who wish to see a “two-state solution” implemented, the idea that Israel was created through the U.N. partition vote is an indispensable narrative. The logic is clear: If the U.N. gave birth to Israel, and that birth was within the partition framework, then that original vision of two states is the controlling rubric. Any deviation from partition/two-states is an act of imperialism, colonialism and occupation—words which U.N.-narrative folks use against Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria regularly.
Moreover, if the U.N. is the parent of the Jewish state, then under the principle of “Honor thy father and mother,” Israel must kneel to the U.N.’s many anti-Israel resolutions and declarations. The U.N.’s admonitions that Israel is not democratic enough, that it has stolen land, that it abuses the Palestinians and most centrally that it must “give back” land to create yet another Palestinian state, must be heeded.
In short, promoters of the U.N. narrative argue that Israel was born in the halls of the General Assembly and that the original vision of partition is its only legitimate path forward. It is not surprising therefore that two-state proponents are invariably U.N.-touters—cut from the same narrative cloth.
The liberals of San Remo
The San Remo narrative, however, is very different. For those who argue that San Remo is the international legal basis for the creation of Israel, the agreement stands for an unabashed recognition of historic Jewish rights in the land of Israel and a stated goal of reconstituting a Jewish commonwealth.
The text of the Mandate for Palestine (the 1922 document that put the resolutions of San Remo into practice) is straightforward: “Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”
At the San Remo conference, delegates never contemplated giving “Palestine” to the Arabs—the absurd idea of taking Judea away from the Jews and creating an Arab state there. For the delegates, giving Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to the Arabs and giving the Jews their historic and biblical land was equitable enough. This was in line with the Wilsonian “self-determination” doctrine—indigenous peoples would gain independence from former empires and govern themselves. Indeed, no one was about to give recognition to the imperialistic Islamic conquests of the seventh century, nor to the 400-year Ottoman domination which the Allies had just terminated.
The text of the Mandate is clear on the issue of land division: “The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that no Palestine [Jewish] territory shall be ceded or leased to, or in any way placed under the control of, the Government of any foreign Power.”
Indeed, original Israel, as recognized by San Remo-crafted international law, was going to be a big Jewish state, surrounded by newly freed and even bigger Arab states. That was the vision.
And what about democracy?
The issue of democratic voting in the new Mandate states was not clearly defined at San Remo. However, the framers at the conference were well aware of what it would take to balance power in the region: The Jewish state would be Jewish by charter and not by majority rule.
The Mandate for Palestine states that “nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” but does not mention national rights, which could potentially undo the Jewish character of the country in any given election. There was no intent to back an untenable, all-out participatory democracy.
But U.N.-touters cannot stomach the idea that Israel’s core identity is Jewish, without the necessity of a Jewish majority. That is why they are always stressing the contrived “Jewish and Democratic” stipulation—so as to force the two values onto equal footing. In that line of thinking, Israel is not a Jewish state, but rather a democratic state that happens to house a lot of Jews.
However, since demography coupled with democracy could spell the end of the Jewish character of the state, their only viable solution is to shrink away from Arab populations and gerrymander the borders smaller and smaller until there are no Arabs left, only a perfect Jewish democracy on a very small parcel of land remains.
Indeed, the framers of San Remo foresaw the folly of such an approach.
The non-jihad Arab narrative
Anti-Zionist tendencies among Arabs were strong in the 1920s, but were not ubiquitous. At the time, there also existed a line of thinking among some Arab leaders which saw the process of Middle East self-determination as being a boon to all the indigenous people of the region—all the children of Abraham.
Two weeks before the Paris Peace Conference of 1919—the prelude to the San Remo Accords—the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met with Emir Feisal, son of the Sharif of Mecca, and put an agreement to paper in which the Arabs would accept the tenets of the Balfour Declaration:
“His Royal Highness the Emir Feisal, representing and acting on behalf of the Arab Kingdom of Hedjaz, and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, representing and acting on behalf of the Zionist Organization, mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people, and realizing that the surest means of working out the consummation of their natural aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration … ”
A few weeks later Feisal wrote a letter to the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a Zionist: “The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organization to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper.”
Since that time, much has been done to undermine the goodwill between Arabs and Jews as expressed by the Feisal-Weitzman dialogue. But hidden in the ashes are a few coals of this thinking among the Arabs of today. These Arab thinkers, who usually live in fear of jihadists, believe that Arabs have their 22 states on their tribal lands, and Jews their one state on their tribal land, and that mutual acceptance of these facts will avert needless war and will bring about regional cooperation and then prosperity.
But the U.N.-partition narrative denies that Arabs could possibly accept a sovereign Israel in Judea and Samaria or that regional cooperation could come about without further partition. Instead, the U.N. types promulgate the belief that there is no possibility of peace without partition. Without saying it, they assert the jihadist position that the Arabs could never really accept a Jewish state in their midst and that large areas of the land of Israel must be Judenrein if there is ever to be a chance for peace.
Yet, after the 2005 Gaza disengagement, Israelis have seen clearly that surrendering land only leads to more violence and more demands. A smaller Israel is nothing but a weaker target.
Arab Palestine 1.0
There is yet another fundamental reason why U.N.-narrative folks wish to bury the story of San Remo: They don’t want us to remember that an Arab Palestine was created in the ’20s that should have satisfied Arab demands and made the Israel-Palestine conflict disappear before it began.
In the three years between San Remo and the League’s ratification of the accords in 1923, the British utilized a legal loophole to strip away 77 percent of the mandate for a Jewish Palestine and gift it to the leaders of the Hashemite clan. This was the creation of Trans-Jordan, which was later renamed the Kingdom of Jordan.
For many years, we have been told by the U.N. proponents that there is no Middle East peace because there is no Arab Palestine. They want us to avert our eyes from the fact that the Kingdom of Jordan, created on the land originally intended for the Jewish state, is actually an Arab Palestine—but one which refuses to absorb the Palestinians.
Therefore, for the pro-Palestine camp, history must start in 1947, where a Jewish state was slated for partitioning as the U.N. gave birth to it. No one has to know that an Arab Palestine was created 20 years prior.
Deal of the century
We are in the era of the Trump administration’s “deal of the century”—with Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria slated to become a reality. And yet, for some, the goal of an Arab Palestinian state on Jewish land persists.
It would behoove us now to remember the original deal of the century—the San Remo Accords, signed exactly 100 years ago—which recognized and confirmed Jewish historical national rights to the land of Israel, and equitably divided up the Middle East into a strong Jewish state neighbored by strong Arab states. In that deal of the century, Israel was meant to be big, defensible—and Jewish by charter and not by majority—and there were many Arabs ready to accept and respect it.
As we celebrate Israeli independence this year, let us cast off the contrived U.N. narrative in which Israel was born into the inevitability of two states. One hundred years ago, the framers of San Remo laid down common-sense principles, that with implementation, can still become the real deal of the century.
Yishai Fleisher is the international spokesman of the Jewish community of Hebron and an Israeli broadcaster.