The late Lord Arthur Balfour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
November 3 is the hundred-and-third anniversary of Britain’s Balfour Declaration, the pronunciamiento by His Majesty’s Government of its support for the establishment of a “national home in Palestine” for the Jewish people. To mark this date, the ostensibly wealthiest Palestinian, Munib Al-Masri, has joined with three “civil rights” organizations in filing a suit against the British government in Nablus, a mid-sized town in the territories not claimed by Israel, seeking what could be nothing but abstract justice for Britain’s issuance of the Declaration.
According to Al-Masri, the Declaration “is at the root of the suffering of the Palestinian people” because it “gave the Jews all rights at the expense of the Palestinian people.” Silliness? Absolutely. But meaningful silliness nonetheless, for it crystallizes three truths about Palestinian leaders’ approach to their “situation,” the one that still occupies pride of place in Western discussions about the Middle East.
First it tells us that the Palestinians and their spokespeople are continuing their false project of linking Israel to imperialism. Far from being “at the root of the suffering of the Palestinian people,” the Balfour Declaration was diminutive: a few lines addressed by Arthur Balfour, the foreign minister, to Lord Rothschild, promising Jews an escape from European pogroms in a land sanctified for them by 4,000 years of history.
What really set Zionism into motion towards reality was the post-World War I diplomacy of the great powers led by Woodrow Wilson — and acceded to by everyone from Georges Clemenceau to the Emperor of Japan — which pointed to a momentum for the Zionist enterprise that did not really cease until Ernest Bevin, the relentlessly anti-Zionist Laborite, took over the British Foreign Office in 1945. (If truth be told, there was already in the ‘20s British Labor antagonism to Jewish settlement, mobilized by Sidney Webb, alias Lord Passfield, who was a key figure in the Fabian Socialist movement, meaning that one socialist movement, British, mobilized against another socialist one, Jewish Labor Zionist.)
Zionism, then, was not an imperialist project: though Wilson’s racial legacy is being reexamined, his legacy as a freer of oppressed ethnicities abroad is secure, and Israel was a part of that legacy. What’s more, it was Wilson’s Democratic successor-but-one, Harry Truman, who insisted that Israel would be a diplomatic reality against the foot-dragging of the British civil service and not a few members of his own cabinet, ensuring that British Labor’s mean-spirited diplomatic (and, in fact, military) struggle against the pathetic remnant of post-catastrophe Jewry ended in a Zionist triumph.
Indeed, the hard truth is that Israel had as many enemies among the imperialists as friends. But go to an elite college campus in America today and you will see this line of attack echoed and echoed again: a Jewish democracy misrepresented as a tool of revanchist colonialism. This is perhaps the only success attributable to the Palestinian cause — a relentless misrepresentation enabled by Western establishment elites of the reality of the Jewish state.
Second, it tells us that Palestinian leaders are misusing their own history in service of their cause. In 1948, the “Palestinian people” whose land Balfour purportedly set up for stealing were not a people in a democratic sense and did not yet call themselves Palestinians. Indeed, the would-be beneficiaries of Arab combat were dominated by a trio of landowners of huge estates, the Islamic clerisy, and the sub-stratal tribes and clans of a torn society. Even if Israel were to have lost any of the wars over Palestine from 1947-1948 through 1973 the victor would never have been a democratic “Palestine.” Not only would the Palestinian effendi continue to have ruled, but even if Palestine became a non-democratic state, it would have been a client of the states of Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. No workable democracies there, then or now!
In fact, the West Bank was won by Jordan under the British general John Bagot Glubb “Pasha” in 1948; the Gaza Strip went to Egypt the same year. They are both under ultimate Israeli control now. But they exist with the legal almost-fiction of the Palestinian Authority governing modest measures of land west of the Jordan River while a vibrant technology is run by and for the Palestinians themselves; and with Hamas categorically running the lives of the people of Gaza on the understanding that Israel and Egypt might assert their authority if there is too much bloodshed. The ugly truth is that Egypt and Israel are the securers of Gaza’s “relative” stability and peace.
Third, it tells us that the Palestinian leaders, even the “moderates” (which is to say not Hamas), are still playing games rather than pursuing a two-state solution as the region changes for the better around them. The fact is that President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have literally changed the realities of politics and life in the Middle East: Israel has inadvertently marked the Balfour anniversary with the establishment of full diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and the normalization of relations with Sudan — rumor has it that Saudi Arabia will be next to the table. Of course, the western establishment press pooh-poohed the anticipated accommodations between the Jewish state and the Muslim domains now sitting around conference tables and discussing trade, industry, travel, science, technology, and tourism — as well as what real peace could mean for the entire region.
But still the Palestinian leaders fiddle. Proof positive is the fact that the legal assault on the Balfour Declaration is not new: Mahmoud Abbas, the sort-of president of sort-of Palestine, who is still in office 11 years after his term expired, first announced that legal assault in 2016 and then again in 2017. But nothing substantial happened except that, as David Halbfinger reported in the New York Times the day after the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, there was a demonstration of thousands of youths in Ramallah — at Yasser Arafat’s memorial, no less — where a chant went up announcing Lord Balfour’s “fall.” In Bethlehem, protestors burned an effigy of Balfour and then beat it with their shoes. Palestinian girls met in Jerusalem with the visiting prime minister Theresa May demanding justice. And then it was over. The legal suit was not filed. Tiens!
Now the suit has been filed, and this sound and fury, which truly does signify nothing, shows that history has run away from the fantasized Palestinians just when real Arab governments, imperious rather than democratic, have made their compromise with actuality and compromise itself. Ultimately, a regime called “Palestine” will get some land ceded by Israel, land enough for a statelet and certainly even land enough to sit at the United Nations with other non-representative statelets to sustain the farce of international democracy. But nothing the Palestinians are doing will make that process occur. To pretend otherwise allows them to twist the region’s past while doing nothing to shape its future.
Martin Peretz was editor-in-chief of The New Republic from 1974 to 2013.