11/05/2013 03:03 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Balfour Declaration Revisited

This week marks 96 years since the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild whose ramifications reverberate in the Middle East still today. The Balfour Declaration was the first official recognition of Jewish national rights by a significant world power. In it, the British government committed itself to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. This was a particularly significant statement of policy since the British were on the cusp of completing their conquest of Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. Within less than a year following the publication of the letter, the Turks were defeated and the British Empire controlled the areas of what will eventually become Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and Iraq. In 1922, the League of Nations (the precursor of the UN) ratified the British Mandate over Palestine to prepare the indigenous peoples for self-determination. The Declaration was integrated into the Mandate and was perceived as an integral part of its implementation.

The Balfour Declaration did not promise the Jews a state nor did it specify the boundaries of a so-called "Jewish National Home." Despite this, Jews and Arabs took the British commitment to Jewish national aspirations seriously. Each side of the nascent national conflict in Palestine reacted to the declared British policy according to their own national goals and perceptions. The Zionists effectively utilized it to create an embryonic Jewish state in Palestine, establishing a democratic political and financial system, a national labor union, universal health care and an excellent educational system. Unfortunately, the Arabs of Palestine did no parallel "state-building." Instead, most of their energies were channeled toward undermining the Zionist agenda. The Achilles heel of the Zionist program was the small number of Jews living in Palestine compared to the Arab population and the limited Jewish ownership of land within the country. Within this context, the Arabs attempted to force the British to curtail Jewish immigration to Palestine and the construction of Jewish villages, towns and cities. Since these were the two main objective obstacles blocking the implementation of the Jewish plan to create a state, the Arab strategy made sense as a preventive measure. Unfortunately, the main tactic was the use of violence, which was met with two responses: The British used force to stop Arab rioting, but also began to limit Jewish immigration and land purchases. The Jews created a defense force, which over time became an embryonic national army.

Relations between Jews and Arabs (and between Brits and Arabs and Brits and Jews) had deteriorated to such an extent that in 1939 the British understood that they would not be able to resolve the conflict between the sides. On the eve of WWII, the British issued a "White Paper" -- a declaration of policy -- in which they claimed to have fulfilled their commitments undertaken in the Balfour Declaration and would henceforth greatly limit Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine. In effect, the policy clarified the British position against the future establishment of a viable Jewish state in Palestine. It also came at a critical historic juncture: the eve of the annihilation of European Jewry by the Nazis and their collaborators. In the final analysis and seemingly against all odds, within slightly less than a decade the Jewish population of Palestine declared independence, creating the modern State of Israel.

Historical assessments of the British Mandate period vary. Although many Israelis perceive British policies as hampering the Jewish national project, today it is acknowledged grudgingly that the Zionist movement would not have made such strides in state-building without British aid. Many Arab historians place the onus of the Palestinian national calamity (the establishment of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian Refugee Problem) on the British. From this perspective it is argued that the Balfour Declaration was the root of a catastrophic, unethical British policy that ultimately prevented Palestinian national aspirations from being realized.

Interestingly, the Israeli Declaration of Independence utilizes the Balfour Declaration and its ratification in the League of Nations as part of its historic legitimacy and justification. The claim is made that the international community of nations recognized Jewish rights to self-determination in Palestine, as mentioned in the Declaration.

Despite all of the arguments surrounding the Balfour Declaration, Israel's legitimacy does not rest on it or even on the 1947 UN Resolution 181 to partition the country to two states: one Jewish and the other Arab. It rests (legally) on the fact of its existence, the continuity of its existence, its assertion of independence by its people, its vindication of it independence by force of arms, its having an organized government within territory under its control and its recognition by the generality of nations.

In short, the existence of the modern State of Israel is a fact and the Balfour Declaration was one of the important milestones in enabling the Zionist movement to realize its dream of Jewish national independence in the Land of Israel.