How the Balfour Declaration Became International Law Despite Attempts to Undermine It

May 4, 2020 | Efraim Karsh
About the author: Efraim Karsh is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, emeritus professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, and editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He is the author most recently of The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2015).

A century ago, the victors of World War I met in the Italian city of San Remo to discuss how to divide up territories that had previously belonged to the Ottoman empire. It was here that Arthur Balfour’s famous promise effectively became international law. But things almost didn’t turn out that way. With support from British officers, Emir Faisal—son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, promoted by T.E. Lawrence—was attempting to make himself the ruler of a Syrian kingdom that included the Land of Israel. Meanwhile, the French were poised to back away from their previous assurances regarding the Jews. Faisal had signed an agreement with Chaim Weizmann, the chief Zionist diplomat, in January 1919 pledging his support to the creation of a Jewish state, but, as Efraim Karsh writes, he “was speaking from both sides of his mouth.”

In his testimony to the Paris peace conference a month after signing the agreement with Weizmann, the emir refrained from mentioning, let alone endorsing, the Balfour Declaration, proposing instead to leave Palestine’s future “for the mutual consideration of all parties interested.” This phrasing gave the country’s non-Jewish population a veto power over the establishment of a Jewish national home—in contrast to the Balfour Declaration that rendered them “civil and religious rights” but no say over Palestine’s future.

[Moreover], no sooner had Faisal promised the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau “to use his efforts with the people to secure a French mandate for Syria” than he embarked on a spirited effort to tarnish this pledge by manipulating the King-Crane Commission, [convened by the U.S. to adjudicate the Franco-British dispute over the division of the Levant], against the French and the Zionists.

[W]hile feigning “a deep sense of sympathy for the Jewish cause,” the commission dismissed the millennia-long Jewish attachment to Palestine as valid justification for the establishment of a Jewish national home there. Effectively treating the Jews as a religious community rather than a nation, it recommended that “Jewish immigration should be definitely limited, and that the project for making Palestine distinctly a Jewish commonwealth should be given up,” thus relegating the country’s Jewish community to a permanent minority in Faisal’s prospective Syrian kingdom.

It was primarily through the efforts of Britain’s prime minister Lloyd George, and the continuous lobbying of Weizmann, that the diplomats at San Remo accepted the promise of a Jewish national home at all:

[I]t was an extraordinary feat of diplomacy that within less than five years of its issuance the Balfour Declaration had been endorsed by the official representative of the will of the international community: not in the “technical” sense of supporting the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine but in the deeper sense of recognizing the Jews as a nation deserving self-determination in its ancestral homeland. This is something that successive Palestinian leaderships have been loath to acknowledge to date.

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