The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict

A new study of the political trigger for the establishment of modern Israel unravels a complex pattern of diplomacy

By Vernon Bogdanor, September 16, 2010
Arthur Balfour

Arthur Balfour

By Jonathan Schneer
Bloomsbury, £25

On December 2 1917, in the midst of the First World War, a meeting was held in the London Opera House in Kingsway. The hall, designed to hold 2,700 people, was filled to capacity.

The opening speech was made by Lord Rothschild, who told his audience that "we are met on the most momentous occasion in the history of Judaism for the last eighteen hundred years… We are here to return thanks to His Majesty's Government for a declaration which marked an epoch - for the first time since the dispersion, the Jewish people have received their proper status by the declaration of one of the great powers".

Lord Rothschild was referring of course to the Balfour Declaration, named after the Foreign Secretary and former Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour. The Declaration, published one month earlier, on November 9 1917, had stated that the British government viewed "with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" pledging to "use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object."

It insisted "that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine". But it made no mention of the national rights of the indigenous Arab population. In 1917, national rights were reserved for Europeans.

Historians have argued endlessly over why Britain issued the Declaration. Jonathan Schneer insists that it derived not from sympathy with Zionist aims, but from a hard-headed calculation of British interest.

Jews, so ministers believed, enjoyed global influence, and could therefore ensure that both the United States and revolutionary Russia remained in the war as allies of Britain. This absurd over-estimation of Jewish influence was encouraged by Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader. A Jewish national home, Weizmann insisted, would be an outpost of British influence in the Middle East, and therefore a bulwark of Britain's imperial strategy.

Schneer underestimates the elements of idealism and genuine sympathy with Zionism in the minds of men such as Balfour and Lloyd George, elements stressed by Leonard Stein --- a close colleague of Weizmann's who knew the main protagonists --- in his classic study of the Declaration, published in 1961.

A second area of controversy is whether the Declaration conflicted with a previous British commitment to self-government for the Arabs of Palestine - made to persuade the Arabs to revolt against their Turkish rulers. Schneer finds the British guilty of deception. Most historians prefer a verdict of Not Proven. Where Schneer sees conspiracy, they detect only muddle and confusion.

Schneer's book, therefore, is not the last word on the Declaration. It is, nevertheless, a fine study of the tortuous diplomacy which preceded it, a diplomacy from which Weizmann emerges greater than ever. Though not always easy reading, The Balfour Declaration is an important contribution to understanding the origins of the conflict in the Middle East.

Looking back nearly a century later, it is clear that the Zionists had a tremendous stroke of luck with the creation of the Lloyd George coalition, a government whose leading ministers were in sympathy with Zionism. That sympathy was gradually to disappear until, in the time of Attlee and Bevin, the British government would seek to resist Zionist aspirations by force.

The national home, as David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, was to discover, was not a gift to be received from others, but a prize to be seized when the moment came.

Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at King’s College, London

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011