Lord Rothschild has performed a great service by his work in memorialising the Balfour Declaration. He continues a historic family tradition which, over a century ago, brought educational and medical institutions to Palestine, then a corner of the Ottoman Empire, and thereby laid the foundation for the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
The Balfour Declaration’s importance transcended its immediate objectives. It became a founding document of an emerging world order. It is this aspect of it on which I will focus.
If there is a “hinge of history” on which the modern concepts of world order turned, it was the years just before, during, and after the First World War. The Balfour Declaration is at the core of that transformation.
What made the Balfour Declaration so consequential? The period was shaped by the deterioration and collapse of dynastic empires. The 1912 Chinese revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty initiated the process. The Ottoman Empire was described as the “sick man of Europe,” as it moved toward its collapse. By the time the war ended, the Tsarist, Austro-Hungarian, and German dynasties had also disappeared.
The modern international state system, inaugurated by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, sought to establish the state as the fundamental entity of world affairs. Dynasties are based on a concept of loyalty to a family. States reflect a legal concept. They function as legal entities and express a legitimacy. The transition was gradual. The Great War can be seen as a last contest between dynastic empires.
In the early years of the war, Britain saw Palestine — then part of the Ottoman Empire — as geostrategically important because of its proximity to Germany’s Berlin-Baghdad Railway, to the Suez Canal, to Arabian Gulf oil and as a bridge between Asia and Africa.
Palestine was thus, from the British point of view, the only link missing in an otherwise unbroken chain of possessions that could connect the British Empire from the Atlantic to the mid-Pacific.
As a wartime Prime Minister, Lloyd George was determined to bring Palestine into a British sphere of influence. Many elements comprised this aim. There was an idea of creating a Jewish regiment to fight under British command to liberate Palestine from the Turks. Also Zionism captivated a segment of the British evangelical population whose theology expected the second coming of Christ to be preceded by the restoration of the Jews to the Promised Land. Finally, when Chaim Weizmann was elected President of the British Zionist Federation in February 1917, he proposed officially that Britain publicly commit to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The British Foreign Office favoured the idea in the expectation that Russian Jews might act to keep Russia in the war after the Russian Revolution, and to ensure Palestine for Britain when the Ottomans collapsed. The sense that a commitment to a Jewish homeland would contribute to the war effort was reinforced by the fear that, if Britain did not act, Germany might.
On November 2, 1917, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a letter to Walter, Lord Rothschild, which became known as the Balfour Declaration. In the United States, the Balfour Declaration was seen as in harmony with Allied war goals. President Wilson endorsed it in September 1918.
As a result, the Balfour Declaration became entwined with the peace settlement. The League of Nations invested Britain with the mandate for Palestine and the Balfour Declaration was connected with the mandate issued on July 24, 1922. From this point forward, the Balfour Declaration took on a life and momentum of its own. It became part of a turning point in the concept of world order.
The Balfour Declaration thus was in the vanguard of a new era of the international state system. The San Remo Conference of 1920 pointed the way and the 1922 Mandate System of the League of Nations was installed “to give advice and assistance to facilitate the development of these territories as ‘independent states’”.
What territories? Those of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. There was no reversionary interest, no legitimate territories to which to revert once the war was over. A map of the Middle East in the post-Ottoman period showed no political lines; the new “independent states” were to be delineated ab initio.
All the territories of the Middle East would become, in one way or another, states in the international state system. The various attempts to replace the collapsed Ottoman Empire with a successor version in the form of a religion-based caliphate failed.
World War II was yet another version of the same struggle with the Allies — now all states or near-states — emerging victorious over the Third Reich and Imperial Japan. The Cold War was a repetition of the same context with Stalin’s Soviet Union a de facto empire, with its globe-spanning ambitions to replace the state system with a proletarian international ideology.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine between Jewish and Arab territories. The resolution liquidated the mandate and defined a legal framework in which the Yishuv (the proto-Jewish state) could establish a modern legitimate state.
Some Arab states rejected the partition and, in January 1948, the “Arab Liberation Army” began entering Palestine. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel. On May 15, various Arab armies entered Palestine. The Israeli War of Independence was underway. The United States and Soviet Union recognized Israel as a state.
As the Cold War began, the new State of Israel established the foundation of its grand strategy: to gain the recognition of the international state system for Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign state behind secure and accepted borders. It carried this strategy forward through its membership in the United Nations as one of the world organisation’s member states.
Our time faces new versions of the same challenge. Al-Qaeda and Isis have been seeking to undermine, oppose and replace the state system with an imperialistic caliphate. Iran has constructed a transnational sphere of interest reaching from its Afghan borders to the Mediterranean.
Other centres of power, sensing that the international state system is deteriorating, are showing neo-imperialist intentions.
The basic challenge of our period is twofold: to ensure the legitimacy of existing states as a basic premise; and to contribute to the settlement of their disputes by peaceful means.
In the end, then, the importance of the Balfour Declaration resides not only in establishing a homeland for a people, but in contributing to peace in the world and hope for mankind.
Henry Kissinger is a former adviser for national security affairs and Secretary of State under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. In 1973 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam for their efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the Vietnam War.
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