Review: Beyond the Balfour Declaration

Leslie Turnberg's new book is dangerously simplistic, says Geoffrey Alderman


What are the causes of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs? Why has no viable peace been concluded? What are the chances that one could be achieved? And if it was, what would it look like? These are the questions the distinguished professor of medicine and Jewish Labour peer Leslie Turnberg has set out to ask and answer in his closely researched, well-written and eminently readable study.

The basic story that Turnberg has set out to tell will be very familiar to the specialist, but less so, I suspect, to the intelligent layman. The reader is taken through a history of pre-Mandate Palestine, via the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration, the bloody years of the Mandate, the birth of the Jewish state and sequence of unsuccessful Arab endeavours to destroy it, to the many and varied attempts at peace-making, conflict management and conflict resolution.

Turnberg favours a “two-state” solution, and believes that this lies firmly within everyone’s grasp if only all sides exercised constraint and behaved in what he believes to be a reasonable and rational way.

But although Turnberg tells the truth he does not tell the whole truth. For example, in chronicling the manner in which the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the Palestine Mandate granted to the UK by the League of Nations, Turnberg passes too quickly over the way in which, in 1921, Palestine was effectively partitioned (at the instance of the then Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill), prohibiting Jewish settlement in what subsequently became the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. There is, in fact, already a two-state solution, consisting of Israel and Jordan.

But the Arabs will not accept that this is so. And their extreme reluctance to do so has much less to do with this piece of land or that, and much more to do with Islamic refusal to countenance Jewish statehood anywhere — but particularly over land which Islam once ruled. In this view, Jews are — and will eternally remain — a subject people, second-class citizens whose responsibilities and rights are completely dependent upon their Muslim overlords.

Religion, in other words, is a root cause of the conflict. But it hardly figures in Turnberg’s narrative, perhaps because he cannot bring himself to accept this reality. This leads him into a dangerously simplistic mind-set.

In his introduction, he insists that the view of Hamas, that “all the land” between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean “should be theirs,” is merely the view of “a minority.”

Would that it were, my Lord. Would that it were.


Beyond the Balfour Declaration by Leslie Turnberg is published by Biteback (£20) 


Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and columnist

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