The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is both telling and, perhaps counter-intuitively, irrelevant. On the one hand, embedded in the text (a letter that was issued on behalf of the British government on November 2, 1917) are most of the parametres of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to bedevil the Middle East. On the other hand, the declaration wasn't as decisive or definitive a turning point as is sometimes claimed.
At the time of its founding, the Zionist movement had been attempting to gain the endorsement of a great power. Overtures to the Ottoman Empire and Germany failed, but Britain ultimately – and effectively – endorsed the Zionist project through the declaration.
Britain had no sovereignty over Palestine at the time and no legal authority whatsoever to make such a pronouncement. Yet Britain was powerful and capable of frequently translating its ambitions into reality.
The Balfour Declaration is sometimes characterised as a birth certificate for the state of Israel. This is inaccurate and an exaggeration. The letter endorses "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people". This is a far cry from calling for the establishment of a Jewish state. "A national home" could mean many things. The same territory could serve as a national home for multiple peoples. And if Britain intended to endorse the creation of a Jewish state in 1917, it would have said so instead of carefully avoiding such a term.
What is far more telling in the declaration is the language used to describe the Palestinians and implicitly, but unmistakably, highlight their role and rights. Palestinian Muslims and Christians constituted well over 90 per cent of the population, and yet the declaration refers to them, bizarrely, as “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine". They are primarily identified as not Jewish rather than having any identity of their own.
The wording seems almost intentionally designed to obscure the fact that these "communities" were, in fact, a vast majority.
The logic of this rhetorical sleight of hand was explained in a subsequent document written by Arthur Balfour, in which he elaborates that "Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land".
There is no effort here to disguise the imposition of a new political reality on an existing majority. What's more, it is a frank rejection that the opinion of the inhabitants of that territory should play any role in shaping its future. The declaration strongly implies as much when it promises to protect “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".
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While not being promised a state, the Jews are recognised in the text as a "national" community that requires or deserves a collective “home”.
The question of statehood aside, the Balfour Declaration thus explicitly treats "the Jewish people" as a national group with national rights. The Palestinians, in striking contrast, have "civil and religious rights", which are effectively individual rights belonging to any human being where the rule of law and minimum standards of equity prevail.
The Arab majority of Palestine is, therefore, not only characterised negatively as "non-Jewish," but also as a set of undefined "communities" whose members enjoy universal individual rights but, by omission, not any collective, and certainly not any national, rights.
By setting up this dynamic, the Balfour Declaration put in motion the fundamental asymmetries of rights and power that continue to characterise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and form the principal reason that a reasonable compromise has not been attainable.
Simply put, Palestinians continue to lack the essential leverage to compel the most important Israeli concessions and Israeli political leaders lack a forceful imperative to make them, anyway.
It is not, and it cannot be, a coincidence that in the territory between the river and the sea, Jewish Israelis indeed enjoy national rights, as expressed through the state of Israel, while the Palestinians' national aspirations remain unfulfilled.
Palestinians are still effectively stuck with trying to defend whatever civil and religious rights they may have, although civil rights under foreign military occupation are, perforce, severely limited.
However, the Balfour Declaration was only one step in the long process that started from the first Zionist Congress in 1897 to the current impasse.
There was nothing inevitable about the creation of the Israeli state once the Balfour Declaration was issued. Instead, the establishment and rise of Israel – and the concomitant demise of Palestine – were shaped by a vast kaleidoscope of subsequent contingent events and human choices.
By committing the British government, which was preparing to seize control of Palestine from the Ottoman empire, to supporting the essential goals of the Zionist movement, the Balfour Declaration was a crucial turning point. It certainly seems to have outlined the historical processes leading to the creation of Israel and even to the present circumstances.
However, other events, such as the creation of the Palestine mandate by the League of Nations and the impact of the Second World War, were essential factors in shaping that history. The Balfour Declaration therefore casts a long shadow on our present realities, but it was neither the birth certificate for Israel nor the death sentence for Palestine.