Monday, November 14, 2011

Balfour & Weizmann Remembered

In November the Arabs Said 'No'

There are no uneventful months in the tortured history of the Arab-Israel conflict. November is no exception. It was on November 2, 1917 that Chaim Weizmann won the backing of the British government for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" famously codified by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) in his letter to Lord Rothschild, titular head of the British Jewish community, as the Balfour Declaration. And as if to bookend the month, November 29th will mark the 64th anniversary of the UN General Assembly's adoption of the 1947 Partition Plan: the two-state solution that was recklessly spurned by the Arabs; a rebuff that has embodied Arab rejection of a Jewish homeland ever since.

On November 9th the Israel Britain and Commonwealth Association held a gala anniversary dinner in Tel Aviv to mark Balfour's pronouncement. Guests included Britain's ambassador to Israel, the EU head of delegation and ambassadors from several commonwealth countries (including those who reflexively vote against Jerusalem at the U.N.). The Israeli government does not make too much of the occasion though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made passing reference to the Balfour Declaration in his September 2011 remarks to the UN General Assembly and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon did address the Tel Aviv banquet.

For its part, Hamas makes it a point to issue an annual denunciation of the declaration accompanied this year by a blood-curdling montage. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the official daily newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, routinely condemns Balfour claiming his declaration granted rights to "those who had no connection" to the land – meaning the Jewish people.

Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), then a distinguished chemist living in London, was instrumental in fashioning the Zionist-British alliance that resulted in the declaration. Fittingly, it was in November 60 years ago that Weizmann was re-elected to the presidency of Israel despite failing health. In fact, both Weizmann's 59th yahrzeit and the 137th anniversary of his birth are also commemorated this month.

Weizmann's achievement was never preordained, as Jonathan Schneer, by no means a Zionist sympathizer, notes in his The Balfour Declaration. The early Zionist leader had to overcome influential assimilationists Jews, including Edwin Montagu, who strenuously lobbied their government against cooperating with the Zionists, as well as Grand Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons the emirs Abdullah and Feisal who lobbied through British proxies. (The family ultimately lost control of Arabia to the Saudis.)

While the Palestinian Arabs had scarcely any unique identity at the time, Arab intellectuals in Syria pressured against Zionism on the grounds that Palestine was an integral part of Syria and could therefore not be delinked from Britain's magnanimous territorial bequest to the Arabs.

At the end of the day Britain, the preeminent power during and in the aftermath of World War One (1914–1918), promised the Jews a sliver of the Middle East, while the Arabs would get everything else. Even these commitments to the Jews and Arabs would have come to naught had secret talks conducted between Britain and the Ottoman Empire led to a separate peace, according to Schneer.

After World War I, both the Paris Peace Conference (1919) and the San Remo Conference (1920) ratified Britain's mandate for Palestine. France's presence in Syria notwithstanding, Britain's role assured that both Arabs and Jews would be on their way to self-determination. Balfour's expectation was that the Arabs would be willing to share a small sliver of the vast Mideast landscape with the Jews. Indeed, on March 3, 1919 Faisal encouragingly wrote Zionist leader Felix Frankfurter: "We Arabs, especially the educated among us look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement."

Tragically, pragmatists like Faisal did not carry the day. Instead, anti-Zionist Arab riots instigated by the fanatical Husseini clan were launched in 1920. London immediately went wobbly and embarked on a series of moves that first backtracked and then reversed its Balfour Declaration commitments.

To assuage Arab demands, Britain brought Abdullah from Arabia to Eastern Palestine in November 1920. This immense area – today's Jordan – comprising four-fifths of the Palestine mandate promised to the Jews by Balfour was ceded to the Arabs by 1921. Put another way, 80 percent of Palestine as defined by the League of Nations was lopped off leaving the Jews only the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean.

In 1937, in response to intensified Arab violence, Britain's Peel Commission called for further splitting the remaining 20% of Palestine to create an additional Arab state within what was supposed to be Jewish Palestine. The Zionists reluctantly acquiesced; the Arabs said no. By 1939, Neville Chamberlain had completely reneged on the Balfour Declaration and blocked Jewish immigration to Palestine just as the Nazi killing machine was going into lethal gear.

None of this can be blamed on Balfour who deserves to be remembered as a friend of the Jews. Statesmen do not act purely out of altruism and he like other British politicians were partly motivated by an exaggerated sense of Zionist influence in the international arena which they hoped to exploit for the war effort. At the same time, Balfour believed that Christian anti-Semitism had been a "disgrace" and wanted to make amends by providing the Jews with a "small notch" of territory, according to his biographer R.J.Q. Adams. In 1925, he famously helped dedicate the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. Like Theodor Herzl, Balfour may have assumed that British Jews would either thoroughly assimilate or choose to live in the Jewish homeland.

Ninety-four years after Balfour's declaration the right of the Jewish people to re-establish their national homeland is still rejected by even Palestinian Arab "moderates." The unremitting threat of renewed violence remains the Arabs' default position. Emboldened by the Gilad Schalit deal, Arab violence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza has seen an upswing. Cairo's renewed efforts to bring Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas together will perforce necessitate more militancy from Fatah rather than greater flexibility from Hamas. In the words of Mahmoud Zahhar, the notion that Hamas will ever make peace with Israel is "insane."

Sixty-four years after Palestinian Arabs rejected the partition plan, Abbas claims to be having second thoughts. Yet instead of negotiating with the Jewish state he is forging ahead at the UN for unilateral statehood without making peace with Israel.

Sadly, Abba Eban's 1973 quip that the Arabs "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" holds stubbornly true. To be fair, time does not stand completely still. Abbas-like moderates are operating only 64 years behind real time though for the "militants" of Hamas it's perpetually 1917.

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