In her speech on Thursday honoring the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration that called for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said that she would “absolutely not” apologize for the document as Palestinians were demanding. Rather, she said, “we are proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the State of Israel.”
And what would May’s government apologize for?
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Information, the Balfour Declaration is “the greatest political crime in the history of mankind.”
The idea that Britain wronged the Palestinians with the Balfour Declaration is premised on two beliefs. The first is that Britain acted unilaterally in promoting a Jewish national home. The second is that it is the Balfour Declaration that has prevented the Palestinians from statehood.
Martin Kramer wrote an extensive essay earlier this year showing that the declaration was in fact approved of by the United Kingdom’s major allies, including France and the United States. Without the approvals of the major powers at the time, Britain would not have issued the declaration. “In expressing a broad consensus of the Allies,” Kramer wrote, “it might even be seen as roughly comparable to a UN Security Council resolution today.”
Regarding the second premise, Lior Weintraub, vice president of The Israel Project wrote this week that it wasn’t the Balfour Declaration that prevented the Palestinians from achieving statehood.
To the contrary, it is because they rejected it and every subsequent agreement that would have accorded them a state – alongside that of the Jews. The Palestinian leadership refused the British offer of a two-state solution in 1937. They rejected the U.N. partition plan of 1947. They failed to deliver their end of the bargain during President Clinton’s peace initiative in 2000 and, again, in 2007 during the Annapolis Conference initiated by the George W. Bush administration.
The Palestinian objection to the Balfour Declaration is enshrined in its national charter, which states, “The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate for Palestine, and everything that has been based upon them, are deemed null and void.” The very same article of the charter also denies “claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine,” calling them “incompatible with the facts of history.”
Israeli political commentator Dan Margalit described the Palestinian request that May apologize for the declaration a “declaration stating that even if the Palestinians reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence, Israel will remain a foreign transplant in their eyes, a sort of illegal diplomatic bastard.”
While the language of the declaration doesn’t explicitly mention the Palestinians, it does call on the Jews who would be establishing their national home to respect “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
In other words, the Balfour Declaration is not incompatible with Palestinian statehood.
Shany Mor observed in The Mendacious Maps of Palestinian “Loss,” which was published in the January 2015 issue of The Tower Magazine, that contrary to the narrative that the Palestinians had gained nothing from negotiations with Israel, “All of these Palestinian land gains have taken place in the last 20 years and every square meter of it came not from Turkey or Britain or Jordan or Egypt, but from Israel alone; and nearly all of it through peace negotiations.”
Instead of cursing the past, Palestinians would be better served if they looked towards the future and negotiated with Israel. By ruling out territorial concessions for one reason or another, the Palestinians have ensured that they will not achieve statehood, or, at least, separation from Israel.
The Palestinian denial of the legitimacy of the Balfour Declaration is a reminder that twenty-four years after Yasser Arafat committed to a “peaceful resolution” of all issues between Israel and the Palestinians “through negotiations,” and to render “inoperative” all articles of the Palestinian charter that deny Israel’s right to exist, the Palestinian leadership prefers embracing the latter than engaging in the former.
Weintraub, observed that this Palestinian rejectionism hasn’t significantly harmed Israel, however, “across the seam, the Palestinian people’s greatest tragedy is their betrayal by their own leaders. Time and again, their well-being has been sacrificed on the altar of cynical political maneuvers, leaving the Palestinian people impoverished, the Palestinian Authority unaccountable, and the Hamas leadership dwelling in luxury in exile.”
Miriam Elman, a professor of political science at Syracuse University summed it up, “the current hostility to the Balfour Declaration Centennial tells us a lot about why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains so intractable. It isn’t really about post-1967 settlements or post-1967 borders, but about a very basic and visceral intolerance to Jewish sovereign legitimacy anywhere in the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland.”
And until the Palestinian leadership stops denying Israel’s legitimacy, and negotiates seriously for peace, it is the Palestinian people who will suffer most.
[Photo: National Photo Collection of Israel, Photography dept. Goverment Press Office / WikiCommons]