Israel’s legitimacy

During this era of attempts to delegitimize Israel, one wonders how many people know of the modern history that gave rise to the legitimate Jewish state of Israel. The founding event is considered to be the Balfour Declaration, a statement issued in 1917 by British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour indicating that the British Government would aid in the formation of a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine.

In reading “The Balfour Declaration,” an excellent new detailed analysis by Jonathan Schneer, one realizes that the crux of the Balfour Declaration was not so much that the Zionists received a written guarantee from the British Government, but that the Arabs did not, they received no such written document. Yes, they received vaguely worded commitments from British officials in Cairo, notably in letters from the Consul General Sir Henry McMahon to Sherif Hussein of Mecca and oral commitments from such luminaries as TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), but they never actually obtained a specific written document from the British Government regarding the disposition of Ottoman territories to the Arabs after WWI, as the Zionists did.

In any case, the commitments of the British Government were hardly worth the paper they were written on. Successive British Governments made contradictory commitments to three groups to obtain their support during the difficult days of trench warfare on the western front during WWI, including attempts to make a separate peace with the Turks behind the backs of the Zionists and Arabs which would have left the Turkish flag flying in what they considered their territories. But, the British also intended to keep those lands for themselves as part of their Empire.

However, no such separate British-Turkish peace was achieved, and British forces occupied Palestine, most of northern Arabia and Mesopotamia (Iraq). The British Liberal party under Lloyd George was against expanding the British Empire and Pres. Wilson of the US was against any further subjugation of native peoples (although his influence was limited since the US did not declare war on Turkey and there were no American forces in the Middle East then). So the Mandate concept was thought up by a minor French official at the post-war Versailles Conference to allow Britain and France to occupy large swathes of formerly Ottoman territory (in line with their then secret Sykes-Picot Treaty), but with a view to making the local peoples eventually independent although under British and/or French influence.

Thus, Britain received Mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia and France for Syria. The Balfour Declaration became valid under international law when it was incorporated into the San Remo Treaty of 1920, when the former Ottoman colonies were carved up by the Allies, and when the League of Nations granted the Mandate over Palestine to Britain in 1922. Each imperial power then made their own decisions and carved out separate countries, France separated Lebanon from Syria in order to protect its Christian inhibitants; Britain separated Transjordan from Palestine and established Iraq in order to satisfy their commitments to the Hashemite rulers of Arabia. The legitimacy of the Zionist claim to the whole of Palestine has never been altered or negated by subsequent events, including the UN Partition Plan of 1948 that became invalid when rejected by the Arab side. Only a negotiated agreement can define the eastern border of the Jewish State.

I came across this quotation (Schneer, p. 372), from a telegram dispatched by the Syrian leadership to Lord Balfour, opposing his famous Declaration: With reference to the recent publication of your Excellency’s declaration to Lord Rothschild regarding the Jews in Palestine, we respectfully take the liberty to invite your Excellency’s attention to the fact that Palestine forms a vital part of Syria – as the heart to the body – admitting no separation politically or sociologically…. This certainly supports those who say that the Palestinian people are a recently invented people and even though they now think of themselves as separate, there is no distinction culturally and sociologically between the Syrian and the Palestinian Arabs. Given how the Syrians currently treat each other, Israelis can hardly be faulted for not trusting the Palestinians as legitimate peace partners for the foreseeable future.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.