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The Balfour Declaration: Britain's fatal mistake in Palestine

Against the rival and incompatible nationalisms its mandate unleashed, Britain was left with no choice but to withdraw from the territory it had once hoped would be a permanent part of its empire

More than a century after Lord Balfour made his declaration, there is little agreement about what former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s foreign secretary or subsequent governments intended to do with Palestine.

It should not be such a mystery. Britain wanted Palestine for its own empire, for simple geostrategic reasons born of World War I. Towards that end, the British government sought to exploit the Zionist movement - not to create a Jewish state, but to partner with Zionist settlers in managing Palestine over the predictable opposition of the Palestinian Arab majority.

Between October 1916 and November 1917, Britain's position changed dramatically from one of disinterest to a determination to secure Palestine for its own imperial control

If one were to compare Palestine to the French mandate in Lebanon, the Zionists were the Maronites of British Palestine: a compact minority community that would openly advocate for a British mandate at the Paris Peace Conference and cooperate with the British in governing the territory.

This wish to draw Palestine into the British Empire was entirely new in 1917. Before World War I, Britain had no declared interest in the Ottoman territories of Palestine. This disinterested position would continue well after the outbreak of war. The De Bunsen Committee, convened in April and May 1915 to consider British imperial interests in Ottoman territory in Asia, practically disavowed any claim on Palestine, aside from a rail terminal in Haifa linking Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean.

"Palestine must be recognised as a country whose destiny must be the subject of special negotiations, in which both belligerents and neutrals are alike interested," the De Bunsen Committee report concluded.

Partition diplomacy

These principles guided British partition diplomacy when Sir Mark Sykes concluded an agreement with Charles Francois Georges-Picot between April and October 1916. Palestine was to be internationalised under joint Russian, French and British administration, with Britain securing that enclave in Haifa for its Mediterranean port.

Between October 1916 and November 1917, Britain’s position changed dramatically from one of disinterest to a determination to secure Palestine for its own imperial control. One driver of that change was the Sinai Campaign.

In the opening years of the war, the British had defended the Suez Canal from its western banks. With no wells or fresh water supply, troops could not be posted to the Sinai Peninsula. This had allowed the Ottomans free rein in Sinai, and enabled them to mount two attacks - in February 1915 and August 1916 - on the Suez Canal Zone. Modern artillery could strike ships in the canal from five or more miles away. From their lines in southern Palestine, with water from perennial wells, a hostile power could threaten shipping transiting the Suez Canal at will. 

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To drive the Ottomans out of the Sinai Peninsula, the British fought a slow campaign through the remainder of 1916 and into the early months of 1917, laying a railway line for supplies and a pipeline to provide water for the troops and their animals. They faced well-entrenched Ottoman forces in Gaza who defended their territory against major British assaults in March and April 1917.

The First and Second Battles of Gaza ended in British defeat, which made the British yet more aware of the danger posed by a hostile power in Palestine. It was this wartime experience that changed Britain’s position from one of disinterest to seeking dominion over Palestine.

It wasn’t until the Battle of Beersheba on 31 October 1917 that British forces broke through Ottoman lines in southern Palestine and began their rapid advance towards Jerusalem, which surrendered in December. Three days after the breakthrough at Beersheba, Balfour pledged the British government’s best efforts to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Backing Zionist ambitions

It is clear that wartime experience had driven Britain’s new interest in securing Palestine for its empire. We can pinpoint that newfound interest to the period between the Sykes-Picot agreement in October 1916 and the Battle of Beersheba in October 1917. Yet, in this fast-moving change of imperial policy, there is another element that requires explanation: the decision to back Zionist ambitions in Palestine.

The British government had no interest in Zionism before World War I. In 1913, the Foreign Office permanent under-secretary, Sir Arthur Nicolson, refused to receive Nahum Sokolow, an executive board member of the World Zionist Organization. He left his secretary to receive Sokolow, and after the secretary briefed Nicolson on the meeting, he replied: “In any case we had better not intervene to support the Zionist movement. The implantation of Jews is a question of internal administration on which there is great division of opinion in Turkey."

British officials were no more interested in Zionism when Sokolow tried to secure a second appointment in July 1914. “It is not really necessary that anyone’s time should be wasted in this way,” a Foreign Office memo noted, and the second visit never took place.

A picture dated before 1937 shows Arabs demonstrating in Jerusalem against Jewish immigration to Palestine (AFP)
A picture dated before 1937 shows Arabs demonstrating in Jerusalem against Jewish immigration to Palestine (AFP)

This is not surprising. Zionism was dismissed as a utopian movement with a very limited following in Britain in 1914. Out of a total British Jewish community of 300,000, there were no more than 8,000 members of Zionist organisations - so there was little reason to “waste time” over a marginal political movement that attracted only an idealistic fringe of the Jewish community.

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And British society was highly antisemitic by today’s standards; one didn’t expect British officials to advocate Jewish movements.

It wasn’t until 1917 that Britain saw a strategic value in Zionism, and its interest in the movement began to change. The Russian Revolution in 1917 placed Russian commitment to the Great War effort in question. Many in Britain believed Jews in the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky might encourage the Russian military commitment to the war if they saw an Entente victory advancing Zionist goals in Palestine.

Others believed American Jews would influence then US President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war, tipping the balance in the Entente’s favour, for the same reason. The US was slow to enter the war - it only declared war on Germany in April 1917 - and its population unenthusiastic about the war effort. A pro-Zionist policy might encourage influential Jews advising the White House to accelerate the US engagement. As historian Tom Segev comments, this was Zionism turning antisemitic cliches about a Jewish international that controlled global politics and finance to its advantage.

In the endless total warfare of World War I, Lloyd George and his government were open to any alliance that might help end the war with an Entente victory, so they courted the Zionist movement.

Dramatic shift

There was another reason for Britain to seek a partnership with Zionism in 1917. Just one year earlier, Sykes had agreed on a distribution of Ottoman Arab territory with Picot. France would hardly be sympathetic to new British claims to Palestine after both France and Russia had made clear their own interests in the Holy Lands, and had agreed to a compromise that left Palestine under international control.

The British needed a third party to take responsibility for such a dramatic shift in partition diplomacy. By supporting the Zionist movement, Britain could stake its claim to Palestine not in terms of its selfish imperial interests, but as a matter of historic social justice - resolving Europe’s “Jewish Question” through the return of the Jewish people to their biblical homeland.

It looked like Britain was promising Palestine to the Zionists, when in fact Lloyd George’s government was using the Zionist movement to secure Palestine for themselves

It was in that spirit that Lord Balfour addressed his fateful letter to Lord Rothschild promising British best efforts towards that end. It looked like Britain was promising Palestine to the Zionists, when in fact Lloyd George’s government was using the Zionist movement to secure Palestine for themselves.

And so, Balfour made his fateful declaration, committing the British government to exerting its “best endeavours” to “facilitate” the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Note: a “national home”, not a state; “the Jewish people”, not the Zionists.

While many critics have focused on the fact that the Balfour Declaration does not refer to Palestinians by name, but just to “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, I think the Balfour Declaration is equally non-committal to Jewish and Arab national identity. The declaration is all about “civil and religious rights”, rather than national rights.

The Balfour Declaration, in other words, is not a commitment to the establishment of a Jewish state. I see it rather as the establishment of a compact minority community in Palestine, designed to facilitate British rule of a new colonial acquisition. Totally dependent on the British for their position in Palestine, the Zionists would be reliable partners in managing the mandate against the predictable opposition of the Palestinian Arab majority.

Palestinian opposition

Britain was in no doubt of Palestinian opposition to its plans. It had enough operatives on the ground from December 1917 onwards, after General Edmund Allenby’s occupation of Jerusalem, to have reliable intelligence on the political views of the local population. And if the British had bothered to read the report filed by the American King-Crane Commission in the summer of 1919, they would have had all the data to conclude the Balfour promise was a non-starter.

The King-Crane Report noted “that the non-Jewish population of Palestine - nearly nine-tenths of the whole - are emphatically against the entire Zionist program. The tables show that there was no one thing upon which the population of Palestine were more agreed than upon this.”

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The report also noted that “no British officer consulted by the Commissioners believed that the Zionist program could be carried out except by force of arms”. The British knew how strongly Palestinians opposed their plans.

Paradoxically, faced with such local opposition, the British seem to have been only more convinced of the benefits of establishing a loyal ally through the Zionist settler community. Jewish settlers were Europeans, and so culturally closer to the British than Palestinian Arabs (though British officials continued to “Orientalise” the Jews and to view them as lower in the social Darwinian scale than the British).

A compact Jewish minority, viewed with hostility by the majority population, would be entirely dependent on the British to protect their position. Such dependence made them reliable. The British could trust the Zionist settlers to partner in the management of Palestine because the mandate made Zionist settlement possible and protected the settler community from the hostile natives.

Holy grail of empire

“Dependent and reliable” was the holy grail of empire. The French resorted to minority policies more readily than the British. The Maronites in Mount Lebanon were one such minority community who actively lobbied for a French mandate. The French tried to foster such dependence with the Alawite and Druze communities of Syria, offering them mini-states for self-government under the French mandate in Syria.

The British, for their part, had turned to the sons of Sharif Hussein of Mecca in a policy known as the Sharifian solution, placing Hashemite sharifs on the thrones of Transjordan and Iraq. Foreigners in their own kingdoms with no popular support base or financial independence, Britain could be confident that Emir Abdullah in Transjordan and King Faisal in Iraq would be dependent, and thus reliable, partners in running those states. Britain had no Sharifian solution for Palestine. Instead, the Zionist settler community fulfilled that role.

An undated picture taken during the British Mandate in Palestine shows a Jewish neighbourhood of Jerusalem under martial law (AFP)
An undated picture taken during the British Mandate in Palestine shows a Jewish neighbourhood of Jerusalem under martial law (AFP)

But the Zionists would only be dependent and reliable so long as they remained a minority. Were they to achieve a majority in Palestine, they would sue for independence. Britain had no doubt of the nationalist nature of the Zionist movement.

It was as much to remind the Yishuv of the limits of Britain’s commitment as it was to calm Palestinian Arab antagonism that former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued his 1922 White Paper. Famously, Churchill ruled out a Palestine “as Jewish as England is English”. He ruled out “the disappearance or the subordination of the Arabic population, language or culture in Palestine”. He stressed that the terms of the Balfour Declaration “do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded in Palestine”.

What Churchill was saying was that the Jewish community of Palestine should remain a compact minority community, and within those limits they could look to Britain to advance the Jewish national home project.

'Irrepressible conflict'

Of course, the British never reached an equilibrium point in advancing the Jewish national home and preserving the peace in Palestine. After a wave of riots in 1929, the British organised a series of inquiries and issued a series of white papers against the background of spiking Jewish immigration following the Nazi seizure of power between 1931 and 1933, and the passage of the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws in 1935.

From an average 5,000 immigrants per annum in 1930-31, the numbers rose to 9,600 in 1932, to 30,000 in 1933, to 42,000 in 1934, and peaked at nearly 62,000 in 1935. By 1936, the Yishuv had grown from less than 10 percent to more than 30 percent of the population of Palestine, with no end in sight.

Jewish immigration and land purchase compounded the economic effects of the Great Depression to raise misery and anxiety in the Arab Palestinian population. In 1936, Palestinians broke out in full revolt against both the British mandate and the Jewish community fostered by the mandate.

Rather than conceding statehood to the Zionist movement, the British were reorganising the economic centre of gravity in the Palestine mandate

The British secured a pause in the first phase of the Arab Revolt to dispatch yet another commission of inquiry. But when the Peel Commission reported in 1937, it basically declared the mandate a failure: “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. About one million Arabs are in strife, open or latent, with some 400,000 Jews. There is no common ground between them … Their cultural and social life, their ways of thought and conduct, are as incompatible as their national aspirations. These last are the greatest bar to peace.”

In other words, Britain - for the first time in 20 years since the Balfour Declaration - acknowledged that its mandate had set off a conflict between rival and incompatible nationalisms, Palestinian Arab and Zionist. According to the Peel Commission, this situation could be resolved only by the termination of the mandate and partition of the territory of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, governed by treaty relations with Britain “in accordance with the precedent set in Iraq”.

Let that be your first warning signal about how “independent” Britain intended the Jewish and Arab states to be. The 1930 Anglo-Iraqi Treaty preserved British pre-eminence in foreign relations and military affairs in ways that simply restructured the colonial relationship; a sort of empire by treaty. 

Restructuring the colonial relationship

I would argue that the Peel Commission’s recommendations were about restructuring the colonial relationship in Palestine but not ending it. Start with the 1937 partition map, the Peel Commission allocated roughly one-third of Mandate Palestine to the Jewish state, stretching from the Galilee panhandle south to include Safed, Tiberias and Nazareth, the frontier turning towards the West at Beisan, to take in the coastal plain from Acre and Haifa through Tel Aviv and Jaffa in a sort of inverted L of territory.

Two things are obvious when you look at the map: the British had concentrated the key ports and economic centres of Palestine and placed them in the hands of their Zionist partners. More significantly, a country so small would be evermore dependent on British protection against Arab neighbours in Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories, whose hostility to the Zionist project was obvious to all.

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So, rather than conceding statehood to the Zionist movement, the British were reorganising the economic centre of gravity in the Palestine mandate, and placing that territory under their dependent and reliable Zionist partners.

This reversion to dependent and reliable partners is equally apparent in the Peel Commission’s plans for Arab Palestine. The remaining two-thirds of Palestine were to be united with Transjordan under Abdullah’s rule and the mandate for Transjordan replaced with a treaty of “independence”. In other words, the British were at long last applying the Sharifian solution to Palestine, and placing that troubled land under the control of a dependent and reliable ruler - Abdullah.

The Peel partition plan of 1937 was not a call for Jewish or Arab independence. It was instead an effort to restructure the colonial relationship along the tried and tested lines of Iraq, to shut down the dysfunctional mandate and restructure the imperial relationship in an empire by treaty scheme. 

Partial independence

Needless to say, the Palestinian rejection of the Peel report resulted in two further years of intense insurgency, forcing the British to deploy 25,000 soldiers and policemen to suppress the Arab Revolt.

To restore the peace, the British issued a final White Paper in 1939 that laid partition to rest. It called for a limit to Jewish immigration to 15,000 per annum for five years, or a total of 75,000 new immigrants. This would bring the Jewish population of Palestine to 35 percent of the total. After five years, there would be no further immigration without the consent of the majority, and no one was under any illusions about the majority’s views on the matter.

In 1949, Palestine would gain independence (again, presumably the sort of partial independence the British had already conferred on Iraq and now Egypt by 1939) under majority rule.

A picture released in 1938 shows a street scene in Jericho during the Arab Revolt period (AFP)
A picture released in 1938 shows a street scene in Jericho during the Arab Revolt period (AFP)

The telling detail in the 1939 White Paper is the precision with which Britain treated Jewish immigration: 15,000 per year for five years, taking the Jewish population to 35 percent. Full stop. By this policy, the Yishuv would remain a compact minority, forever dependent on British protection in hostile surroundings.

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Had the British allowed the Jewish community to surpass the 50 percent mark, they would almost certainly face a Jewish nationalist bid to drive the British from Palestine, just as they faced from the Palestinian Arab population. As a compact minority, like the Maronites of Lebanon, the Yishuv would reinforce Britain’s imperial position in Palestine against the demands of the Arab majority. As a majority, the Yishuv would mount their own bid for independence.

Which is, of course, what happened. The Zionist executive in Palestine, led by David Ben-Gurion, rejected the 1939 White Paper, but with war against Nazi Germany brewing, Ben-Gurion famously vowed to fight the war against the Nazis as if there were no White Paper, and to fight the White Paper as if there were no war.

Other more radical members of the Yishuv openly declared war on Britain, launching a Jewish revolt that would prove fatal to Britain’s position in Palestine. As the Irgun announced in their declaration of war in January 1944: “There is no longer any armistice between the Jewish people and the British Administration in Eretz Israel. Our people is at war with this regime - war to the end.”

Final condemnation

The Jewish revolt of 1944-47 proved fatal to the British mandate, in which the targeted assassinations of officials, attacks on infrastructure, bombings of police stations, and the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel were milestones. As shiploads of illegal refugees, mostly survivors of the Holocaust, made their way to the coasts of Palestine, and the Yishuv surged towards a critical demographic mass to realise their nationalist aspirations, Britain’s position of limiting Jewish immigration became untenable.

Britain never anticipated giving Palestine over to the Yishuv, and its policies supported the Yishuv only within the limits of their usefulness as partners in the imperial project

But in my view, what condemned the British position in Palestine once and for all was the collapse of Yishuv support for British rule in Palestine. In partnership with a compact Jewish minority, the British could hope to hold Palestine against the nationalist opposition of the country’s Arab majority. Against the rival and incompatible nationalisms their mandate unleashed, Britain was left with no choice but to hand the Palestine Mandate over to the United Nations and withdraw.

To conclude, Britain’s goal in Palestine was always to retain the territory as part of its empire - an empire it imagined would last for generations. The Jewish community in Palestine was an essential partner in securing and retaining Palestine, but only as a compact minority community. Britain never anticipated giving Palestine over to the Yishuv, and its policies supported the Yishuv only within the limits of their usefulness as partners in the imperial project.

The fatal mistake the British made was believing they could manage the rival and incompatible nationalisms they set off in Palestine. As the population of the Yishuv reached a critical mass, the British had become irrelevant in Palestine. 

This article is a condensed version of a talk that was given by Professor Eugene Rogan to the Balfour Project charity. The charity holds regular free webinars focused on Britain's historic and continuing responsibility to secure equal rights for the Israeli and the  Palestinian peoples. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.