North Africa, West Asia

100 years later: getting beyond Balfour

The Balfour Declaration shows that sovereignty and security for one group of people can never be achieved at the expense of another.

William Bell
31 October 2017
Balfour_portrait_and_declaration.jpg

Portrait of Lord Balfour, along with his declaration. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.This November, Palestinians and Israelis will be marking a short letter written one hundred years ago by the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour. For many Israelis, this is a key moment to celebrate in the history of establishing the state of Israel; recognition and affirmation by a global power of the Zionist quest for a Jewish national home. For most Palestinians, it represents a moment of betrayal and devastation at the loss of the homeland they assumed would emerge with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. For the cause of a just and viable peace, Balfour’s words have failed all.

The letter makes the following declaration of sympathy with Zionist aspirations:

“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

There have been many episodes since then that have helped toxify the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis, but the Balfour Declaration is one that demands us to reflect on how sovereignty and security for one group of people can never be achieved at the expense of another. No one has yet managed to secure a formula which will allow Israelis and Palestinians to share this land as equals, but neither is going to leave unless forced to, which must never be tolerated, and neither deserves to continue burying their innocent loved ones.

History is replete with examples which demonstrate the moral bankruptcy and political failure that accompany occupation

Peace initiatives and handshakes, not to mention aid and financial support, have sustained a prolonged process that has not achieved its intended outcome: two states for two peoples with Jerusalem as a shared capital. In the long-term, there are no winners when one group occupies and controls another against their will. History is replete with examples which demonstrate the moral bankruptcy and political failure that accompany occupation. But the latter has now become normalised, for which Israel seems to have convinced itself there is little alternative, regardless of its impact on Palestinian lives.

Currently there appears to be neither the political will nor sufficient empathy to adequately address the conflict. Critically, a long-term vision that recognises how the security of Israelis and Palestinians is dependent on the other, is absent. The situation in Israel/Palestine represents a collective failure which is punctuated by regular bouts of violence, land seizures and deepening poverty. If in doubt consider the following:

No one can genuinely regard their future as secure, while others lead such insecure lives

While Israel presides over a successful hi-tech economy, Palestinians are experiencing some of the highest levels of unemployment in the world. In Gaza, Palestinians live in conditions that the UN predicts by 2020 will be uninhabitable, with 80% now aid dependent. In the West Bank, people exist in enclaves surrounded by expanding Israeli settlements, their movement controlled by the Israeli army. Palestinians in east Jerusalem live in fear that their right to live in the city of their birth will be taken away. The spectre of forced transfer is real, poverty is increasing and economic opportunity diminishing.

Israelis, are rightly determined that the persecution, pogroms and Holocaust which dominate Jewish history, remain precisely that. For many Jews, Zionism and Israel represent a guarantee that they will never again be the victims of the virulent anti-Semitism that their ancestors experienced.

No one can genuinely regard their future as secure, while others lead such insecure lives. A willingness for both to acknowledge the permanent presence of the other and contemplate, with humility and humanity, a more closely shared existence is essential. The Oslo paradigm has, so far, failed. Many Palestinians believe that Israel has no intention of withdrawing from their territory. Regular announcements by Israel’s government of more settlement construction do nothing to dispel that belief.

International governments are quick to condemn illegal acts, including settlement construction, but rarely, if ever, hold Israel’s occupation meaningfully to account. Such paralysis has ensured that Israel continues to dominate, with impunity, construction throughout the West Bank at the expense of Palestinian economic development, as the World Bank has regularly noted.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority, with no democratic mandate, and Hamas, increasingly isolated, appear incapable of providing either essential services or hope for their population. And spread, largely poor and unwelcome across the Middle East region, are millions of Palestinian refugees, clinging to the hope of returning to homes that mostly no longer exist.

The Balfour declaration has not provided long-term peace or security for anyone. To suggest that civil and religious rights are sufficient for one, while political rights, conferred by the establishment of a national home, are right for the other, can do anything other than promote prejudice, has proven tragically misguided. It is simple, but essential, to condemn all the indiscriminate and callous violence meted out against innocent civilians, whoever the perpetrator. But we need to get beyond the condemnation, if we are genuinely to tackle it.

International governments are quick to condemn illegal acts, including settlement construction, but rarely, if ever, hold Israel’s occupation meaningfully to account

The reality in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory includes: discrimination, mistrust, anxiety and a lack of accountability. Christian Aid’s Israeli and Palestinian partners are experiencing pain, and risk personal attacks for exposing that reality as they defend rights, challenge discriminatory laws and hold their respective authorities to account.

We must listen to them, and the myriad others, and respond accordingly if we are to help Israelis and Palestinians build a peaceful and viable future. To do otherwise is to reject the essence of principled impartiality: the core of all peace-building.

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Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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