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Balfour Centenary

One hundred years ago this week/next week, in the midst of the First World War, the British government sent a letter known as the Balfour Declaration that led, three decades later, to the creation of the state of Israel.

The letter was officially sent to Lord Walter Rothschild, the head of Britain’s Zionist Federation, by the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, on 2 November 1917. However, the initial draft was actually written months earlier by Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organisation, at Balfour’s request.

It might all have been different if his fellow Conservative politician, Lord Curzon, had been foreign secretary, but he didn’t get that job until two years later. Curzon told Balfour at the time: “I do not recognise that the connection of the Jews with Palestine, which terminated 1,200 years ago, gives them any claims whatever. On this principle, we have a stronger claim to France”. (Much of France was ruled by English kings until the 15th century.)

But it was Balfour who wrote the letter. The key sentence said: “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 are clearly a few weasel words in there: “national home” was a term invented to avoid promising the Jews an actual state. But the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” (600,000 mostly Muslim Arabs) were only promised that their “civil and religious rights” would be protected, not their political rights, so the implication was clear: a Jewish state was the eventual destination.

Why would the British waste their time on such a peripheral matter at a time when they feared they were losing the war? The Russian revolution was taking a major British ally out of the war, it would be a long time before their new ally, the United States, sent a large army to Europe – and the British were running out of credit. The main (though unspoken) reason was probably that they believed the Jews controlled the banks.

It wasn’t actually true, and the one Jew in the British war cabinet, Edwin Montagu, actually wrote a memorandum on “the Anti-Semitism of the Present (British) Government”. But a number of cabinet members were devout Christians who took the Old Testament almost literally, France had already issued a vaguer declaration of support for a Jewish state in Palestine five months previously, and Britain feared that Germany was also about to do so

So the Balfour Declaration was published, and the hundred-year struggle for the control of Palestine began. Initially the territory included all of the Ottoman province of Palestine, which was then in the process of being conquered by British troops. But Lebanon, north along the Mediterranean coast from present-day Israel, was given to France in the peace settlement.

Then in 1921 Winston Churchill, newly appointed as the Colonial Secretary, called a conference in Cairo which decided that the territory east of the Jordan river would be turned into an Arab kingdom called Transjordan (later just Jordan), and Jewish settlement was forbidden there. (He privately called those who attended the conference “the Forty Thieves”, which seems about right.)

Some Zionists protested at this loss of territory they thought they had been promised. Chaim Weizmann wrote to Churchill protesting that “the fields of Gilead, Moab and Edom [east of the Jordan]…are historically and geographically and economically linked to Palestine, and it is upon these fields, now that the rich plains of the north have been taken from Palestine and given to France, that the success of the Jewish National Home must largely rest….”

But most Zionists thought the change was only temporary, or were aware how hard it would be to achieve a Jewish majority even in the territory that remained, where there were only 94,000 Jews at the time. Israel controls all of this remaining territory today, but even now the population is half Arab if you count the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

It’s still questionable whether a fully independent Jewish state would have ever come to pass in the Middle East if the Holocaust had not endowed it with a flood of Jewish immigrants fleeing the Holocaust or its aftermath. It was also the Holocaust that turned opinion in the great powers (including the Soviet Union) decisively in its favour, and enabled the United Nations resolution that legitimised the state of Israel in 1948.

But it’s very unlikely that Israel would exist without the initial impetus given to the Zionist project by the Balfour Declaration. It’s amazing what a few determined men can do if they are in the right place at the right time.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Netanyahu and the Truth

“I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy told US President Barack Obama four years ago, in a conversation about Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Obama replied: “You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day.” It was a private conversation, but we know about it because it was accidentally broadcast to journalists.

Politicians may deliberately mislead people, omit vital facts, spin the truth a dozen different ways to serve their purposes of the moment, but they usually avoid outright lies. It’s just too embarrassing to be caught in a lie. And other politicians generally accept that some of their colleagues shade the truth to fit their own agenda as one of the regrettable realities of their trade. They all swim in the same sea.

What drove Sarkozy and Obama to talk about Netanyahu like that was the sheer brazen effrontery of his lies – and he was at it again last week. In public, this time.

Speaking to the the 37th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Netanyahu declared that Hitler decided to exterminate the Jews on the advice of a Palestinian, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti (senior Islamic cleric) of Jerusalem. Husseini met Hitler in Berlin in November 1941, he said (although there is no record of the meeting), and that was why the Holocaust happened.

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said: ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to Palestine].’” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.”

So, you see, it was the Palestinians, driven by a vicious and unreasoning hatred of the Jews, who really thought up the Holocaust, and Adolf Hitler was merely a tool in their hands. Historians instantly denounced this travesty of the historical record, and the greatest outrage was expressed by Jews who felt that Netanyahu had given a great gift to the Holocaust deniers.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was so appalled that she effectively called Netanyahu a liar to his face. Standing beside him in Berlin, she said: “We don’t see any reason to change our view of history, particularly on this issue. We abide by our responsibility, in Germany, for the Holocaust.” Yet Netanyahu continued to insist that it was Husseini who first suggested genocide to Hitler.

Experienced journalists know that the most useful question to ask yourself when confronted with an implausible story is not: “Is this bastard lying to me?” It is: “WHY is this bastard lying to me?” So why did Netanyahu say that? In particular, why now?

Because he needs to show that his policy of creating and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the one-sixth of former Palestine that still has a Palestinian majority, is not responsible for the recent rash of violent attacks on Israeli Jews by young Palestinians.

It is getting quite serious, though it is not yet a “third intifada”. Ten Jews have been murdered in the streets by Palestinians in the past month. About fifty Palestinians have been killed, including most of the killers and would-be killers. The fear and suspicion have grown so intense that in two cases of mistaken identity Jews have killed or wounded other Jews.

There appears to be no central direction behind the attacks. Most observers believe that the phenomenon is mainly driven by the despair of young Palestinians who see their land slipping away and don’t believe that Netanyahu will ever let the Palestinians have their own state in the occupied territories.

That would put the blame for the outbreak squarely on Netanyahu’s policies, which he cannot accept. So he is trying to prove that Palestinians just naturally hate Jews: “My intention was…to show that the forefathers of the Palestinian nation – without a country and without the so-called ‘occupation,’ without land and without settlements – even then aspired to systematic incitement to exterminate the Jews.”

That is Netanyahu’s explanation for the current attacks: incitement by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whom he blames for the rumours about Israel’s intention to expand Jewish access to the Haram al-Sharif, the area around Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. It is Islam’s third most sacred site, but it is also sacred to Jews as Temple Mount, and these rumours certainly played a role in stimulating the attacks.

There is no evidence that Abbas was behind the rumours, however, and it’s unlikely that he would have encouraged them: what these attacks are actually showing is his own people’s loss of faith in his ability to get a Palestinian state. Nor is Saturday’s agreement in Amman between US Secretary of State John Kerry, Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Hussein to guarantee the current rules for access to the holy site likely to quell the violence.

The rumours were a trigger for the violence, but the gun is always loaded. The Palestinian revolts in 1929 and 1936, which were indeed incited by Grand Mufti Husseini, were already about the Jewish colonisation of Palestine. It was always about the land, and it still is today.

Netanyahu knows that very well. It is the real motive behind his own policies. He just can’t afford to admit it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“Politicians…sea”; and “Germany’s…Hitler”)

Israeli Election 2015

Binyamin Netanyahu, “Bibi” to both his friends and his ever-growing list of enemies, is running for a fourth term as the prime minister of Israel. He called the election, two years early, because the leaders of two of the parties in his coalition government had become too openly hostile to his policies. So he is rolling the dice again in the hope of being able to form some different coalition.

That’s what he always does. His coalitions draw mainly on the centre-right and, increasingly, the far right, partly because that is where he stands personally on “security” issues and partly because Israel opinion in general has been drifting steadily to the right. But beyond that, he has no fixed policy. His primary goal is to hold his coalitions together and stay in power.

Netanyahu is hardly unique in this. Professional politicians anywhere tend to divide into two types, the “conviction politicians” and the players, with the majority usually in the latter category. He is a tremendously good player of the game, but it has a paralysing effect on Israeli politics.

Since he cannot afford to come down in favour of either a real “two-state” solution that allows for an independent Palestine or a single Israeli-ruled state that permanently controls all or most of the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel never gets to choose between the two. Until, perhaps, now.

Netanyahu’s excuse for refusing to choose has usually been the lack of a valid Palestinian negotiating partner, and there is certainly some basis for that. Mahmoud Abbas, the “President” of the Palestinian Authority, has not faced an election, even within his own Fatah party, for ten years. Moreover, Abbas has no control over the 40 percent of the Palestinian population who live under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.

But it is more an excuse than a reason. Genuine negotiations envisaging a Israeli withdrawal from most or all of the West Bank and a real Palestinian state, even a demilitarised one, would destroy any coalition Netanyahu has ever built. Going flat-out with the extreme right-wing project for a “one-state” solution incorporating the whole West Bank but denying Palestinians the vote would do the same. Result: permanent paralysis.

Indeed, Netanyahu has even encouraged Israelis to believe that this peculiar status quo can be a lasting substitute for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a ridiculous proposition, but it clearly has appeal for Israelis who would like to believe that they can have security without the pain of territorial compromise.
Meanwhile, however, the outside world has been losing patience. Abbas has been pushing for a November, 2016 United Nations deadline to end the Israeli occupation unless two-state negotiations have succeeded by then. And last week the European Parliament voted to recognise Palestine statehood “in principle” as part of the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.

The EU resolution also said that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law – as indeed they are, but it has not been normal for Israel’s allies and supporters to say so explicitly. (The European Union has granted Israel trading privileges so extensive that it is practically a member economically.) The vote was 498 in favour and only 88 against, and there was a standing ovation in the chamber afterwards.

The rot is spreading rapidly. Four national Western European parliaments – Ireland, the United Kingdom, France and Spain – have recently endorsed resolutions in favour of Palestinian statehood, and Sweden has actually recognised Palestine as a state. Other European Union members are on the brink of doing so, and even Israel’s final line of diplomatic defence, an American veto, is no longer guaranteed.

The United States has used its veto on the UN Security Council to shield Israel from resolutions that criticise the country forty-one times in the past forty years. Indeed, it has used its veto for no other purpose since 1988. Israelis fully expect Barack Obama to use it a 42nd time to defeat Mahmoud Abbas’s appeal for a two-year deadline for an agreement on a two-state solution when it comes before the Security Council, most likely in January.

They are probably right, but Obama will be sorely tempted to let people think that he might not use the veto, and perhaps also to push the Security Council vote down towards the 17 March date of the Israeli election, in the hope of influencing Israeli voters to turn away from Netanyahu.

It’s quite common for Israeli voters to push back when they feel they are under foreign pressure to make concessions, so this could actually play out to Netanyahu’s advantage. A great deal can happen between now and 17 March, so one shouldn’t give too much weight to current polls. But at the moment, the numbers suggest that Netanyahu’s gamble on forming a new coalition may not succeed.

And that might open the way to one last attempt to make the two-state solution work.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The EU…guaranteed”)

Recognising Palestine

It’s a slow process, this business of getting recognised as an independent state, but the Palestinians are making progress. In September of last year, Mahmoud Abbas, the long-overdue-for-an-election president of the Palestinian National Authority, was given permission to sit in the “beige chair”, the one that is reserved for heads of state waiting to go to the podium and address the UN General Assembly.

And now, another Great Leap Forward. On Monday, the British Parliament voted by 274 to 12 to recognise Palestine as a state. It was a private member’s bill, however, and ministers in Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet were ordered to abstain. The bill cannot compel Cameron to actually recognise Palestine, a decision which the British Government will only take “at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace.”

More hot air and empty symbolism, then, or so it would seem. But the parliamentary vote is better seen as a very large straw in the wind. After half a century when Israel could count on reflexive support from the United States, Canada and the big Western European countries no matter what it did, public opinion in the countries of the European Union is shifting.

Until recently, the only EU members that recognised the State of Palestine were ex-Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe that had done so when they were Communist-ruled. But early this month the newly elected Swedish government declared that it would recognise Palestine, and other parliamentary votes on the question are coming up in Ireland, Denmark, Finland and, most importantly, France.

They will probably all vote yes. As Matthew Gould, UK ambassador to Israel, said on Israeli radio after the vote in London: “I am concerned in the long run about the shift in public opinion in the UK and beyond towards Israel. Israel lost support after this summer’s conflict (in Gaza), and after the series of announcements on (expanding Israeli) settlements (in the West Bank). This parliamentary vote is a sign of the way the wind is blowing.”

Official Israel is busily pretending that this does not matter, but it does, in two ways. One is the diplomatic reality that soon nothing may stand between Palestine and full membership of the United Nations except a lone, naked US veto in the United Nations Security Council, which may have to be repeated on an annual basis.

That will be one consequence of the way the wind is blowing, but much graver for Israel is the reason why it is blowing in that direction: patience with Israeli Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu’s perpetual delaying tactics is close to exhausted in most Western electorates. Among the young it has already run out completely.

Most people in Israel believe that Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing the emergence of a genuinely independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the one-fifth of colonial Palestine that was not already incorporated into Israel at the end of the 1948 war. Indeed, much of his electoral support comes from Israelis who trust him to prevent such an outcome.

Netanyahu can never state his purpose openly, of course, because that would alienate Israel’s supporters abroad, who generally believe that peace can only be achieved by the “two-state solution” that both sides signed up to 22 years ago in the Oslo Accords. Those supporters used to be willing to turn a blind eye to his actions so long as he gave lip-service to the Oslo goals – but that faith is now running on fumes in the British House of Commons.

Sir Richard Ottaway, the chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and a lifelong supporter of Israel, told the House: “Looking back over the past twenty years, I realise now Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent.”

The erosion of support for Israel has been slower in the United States, where open criticism of Israeli actions in the media is rare and Congress is still (in the crude phrase of Washington insiders) “Israeli-occupied territory.” But it is happening even there – and among the younger generation of Americans the decline has been very steep.

In a Gallup poll conducted last July, in the midst of the most recent Gaza war, more than half of Americans over the age of 50 said that Israel’s actions (which eventually killed over 2,000 Palestinians) were justified. Just a quarter of those between 18 and 29 years old agreed.

In both cases these generations will probably stick to their convictions all of their lives – but generational turnover will ensure that the opinions of the younger group ultimately prevail. It was presumably Israel’s actions and positions over the past ten years that shaped the opinions of the younger Americans. Another ten years like that, and even the United States may have a majority that wants to recognise Palestine.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“More…shifting”; and “Sir…resent”)