When Arthur Balfour, then Britain’s foreign secretary, promised a hundred years ago to help establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, his words changed the world. It was certainly a watershed in imperial history when, as the Hungarian-Jewish writer Arthur Koestler so memorably put it, “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third”.
The declaration, contained in a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, was vaguely worded. Mr Balfour had offered a “national home for the Jewish people”, not a state. The British statesman was hostile to the idea of a Jewish government, describing it later as “inadmissible”. He did not say how this “national home” would be created, offering only Britain’s “best endeavours” to do so. All this was to be achieved without prejudicing the “civil and religious rights” of Palestine’s “existing non-Jewish communities”, which at that time accounted for 90% of the population. Notably, the land’s Arab inhabitants were not named as such. Nor were their views sought. Israelis see the declaration as one of their founding documents. Palestinians regard it as a great betrayal and the root cause of their “destitution, dispossession and the ongoing occupation”.
Israel’s existence is a historical fact. The horrors of the Holocaust made the founding of the state three decades after Balfour’s declaration morally justified. The world, weary of war and sympathetic to the Jews’ plight, looked the other way as Palestinians paid for a crime they did not commit. The belated understanding of this subsequent injustice – the Palestinian Nakba – means that the creation of an independent Palestinian state is equally justified. A two-state solution would allow Palestinians and Israelis to run their own affairs without interference.
The Guardian of 1917 supported, celebrated – and could even be said to have helped facilitate – the Balfour declaration. However, Israel today is not the country we foresaw or would have wanted. It is run by the most rightwing government in its history, dragged ever rightward by fanatical extremists. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is committed to building Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land, in contravention of international law. Rightwing politicians absurdly brand as traitors NGOs that seek accountability for military actions in the occupied territories. They want to carry on in darkness, free from the glare of meddlesome do-gooders. There is an increasing intolerance from the ethno-nationalist end of Israeli politics that threatens to undermine political freedom and judicial independence. Rather than dissenting from judgments in a manner that would respect the bench, Israeli ministers appear to want to shatter their nation’s confidence in judges as impartial guardians of the rule of law. Mr Netanyahu, who is under investigation in two corruption cases, has lashed out against the police and the “fake news” media. Ministers have attacked serving members of Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence service. Israel’s president, who is a member of Mr Netanyahu’s own party, warned that Israel was “witnessing the winds of a second revolution or coup”.
For Palestinians the situation is even more desperate. Almost 5 million live under a military occupation, which has lasted for five decades. Another 1.7 million are Palestinian citizens of Israel and are a minority under pressure not to antagonise the Jewish majority. Some political parties from their community are banned. National security is invoked to justify often racist citizenship laws. They are poorer than their Jewish neighbours and endure terrible discrimination. However, they live better lives than Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, where politically the community is divided between Hamas’s radicalism and Fatah’s ineffectiveness. Continuing illegal settlements and a combination of legal and administrative controls mean that the Palestinians, supposedly promised a fifth of the land as part of the Oslo accords, control a little more than a tenth of historic Palestine. That the Israeli military operates freely in many Palestinian-controlled areas undermines the idea that Palestinians really run them.
The chaos in the Middle East has helped sideline the Palestinian question internationally. If Israeli politicians cannot find a two-state solution, the status quo will cement a one-state reality or perpetual occupation. In some ways the two-state slogan is a convenient evasion, leaving unanswered questions over the size and scope of a future Palestinian nation. Balfour’s original sin was to afford national rights to only one of the two peoples who claimed the land. This cannot be repeated. Palestinians need to be able to govern themselves in a state recognisable as such. The world’s gaze will fall again on Israel and the condition of the Palestinians. To end a hundred years of conflict will need both sides to understand that neither can prevail through violence. Peace can be built only by equitably sharing the land they both crave.