On December 20th, 1997 President of Egypt Anwar Sadat makes a historic trip to Jerusalem and offers the Israelis a complete peace in exchange for their full withdrawal from Sinai. A year later a peace agreement is signed at Camp David. President Sadat is called a traitor by an Arab League and eventually assassinated by Muslim Brotherhood in 1981.




Balfour Declaration

If there was ever a case when a short letter consisting of few sentences dramatically influenced the course of history and is still relevant today, then the letter written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, is it.

Foreign Office  
November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild:
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's  Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:    

His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.    

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge  of the Zionist Federation.    


Arthur James Balfour  

Few days later this statement of British government appeared in London Times. The document called for the establishment of the national home for Jews in Palestine while maintaining the rights of the Arab population and other nationalities.  

The Road to the Balfour Declaration was not an easy one. As early as the 1890’s the first Zionist leaders understood the danger facing the Jewish population of Europe and the importance of finding a place where Jews could be free of cultural and religious prosecution. The Dreyfuss affair in France and continued pogroms in Russia pushed that agenda to the forefront.  

Theodore Herzl, the leader of the Zionist movement, approached the Ottoman Sultan with the request to establish some kind of Jewish autonomy in Palestine but that request was promptly denied. Herzl considered other options including Argentina and Uganda, however he found no support for such ideas amongst the Zionist movement. The only option that was universally supported was an establishment of a historical homeland in Palestine.

There was already a native Jewish population living there, primarily in the cities with strong religious significance such as Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias. By 1915 that population began to grow due to the immigration of Jews escaping the rising wave of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. There were a number of Jews who came to Palestine out of patriotic duty. These were Zionist pioneers who arrived to fulfill the goal articulated by Theodore Herzl in 1987: "create a national home for the Jewish people secured by public law". Many of them settled in the countryside where they created the agricultural communities based on socialist ideals.  

In 1915 Britain was deeply entrenched in the World War I. There were many participants in that war but the major players were England, France and Russia who were pitted against Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies. The Ottoman Empire, which by that time had lost the considerable influence in the world, decided to enter the war as a German ally. They felt that by joining the great German war machine they would be able to regain some lost territories.

World War I turned out to be a drawn-out conflict that was claiming hundreds of thousands of lives with no end in sight. Britain was using any means that would give them an edge in this conflict. Their main goals at the time were to maintain Russia in the coalition and to get the United Stated to enter the war as an ally. In 1917 the British Government felt that they found that edge, the Jewish Zionist movement that was seeking to establish a homeland in Palestine.

The British government was under the profound belief that Jews wielded a tremendous influence both in Russia and in America and that a friendly dialog with the Jewish leaders was in their national interest. The major Zionist figure involved in negotiation with the British government was Dr. Chaim Weitzman, a brilliant Russian born chemist who moved to England in 1904.

By 1915 Dr. Weitzman has developed a chemical process of producing acetone from the maize. Acetone was a vital ingredient in production of the artillery shells, which Britain and allies had a desperately short supply of in the beginning of war. It was during that period that Chaim Weitzman met Sir Arthur James Balfour (the First Lord of the Admiralty) and David Lloyd George (the Britain’s minister of munitions).

Both of these gentlemen thought very highly of Weitzman's contribution to Britain. It did not hurt Weitzman's goals when in 1916 Lloyd George became the British Prime Minister and Arthur Balfour the Foreign Secretary. It was a fate of history that the ambition of the Zionist movement for a national homeland became a possibility at the time when the British had their own designs for Middle East, and that included Palestine. For once the myth of Jews dominating the world worked in their favor and Dr. Weitzman did nothing to dispel it.  

But the Jewish leaders were hardly the only ones that British Government was negotiating with. In May of 1916 they reached a secret understanding with France, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that divided the Middle East into areas of control and influence between the two countries and their allies.

The lands they were dividing were still under the control of the Ottoman Empire, but under the agreement Lebanon, Syria and Northern Iraq would fall under French control with the rest of Iraq, Jordan and area the around Haifa going to the British. Palestine was to become a territory under an international administration that also included Russia. Later Britain tried to revise it's promises to France regarding the Palestine. The ongoing battles in the area against the Turkish forces revealed the strategic importance of Palestine in protecting the Suez Canal.  

There was a reason why the Sykes-Picot Agreement was kept secret. In July 1915 the British High Commissioner for Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, received a letter from Ali ibn Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, in which Hussein outlined the terms that would bring about the Arab participation in the war. The two parties wrote ten letters to each other between 1915 and 1916. In short, Britain was prepared to recognize and support Arab independence and offered friendship and a lasting alliance.

The price they paid was an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which eventually did take place under the leadership of the famous British agent known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia.   Interestingly, in their correspondence, Henry McMahon and Ali ibn Hussein discussed the future of the Arab lands, borders and forms of political administration, but there was no mention of Palestine.

Arabs later claimed that it was understood that Palestine was included in the negotiations while McMahon argued that Palestine was purposely missing from the correspondence, and the fact that Palestine was not included in his pledge was well understood by Sherif Hussein.  

The conditions under which Britain made those promises were quite different from the present day situation. The balance of power in the world was dependant on the outcome of  World War I. The stakes were huge and the fact that the mention of Palestine may have been overlooked by both British and Arab representatives can be understood in grand skim of things.

The future of all of the entire Middle East was at stake. Palestine was only a very small part of it. In 1915 Jerusalem was a dusty provincial town and only the third most important city for Muslims. Mecca, Medina and the Arabian Peninsula, with its great oil reserves, were the grand price.  

Especially insignificant was the matter of Palestine to Americans. British diplomats consulted with Woodrow Wilson's government before publishing the Balfour Declaration. Americans initially advised against it, but then they reversed their position after Chaim Weitzman asked Louis Brandeis, the American Supreme Court Justice, to lobby for the declaration with the president’s advisers. At the end it was hardly discussed by the White House, and all president Wilson did was to write a note that he had no objections.

The American change of position convinced the British government that they were right in their assessment that Jews had a strong influence over the American decision making. Moreover when the rumor started circulating that Germans were planning to issue their own support for the Zionist cause, the British Government had very little choice but to go ahead and give the Balfour Declaration a green light. United States, France and Italy approved it, and when the League of Nations in 1922 ratified the British Mandate in Palestine it included the full text of the Balfour Declaration.  

Historians can dispute what motivated the British government to issue such a controversial document. Some argue that Britain was trying to get out of the Sykes-Picot agreements, others that it was a reward for Weitzman's contribution to the war, and of course there was an element of using the perceived influence of the World Jewry to their advantage. The answer probably is – all of the above. There were number of factors that had to be taken into consideration at the time when the future of many countries, and even the entire continents, was up in the air.  

The British government under the pressure from the Arab world subsequently issued a series of the White Papers, documents that made it clear that Britain was no longer supporting the creation of Jewish State in Palestine. In addition under the British Mandate strict quotas were enforced for Jewish immigration. But the Genie was out of the bottle. White paper or not, the idea of the homeland in Palestine was already engrained in the minds of many Jews.

The ever-rising European anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust accelerated the process of the Jewish exodus. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, many of them survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, went to Palestine despite the efforts of the British government to stop them from reaching the Holy Land. They had nowhere else to go.  

On November 29th 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of the partition of Palestine into autonomous Arab and Jewish states. The great powers realized that Jews must be allowed to have their own country where they can live and defend themselves against another Holocaust. That’s how the State of Israel was born.  

The seeds for the creation of the Jewish homeland were planted by Zionist leaders like Theodore Herzl and Chaim Weitzman, who foresaw the tragedy awaiting the European Jews but could not prevent it. Their efforts resulted in the Balfour Declaration, the first document in thousands of years that legitimized the Jewish claims for the statehood. But in the end the creation of the state of Israel was not due to their great efforts alone. It was also a result of centuries of hatred that found its biggest outlet during World War II, when the entire people were marked for extermination.

Sixty years after the defeat of the Nazism, Jews have their own country but still are fighting for their survival. But unlike the past, they are no longer the helpless victims. Israel is a viable democracy, with a powerful military and people who did not break down despite multiple wars and non-stop terrorist campaigns. How ironic that these are the traits that make it the most hated country in the world today.