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Trump and Balfour compared

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Much has already been written about the Trump Administration’s release of its long-awaited plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. I will not repeat the criticisms. Instead, I will focus on what I found to be the striking and disturbing parallels between this Trump “Deal of the Century” and last century’s infamous “Balfour Declaration.”

Though certainly longer and more pretentious than the “Declaration”, in many ways, the “Deal” reflects much the same intent and logic as its predecessor. There are also, of course, some significant differences.

One initial difference, of course, is that while Lord Balfour’s statement was just one rather complicated sentence of 67 words, President Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity: A vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” is over one hundred pages, including appendices of details, maps and charts. But here’s what they have in common. Both are examples of the extraordinary arrogance of imperial powers. Both are inherently racist, viewing one group of people as superior, with their rights as more important than those of another less favored group. And both were motivated by callous political considerations.

In the 20th century, the founders of the political Zionist movement realized they could not achieve their ambition of founding a national home for the Jewish people unless they had an imperial sponsor to support them. In succession, they courted the Ottoman Sultan, the German Kaiser, and even the Russian Czar. When it became clear that Great Britain would be a willing accomplice, they focused energy on winning its support.

The British needed little convincing since they understood the potential role Jewish colonization could play in securing their Middle East ambitions. And the British government was hopeful that by issuing the Declaration, they might win the support of influential Jewish leaders in the U.S. to support the Allied powers against the Central Powers in World War I.

In issuing his Declaration, Balfour pledged to support the creation of a Jewish “national home” that would help to secure their interests in the eastern Mediterranean region. In doing so, Balfour gave no consideration to the fact that the land he was promising wasn’t his to give. Great Britain was, after all, an imperial power and could whatever it wanted to do. He also demonstrated little or no regard for the rights of the inhabitants of that land. The Declaration did include a phrase saying “that nothing should be done which may prejudice the rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” but that was never intended to be taken seriously. When chided by then U.S. President Wilson, that the aspirations and rights of the inhabitants of Palestine should be considered, Balfour made his intentions clear, saying that “In Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the inhabitants of their wishes…Zionism…is of far greater importance…than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who inhabit that land.”

Imperial arrogance, racism and disregard for the rights of the Palestinians, and callous domestic politics – these were the elements that motivated Balfour. They are the same elements that can be seen to be behind Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” There is, however, in the Trump “Deal” an additional element that makes it even more disturbing than its predecessor – and that is its blatant disingenuousness.

In awarding to Israel huge swaths of the West Bank, including all of “East Jerusalem,” like Balfour, Trump “gives” away land that isn’t his to give – but then, the U.S., under Trump, sees itself as a law unto its own and can do whatever it pleases. In subordinating Palestinians rights to Israeli security concerns and placing onerous burdens on Palestinians, while placing none on the Israelis, Trump, like Balfour, is demonstrating that, in his mind, Israeli needs and their very humanity are of greater importance to him than those of the “Arabs who inhabit that ancient land.” And in timing the release of his plan to deflect from his trial in the U.S. Senate and inviting to its launch his most ardent Jewish and right-wing Christian Evangelical supporters, Trump was making clear that domestic politics were of utmost importance in his calculations.

What makes this “Deal” more disturbing than the “Declaration” is that it ignores the history and consequential developments of the last century – two devastating World Wars, the emergence of a body of international law and conventions that sought to learn the lessons of those wars and regulate the behavior of nations in times of war, and multiple Arab-Israeli wars that have taken the lives of tens of thousands, left millions as refugees, and created a deep well of bitterness among those who were expelled and those denied their legitimate rights under a cruel occupation. The Trump “Deal” pretends that it can brush all of this history aside, tear up this body of laws and conventions, and disregard the humanity of the victims of dispossession and loss of rights.

Most disturbing is that, like a real estate huckster, the “Deal” attempts to do all this with a trickster’s “sleight of hand,” saying  “it’s a great deal for the Palestinians, “theirs for the taking,” “a win-win,” “it’s their last chance,” and then cynically adding “if they don’t screw it up.” In this regard, the Trump “Deal” makes clear where it is ultimately different than Balfour’s Declaration. At least Balfour was honest about his disregard for the rights of the Palestinians.

I’d like to be high-minded and state that this “Deal” will never succeed. But I’ve learned my own hard lessons from history. An uncontested imperial power can flaunt international law and wreak havoc, leaving vulnerable people to pay the price for its arrogance and callousness. As it is, the embrace of Trump’s plan by the Israel right – and that includes both Netanyahu and his opposition – will embolden them to move aggressively to take advantage of this license they have been given to consolidate their hold over the Occupied Territories. The divided and visionless Palestinian leadership is in no position to mount an effective challenge either to Trump or Israel. And the equally divided Arab World and the ineffectual EU will complain but take no meaningful action as Israel moves to consolidate its hold on the Territories. What we have, finally, is a one-state reality – an Apartheid state – and with that, we enter a new period of struggle for equality and human rights.

Welcome to the world ushered in by the “Deal of the Century.” It is a world not unlike the one that confronted Arabs in Balfour’s World War I era -– the injustices it will bring forth and the struggle for justice it will give birth to will continue.

James Zogby

James Zogby tweets at @jjz1600 and is the author of Arab Voices and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.–based organization which serves as a political and policy research arm of the Arab-American community.

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5 Responses

  1. bcg on February 3, 2020, 1:34 pm

    From 2017 – “Balfour initiated a policy of British support for Israel which continues to this very day, to the detriment of the occupied Palestinians of the West Bank and the five million Palestinian refugees living largely in warrens of poverty around the Middle East, including Israeli-besieged Gaza. Surely we should apologise……”

  2. Misterioso on February 3, 2020, 3:45 pm

    A hurried comment:
    The Balfour Declaration was published on November 2, 1917. In response, on 24 May 1917, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association published a joint manifesto of protest in the London Times which described political Zionism as a threat to Judaism and prophetically predicted that “[it]…would involve them ‘in the bitterest feuds with their neighbours of other races and religions’ and would ‘find deplorable echoes throughout the Orient.’ Similar protests were heard…in France and Italy, but their governments too were now virtually committed to the Zionist cause.” (David Waines, The Unholy Land, op cit., p. 37).

    Opposition to the Declaration also came from the only Jewish member of the British Cabinet, Secretary of State for India, Sir Edwin Montagu. He feared that a declaration supporting a Jewish “national home” in Palestine would define Jews as a separate nation and threaten their position in other countries where they were established citizens by raising the question of “divided loyalties.”

    While Sir Montagu did not succeed in stopping the Balfour Declaration, he was largely responsible for the section safeguarding “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews” outside of Palestine.

    The Balfour Declaration was also opposed by Gertrude Bell, one of the era’s greatest Arabists, a colleague of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and a member of British intelligence in Cairo. Realizing what the Balfour Declaration could (and did) lead to, she wrote the British cabinet of PM Lloyd George advising it that “an independent Jewish Palestine” was impractical because “[Palestine]…is not Jewish;” the native population would not “accept Jewish authority…. Jerusalem is equally sacred to three faiths and should not be put under the exclusive control of any one….” (Sanders, The High Walls of Jerusalem, p. 585)

    In discussing the legal basis for the creation of Israel, the highly respected American lawyer and diplomat Sol Linowitz wrote: “…the [Balfour] Declaration was legally impotent. For Great Britain had no sovereign rights over Palestine; it had no proprietary interest; it had no authority to dispose of the land. The Declaration was merely a statement of British intentions and no more.” (Sol M. Linowitz, “Analysis of a Tinderbox: The Legal Basis for the State of Israel.” American Bar Association Journal XLlll l957, pp. 522-3)

    Even Chaim Weizmann knew the Declaration had no legal status: “The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was built on air.” (Mallison, “The Balfour Declaration,” in The transformation of Palestine: essays on the Origin and Development of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, ed. by Abu-Lughold; Northwestern University Press, 1971 p. 85)

    The Balfour Declaration was the first major achievement of Zionism and the second time in eighteen months the British betrayed the Arabs. Setting aside its abandoned promise in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence to support the independence of Palestine and the fact that the Palestinians had not been consulted, could Britain legally commit itself to support a “home” for Jews in a province of the Ottoman Empire? In fact, it had no such right. “The British government’s promise to use its ‘best endeavours’ to facilitate the Zionist project in Palestine amounted to a promise to give to the Zionists what England did not have, in violation of the established legal maxim Nemo dat quod non habet (nobody can give what he does not possess).” (Adel Safty, From Camp David to the Gulf p. 12)

    In discussing the legal basis for the creation of Israel, the highly respected American lawyer and diplomat Sol Linowitz wrote: “…the [Balfour] Declaration was legally impotent. For Great Britain had no sovereign rights over Palestine; it had no proprietary interest; it had no authority to dispose of the land. The Declaration was merely a statement of British intentions and no more.” (Sol M. Linowitz, “Analysis of a Tinderbox: The Legal Basis for the State of Israel.” American Bar Association Journal XLlll l957, pp.522-3)

    Importantly, although the Allies managed to have the Balfour Declaration mentioned after World War 1 in the aborted Treaty of Sevres, there is no mention of it in the final treaty that was signed with the Turks at Lausanne on July 24, 1923. This is important in international law because Turkey did not agree to the idea of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine when it surrendered sovereignty to Britain.

    Britain decided to send a delegation led by Weizmann to meet with the Arabs to allay their concerns regarding the Balfour Declaration and Zionist designs on Palestine. In June 1918, he visited Sherif Hussein’s son, Prince Faisal near Aqaba and deceitfully assured him that Arab suspicions were caused by either a “fundamental misconception of Zionist aims or the malicious activities of our common enemies.” (Lilienthal, The Zionist Connection, p. 19.)

    Weizmann lied further when he assured the prince and Palestinian notables whom he met later, that Zionists were not striving to establish a Jewish government in Palestine (ibid) or “to get hold of the supreme power and administration there.” (Ingrams, Palestine Papers, quoted by Smith, PATAIC, p. 59)

    This was the Zionist leader’s first trip to Palestine and he was not prepared for what he encountered. Having previously observed that according to the British, “there are a few hundred thousand negroes [in Palestine], but that is a matter of no significance, …” (Norman Finkelstein, “History’s Verdict”, J of PS #96, Vol. XXIV, summer 1995, p. 33) Weizmann was so overwhelmed by the size and stability of the native population that he feared Arab protests might convince Britain to have second thoughts about the Balfour Declaration.

    Weizman’s racism overflowed while opining to Arthur Ruppin on the Palestinian “Negro Problem”: “…a comment by [Chaim] Weizmann to Arthur Ruppin, head of the colonisation department of the Jewish Agency, is particularly revealing. When asked by Ruppin about the Palestinian Arabs and how he (Weizmann) obtained the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Weizmann replied: ‘The British told us that there are some hundred thousand negroes [kushim or schwartzes in Hebrew] and for those there is no value’ ([Yosef] Heller[, Bama’vak Lemedinah, Hamediniyut Hatzionit Bashanim 1936–1948 (The Struggle for the State: The Zionist Policy 1936–1948) (Jerusalem:] 1984:[), p.] 140).” (from page 5 of 60 years after the Nakba by Dr Nur Masalha”

    On 16 June 1918, to further assuage the Arabs, Britain issued the British Declaration to the Seven. It confirmed that as previously announced in Baghdad and Jerusalem, “…the future government…should be based upon the principle of the consent of the governed. This policy will always be that of His Majesty’s Government.” (Sami Hadawi, op cit. p. 14.)

    Most significant to the Arabs were what proved to be impotent public pledges made by President Wilson. On 18 January 1918, he set forth his famous fourteen points of which number twelve stated that once the war was over, “…[those] nationalities that are [presently] under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development…” (Hadawi, op cit. p.10.)

    Needless to say, ultimately the Arabs were betrayed by Britain and with the assistance primarily of the U.S., Jewish Zionists of foreign origin eventually gained control of Palestine and violently dispossessed and expelled about 1,250,000 indigenous Arab inhabitants between late 1947 and 1967.

    • Blake on February 5, 2020, 2:47 pm

      Yes and since then BoD has been vehemently zionist.

      Thanks for all that information. Much appreciated.

  3. just on February 4, 2020, 6:48 pm

    “In awarding to Israel huge swaths of the West Bank, including all of “East Jerusalem,” like Balfour, Trump “gives” away land that isn’t his to give – but then, the U.S., under Trump, sees itself as a law unto its own and can do whatever it pleases. ”

    Thank you for addressing this, James!!! I asked this question on Kate’s thread @ ( just the other day and got no answer. I ask it every single day in my heart and mind. I think that you hit the nail on the head with this great column. Many thanks to you for all of your dedication and work for justice, accountability, and freedom. Nobody ever seems to accuse the US of crimes against humanity nor violations of international law… that needs to stop many moons ago and failing that, tomorrow. That is my fervent wish.

  4. Blake on February 5, 2020, 2:45 pm

    Both drafted by the zionists.

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