Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the League of nations carved up the Middle East into roughly the territories we see today. Conventional wisdom has it that the British, having been allotted the area we now call Jordan and Palestine, failed to properly establish a Jewish State and therefore left us with disputed territory. The argument stands or falls on whether or not Britain, the Mandatory power, was indeed empowered or under instruction to create a Jewish State under the League of Nations Declaration, known as The Palestine Mandate published in 1922. Many have argued the point but few have examined the document. The complete text is here:
In the preamble, the document cites the Balfour Declaration of 1917. This was a letter written by Lord Balfour, then British Foreign Secretary, to Lord Rothschild:
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 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".
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
There is an informative discussion of the origin of this document here:
...and it’s consequences here:
Opinion as to whether the Balfour Declaration envisaged the establishment of a Jewish State is divided. One could argue however, that the answer is contained within the text. It would seem that such a State would not be feasible without prejudicing “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Whatever Balfour's intentions may have been, a greater power held sway in that Britain's power to rule Palestine was conferred by the League of Nations, so it is to The Palestine Mandate we must turn.
It has been maintained that the proper interpretation of the following clauses in the document entail the establishment of a Jewish State.
The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home, as laid down in the preamble, and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.
An appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognised as a public body for the purpose of advising and co-operating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine, and, subject always to the control of the Administration to assist and take part in the development of the country.
The Zionist organization, so long as its organization and constitution are in the opinion of the Mandatory appropriate, shall be recognised as such agency. It shall take steps in consultation with His Britannic Majesty's Government to secure the co-operation of all Jews who are willing to assist in the establishment of the Jewish national home.
The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.
The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine.
The Administration of Palestine shall take all necessary measures to safeguard the interests of the community in connection with the development of the country, and, subject to any international obligations accepted by the Mandatory, shall have full power to provide for public ownership or control of any of the natural resources of the country or of the public works, services and utilities established or to be established therein. It shall introduce a land system appropriate to the needs of the country, having regard, among other things, to the desirability of promoting the close settlement and intensive cultivation of the land.
The Administration may arrange with the Jewish agency mentioned in Article 4 to construct or operate, upon fair and equitable terms, any public works, services and utilities, and to develop any of the natural resources of the country, in so far as these matters are not directly undertaken by the Administration. Any such arrangements shall provide that no profits distributed by such agency, directly or indirectly, shall exceed a reasonable rate of interest on the capital, and any further profits shall be utilised by it for the benefit of the country in a manner approved by the Administration.
English, Arabic and Hebrew shall be the official languages of Palestine. Any statement or inscription in Arabic on stamps or money in Palestine shall be repeated in Hebrew and any statement or inscription in Hebrew shall be repeated in Arabic.
The alternative view is that they contain simply the directive to allow Jews to assimilate into a plural democracy. This contrary opinion relies on the following clauses for support:
The Mandatory shall, so far as circumstances permit, encourage local autonomy.
The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that the judicial system established in Palestine shall assure to foreigners, as well as to natives, a complete guarantee of their rights.
Respect for the personal status of the various peoples and communities and for their religious interests shall be fully guaranteed. In particular, the control and administration of Wakfs* shall be exercised in accordance with religious law and the dispositions of the founders.
All responsibility in connection with the Holy Places and religious buildings or sites in Palestine, including that of preserving existing rights and of securing free access to the Holy Places, religious buildings and sites and the free exercise of worship, while ensuring the requirements of public order and decorum, is assumed by the Mandatory, who shall be responsible solely to the League of Nations in all matters connected herewith, provided that nothing in this article shall prevent the Mandatory from entering into such arrangements as he may deem reasonable with the Administration for the purpose of carrying the provisions of this article into effect; and provided also that nothing in this mandate shall be construed as conferring upon the Mandatory authority to interfere with the fabric or the management of purely Moslem sacred shrines, the immunities of which are guaranteed.
It has always seemed to me that the British were handed a poisoned chalice and I have long sympathized with them in that they strove heartily to achieve a fair and reasonable resolution to the conflict that erupted between the Zionists and the indigenous people. Israelis tend to blame the British for frustrating their ambitions for a Jewish State, Palestinians blame Britain for giving away their birthright. Israelis considered Britain pro-Arab despite the appointment of Herbert Samuel, a Jew and Zionist sympathizer as High Commissioner, a post he held until 1925. Palestinians considered Britain pro Zionist for the same reason despite Samuel’s attempts at even-handedness.
In my opinion, a Jewish State was never the intention of the League of Nations and I am persuaded by the following.
A British White Paper published a month before the League’s Declaration states:
Unauthorized statements have been made to the effect that the purpose in view is to create a wholly Jewish Palestine. Phrases have been used such as that Palestine is to become "as Jewish as England is English." His Majesty's Government regard any such expectation as impracticable and have no such aim in view. Nor have they at any time contemplated, as appears to be feared by the Arab delegation, the disappearance or the subordination of the Arabic population, language, or culture in Palestine. They would draw attention to the fact that the terms of the Declaration referred to do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded `in Palestine.' In this connection it has been observed with satisfaction that at a meeting of the Zionist Congress, the supreme governing body of the Zionist Organization, held at Carlsbad in September, 1921, a resolution was passed expressing as the official statement of Zionist aims "the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of unity and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community, the upbuilding of which may assure to each of its peoples an undisturbed national development.
It is also necessary to point out that the Zionist Commission in Palestine, now termed the Palestine Zionist Executive, has not desired to possess, and does not possess, any share in the general administration of the country. Nor does the special position assigned to the Zionist Organization in Article IV of the Draft Mandate for Palestine imply any such functions. That special position relates to the measures to be taken in Palestine affecting the Jewish population, and contemplates that the organization may assist in the general development of the country, but does not entitle it to share in any degree in its government.
The aspirations of the Zionist Council for a Jewish State were very well known, as was the overwhelming opposition of the local residents. This was spelled out by the King Crane Commission, an Official United States Government Report sponsored by President Wilson in 1919:
It is therefore reasonable to assume that, if the League of Nations had been intent on a Jewish State, the document produced by them would have spelled it out in unequivocal language.
In every document related to this matter, the civil rights of the Arab population are stressed. It would seem to me impossible to impose rule by a minority (Jews consisted of approximately 10% of the population) without abrogating those rights.
It is not my intention to chronicle the events subsequent to the Declaration of the British Mandate. Suffice it to say that the Brits saw their task as supervising the orderly immigration and assimilation of Jews into a multi-cultural state which they were charged with guiding towards self-determination. This became an ever more onerous task and eventually, in 1948, following Ben Gurion’s unilateral declaration of a Jewish State, open hostilities broke out.
*Wakfs are Muslim trusts set up to administer a wide range of public facilities such as hospitals but also including local bodies to administer villages and even cities.