The Balfour declaration and Resolution 242

The documents provide a window into contrasting perspectives of the Arab-Israeli conflict and highlight the importance of the dual narrative.

Lord Balfour declares the Hebrew University of Jerusalem open in painting by Leopold Pilichowski (photo credit: COURTESY HEBREW UNIVERSITY)
Lord Balfour declares the Hebrew University of Jerusalem open in painting by Leopold Pilichowski
his November marks the 100th and 50th anniversaries of two seminal documents of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Balfour Declaration was issued on November 2, 1917. Fifty years later, on November 22, 1967, the United Nations delivered Resolution 242.
Neither is very long - the former is 128 words and the latter 291 - yet their impact on the conflict has been far-reaching. The Balfour Declaration set rolling the diplomatic ball that would lead to the partition of Palestine through UN Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947, and to the subsequent creation of the modern State of Israel in May 1948.
Resolution 242 is the basis for the Egyptian-Israeli (1979) and the Jordanian-Israeli (1994) peace treaties, as well as the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli talks since Oslo (1993).
The two documents provide a way of viewing the conflict through a dual-narrative approach. As in Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, the dual-narrative technique presents multiple narratives and understandings of the same events.
It is essential that Israelis and Palestinians – as well as organizations and governments from outside the region working to mitigate and resolve the conflict – better understand the two narratives.
Narratives are one of the anchors that help us ground our lives and infuse them with purpose. It is understandable when we are confronted with an opposing narrative we may put up resistance. Therein lies the power of the dual narrative, it challenges how we contextualize our lives.
The Balfour Declaration and the Israeli narrative The justification of the Balfour Declaration from the Israeli perspective begins with the Bible, understood here not necessarily as a divinely given document, but rather as the earliest and oldest account of the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
The word “Jewish” conveys an identity beyond religion qua religion; as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan explains, Judaism means an “evolving religious civilization.”
Religion is at the core of Jewish identity, but it is more than a religion – it is a civilization, a nation, a people of politics, law, art, literature, language, etc.
For more than 1,000 years from the reign of King Saul (1,000 BCE) through the defeat of the Bar-Kochba revolt by the Romans in 135 CE, the Jewish people lived in the Land of Israel both as an independent nation governed by a monarchy and occupied by different empires.
Throughout that period, the Temple built in Jerusalem by King Solomon in the 10th century BCE, and the second Temple destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, served as the central place of worship for the Jewish people.
After the Roman conquest, the Jewish people should have disappeared. In Hebrew Humanism (1942), Zionist thinker Martin Buber speculated on how the Jewish people were able to survive.
“By opposing Hebrew humanism to a nationalism, which is nothing but empty self-assertion, I wish to indicate that, at this juncture, the Zionist movement must decide either for national egoism or national humanism… Israel is not a nation like other nations, no matter how much its representatives have wished it during certain eras. Israel is a people like no other, for it is the only people in the world which, from its earliest beginnings, has been both a nation and a religious community...
“Israel was and is a people and a religious community, and it is this unity that enabled it to survive in an exile no other nation had to suffer, an exile that lasted much longer than the period of its independence.”
That combination of being a nation and a religion, as Buber describes it, became the key to Jewish survival during 2,000 years of exile and the reestablishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
Synagogues around the world face Jerusalem and the only reason it makes sense to talk about the planting of trees in the heart of winter in Montreal or Moscow, during Tu Bishvat, is to maintain a connection to the Land of Israel no matter where you are.
In the 1980s, the Dalai Lama, realizing the Tibetan exile would go on, approached rabbis and Jewish educators to learn how Jews had survived their exile. He was told that maintaining a connection to the land was essential for Tibetan identity to survive.
In essence, the rabbis took the idea of a national identity and turned the Jewish religion into its carrier. What led to the germination of that seed at the end of the 19th century? At the end of the 18th century, the American and French revolutions and their ideas of liberté, égalité, et fraternité became the political guide for the West. The modern idea of the nation-state began to emerge and the question arose of what right the Jews, as a minority, had within different nations.
That question was answered in Western Europe where political and economic rights were extended to Jews.
Jews, who for centuries lived in among Arabs, Turks and Iranians, fared better for the most part than their Jewish siblings in Europe, though the idea of Jews being forced to wear markings on their clothing originated in Islam in the early 8th century.
Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, anti-Jewish violence flared in the Arab countries and Iran; more than 800,000 Jews were expelled or left those countries, the majority to Israel.
In 19th-century Western Europe, Jews were no longer confined to ghettos and certain professions, but there was a price, a quid pro quo: Jews, you can join us, but don’t be too Jewish. Jews understood the bargain and many began to change their clothes, what they ate, how they worshiped. Their synagogues also began to look and sound more like churches.
That inherent tension could last only so long. The end of the 19th century saw a new wave of anti-Jewish activities return with violent and deadly pogroms in Eastern Europe and anti-Jewish beliefs in Western Europe.
In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew, was charged with spying for Germany. His trial became a cause célèbre across Europe. Emile Zola published the open letter “J’accuse” in which he accused the French authorities of knowingly arresting Dreyfus on fabricated evidence, what Zola called a “treason against humanity.”
Following the trial, Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl came to the conclusion that since Europeans had been creating nation-states, combined with the resurgence of anti-Jewish activities, it was time to germinate the seed of the Jewish nation again.
In 1895 Herzl wrote The Jewish State, and the First Zionist Congress was held two years later. For the Zionist movement, their activities heralded a long-overdue homecoming.
Decades later, with World War I raging, the British and Germans looked for leverage to help with their respective war efforts.
Both reached out to Zionists with the false belief that Jews had great influence in the United States. The Germans hoped Jews of America could keep Americans out of the war, while the British hoped they would get Americans into the war. That influence simply wasn’t there.
The British also thought Zionists could help keep Russia in the war, since so many Bolsheviks were Jewish. It was a complete misreading of the party. Communists were not interested in a new country being created; their goal was to see the “workers of the world unite.” The British, fearful of what the Germans might offer the Zionists, issued the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, favoring “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The Balfour Declaration and the Palestinian narrative
If the Israeli narrative can be summed up as a homecoming, then the Palestinian narrative can be summed up as an invasion. Those vastly different experiences greatly cloud how each side perceives itself and understands the other.
Homecoming versus invasion
Homecoming is something someone does; invasion is something that happens to you. Follow the line of thought on any issue related to the conflict and it will most likely end at these two perspectives.
For the Palestinians, the Balfour Declaration was the latest attempt by Europeans to control the Middle East. In 1799, after Napoleon laid siege to Acre, he issued a call for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
In 1800, he declared, “If I governed a nation of Jews, I should reestablish the Temple of Solomon.” For the next 150 years, the British and the French would be frenemies when it came to Palestine, with their own imperial interests and conflicting promises made to Zionists and Palestinians.
In 1840, British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston wrote it was advisable “to hold out every just encouragement to the Jews of Europe to return to Palestine.”
In 1880, in his book The Land of Gilead, former British MP Laurence Oliphant called for Jews to return to Palestine. He suggested that the local Arab population be placed on reservations in the same way Native Americans had been in North America.
“The same system,” he wrote, “might be pursued that we have adopted with success in Canada with our North American Indian tribes, who are confined to their ‘reserves,’ and live peacefully upon them in the midst of the settled agricultural population.”
In 1907, British prime minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman submitted a report to the British government that read: “There are people [the Arabs] who control spacious territories teeming with manifest and hidden resources… if, perchance, this nation were to be unified into one state, it would then take the fate of the world into its hands and would separate Europe from the rest of the world. Taking these considerations seriously, a foreign body should be planted in the heart of this nation...It could also serve as a springboard for the West to gain its coveted objects.”
Through the Balfour Declaration, the Zionists were more than happy to be that “foreign” body.
In 1915, Sir Henry McMahon met with Sherif Hussein of Mecca, promising, in exchange for helping the British push the Ottomans out of the Middle East, those lands would be given back to the Arab peoples. Arabs clearly believed that included Palestine. The British said otherwise and two years later issued the Balfour Declaration showing their alliance with the Zionists.
To compound matters further, in 1916 the French and British secretly agreed on how they would divide the Ottoman Empire after the War in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
This, too, ran counter to the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. Because for 2,000 years, including the formative years of Islam, Judaism presented itself as a religion with its national identity less visible, there was a perception that being Jewish was only about belonging to a religion. This would lead to Arab opposition of Zionism, saying a religion was not entitled to a country.
While the clash of this conflict is between two nations, it has taken on an increased religious narrative by both sides in recent decades. Those narratives range from exclusive positions saying only their group has a right to the land, to inclusive positions that are more motivated by values of peace and the interconnectedness of humanity.
One of the most irritating aspects of the Balfour Declaration in the Arab narrative is that the point of reference in the document is not the local Arab population but the Jews, who for the most part had just arrived. The local Arab population is referred to as the “existing non-Jewish communities,” implying the Arabs are a minority, when at that time they were the great majority of inhabitants and landowners in Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration was largely motivated by the latest long chapter of anti-Jewish activities in Europe. For the Arabs, that was a problem for Europe to address in Europe and not address their anti-Jewish sentiments by supporting Zionism as a cover to colonize Arab land with Jews. In addition, who were the British to give away a land that was not theirs – and much less a land they had not even conquered yet? The defeat of the Ottomans in Palestine with the fall of Jerusalem to General Allenby did not take place until five weeks later, on December 11. From the perspective of the Arabs, the Balfour Declaration was the latest unjust, illegal and illegitimate colonial activity.
The 50 years from 1917 to 1967 The decades of the British Mandate were characterized by numerous periods of violence. Between 1919 and 1939 some 370,000 Jews moved to Palestine, increasing greatly with the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933.
 IDF Soldiers arrive at the Temple Mount during the Six Day War in June of 1967. A few months later, the Arab League met, declaring, ‘No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.’ IDF Soldiers arrive at the Temple Mount during the Six Day War in June of 1967. A few months later, the Arab League met, declaring, ‘No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.’
As a reaction to violence, the British began to place restrictions on Zionist activities, but then backtracked. This pattern increased the hostility of Jews and Arabs to the British. In 1937, the Peel Commission, in response to the violence, advocated partition, the first attempt at a two-state solution. The Zionists, though not unified, supported the plan. Most Arabs opposed it, but quietly there were those who supported it. In the end the plan went nowhere.
In 1939, concluding that the partition plan was unattainable, the British issued a White Paper calling for an independent binational state to be established by 1949.
The paper stated that from 1939 to 1944, 75,000 Jews would be allowed to immigrate to Palestine and after that, only with consent from the Arabs. Jewish land purchases were also restricted. World War II would break out that year and the Shoah, the extermination of six million Jews would last until 1945.
In response to that catastrophe, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in 1947 and the State of Israel was declared in May 1948. Israel was attacked first by the local Palestinian population and later by seven Arab countries. At the end of the fighting in March 1949, Israel had increased its territory beyond the partition plan and some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees, either by fleeing the fighting or being expelled by Israeli forces.
At the end of the fighting, no Jews remained or were allowed to remain in areas controlled by Arab armies. In many ways it was a war with both sides fighting for keeps. The Israelis called the war, Milhemet Ha’Atzma’ut (The War of Independence) while the Arabs called it the Nakba (Catastrophe).
In the decades that followed, tension existed with various levels of violence, ranging from Fedayeen attacks on Israel from neighboring Arab countries, to war. In 1951, King Abdullah I of Jordan, while visiting al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem, was assassinated because of his support for peace with Israel. The life of Prince Hussein, Abdullah’s grandson, was saved in the assassination attempt when a bullet was deflected by a medal that his grandfather had pinned to his chest. Prince Hussein, would become king the following year, succeeding his father, King Talal. In 1994, Hussein would sign a peace treaty with Israel.
In light of the ongoing Fedayeen attacks and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, war broke out in 1956. It was known as the “Suez Crisis,” the “Sinai War” in Israel, and as the “Tripartite Aggression” in the Arab world, as Israel, France and Great Britain joined forces to attack Egypt. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in Jerusalem.
In the mid 1960s, tensions grew between Syria and Israel over water. This led to an alliance between Syria and Egypt. Falsely informed by the Soviet Union that an Israeli invasion of Syria was imminent, Egypt mobilized troops, demanded the UN peacekeepers leave the Sinai Peninsula and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
The Six Day War began on June 5 with Israel preempting an attack by Syria and Egypt.
Israel told Jordan, which had occupied the West Bank since 1949, that Israel had no interest in war with Jordan. Hussein, who was given false reports of Egyptian success, attacked Israel. In response, Israel captured the West Bank and some 250,000 new Palestinian refugees were created.
Israel also captured the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. In September the Arab League met, declaring, “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” On November 22, the United Nations passed Resolution 242.
Resolution 242 and the Palestinian narrative
The Balfour Declaration referred to local Arabs as the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine” whereas, in Resolution 242, they were referred to as “the refugee problem.”
For Palestinians, this was another example of their non-identification by outside parties. With no representation at the UN, they were not able to partake in any of the deliberations.
In 1974, the PLO was granted “observer status” and in 2015 Palestine was recognized as a state by the UN. In calling for the “end of belligerency” Resolution 242 acknowledged the “sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area.” Since Palestine was not recognized as a state at that point the Resolution bypassed Palestinian aspirations.
In the 1960s, Palestinian identity was transitioning from a localized identity to a national identity. In the early stages of Palestinian opposition to Zionism, Palestinians saw themselves not as a separate nation but rather a part of Greater Syria. At the first Palestine Arab Congress held in Jerusalem in 1919, in addition to asking that the Balfour Declaration be rescinded, they called for Palestine to be included as “an integral part of... the independent Arab Government of Syria.”
As decades passed, a Palestinian national identity surfaced and strengthened in opposition to Zionism.
One of the bones of contention between Israel and the Arab world over the UN Resolution was the order of events when it came to establishing “a just and lasting peace.” The resolution lists withdrawal from territories first to be followed by “termination of all claims or states of belligerency” and the “right to live in peace with secure and recognized boundaries.” The Arab world insisted on this order while Israel said it would only follow the opposite order. When it came to the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties, modalities addressing both simultaneously were created. In 1988, the PLO accepted Resolution 242.
Another area of disagreement came from the wording when it came to discussing withdrawal from territories captured by the Israelis in the Six Day War. The resolution reads, “Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The American diplomat Eugene Rostow who penned the resolution specifically left the definite article, “the,” out of the sentence so it did not read withdrawal from “the territories,” leaving room for border adjustments. The Arab world objected to this, noting the French version had the definite article, les. While the definite article is used in the French version, it is there solely for grammatical reasons. At the UN, when there is a disagreement over texts, the text a resolution was drafted in becomes the version that is binding – in this case the English version without the definite pronoun.
Palestinian and Israeli women march, as part of an event organised by "Women Wage Peace" group calling for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, near the Jordan River, in the West Bank October 8, 2017.Palestinian and Israeli women march, as part of an event organised by "Women Wage Peace" group calling for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, near the Jordan River, in the West Bank October 8, 2017.
Resolution 242 and the Israeli narrative
In contrast to the “Three No’s” of Khartoum, the Israelis were pleased that the resolution implied the neighboring Arab states needed to engage with Israel in negotiations and eventual peace and recognition. The Israelis also read the line, “a just settlement of the refugee problem,” as referring not only to the Palestinian refugees but also to the Jewish refugees from Arab lands.
The Israelis agreed with the English version of the resolution that allowed for flexibility in creating permanent borders, as well as the need for withdrawal from territories and the end of belligerency to happen at the same time.
Israelis need to understand how their endeavor can legitimately be seen by Palestinians as an invasion, while Palestinians need to understand Zionism is based on an authentic connection the Jewish people have to the land.
In “A Future for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Building,” his study of Israeli-Palestinian NGOs, such as the Arava Institute, Ned Lazarus highlights the positive impact of projects that include the sharing of narratives have on participants. Referencing a USAID Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation report, Lazarus found that 80% of participants reported greater willingness to work for peace; 77% reported increased belief in the possibility of reconciliation; 71% improved trust and empathy for the other in such dialogue groups. This underscores the invaluable role the dual narrative can play in this conflict.
An acknowledgment by Israelis of the Palestinian narrative will not lessen the validity of their cause, and a recognition by Palestinians of the Israeli narrative will not take away from their national aspirations. Rather, mutual acknowledgments can open doors to new perceptions and opportunities. By acknowledging the profoundly different narratives, the parties can discover a different way to go forward.
The phrase, “I hear you,” means more than an audio encounter has taken place. It means, “I recognize and understand who you are.”
The belief of Israelis and Palestinians that the other really doesn’t understand who they are causes a chasm of distrust. Trust can be built with someone you feel grasps who you are; if you trust someone you can still disagree with them and find ways to advance. The 100+ organizations of the Alliance for Middle East Peace model this.
The dual-narrative approach is not binary. It implies two sides, but that does not mean they are monolithic. Not all Palestinians think one way, nor do all Israelis, Zionists, Jordanians, Muslims, Jews, etc. Within each group there is a spectrum of viewpoints. While the dual narrative is a tool toward greater understanding, the nuance of a range of perspectives should never be lost.
For decades, peace initiatives have focused on the core issues of the conflict: borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem. While core, not much is left to negotiate with regard to those issues. In many ways, what is preventing an agreement from being reached are the issues under the table, including fear, mistrust, cultural differences and acknowledgment of the other.
The dual-narrative approach can create an innovative dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians that can address those critical interpersonal issues. Until they are addressed and scaled up with more participants, both in formal negotiations and in encounters between Israelis and Palestinians, any agreement will be much harder to reach.
Perhaps Imam Al-Shafi’i, a Muslim jurist from the Islamic Golden Age, said it best: “Never do I argue with a man with a desire to hear him say what is wrong, or to expose him and win victory over him. Whenever I face an opponent in debate, I silently pray – O Lord, help him so that truth may flow from his heart and on his tongue, and so that if truth is on my side, he may follow me; and if truth be on his side, I may follow him.”
The writer teaches Conflict Resolution at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action of Bennington College.