Palestine "was given by those who did not own it to those who did not deserve it," declared Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki in July while announcing the Palestinian Authority's intention to sue the British government for the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
As the years between 1897 to 1948 have long faded into distant memory, a popular myth that Israel was created by global and colonial powers against the will of the region has gained traction in certain quarters.
Yet history shows that Israel was created overwhelmingly against the will of these major powers. When not opposing the creation of Israel, these powers were often indifferent to the Jewish cause or at best vaguely tolerant when it seemed inevitable.
Consider the convocation of the First Zionist Congress by Theodore Herzl in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. At the congress there was no real involvement of international powers. Before his death in 1904, Herzl met key leaders in Germany, England, Ottoman Turkey and the Vatican. While achieving some legitimacy for the movement, he failed to make any deals with them. With only 50,000 mostly religious and poor Jews in Palestine in 1900, creating a future state seemed hopeless.
History shows that Israel was created overwhelmingly against the will of colonial powers.
Things got worse during World War I when Ottoman Turkey, after the 1915 Armenian genocide, turned its attention to the 80,000 Jews in Palestine. Ten thousand Jews (including David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi) were exiled to Egypt, and plans were made for destroying the rest of the community. This was stopped only due to the intervention of Germany and the United States, one of the few clear cases of helpful foreign intervention. The 1917 British Balfour Declaration of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was matched by other British promises of Arab sovereignty in the same area.
In World War II, the German Holocaust that killed six million European Jews who were expected to form the majority of the future Israeli state was a devastating blow to Jewish hopes for a country. As Chaim Weizmann wrote to David Ben-Gurion during the war, "Heretofore we were a people in search of a nation; after this is over we will be a nation in search of a people."
The refusal of the British colonial masters of Palestine to allow more than a handful of Jews (75,000 Jews from 1939–1944 and none thereafter) into Palestine while millions were eager to emigrate there was matched by the 1939 British declaration that it supported an Arab state in Palestine. The future superpower, the United States, was unwilling to accept more than a modicum of European Jews before 1941.
Captured members of the Jewish underground Irgun at British-run Acre prison, 1946. Standing, from right: Yoav Levi, Yosef Morak, Yerachmiel Rom, Shimon Amrani, Matityahu Shmuelevitz. Seated, from right: Haim Brenner (Gershon Gradovsky), Peleg Tamir, Menahem Shiff.
Then, during the 1945-1948 period, England sent 80,000 troops to Palestine to put down any Jewish moves to create a state. In the November 1947, United Nations vote (33-13) for a Jewish state and Arab state in Palestine, the British refused to support the resolution. The winning votes were provided by a bloc that could never be considered a Western colonial power—the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies.
During the Israeli War of Independence, England sold weapons to Israel's enemies (Iraq and Jordan) and the commander of the Jordanian Legion was the British commander, Sir John Glubb Pasha. In 1948, the United States, while asserting its support for a Jewish state, declared that it would ban any arms shipments to Israel. When British soldiers began to leave Palestine in 1948, they mostly handed over valuable fortifications and defensible positions to the Arabs. The Israelis, who had never fielded an army, now faced the intervention of five Arab states in 1948. Even Yigael Yadin, the acting chief of staff, gave the Israelis at best a 50/50 chance of surviving the Arab invasions.
In the early days of the war, the Israelis were on the defensive and things looked grim. Once again the Soviet Union, influenced by a desire to destroy British domination in the Middle East and hope that a socialist Israel would be a strong ally of Moscow, intervened by selling heavier weapons to Israel—and Syria. David Ben-Gurion has asserted that without Soviet military aid the Israelis would not have won the 1948 war.
Thus, the notion that colonial and great powers were the main force behind the creation of Israel is not supported by history. It was precisely the great powers and colonial powers who made the Jewish path to the creation of Israel so very difficult and even at times a seemingly hopeless task.
Palestinian leaders rewrite history to justify their failure to build a state.
Yet this is the "history" that Arab-Palestinians continue to teach younger generations. Case in point, at a recent meeting in Mauritania, the Palestinian Authority's Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told Arab League leaders that London is to blame for all "Israeli crimes" committed since the end of the British mandate in 1948.
When British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour signed the Balfour Declaration in 1917, it was seen by the Arabs as giving the Zionist movement official recognition on the eve of the British conquest of Ottoman Turkish Palestine. The decision, al-Malki said, "gave people who don't belong there something that wasn't theirs." Consequently, the PA now wants to sue to British for committing this cardinal sin.
Once again, we are exposed to the rewriting of history to justify why the Palestinians have yet to be able to build a state as the Jews did against great odds.
Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). Asaf Romirowsky is the executive director of SPME and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.