1917--Balfour Declaration and birth of a nation

A picture of Scottish statesman Arthur Balfour. - (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Scottish statesman Arthur Balfour (1848-1930). In July 1902, Balfour became Prime Minister, resigning in 1905 but returning in 1916 to serve as Foreign Secretary. He also represented Britain in the first assembly of the League of Nations. (circa 1910).  (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
The Balfour Declaration was a November 2, 1917 letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild that made public the British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration led the League of Nations to entrust the United Kingdom with the Palestine Mandate in 1922.

A Little Background

The Balfour Declaration was a product of years of careful negotiation. After centuries of living in a diaspora, the 1894 Dreyfus Affair in France shocked Jews into realizing they would not be safe from arbitrary antisemitism unless they had their own country.
In response, Jews created the new concept of political Zionism in which it was believed that through active political maneuvering, a Jewish homeland could be created. Zionism was becoming a popular concept by the time World War I began.

A Little Background

The Balfour Declaration was a product of years of careful negotiation. After centuries of living in a diaspora, the 1894 Dreyfus Affair in France shocked Jews into realizing they would not be safe from arbitrary antisemitism unless they had their own country.
In response, Jews created the new concept of political Zionism in which it was believed that through active political maneuvering, a Jewish homeland could be created. Zionism was becoming a popular concept by the time World War I began.

World War I and Chaim Weizmann

During World War I, Great Britain needed help. Since Germany (Britain's enemy during WWI) had cornered the production of acetone -- an important ingredient for arms production -- Great Britain may have lost the war if Chaim Weizmann had not invented a fermentation process that allowed the British to manufacture their own liquid acetone.
It was this fermentation process that brought Weizmann to the attention of David Lloyd George (minister of ammunitions) and Arthur James Balfour (previously the British prime minister but at this time the first lord of the admiralty). Chaim Weizmann was not just a scientist; he was also the leader of the Zionist movement.


Weizmann's contact with Lloyd George and Balfour continued, even after Lloyd George became prime minister and Balfour was transferred to the Foreign Office in 1916. Additional Zionist leaders such as Nahum Sokolow also pressured Great Britain to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Alhough Balfour, himself, was in favor of a Jewish state, Great Britain particularly favored the declaration as an act of policy. Britain wanted the United States to join World War Iand the British hoped that by supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine, world Jewry would be able to sway the U.S. to join the war.

Announcing the Balfour Declaration

Though the Balfour Declaration went through several drafts, the final version was issued on November 2, 1917, in a letter from Balfour to Lord Rothschild, president of the British Zionist Federation. The main body of the letter quoted the decision of the October 31, 1917 British Cabinet meeting.
This declaration was accepted by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922 and embodied in the mandate that gave Great Britain temporary administrative control of Palestine.

The White Paper

In 1939, Great Britain reneged on the Balfour Declaration by issuing the White Paper, which stated that creating a Jewish state was no longer a British policy. It was also Great Britain's change in policy toward Palestine, especially the White Paper, that prevented millions of European Jews to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration (it its entirety)

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 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.
Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

 - Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force
An M-60 tank rolls from the belly of a C-5 jet transport during Operation Nickel Grass, the U.S. airlift to help Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

October always signals the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Since 1973 it has also marked the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War -- sometimes known as the October War -- between Israel and Arab states. The United States became heavily involved in ending the war, and it marked the first time the U.S. carried out "shuttle diplomacy" to forward its foreign policy goals.

Israeli-Arab Conflict

Israel proclaimed its independence in 1948. The United Nations formed it out of the old British mandated region of the Trans-Jordan area in the Middle East. Jews had long pressed for a Jewish state in the Middle East with its capital in Jerusalem. The Nazi mass murder of Jews in World War II furthered western calls for a Jewish state.
As soon as Israel declared itself a state, Arab countries attacked it. Israel won, validating itself as a nation. Some 700,000 Palestinians either fled to neighboring Arab states or found themselves under Israeli control.
Surrounded by enemies, Israel never felt secure with its borders. In 1967 it waged a quick war against the Arab states and significantly increased its territory. In the Six-Day War, Israel took over the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank of the Jordan River from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.
In the wake of the 1967 war, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 242 which called for Israel to return the Palestinian lands it had taken. Israel ignored the resolution, and in 1971 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began threatening war to wrest the areas from Israeli control.
In early 1973, Sadat requested updated offensive weapons from the U.S.S.R. The Soviets, however, had agreed to detente -- a mutual softening of Cold War hostilities between the Soviet Union and the U.S. -- when President Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking visit to Moscow the year before. As such they refused Sadat's request, fearing it could turn a regional dispute into a proxy war between the superpowers.
Angry at the Soviet response, Sadat expelled some 20,000 Soviet military advisors from Egypt. That did not mean that Soviet influence was gone in the region. Soviets still backed the Arab states with equipment and had very close ties with Syria. Plus, aware that Sadat was orchestrating an attack on Israel, they neglected to inform the United States, a clear undermining of the "trust" element of detente.

Yom Kippur War

On October 6, 1973, -- Yom Kippur that year -- Arab states launched a surprise attack on Israel. They rightly figured that the Israeli army would have its defenses down on the holy day.
Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, with backing from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, made quick gains in the disputed Palestinian regions. By October 8, however, Israel launched smashing counter-attacks that negated Arab progress.

U.S. Diplomacy in the War

The United States had four diplomatic goals in the Yom Kippur War.
  • Negotiate a quick end to the war.
  • Maintain its support of Israel.
  • Preserve relations with Arab states upon whom the U.S. was increasingly reliant for oil.
  • Prevent the Soviet Union from entering the war and turning it into a Cold War battle.
The last point came close to actually occurring when the Soviet Union began air- and sea-lifting some 75,000 tons of materiel to the Arab armies. The United States responded with an airlift of its own, enabling Israel to turn the tide of the war. The airlift, codenamed Operation Nickel Grass, took 22,325 tons of arms and equipment to Israel; a sea-lift also took another 33,210 tons of materiel to Israel.
An offshoot of the U.S. airlift was the "Energy Crisis" of 1973-74. Arab oil producing nations strangled the supply of oil to the U.S. and Western countries, causing gasoline shortages, long lines at filling stations, and higher gasoline prices.
The United States tried to get the Soviet Union to join it in negotiating an end to the war, but the Soviets refused as long as it looked like the Arab coalition might win. Only when Israel looked set to roll Egyptian forces back across the Suez Canal did the Soviet Union back U.N. Resolution 338, which called for a cease fire. U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, a former German army officer in World War II, also did not throw his support behind 338 until it looked like Israel was winning.

Shuttle Diplomacy

Resolution 338 stopped the shooting, but it did not end the tensions that threatened to reignite the war. A Soviet-organized peace treaty conference in Geneva collapsed when Syria refused to participate. At that point, U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger began his famed "shuttle diplomacy" -- traveling back and forth between the belligerent nations and the United States, attempting to negotiate a permanent end to the hostilities.
Kissinger's achievements included:
  • Troop disengagements between Israel and Syria, May 1974.
  • Israeli withdrawal from areas won from Syria in 1973.
  • Israeli withdrawal from areas of the Sinai Peninsula.
  • Prisoners of war exchanges.
  • An end to the Arab oil embargo.

Significance of the War

The results of the war and Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy convinced Sadat that Egypt could not defeat Israel and its U.S. backing on the battlefield. He turned instead to diplomacy, ultimately acknowledging Israel's legitimacy. Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin later formed the historic Camp David Accords in 1978 and a treaty of peace in 1979.
Israel, concerned over the security of its 1967 territorial gains, began establishing Jewish settlements in those areas. The Israeli settlement program continues to be an obstacle in Palestine's quest to establish a formal state.