Netanyahu and Abbas' March of Historical Folly

The obsession that both Palestinians and Israelis have with the Balfour Declaration is symptomatic of how both sides prefer to cling to myths, rather than deal with reality.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A screenshot from Netanyahu's recent video.
A screenshot from Netanyahu's recent video.Credit: Screenshot/YouTube
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

It was too easy to mock Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s message to Israeli Arabs this week. The way he seemed to think that all it takes is a two-and-a-half minute clip on Facebook to wipe away the shame of his "Arabs in droves" comment clip on election day seventeen months ago. His mispronunciation of the few words he actually said in Arabic and the bizarre fact that he recorded the same message not only in Hebrew, but in English as well. The tones of Martin Luther King’s "I Have A Dream" and the generally patronizing air of the entire exercise, carried out from his air-conditioned office, without any Israeli-Arabs actually involved.

Like I said, it’s simply too easy and, let’s be honest, nothing Netanyahu could have said to the Arab community would have come over as authentic. We’ve seen him just too many times.

But let’s just assume for a moment that he really meant it. That the belated apology was both heartfelt and sincere and that Netanyahu fully intended to put the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel on a new footing. It could have been a truly historic moment; one in which this generation's most important leader of the Jewish State defined for the first time how a nation that for so long was a persecuted minority throughout the world treats a minority in its own country.

No Israeli prime minister has ever articulated how the state should go about fulfilling the promise in the Declaration of Independence that the State of Israel “will invest in developing the land for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in the vision of the prophets of Israel; will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex; will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” That’s a tall order and, 69 years later, we still haven’t got around to explaining how we plan to do it.

Netanyahu could have used the opportunity to start on that. Instead of recording a video in his office, he could have gone to Nazareth, Jaffa, Um el-Fahm, Kafr Kassem and the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev — places he has never visited in the 10 years of his premiership — and simply spoken to the people there, unscripted. He could have said that the 15 billion shekels his government has committed to providing for infrastructure, education and employment in the Arab sector will be unconditional, and not tied to the adoption of planning procedures by Arab local councils.

He could have said that the state budget will change to ensure equality and that the 15 billion won’t just be a one-off injection of cash. That he will continue talking to the Arab communities and never again use the kind of rhetoric he did in the last election, even though he knows they will never be his voters. He could’ve done all that instead of posting a Facebook video, but the historian’s son has a knack for missing historic moments. And he’s not the only one.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a committee meeting in Ramallah, May 4, 2016.Credit: Mohamad Torokman, AP

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also a historian of sorts, though considering that his PhD dissertation combined Holocaust-denial with accusations of Zionist cooperation with the Nazis, for which he also belatedly apologized, it’s probably better not to dwell too much on his qualifications in that particular field.

This week, in a speech to the Arab League summit, delivered in his name by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, he informed the world that the Palestinian Authority plans to sue Britain for a crime it committed 99 years ago when it delivered a “fateful promise from those who do not own to those who do not deserve.

A copy of the original Balfour Declaration at the Israel Museum.Credit: Uriel Cohen

The obsession that both Palestinians and Israelis have with the Balfour Declaration is symptomatic of how both sides prefer to cling to myths, rather than deal with reality. The letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild in 1917 expressing the British government’s support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people in Palestine” ultimately amounted to nothing. In the succeedeing three decades of the British mandate, instead of setting the foundations for Jewish statehood, the British limited Jewish immigration at a time when Jews were desperate to flee Nazi-dominated Europe.

In other areas of the former Ottoman empire, Britain helped found the kingdoms of Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, but when finally, in 1947, the United Nations voted on the partition plan for the establishment of two states, Jewish and Arab, in Palestine, it abstained. Six months later, the British scarpered, instead of using their influence and military might to ensure that the partition was implemented.

Not only did Britain do nothing to help the Jewish state come into existence, it equipped and allowed British officers to lead Jordan’s Arab Legion, which invaded and occupied parts of both the new states, massacring thousands of Jews and preventing the establishment of an Arab Palestinian state.

When the Jewish State finally became a reality, the Balfour Declaration was a worthless scrap of paper. Israel was established through the sweat and blood of its people, with a renewed mandate from the United Nations, with the help of weapons bought from Czechoslovakia, with Joseph Stalin’s blessing and money donated by American Jews, whose country, crucially, immediately recognized the new state, minutes after David Ben Gurion read out the Declaration of Independence.

If the Palestinian Authority really wants to sue someone for denying them a state, the UN, the United States, Russia, the Czech Republic, Jordan and the other Arab countries which invaded Palestine in 1948, are the culprits. Not Britain, which did nothing. Abbas may as well sue a non-existent god upon whose mythical promise Jews continued to yearn for their homeland and finally returned.

The Palestinians won’t sue anyone, of course. It was an empty PR exercise, borne out of Abbas’ inability to relinquish a historical narrative in which sinister imperial forces conspired to transplant European Jews to the Orient. Instead of clearly admitting, as he knows and has said on other occasions, that the Jews and Israel are here to stay, and the only way forward is for the Palestinians to deal with Israel as it is — not to go back in time and change events which never meant that much anyway.

Abbas’ version of history is just as false as Netanyahu's claims to have a clear policy on how Jews and Arabs can live and prosper together in this land. The false historian clutching the discredited Balfour Declaration and the historian’s son living behind high walls on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street are both experts at missing out on the ample opportunities provided them by history.

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