What was the impact of the Balfour Declaration (1917) on the Middle East

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A copy of the Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was one of the most controversial and important decisions in the early twentieth century. The modern Middle East and geopolitics have been influenced by this declaration. This short document which was issued during the darkest days of World War One attracted little notice at the time but it undoubtedly changed the modern world and the merits of this policy can still generate some heated debate some 100 years after its publication.

This article will outline the Balfour Declaration and its origins and aims. Then it will provide the context for the issuance of the Declaration and then identify its impact on the Middle East. It will argue that the Declaration of 1917 was very important in the founding of the modern state of Israel and that it was one of the root causes of the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Balfour Declaration

Arab demonstrators being arrested during the Arab Revolt

The Balfour Declaration was a British government document that was drawn up by the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917. It was first sent to Lord Rothschild of the banking family and the Zionist Association of Great Britain and was published the following day in the press. The document committed the British Empire to a ‘’Jewish national home.’’ [1]. The declaration stated that ‘’His Majesty's government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.’’ [2]

The Declaration in effect assigned territory that was still part of the Ottoman Empire to the Jews for their new homeland. The Declaration also recognized the rights of the Palestinian people who already lived in the territory. The document’s inherent contradictions were not long on observers at the time. The declaration was a result of negotiations between those sympathetic to the cause of a Jewish homeland Zionists and the British government. There were many in the British elite who were sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish homeland. In the view of the Zionists only a Jewish homeland could offer Europe’s Jews protection and equality. Many Jews especially in Eastern Europe and Russia were persecuted and often the targets of anti- Semitic violence. There were those in Britain who argued that Jewish emigration to Palestine would reinforce the British position in the Middle East in the aftermath of the war. They saw a Jewish homeland as a British ‘protectorate’, that would be an ally and be dependent on them and this would safeguard the Empire’s position in the Middle East.[3]

There was a problem, previously the British and their French allies had entered an alliance with the Arabs. The western allies had promised the Arabs populations a Pan-Arab state in the Middle East including Palestine if they rebelled against their Ottoman overlords. Many Arabs had rebelled against the Ottomans and were loyal allies of the United Kingdom and France The British had promised Palestine or the Holy Land to both the Jews and the Arabs. Furthermore, the British had promised a land that they had not even occupied and was at present still in the control of the Turks. However, in 1918, the British army and Empire forces invaded Palestine and occupied that region[4]

The British and the French had already plans for the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot agreement was a secret 1916 agreement between the British Empire and the French Republic. The Treaty partitioned the Ottoman Empire in the event of an allied victory, it gave France, Lebanon, Syria, Northern Mesopotamia, and parts of Asia Minor. The United Kingdom was granted Southern Mesopotamia, including Baghdad, Jordan, and Palestine. The treaty obliged the allies to establish a Pan-Arab State which was to be under French and British spheres of influence. The Treaty effectively partitioned the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the defeat of the Turks. This secret treaty allowed the British to provide the Jews with a homeland in Palestine.

The Arabs were enraged by the Balfour Declaration. After 1918 the French and the British did not create a Pan-Arab state, as they had promised. Instead the two allies remained in the region and turned them into protectorates.[5] The newly formed League of Nations introduced a mandate system. A League of Nations mandate was an internationally legal instrument that enabled the peaceful transfer of territories transferred in the wake of World War I. These legal instruments contained the internationally agreed-upon terms for administering such territories on behalf of the League of Nations. Designated nations were allocated certain territories and were expected to develop them and prepare them for eventual independence.

The mandate system was formally recognized in 1919, in truth the mandates were legal fictions. The French and the British had already seized these territories and were administering them like their other colonies. The French and the British had already seized the regions oil producing areas and had established commercial zones. This was understandably regarded as naked imperialism by many in the Arab and the Muslim world. The mandate system gave a cloak of respectability to the British and French seizure of the Middle East, which they had secretly agreed in the Sykes-Picot Treaty. London had the mandate to govern Palestine and they immediately introduced a series of pro-Jewish policies. This was very controversial, and the House of Common’s condemned this policy but nevertheless the Balfour Declaration was implemented by both Conservative and Labor governments. It was only in 1939 on the eve of WWII that the British decided to abandon the Balfour Declaration and adopted a less pro-Jewish policy. The Balfour Declaration, had by this stage, irrevocably changed both Palestine and the entire Middle East.[6]

Arab response

Jewish settlers in Palestine in the 1920s

The declaration was opposed by Arab public opinion but after the war, but it was endorsed by the victorious allies and it became official British policy. It was also supported by the Americans, but they had some reservations. Many in the British government believed that the Balfour Declaration was a mistake and that it would only lead to instability and conflict and that it had no basis in international law and argued that they had betrayed their Arab allies who had participated in the Great Arab Revolt (1916-1918). However, the Balfour Declaration remained, and it was official British policy until the start of WWII. This was despite increasingly violent Arab opposition.


The Balfour Declaration and the failure of the western powers to grant a Pan-Arab state led to a great deal of resentment in the Middle East. The British not only had failed to help the Arabs to found a state but had effectively colonized them and had even given traditionally Muslim territory to non-Muslims. What particularly angered the Arabs was that Jerusalem one of the holiest sites in Islam and could be lost to Jews. This led to a deep suspicion of Britain and the west in general, in the Arab World. During WWI the Arabs had seen the British as liberators who would help to modernize their society and free them from Ottoman oppression. The Balfour Declaration was to shatter this view and led to a great deal of bitterness. The Muslim world, in particular, came to believe that it could not trust the British and the west. The anti-western sentiments that were provoked by the Balfour Declaration remain to this day. The Declaration of 1917 poisoned the relationship between the Arab World and the West. It persuaded many that the western powers would always favor the Jews at the expense of the Muslims in the Middle East.

Balfour Declaration and the state of Israel

Zionists during the Ottoman period had begun to emigrate to Palestine, in what is known as the Aliyah or the return. In general, the Jewish emigrants had co-existed with their neighbors. The two communities tended to live separate existences with little interactions between them and even less understanding. This changed with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.[7] The British under the mandate from the League of Nations established the political entity of Palestine that corresponds to the modern state of Israel. This aroused Arab fears. The British established a political and bureaucratic system in the region and it became part of their Empire.

In general, the British officials were sympathetic to the Jews and were biased in their favor. The Balfour Declaration meant that the British administration in Palestine had to support the Jewish community and any Jewish emigrants who wanted to settle in the area. Because of the Balfour Declaration, any Jew who wished could come from any area of the globe and settle in Palestine. As a result, many Muslim areas such as Haifa came to have a predominantly Jewish population.[8].

The British made several concessions to the Jews. Hebrew was accorded equal status with Arabic in the government. The British government tended to employ more Jews than Muslims. The Balfour Declaration encouraged many Jews to settle in Palestine as they believed that the declaration of a Jewish state was imminent. Many Jews fleeing the Russian Civil War settled in Palestine.[9] These joined the existing Jewish community and together established settlements, farms, and Kibbutz, these are communal farms. Soon there was a thriving Jewish community and by 1939 the Jews were one-third of the population of the region. The numbers of Jews though small grew rapidly and the developed prosperous and resilient Jewish communities. These were very important in the foundation of the Jewish state. The settlers who came to Palestine, in the Aliyah formed the nucleus of modern Israel. If the Balfour Declaration had not encouraged and facilitated Jewish emigration, then there may not have been any state of Israel.[10]

Jewish-Arab conflict

Theodore Herzl the founder of Zionism

The Balfour Declaration raised tensions in Palestine and many local Christians and Muslims resented the Jews. Almost immediately there was a series of outbreaks of sectarian violence. There were anti-Jewish riots in several Palestinian towns and cities. This did not stop the Jews from settling in Palestine. The British, under the terms of the Balfour Declaration, were committed to the creation of a Jewish homeland. This meant that the London government ordered that the military and the colonial authorities do everything in their power to protect the Jews from Arab attacks.

The Balfour Declaration meant that the British army were the de-facto protectors of the Jewish settlement and without this support the survival of the emigrants would have been doubtful. This inflamed the Palestinians even more and after riots in Jerusalem in the mid-1930s, there erupted a full-scale Arab Revolt (1936-1939). The Balfour Declaration meant that the Arabs came to see the Jews as a favored group who were stealing their lands with the assistance of the British. This led to a complete breakdown in the relationship between the Jews and the Palestinians. The Balfour Declaration was in many ways to result in a rupture between Palestinians and Hebrews which has not been healed to this day. It could be argued that the Declaration of 1917 was to lead to a century of Jewish-Arab conflict that has destabilized not only the Middle East but the world.[11]


The Balfour Declaration was a decision taken during a savage war. It was based on assumptions that the western powers would win the war and that they could dispose of the Ottoman Empire as they wished. The Declaration was designed to both create a Jewish homeland which was expected to further British interests in the Middle East. The document was decidedly pro-Zionist despite its claims to respect the wishes of the local Palestinians. The Declaration was important, because after 1918 it helped many Jews to settle in the region and soon there was a thriving community of Jews from all over Europe. This was to have two important consequences. The first was that the Balfour Declaration was instrumental in the creation of the modern State of Israel. This in turn has led to the Arab-Israeli conflict which has destabilized the Middle East and also the wider world.


  1. Gelvin. James. The Modern Middle East: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 114
  2. Balfour, Sir Arthur, Balfour Declaration (1917), p. 1
  3. Gelvin, p. 119
  4. Mathew, William M.. "The Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate, 1917–1923: British Imperialist Imperatives". British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. Routledge. 40 (3) (2013) 231–250
  5. Gelvin, p. 167
  6. Gelvin, p 134
  7. Ben-Ami, Shlomo. Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), p 201
  8. Goren, Tamir (2004) "The Judaization of Haifa at the Time of the Arab Revolt," Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 40, Issue 4 July, pp. 135–152
  9. Ben-Ami, p. 213
  10. Gelvin, p.123
  11. Ben-Ami, p. 134