Can the Arab League Be Trusted?
By Michael Curtis
Rarely has a short letter influenced the course of history so much as the one known as the Balfour Declaration. Written by Lord Balfour, the British foreign secretary, on November 2, 1917 to Lord Rothschild, the letter "viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." The newly established League of Nations substantiated this principle when it accepted the Declaration as the basis for the Mandate for Palestine, which the League announced on July 24, 1922. Britain was appointed as the Mandatory Power and ruled Palestine for twenty-six years. The State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948 after Britain relinquished that power.
The Rothschild family gave the letter to the British Museum, which transferred it to the British National Library. The BNL has now given approval to Israel to display the original document for a limited time in the Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. The choice of the Hall as the venue for the display is symbolically significant. The Hall is the place where David Ben Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. It is to be renovated, and in two years' time, it will be the site of a museum that will display not only the Balfour Declaration, but also the document of Israel's Declaration of Independence and the writing desk of Lord Balfour, which has actually been in Israel for some time.
A historic artifact will thus be on public display for the first time. However, the Arab League has condemned the British National Library for granting approval for the display of the 96-year-old Declaration. The Arab League has denounced the Balfour Declaration as a document that led to continuing bloodshed and strife and which denied the rights of Palestinians who, according to the League, owned 98 percent of the land in Palestine in 1917.
This condemnation is yet another example of Arab denial of the non-Arab past. It is in the same vein as the Islamic actions to obliterate the artifacts and the history of non-Islamic peoples. It is also a reminder of the continuing extreme Arab rhetoric against Israel and the fallacious Palestinian historical narrative with its emphasis on Nakba, the so-called catastrophe, caused in the Arab view by the establishment of Israel.
In addition to its condemnation, the League has called on the international community, especially the British government, to recognize a Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, and to implement all relevant international resolutions -- particularly the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The aggressive attitude of the League towards a scholarly display of documents engenders skepticism about Arab proposals for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. The League of Arab States, usually referred to as the Arab League, was formed in Cairo in March 1945 by six countries. It now has 22 members whose countries cover five million square miles and have a population of 400 million. Its main objectives were to increase relationships and coordinate collaboration among the member-states, and to advance the affairs and interests of the Arab countries. Unsaid, but underlying its creation, was the intention ultimately to form a single Arab state in the Middle East.
Though it has had some minor success in mediating crises, the League has failed to prevent regional conflicts among Arab states or to create any substantial cooperation on political and economic issues. Since its creation, there have been, starting with the civil war in Yemen in 1948, more than 60 inter-Arab conflicts. Compared with other regional organizations, such as the Organization of American States or the Organization for African Unity, the Arab League has been unsuccessful.
The League, however, did act to persuade the Arab states to cooperate in a unified policy towards Israel. At the time of its creation, it declared a boycott of "Jewish products and manufactured goods," and called on all Arabs, individuals as well as organizations, "to refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Zionist products or manufactured goods." Though the boycott has been relaxed, ignored, or ended by some countries in recent years, it is still in effect in a number of Arab states. Among the "products" boycotted are the film director Steven Spielberg and his Righteous Persons Foundation because of his $1-million donation to Israel in 2006, and the late Estee Lauder and her cosmetic lines because of her philanthropy in Israel.
More crucial in their impact on policy were the Arab League's rejection of the U.N. General Assembly Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947 and the attack by seven members of the League (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) against Israel the day after Israel was created. Again, it was the League, or eight members who belong to it, that issued the Khartoum Declaration of September 1, 1967, which included the notorious statement of "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with it."
The attention paid to Israel by the League contrasts sharply with its inactivity in relation to problems in its own backyard. It has refused to intervene in the ongoing civil war in Syria. Nor has it helped to form a provisional government to stop the massacres taking place there. Instead, in March 2013, the League approved a $1-billion plan to maintain and protect the Islamic and Arab character of East Jerusalem; the Emir of Qatar has pledged $250 million to this end.
Given this background, one has to doubt that the Arab League is genuinely interested in a peaceful solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In March 2002 at the Beirut Summit, the League declared that it had adopted the peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia to end the conflict. The plan consisted of a number of proposals: 1. that there would be normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel; 2. that in turn, Israel would withdraw from all occupied territory, including the Golan Heights; 3. that there would be recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital; and 4. that a "just solution" of the Palestinian refugee issue be found. At the Arab League summit meeting in Riyadh in 2007, the peace plan was again endorsed.
The problem remains. Is this peace proposal and the Arab acceptance of Israel on certain conditions to be taken seriously? In view of the Arab League's immediate reaction and crystalline condemnation of the display of the historically important Balfour Declaration in Israel, it is more likely that the spirit of malevolence still survives. Even if one aspires to take the Arab League at its word, nevertheless, it is prudent to pay attention to President Reagan's familiar phrase, "trust but verify." Even that may be insufficient as a prescription for Israeli policy-making.