Since becoming a supporter of the Palestinian cause, I've encountered numerous claims that Britain promised to "give" the Jews all or part of Palestine.
An American-born Israeli teenager told me: "After World War I, the British were in control of the Ottoman Empire. They promised to give all of what is now Israel and Jordan...to the Jews, as a homeland." Later, she changed her tune and claimed that Jordan "was originally intended to be the Palestinian State," with the entire west-of-Jordan region earmarked for the Jews.
A recent letter to my newspaper attempted to justify Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza by saying the lands on which they were built were "promised to the Jews...in the 1916 Balfour Declaration."
All such claims have their basis in the Balfour Declaration, a British policy statement in whose drafting even U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had a hand. Its correct date is November 1917, not 1916. But even in 1917, Britain was making plans for a region it had yet to conquer.
Let's take a look at what the Balfour Declaration actually says. Here is the complete text, approved by the British Cabinet and contained in a letter from Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a British Zionist leader:
"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."
Four points should be made here.
1.) At that date, the term "Palestine" was probably meant to include present-day Jordan.
2.) A "National Home" in Palestine, with the qualifications in the Declaration, was more consistent with an autonomous Jewish region within a sovereign Palestinian Arab state than with transformation of all Palestine into a Jewish homeland or its division into two sovereign states. Doubt could, however, be cast on that by the text's mentioning only the civil and religious rights of Palestinians, not their political rights.
3.) If an autonomous region was intended, there was no mention of what specific part of Palestine it might include.
4.) A statement that Britain would "use [its] best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object" fell far short of a promise to bring it about. Britain could have made such a promise, contingent only on its gaining control of the territory; it chose not to. Instead, it made a vague pledge that it could have fulfilled simply by making a good-faith effort to persuade Palestinian Arabs to accept the idea. They, like other Arabs, were dissatisfied with Ottoman rule; most Palestinians probably supported Britain in the war.
The Balfour Declaration was a serious policy statement, intended to be publicized. Nevertheless, the document in which it was contained was merely a letter to a private citizen. What gave the Declaration a degree of legitimacy and legal force was the League of Nations' agreement to accept it and incorporate it into the terms of Britain's Mandate for Palestine.
That agreement only came in July 1922--a month after Britain had issued a clarifying White Paper. The White Paper removed most of the doubt about Britain's intentions, saying it did "not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded in Palestine."
That statement, at that date, also makes clear that Britain did not intend the "Home" to consist of the entire west-of-Jordan region. Logic alone tells us that no one would propose creating a theoretically sovereign state and, within it, an autonomous region that would include the state's entire Mediterranean coast.
But we don't have to rely on logic. Britain had decided by 1921 that the east-of-Jordan region (three-quarters of the whole, but sparsely populated and lacking coveted religious sites) would be treated separately, eventually becoming the Emirate of Transjordan and later the present state of Jordan. Use of the term "Palestine" in 1922 did not include Jordan. Therefore, the "National Home" was envisioned as being some part, not impractically large, of west-of-Jordan Palestine.