Before and during World War I, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, and Jewish immigration there was strictly limited by the Turkish government. For example, in 1888, the residence in Palestine of Jewish people born elsewhere was limited to three months. There were periodic protests, especially from the United States, but such laws made implementing the Zionist program - the Jewish colonization of Palestine - difficult, if not impossible.1
In 1912, Turkish officials in Palestine were told to strictly enforce the prohibition against the foreign ownership of land in Palestine. Colonization continued more slowly, but the idea of obtaining official sanction for Jewish colonization was abandoned.2
It wasn't until World War I had begun, and Great Britain had declared war on Turkey, that Britain became a focal point of Zionist diplomacy. A long campaign, waged by a number of Zionists, especially Chaim Weizmann, and the projected capture of Palestine by British forces, resulted in the Balfour Declaration.
1 Fanny Fern Andrews, The Holy Land Under Mandate , (New York: Houghton Miflin Company, 1931), 309
2 Andrews, 318
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.
Arthur James Balfour1
The Balfour Declaration was at odds with a secret treaty, the Sykes-Picot treaty, signed in 1916, which foresaw an international administration of Palestine.1 Chaim Weizmann described this treaty as fatal to Zionist aims. By the terms of the Sykes-Picot treaty, after the war Syria would belong to France, along with Palestine east of a line from Acre to Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee), and the rest of Palestine would be internationalized.2
The French government was brought on board with the Zionists after negotiations with an associate of Weizman, Nahum Sokolow, and the result was the following letter from the Secrétaire Général des Affaires Etrangères , Jules Cambon, addressed to Sokolow:3
You have shown me your plans for the object of all your work, the Jewish colonization of Palestine. You believe that if circumstances permit, and if the Holy Places are liberated, it would be an act of both justice and reparation to assist in the rebirth, under the protection of the Allies, of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, from which they were expelled so many centuries ago.
The French government, which entered the current war to defend a people who were unjustly attacked, and which prosecutes the war to ensure the triumph of right over force, can't conceive of anything but sympathy for your cause, the success of which is bound to the success of the Allies.
I am happy to give you this assurance.
1 Fanny Fern Andrews, The Holy Land Under Mandate , (New York: Houghton Miflin Company, 1931), 283-284
2 Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error , (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), 191
Le Secrétaire Général des Affaires Etrangères
à Monsieur Sokolof
Paris, 4 Juin 1917
Vous avez bien voulu m'exposer le projet auquel vous consacrez vos efforts et qui a pour objet de developper la colonisation israélite au Palestine. Vous estimez que si les circonstances le permittent et l'indépendance des Lieux Saints étant assurée d'autre part, ce serait fair oeuvre de justice et de réparation que d'aider à la renaissance, par la protection des Puissances alliés, de la nationalité juive, sur cette terre d'où le peuple d'Isräel a été chassé il y a tant de siécles.
Le Gouvernement français qui est entré dans la présente guerre pour défendre un peuple injustement attaqué et qui poursuit la lutte pour assurer le triomphe du droit sur la force; ne peut éprouver que de la sympathie pour votre cause dont le triomphe est lié à celui des alliés.
Je suis heureux de vous en donner ici l'assurance.
It's obvious that Arthur Balfour wasn't essential to bringing the declaration in favor of a Jewish national home in Palestine into being, yet he was the member of the British Cabinet most sympathetic to Zionism, and it's instructive to have some idea of his thinking.
Balfour came from an ancient Scottish family, was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, and held a number of important posts before becoming Prime Minister in 1902, as a member of the Conservative Party. In 1917, at the time of the Balfour Declaration, he was Foreign Secretary under Lloyd George.1
One of his biographers, Ruddock MacKay, traces his views on Zionism to his religious philosopy. To Balfour, the relationship between man and the God of the Bible was the source of knowledge, beauty, and morality, and to the extent that his own Christian religion had its roots in Judaism, he was sympathetic to Jewish perspectives.2
As to the ideas of Zionism itself, like the Zionists, he thought in terms of what Jewish qualities and resources might do with Palestine, and seemed to overlook the fate of its Arab inhabitants. In a speech to a 1920 Zionist rally in the Albert Hall, he described Palestine's potential:3
But what are the requisites of such development in Palestine as may accommodate an important section of the great race I am addressing?....One is skill, knowledge, perseverance, enterprise; the other is capital, and I am perfectly convinced that when you are talking of the Jews you will find no want of any one of these requisites...
In 1922, when the voices of Palestinian Arabs had begun to be heard in Britain, Balfour maintained his defense of the Mandate in Palestine:
I do not deny that this is an adventure. Are we never to have adventures? Are we never to try new experiments?... Surely, it is in order that we may send a message to every land where the Jewish race has been scattered, a message which will tell them that Christendom is not oblivious of their faith, is not unmindful of the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world...4
1 Balfour, Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of, Chambers Biographical Dictionary (Bio Ref Bank)
2 Mackay, Rudock F., Balfour, Intellectual Statesman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 316
3 Balfour, Arthur James, Opinions and Arguments, (London, 1927), 234-235, quoted in Mackay, 317
4 Balfour, 248, quoted in Mackay, 318