One hundred years ago this Sunday, the four principal allied powers involved in World War I signed a resolution at San Remo. Next week, Israel celebrates Yom Ha’atzmaut, the 72nd anniversary of the state’s declaration of independence.
Typically, the world thinks that the key step towards the establishment of the State of Israel was the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the statement in which the British government committed itself to work for the establishment of a Jewish home in what was then called Palestine.
Relatively little attention has been paid to the more important milestone in that story: the San Remo resolution signed on April 26, 1920.
For it was at San Remo that Britain, France, Italy and Japan turned the Balfour Declaration into an internationally binding treaty to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine, with Britain being given the mandate to facilitate Jewish immigration there.
A few months after the San Remo conference, for reasons of realpolitik, Britain hived off some three-quarters of Palestine to create Transjordan.
The scope of what was left for the Jewish national home, however, is something that Israel’s enemies don’t want to acknowledge — and is the reason that San Remo is conspicuously ignored. For in that resolution lie the roots of Jewish legitimacy, not just in Israel but also in the disputed territories.
That’s because the Palestine within which the Jews were legally entitled to settle as their designated national home included not just the Israel that emerged in 1948, but also Judea and Samaria. That legal right given to the Jews to settle the entire land of Mandatory Palestine has never been abrogated.
During the war of extermination mounted against Israel at its rebirth in 1948, some of that designated territory was captured by the Jordanians.
As the international lawyer Eugene Kontorovitch has noted, when Israel eventually recovered this land as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967, much of the international community pretended that its own earlier guarantees didn’t exist.
Far from acknowledging the legal, moral and historical right of the Jewish people to live in Judea and Samaria, the international community has consistently claimed that the areas Jordan ethnically cleansed of Jews in 1948 must indefinitely remain Jew-free zones.
Ignoring San Remo is thus essential for those who perpetrate the lie that the Jews have usurped the Palestinian Arabs in their own land.
The decision to restore the Jewish homeland in Israel was, however, only part of the carving up of the Middle East after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. This process also created the states of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Unlike Israel, these states were artificial creations through which the model of the nation-state was imposed upon unruly tribal areas in the hope and expectation that this would give them order, stability and prosperity.
But now those artificial creations are coming apart at the seams. Syria and Iraq are fragmenting back into unruly tribal enclaves. Lebanon has been reduced to a shell invaded by Iran’s proxy army, Hezbollah.
The rest of the region is deeply unstable. Jordan’s monarchical regime is fragile, constantly threatened by incipient revolt from Islamists, Palestinian Arabs or insurrection fomented by Iran.
Iran itself has been rocked by demonstrations against the regime, whose corruption and foreign adventurism are held responsible for the misery of the citizens. Egypt is repelling repeated Islamist incursions only by the strong-arm tactics of its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
And all this before COVID-19 started laying waste both the creators of the Middle Eastern world after World War I and the states they created.
Britain, France and Italy are all in a bad way with very high numbers of virus-related deaths as a result of their slowness in taking effective social-distancing or lockdown measures against the virus.
In Japan, which kept its workplaces, shops and restaurants open well into the pandemic and only declared a state of emergency on April 16, confirmed cases are now rising at an alarming rate.
In the Arab world, the combination of poverty, overcrowding and corruption means that it faces a potential health catastrophe from the pandemic. In Syria and Iraq, the impact of the virus so far is impossible to judge since these regimes have been suppressing such information.
Dozens of people have returned infected to Cairo on flights from the United States and Europe, but the Egyptian government continues to insist that there are no coronavirus cases in the country, classifying anyone with symptoms as suffering from “normal influenza.”
In Iraq, Reuters has cited doctors, a Ministry of Health official and a senior political official claiming that there have been “thousands” of undisclosed cases. Turkey, which has acknowledged more than 2,370 deaths, has one of the highest acceleration rates in the world.
In Iran, anecdotal evidence suggests that the virus has cut a devastating swathe through both the general population and the regime itself, adding to the chaos in the country already caused by economic sanctions.
The one country in the region that has so far risen above all this mayhem is Israel. Through its prompt and unflinching measures against the virus, such as barring flights from hotspots, locking down the population and using intelligence-sourced measures to track and quarantine those exposed to COVID-19, it has one of the lowest virus death rates in the world.
Moreover, once again it is keeping its mortal enemies alive by providing training, equipment and close co-operation with the Palestinian Arabs to help them combat the virus.
At a press conference last weekend, Palestinian Authority spokesman Ibrahim Milhem said the P.A. was coordinating with the Israelis “at a high level” to deal with the contagion and prevent its spread. Even in Gaza, dozens of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel have been trained by Israeli teams in treating patients infected with the virus.
Yet even this hasn’t diminished the Palestinians’ virulent antisemitism and murderous hostility to Israel. The P.A. has accused Israeli soldiers of deliberately spreading the virus among the Palestinian population.
The same Ibrahim Milhem said last week on P.A. TV that “Israelis are not observing the preventative measures because they love money and want to continue to turn the wheels of production.”
And in the last few days, a Palestinian Arab tried to run over and then stab an Israeli Border Police officer, while the Shin Bet security service busted a Hamas terror cell that was planning attacks on Jerusalem’s soccer stadium and security personnel in the disputed territories.
The regional world envisaged by the signatories at San Remo lies shattered by religious and political convulsions. The wider world has been more relentlessly hostile towards Israel than any of its founders could ever have predicted.
And now, as a result of the still unquantifiable consequences of pandemic plague, the world is being transformed yet again in ways we cannot predict.
Only one country that emerged from the restructuring of the former Ottoman Empire continues not just to survive, but to thrive.
Will it continue to face mortal threats from its neighbors beyond its 72nd year? Undoubtedly. Will it continue to suffer hostility even from some of its so-called allies? Almost certainly.
But as the virus of hatred, incompetence and moral collapse continues to lay waste its enemies, only Israel possesses the antibodies of robust national resilience. And that would have astounded the statesmen of the 1920s and ’40s, too.