The Origins of Israel’s Diplomacy
Dr. Moshe Yegar
1. The Foundation: The Political Department of the Jewish Agency
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was officially established on the day that the creation of the State of Israel was proclaimed, May 14, 1948, but extensive diplomatic activity conducted by the Zionist movement and the Jewish Agency preceded its official debut. The authorized body that existed previously – the political department – served as the template for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Diplomatic Zionist activity has always paralleled that of the Zionist movement. The man who envisioned the establishment of the State of Israel and the founder of the Zionist movement, Dr. Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl, believed that the Jewish nation would return to its historic homeland within the context of “The Law of Nations” and with the support of the major world powers. Herzl published his short book, The Jewish State, on February 14, 1896. Eight and a half years later, on July 3, 1904, Herzl died at the age of 44.
During the brief number of years in which he was politically active Herzl created a new Jewish diplomacy, a field that Jews, owing to their lack of statehood, had not been active in until then. The arrival of Zionism, and the desire to return the Jewish nation to its homeland, engendered the creation of modern Zionist diplomacy. The founder and father of this diplomacy, and the greatest diplomat of his time for the Jewish nation, was Herzl himself. Herzl did not have the backing of a state power, an army, or any of the official tools of statecraft. What he did have was the nascent, small Zionist movement, and one that was singularly lacking in resources. Notwithstanding the lack of powerful or official backing, Herzl succeeded in obtaining audiences with the Ottoman Sultan, the Pope, Heads of State, ministers, government leaders and members of royal families, thereby establishing a diplomatic presence in the arena of international diplomacy for the Zionist movement long before the creation of the State of Israel.
His successor and the second president of the World Zionist Organization, David Wolfson, opened the first two official offices of the Zionist movement. One office, located in Israel, did not deal in diplomacy, while the second office, opened in Istanbul, focused on continuing to establish relations as best they could with the Ottoman government. This office was the first diplomatic mission of the World Zionist Organization. It operated until the outbreak of World War I in August 1914.
The British government issued the “Balfour Declaration” on November 2, 1917 (Lord James Balfour was the then-British foreign minister and he was a signatory to the declaration). This short declaration presents Britain’s recognition of the national aspirations of the Jewish people for a return to Eretz-Yisrael (biblically The Land of Israel, politically Pre-State Israel, or Palestine). This was the first international recognition of the Zionist goals that Herzl had so devotedly striven to achieve, but did not live to witness. The man to whom this achievement is credited is Chaim Weizmann, who soon became the leader of the Zionist movement. The Balfour Declaration conferred legitimacy on the Zionist movement’s claims to Eretz Yisrael, and acknowledged its representation of the Jewish people in all matters pertaining to Eretz Yisrael. Weizmann believed that it was necessary to immediately dispatch an official Zionist delegation to Eretz Yisrael, whose southern portion had already been conquered by the British, in an effort to advance the interests of the Zionist movement and to lay the foundation for a “national homeland.” The British government gave its consent to this proposal. This delegation was known as the Zionist Commission and it received a letter of appointment from the British government. The chairman of the delegation was Dr. Chaim Weizmann. The other members of the delegation were comprised of the representatives of various organizations, along with representatives of French, Italian and American Jewry.
The Zionist Commission arrived in Palestine on April 3, 1918. The composition of its membership changed frequently. The man who served as a member in the Zionist Commission more than anyone else was Dr. David Montague Eder, a British-Jewish psychoanalyst. Upon Weizmann’s return to England, Eder became a trusted confidante of Weizmann, as well as his principal representative in Palestine. Throughout most of his years of service in Palestine he was given the title of director of the “political department” of the Zionist Commission. It quickly became apparent that it was incumbent upon the Zionist Commission to actively pursue two areas that might be termed “Foreign Relations of the Zionist Enterprise in Palestine”: relations with the British Mandate in Palestine and relations with the Arab population in Palestine (The relations with the British government in London were conducted by the Zionist leadership in London.). David Eder was involved in these two aspects until his departure from Palestine in 1922, whereupon the Zionist Commission ceased to exist. Subsequently, Colonel Frederick H. Kisch served as chairman of the Zionist Office in < ...