Presidents, prime ministers and other senior officials on Sunday celebrated the centenary of the San Remo Conference as a milestone of Zionist history that paved the way to the establishment of a Jewish state.
In late April 1920, the UK, France, Italy, Japan and later the US (as an observer) convened in the northwestern Italian town and decided to divide the Ottoman empire into three parts. One of them later became the British Mandate of Palestine.
Crucially, the so-called San Remo Declaration charged the British mandate with implementing the Balfour Declaration, which three years earlier had endorsed “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The San Remo Conference, held in the town’s Villa Devachan, is historically significant as the first anchor of Israel’s right to exist in international law, though in contemporary geopolitics it is, for various reasons, not recognized as relevant to today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“There is probably no more understated event in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict than the San Remo Conference of April 1920,” Efraim Karsh, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, wrote in a paper published Friday.
It was remarkable that within less than five years, the Balfour Declaration “had been endorsed by the official representative of the will of the international community: not in the ‘technical’ sense of supporting the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine but in the deeper sense of recognizing the Jews as a nation deserving self-determination in its ancestral homeland,” he wrote.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the San Remo centennial was an opportunity to celebrate a “seminal moment” in the history of Zionism.
“In San Remo, the victorious allied powers of World War I recognized the Jewish people’s right of self-determination,” he said in a recorded video message for a virtual conference organized by a Christian pro-Israel group.
“Now in ratifying that historic declaration, San Remo recognized a fundamental truth: The Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in the land of our forefathers. The Land of Israel is our ancestral homeland,” Netanyahu said.
Digressing from the 1920 conference, he went on to address US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, which envisions Israel annexing parts of the West Bank. “A couple of months from now, I’m confident that that pledge will be honored, that we will be able to celebrate another historic moment in the history of Zionism,” he said. “A century after San Remo, the promise of Zionism is being realized.”
The organizers of the online conference appeared to distance themselves from Netanyahu’s juxtaposition of San Remo and Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century.
Mike Pompeo said the ‘historic agreement marked the world’s embrace of the unbreakable connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel’
“The statement made by the prime minister was not part of any official agenda by the conference organizers,” Tomas Sandell, the director of the European Coalition for Israel, told The Times of Israel.
“The main objective of the 100th anniversary broadcast was to explain the historical connections between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, as the right of the Jewish people to reconstitute their national home in their ancient land was codified under international law in 1920,” Sandell added.
“In a day and age of historical revisionism and ambivalence, these historical and legal facts need to be retold and taken into consideration.”
The European Coalition for Israel, which is based in Brussels, originally planned to host a celebration for the centenary of San Remo, but due to the coronavirus pandemic decided to postpone the event. Instead, it produced a one-hour live broadcast, which included interviews with current and former Israeli officials commenting on the importance of the conference.
Many speakers stressed the historical significance of San Remo especially as Israel’s detractors deny the Jewish state has a right to exist. More needs to be done to bring the decisions made there to the attention of today’s diplomats, it was argued.
“It’s important for our future, it’s important for our present,” Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, said in a prerecorded interview.
Alberto Biancheri, the current mayor of San Remo, said his city “is rightly understood as the birthplace of Israel.”
‘The groundwork for the incredible nation that is Israel’
The online conference also featured excerpts from statements about the San Remo conference current and former world leaders submitted for the occasion.
“One of the seeds of the olive tree which was to become the symbol of the modern State of Israel was planted in San Remo,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte wrote.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban dedicated his message to the “courageous people whose great sacrifice, work and struggle could create the modern and independent Jewish state.”
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the centenary of the San Remo conference “provides an opportunity to not just reflect on decades of cooperation between our peoples — but also to look forward to an even stronger friendship in the future.”
In his message, Raab stressed Britain’s role in establishing a homeland for the Jewish people. San Remo “marked a new chapter in the history of our collaboration – bilateral relations that continue to go from strength to strength in the twenty-first century,” he said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the “historic agreement marked the world’s embrace of the unbreakable connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.”
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman took to Twitter to mark the occasion:
Recalling today the 100th anniversary of the San Remo Resolution, whereby the world powers recognized the ancient connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the right of the Jewish people to a national home on that land was given the force of International Law.
— David M. Friedman (@USAmbIsrael) April 26, 2020
Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper hailed the “extraordinary statecraft at San Remo that laid the groundwork for the incredible nation that is the modern State of Israel.”
The world leaders who gathered in San Remo unanimously recognized Jewish rights and aspirations, which “contrasts starkly with today’s moral confusion and historical revision,” he added.
“The San Remo centenary reminds us of the enlightenment of the world leaders of that time, and of the perseverance of the Jewish people then and since.”
Tony Blair, a former UK prime minister who has long been involved in Middle East peacemaking efforts, said San Remo “planted the seeds of a modern era for the Middle East… With a secure and thriving Israel taking center-stage in the world today, I believe it is more important than ever to uphold the legacy of San Remo and work arduously toward peace and coexistence between Israel and the Arab world.”
Other dignitaries who sent statements included President Reuven Rivlin, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Czech President Milos Zeman and former Finnish prime minister Juha Sipilä.