x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A declaration of bitter emotion

The 68-word text of the Balfour Declaration, Israel's founding charter, is engraved on many hearts. But there is another document that is required reading for any student of the interminable Arab-Israeli conflict.

The 68-word text of the Balfour Declaration, Israel's founding charter, is engraved on many hearts. But there is another document that is required reading for any student of the interminable Arab-Israeli conflict.

The emotional appeal of the Arab Palestine Congress to Winston Churchill, Britain's newly appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies, in Jerusalem on March 28, 1921, was written in the wake of British double-dealing during the First World War. The sense of shock and betrayal, which echoes with clarity across the years, lays bare the raw roots of the later conflict and goes a long way to explaining its intractable nature.

"Palestine, one of our most sacred lands, has been isolated for a thought-out purpose, and this has been the reward of the Allies to the Arabs for their fidelity and the blood they sacrificed," wrote Mousa Kazem el-Hussaini, president of the Congress, in a document that can be read in full among the cabinet papers online at the British National Archives.

Pleading with Churchill "in the name of justice and right" to abolish the principle of a national home for the Jews, to create a national government "responsible to a Parliament elected by the Palestinian people who existed in Palestine before the war", and to put a stop to Jewish immigration until such a government was in place, the Congress begged that "Palestine should not be separated from her sister states".

By then, of course, there was no turning back. The 1917 Balfour Declaration was a commitment made in the heat of battle as the British empire fought for its life. For the Jews, it was a promisory note on which the British made good. For the Arabs and Palestine, "land of miracles and the supernatural, and the cradle of religions", it was an instrument of betrayal.

Jonathan Schneer, an American professor of modern British history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, unravels with precision the strands of ambition, intrigue and realpolitik that led to that document, the foundation stone of the state of Israel. In so doing he has painted a portrait of Britain at her most perfidious, but he wields his brush objectively. Yes, the nation's policymakers steered a treacherous course. But adrift in similarly dire straits, who would do otherwise?

In 1914 the British empire faced the prospect of destruction in Europe and the severing of its imperial artery, the Suez Canal. So it embarked on a game of Machiavellian musical chairs, playing the Jews and the Arabs against each other. When the music stopped, it was the Arabs who found themselves without a seat.

When the Ottoman empire sided with Germany on November 5, 1914, Britain needed the Arabs, not for their military muscle but to prevent Muslims worldwide, including British subjects in India and Egypt, from rallying to Turkey's call to holy war.

Hussein Ibn Ali, Sharif of Mecca, saw the situation as a chance to cast off the Ottoman yoke and pursue his dream of an Arab state. He began a dangerous game, stalling as Constantinople ordered him to attack the British in Suez while angling for Britain's help in his planned revolt.

The British strung Hussein along from the outset, though Schneer allows generously for the mutual ambiguity in the "fatal" correspondence between the Sharif and Sir Henry McMahon, high commissioner of Egypt, "whose conflicting interpretations have divided, Jews, Arabs and Britons for nearly a hundred years". Nevertheless, in a cable to the Foreign Office on August 22, 1915, McMahon, commenting on Hussein's proposed borders for an Arab state encompassing Palestine, set the tone for the dissembling that would follow. "His pretensions are in every way exaggerated," he wrote, but it would be "very difficult to treat them in detail without seriously discouraging him". That would never do and so the issue of the borders was fudged.

Britain needed the Arabs but would have been lost without the French. To keep them happy it was vital to respect their ambitions in the Middle East. So, behind Hussein's back, the British proposed conceding the very strip of land that the Sharif had insisted was "intrinsic to Arabia". In the event, of course, Britain would keep Palestine for itself, but not before secretly offering it back to the Turks as a bribe to abandon Germany. How history might have changed had the Turks taken that bait.

Much more was going on behind Hussein's back. In 1913, Nahun Sokolow, a representative of the Berlin-based World Zionist Organisation, waited three months for an appointment at the British Foreign Office to argue for Jewish settlement in Palestine, only to be fobbed off. Turkey, after all, was still officially a friend. "We had better not intervene to support the Zionist movement," the permanent under-secretary later reported. "The implantation of Jews is a question of internal administration ... The Arabs and the old Turks detest the movement."

What a difference a war makes. Sokolow would be back and the Zionists would be welcomed. Overnight, observes Schneer, the British developed a simultaneous "interest in and sympathy for the rise of both Arab and Jewish nationalism".

But why exactly did the British need the Jews? Here, Schneer makes a remarkable assertion: they didn't - they just thought they did. Most British politicians, he says, believed that the Jews wielded enormous "subterranean power" and this conspiracy of "Great Jewry", formerly seen as a malign force, was now something to be harnessed. But, says Schneer, all this "was based on a misconception": there was no such thing as "a monolithic and powerful Jewish factor in world affairs".

Perhaps not, but Jewish influence was felt nonetheless. In 1916, as the British hoped against hope that America would enter the war, several worrying pieces of intelligence surfaced. One was a letter from an American Zionist, another a message from a Jewish colony at Alexandria. Both emphasised the need for Britain to "win over American Jews". What they were waiting for "was only the knowledge that British policy accorded with their aspirations for Palestine". There was, notes Schneer, an ominous subtext. "If Britain did not act quickly to assuage this longing," one writer warned, "then Germany might" - and it was echoed the following year by Chaim Weizmann, the leading Zionist in Britain and the man who would do most to bring about the Balfour Declaration. The Germans, Weizmann told a Whitehall mandarin, had "recently approached the Zionists with a view to coming to terms with them ... it was really a question of whether the Zionists were to realise their aims through Germany and Turkey or through Great Britain".

Schneer recounts in painstaking detail the campaign waged by the Zionists in Britain, from the pre-war struggle for ideological supremacy between the territorial faction and those who feared a declared ambition for statehood would harm assimilated Jewry, to the signing of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, in which Sir Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, expressed Britain's support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people".

Schneer's interwoven account of the Arabs' parallel campaign, conducted not in the corridors of power in London but with explosives and bullets in the desert, is equally compelling, if ultimately tragic.

Few emerge from this story of intrigue and betrayal with honour intact, but among them is Feisal Ibn Hussein who, as the standard bearer of the Arab revolt, trusted his father's touching faith in the British and repeatedly risked his life for the cause.

Unaware of each other, or even each other's aims, throughout the war, Weizmann and Feisal met in Syria five months before its end to discuss the proposed Feisal-Weizmann Agreement, a short-lived accord designed to allow Jews and Arabs to live side-by-side in Palestine.

In a photograph of that meeting, Weizmann - wearing a keffiyeh as a mark of respect - looks content, as well he might: his war was won. Feisal, on the other hand, appears haunted. His struggle, since he had proclaimed the rising outside Medina almost exactly two years earlier, had been hard, dangerous and, in terms of the Arab state promised by the British, futile.

In 1948 Weizmann would become Israel's first president. Hussein remained King of Hejaz until ousted by Ibn Saud in 1924. Feisal reigned for just four months as King of Syria before being evicted by the French, whereupon he was made client king of the newly invented British mandate of Iraq.

Feisal fretted over Palestine until the end of his life. In 1975, the historian Khaldun S Husry recalled that in July 1933, two months before his death, Feisal had raised concerns with the British about the rate of Jewish immigration. Were it not checked, he predicted, there would be further fighting between Jews and Arabs and "in the near future the Arabs would either be squeezed out of Palestine or reduced to economic and social servitude".

Even by then, the reassurances Churchill had given in Jerusalem in 1921 appeared naive, if not hollow: "I do not think you have any need to feel alarmed or troubled in your minds about the future," he had told the Arabs. "We cannot tolerate the expropriation of one set of people by another or the violent trampling down of one set of national ideals for the sake of erecting another." In the end, that may have been the only form of toleration learned throughout the whole miserable dispute.


Jonathan Gornall is a feature writer at The National.