This monstrous canker. Was the creation of Israel a mistake? Were the British motivated by a fear of Jewish conspiracies? And what chance now of peace? Philip Ziegler on a new history of Palestine

One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British mandate

Tom Segev <em>Little, Brown, 61

"I dislike them all equally," wrote General Congreve in 1920. "Arabs and Jews and Christians, in Syria and Palestine, they are all alike, a beastly people." His sentiments were shared by most of those who worked for the British government in the region. There is little in this impressively even-handed book to convince one that Congreve's judgement was at fault; what Tom Segev does, however, is point out, in telling detail, the stupidity, naivety and sometimes brutality of which the British were, for their part, capable. Viewed from another angle, all parties were equally high-principled. It was not personal greed or any other ignoble motive that primarily impelled the Arabs, Jews and British in Palestine between 1917 and 1948 - if it had been, the course of history might have been less painful and ended less disastrously.

The odd thing about Palestine during the British mandate is that, while Jews and Arabs were battling for their national interests, the British stood to gain nothing. There were no strategic interests to protect: "Palestine would be of no value to us whatever!" stormed Lord Kitchener. Nor were there substantial commercial pickings to be hoped for. At best, the mandate would provide a constant and vexatious drain on the Exchequer; at worst, it would cost the lives of British soldiers and civilians. In the end, it was this bloodshed that fuelled the demand to "bring the boys back home" and hastened the mandate's inglorious end. Even at its initiation, many Britons had felt that the burden was one that would be more appropriately borne by the United States - by 1945, Whitehall officials would have welcomed the intervention of men from Mars if they thought it would help them get shot of this monstrous canker.

The British brought it on themselves. Without the Balfour Declaration and their active connivance in the 1920s and 1930s, there could never have been a Jewish state. Segev maintains that this support arose not so much from sympathy for Jewish aspirations, or pity for their sufferings, as from fear: "They believed the Jews controlled the world."

There is some truth in this - Lloyd George, for one, was convinced that Jewish influence in Washington was so significant that it had to be appeased at any cost. Field Marshal Wilson wrote indignantly in 1921: "The 'Frocks' seem to think that by handing over Jewland to the Jews they will make friends of those other Jews who govern finance in Chicago, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, etc." But, he insisted: "I entirely disagree with them."

For every Lloyd George or Herbert Samuel, there was a Wilson or a Curzon who felt that Jewish power was vastly overrated and could safely be ignored. For every champion of Arabs or Jews, there was an Arthur Koestler who felt that it was no business of the British and that the Balfour Declaration was an absurdity, "one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation". In the final analysis, Ben-Gurion probably got it right when he estimated that there were perhaps a hundred people in England who took an interest in the region: "Were all of them to set sail in a single boat and sink, no one in Britain would know what was happening in Palestine."

The truth was that the British blundered into the mandate with no clear idea of what they were hoping to achieve, impelled more by a wish to spite the French and assert their authority in the region than to create an independent Jewish state. They worked on the assumption - dubious at the start, and increasingly untenable as the mandate wore on - that most Jews and Arabs were men of good will who needed only a little advice and encouragement to form a harmonious, multiracial society.

Ronald Storrs, the first military governor, went to Jerusalem with "wild exhilaration", determined to forge a new nation and hold an even balance between the rival groups. "I am not for either, but for both," he wrote. "Two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the Synagogue, while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam." It took Ben-Gurion to see that compromise was impossible. "There is no solution," he asserted. The conflict could never be resolved by ingenious and well-meaning sophisms. "There's a national question here. We want the country to be ours. The Arabs want the country to be theirs."

Segev is sometimes a little slapdash about the British background. One can condone vagueness over the niceties of titles, but Charles Lamington, that ardent imperialist with ideas far ahead of his time when it came to fostering the potential for self- government in the British colonies, deserves better than to be dismissed as "a lord by the name of Lamington". Nor would anyone guess from Segev's description of Harold MacMichael as "a chilly, cynical, introverted bureaucrat who treated Palestine as merely another station in his colonial career" that the high commissioner was a distinguished Arab scholar who strove valiantly, if unavailingly, to serve every section of the community.

But despite such minor flaws, this is a fair, well-argued and vivid, readable account. Segev knows that history is made by the men and women who lived through it, as well as by economic trends, demographic shifts and the deliberations of eminent statesmen. His book abounds with accounts of courage and cowardice, triumphs and pitiful disasters, which together compose this tragic era.

In The Iron Wall, published last year, Avi Shlaim has written a history of the state of Israel. One Palestine, Complete - the title derives from the receipt form that Samuel was jokingly asked to sign when he took the position of high commissioner - describes the 40 years of the state's gestation. Together, these books prove that Jewish writers can review the history of their country with impressive honesty and impartiality.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up