Did we double-cross the Arabs?

From our archive - 40 years on from the Balfour Declaration

Taken from The New Statesman 3 November 1967

This coming 2 November marks the 90th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which promised the Jews a “national home” in Palestine

As a result, the state of Israel was formed in 1947. This article, written by the Middle East expert Peter Mansfield half a century after the Balfour Declaration, provides an insightful analysis of a fateful document that provoked the most insoluble problem in contemporary international politics.

Selected by Robert Taylor

The root cause of the chronic instability of the Middle East is an irresponsible act of statesmanship of half a century ago. When the Balfour Declaration was issued on 2 November 1917, in the form of a letter from the British Foreign Secretary to Lord Rothschild, saying that His Majesty’s Government ‘view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, some members of the Lloyd George government forecast the storms ahead. Curzon, who had studied Zionist literature, said he ‘could not share the optimistic views held concerning the future of Palestine' and he feared that the Declaration ‘raised false expectations which could never be realised'. Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India and the only Jew in the Cabinet, regarded the Declaration as an anti-Semitic act because it would jeopardise the position of Jews throughout the world. He also believed that it broke promises made to the Arabs and violated the principle of self-determination. These opponents were easily overwhelmed by the confidence of the Declaration’s three champions — Balfour, Cecil and Lloyd George himself.

Their motives have been the subject of endless speculation. They seem to have been a peculiarly British blend of hard-headed realism and romantic idealism, strongly tinged with hypocrisy. The Declaration’s sponsors were so vague about their reasons that they were driven to post hoc rationalisation in later years. Lloyd George told the House of Commons in 1936 that in 1917 the war was going so badly for the Allies that ‘we came to the conclusion that it was vital that we should have the sympathies of the Jewish community’. But there is no evidence that they thought of this at the time.

An important influence on the minds of the government was the Bible-reading Protestant belief in the return of the Jews to Zion on which men like Lloyd George (and the agnostic Churchill — another enthusiastic Zionist) had been nourished. Imperialist motives also played their part, but it was less the specific aims of balancing French influence in Syria with a pro-British community in Palestine which would also help to protect the Suez Canal (although this was in the back of their minds) than the general idea that the Jews, as civilised Europeans, would carry the white man’s burden in an area where Britons were unlikely to do so themselves.

Did they understand the implications of their action? Were they aware that the Zionist aim was to make Palestine a Jewish national state? Had they considered the reactions of the ‘natives’ — that is, the Arabs who formed more than 90 per cent of the population — and, if so, did they think they mattered? There are several pieces of evidence to help answer these questions. One is that the first draft of the Declaration prepared by the Zionist Organisation at Balfour’s invitation foresaw the creation of an autonomous Jewish state under the protection of one of the Allied powers. It was after the strong protests of the Jewish Conjoint Committee, representing British Jewry, backed by Edwin Montagu, that the draft was changed to refer to the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, adding the words ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’ But, as Balfour was undoubtedly aware, a Jewish national state was what the Zionists wanted.

In his efforts to persuade the war cabinet. Balfour said the Declaration ‘did not necessarily involve the early establishment of an independent Jewish state, which was a matter of gradual development in accordance with the ordinary laws of political evolution.’ But, being a philosopher more than a politician, Balfour could be unusually candid. In August 1919 he wrote a memorandum on Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia in which he said:

The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the independent nation of Palestine than in that of the independent nation of Syria. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission [the 1919 King-Crane Commission] has been through the form of asking what they are. The four great powers are committed to Zionism, and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices [sic] of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.

He went on to say that in his opinion this was quite right but that he did not see how this policy could be harmonised with all the other declarations and pledges that had been made by the Allies. ‘In fact, so far as Palestine is concerned, the powers have made no statement of fact that is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.’

A rare and remarkable confession, Apart from the Allies’ general pledges to set up national governments in the Middle East which would derive their authority ‘from the free exercise and choice of the indigenous population’, the British government had committed itself in two other ways. One was in the correspondence in 1915 between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, and the Sherif Hussain of Mecca, the leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks, and the other was the so-called Sykes-Picot agreement, an Anglo-French understanding on the partition of the Middle East into great-power spheres of influence, which was published by the Russians, to the acute embarrassment of the Allies, after October 1917.

Fountains of ink have flowed in the discussion of how far the British government was to blame for making these pledges which, though couched in ambiguous and evasive language, were undeniably incompatible with each other. Evidence which has recently come to light proves fairly condo. sively that at least the Foreign Office believed that the Sherif Hussain had been promised that Palestine should be an independent Arab state.

The question is whether this has any relevance to the present day. Israelis celebrate, while Arabs mourn, the anniversary of the Declaration, but does it mean any more than, say, the British and French attitudes to Agincourt? The answer is surely yes. It is sometimes said that, whatever the rights or wrongs of the past, the Zionists have taken Palestine, the Arabs have lost and should recognise the fact, just as Germany will have to forget about her eastern provinces. But the peculiar nature of Zionism invalidates this agreement. What the Arabs remember is that out of this small beginning - a brief letter from the British Foreign Secretary to a prominent English Jew — a 9-percent minority in Palestine grew in 30 years to establish its own exclusive and powerful nation-state on land which had been theirs for 1,500 years. They can be forgiven for regarding Zionism as expansionist by nature — especially when Zionists reassert their aim of gathering in the Diaspora of 12 million Jews. Possibly the Palestinian Arabs would have done better to settle for half a loaf by accepting almost any of the proposals for the partition of their country which were made during the British mandate. But would they? It is hard to imagine that Zionism would have been content to live within even narrower frontiers than it occupied last June. And Britain was incapable of seeing that it did.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies