Britain & Arabs

Three books of high scholarship together establish the enormity of the crime of the Balfour Declaration on establishing “a national home” for the Jewish people by placing it in the proper historical context.

Published : Nov 22, 2017 12:30 IST

Author: Peter Mangold; Publisher: I.B. Tauris, 2016; Pages: 384; Price: £25

Author: Peter Mangold; Publisher: I.B. Tauris, 2016; Pages: 384; Price: £25

ARTHUR KOESTLER aptly summed up the origin of Israel’s birth, the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, as a document in which “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third” ( Promise and Fulfilment , page 4). The actual situation on the ground was described by Michael Adams, a distinguished journalist, in The Guardian on November 3, 1967: “Fifty years ago there was no Palestine ‘problem’. There was only Palestine itself, at that time a province of the Ottoman Empire, but a part of the Arab homeland like any other, occupied without interruption by Arabs for more than 1,300 years, and sharing the expectations of the rest of the Arab world. These expectations centred around the promise of immediate independence made to the Arabs by the British government in 1916, in return for which the Arabs had risen in revolt against their Turkish masters, to play a significant part in the final defeat of the Ottoman Empire.

“But before this promise to restore Arab independence could be kept, the British government had entered into another, much less precise, undertaking to the Jewish people, then scattered throughout the world. This later undertaking, which we know as the Balfour Declaration, conflicted with the earlier promise to the Arabs; indeed, it could only be fulfilled at the expense of the Arabs—and in this contradiction lies the essence of the Palestine problem.”

In 1917, the Jews comprised around 10 per cent of the total population. They could acquire a majority only by ethnic cleansing of the Arabs once the state of Israel was established in 1948. Even successive waves of immigration, assisted by Britain, the occupying power, could not convert the Arab majority into a minority. Israel was conceived and born in sin, an illegitimate child of British imperialism. The enormity of the wrong history fully establishes.

100th anniversary

It was, therefore, very appropriate that Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May should host a dinner for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street on November 2, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. She is a discredited Prime Minister and the driving force behind the extinction of the two-state formula by misappropriation of the few lands still with the Arabs in the name of settlements on lands conquered after the 1967 war.

These three books of high scholarship together establish the enormity of the crime of the Declaration by placing it in the proper historical context. The range and focus of these three books vary; their superb research remains constant. Peter Mangold covers the period from 1800 to 2016. Unlike the other two, he is not a professional historian. He served in the Research Department of the Foreign Office. The conclusions he draws at the end reflect a desire to balance law and ethics against Britain’s imperial interests. He strives to be fair only to fail more than once.

“Closely related to the belief that commitments should be honoured was concern to act honestly and honourably. Britain should not deceive, lie and deliberately mislead, or otherwise act in a manner to impair its good name. Again, this was a precept often honoured in the breach. The most famous instance is the discomfort of British officers involved in the Arab Revolt, on learning of the provisions of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Arab Revolt, [T.E.] Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom : ‘In the East persons were more trusted than institutions. So the Arabs, having tested my friendliness and sincerity under fire, asked me, as a free agent, to endorse the promises of the British government. I had no previous or inner knowledge of the McMahon pledges and the Sykes-Picot treaty. But, not being a perfect fool, I could see that if we won the war the promises to the Arabs were dead paper.’” “Officials” were embarrassed, never the leaders who did the dirty work, always.

Most of the men who ran the empire had contempt for the unfortunate ones over whom they ruled. An Italian remarked to a British diplomat on “a strange dogma in your religion that the British Empire was conceived without original sin”.

To be fair, Mangold does deliver censure when he feels it is called for. “The rejection of proposals to assassinate the Mufti during World War II and Egyptian intelligence officers in Yemen in the 1960s, however, reflected the view that these were liable to be counterproductive, rather than ethical considerations. Nasser’s assassination was considered in 1956, but ruled out as much for practical as ethical reasons. The 1957 Anglo-American plan for overthrowing the Syrian government included the ‘elimination’ of three Syrian figures. According to press reports, active consideration was on several occasions given to the deposition or assassination of Colonel Qadaffi, while British, along with American, French and Israeli officials, discussed the assassination of Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War.”

It was very English of Attorney General Goldsmith to revise his legal opinion to please Prime Minister Tony Blair before the Gulf War; as English too as the public protests of the law officers then and in 1956 on the Suez War. As the English saying goes, no one is perfect. Not even the moralising Indians.

Winston Churchill had few qualms about morality in world affairs. The subtitle of Warren Dockter’s book on Churchill’s policies is “Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East”. A whole chapter is devoted to India, from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to Pakistan. Churchill’s deep prejudice against Hindus and, indeed, India was acquired early in his career, partiality for the Jews and contempt for the Arabs were also early acquisitions.

Brazen falsehoods

He was capable of brazen falsehoods. “We think (a Jewish national home) will be good for the world, good for the Jews and good for the British empire, but also good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine… they shall not be supplanted… but they shall suffer in the benefits of Zionism.” Dockter tends to accept such utterances uncritically, though he fairly notes that Churchill “was contemptuous of the Islamic world as a whole”. His claim that “the British government is the greatest Moslem state in the world… well disposed to the Arabs” reveals that deceit was inherent in the imperial venture. Dockter slurs over these flaws. The book for all its able research is very partial to Churchill.

More objective worK

Robert H. Lieshout’s work is far more objective. Its subtitle indicates its focus. During the First World War, seeds of strife were sown in secret, in criminal disregard of people’s rights. The Allies merrily promised Austria’s German-majority South Tyrol to Italy to induce it to defect from Germany. The Austro-Italian dispute was settled only in 1992.

The Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann was lucky when, with the fall of the Herbert Henry Asquith government, Lloyd George became Prime Minister and A.J. Balfour Foreign Secretary, replacing Sir Edward Grey. He knew them well. Both were “Christian Zionists” who believed that Jewish rule over Palestine would bring forth the promised Messiah. Zionists had been working on their plans for a good few years. The First World War provided an opportunity—support the British so that once the Ottoman Empire was defeated and Arab lands were restored to them, Palestine would be excluded and given to the Zionists. Their demands were set out in a document in January 1917. Lieshout’s through research reveals that as far back as in 1878 the Foreign Office was concerned with “furthering the political rights and living conditions of Jews in foreign countries”. They had a head start over the Arabs, who stood not a chance in the contest.

Three sets of documents

Britain, with France in tow, wooed the Arabs with false promises to induce them to revolt against the Ottomans, deploying the legendary T.E. Lawrence. The web of deceit was woven around three sets of documents. 1. The correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon, High Commissioner for Egypt and Sudan, who, as India’s Foreign Secretary, drew the McMahon Line, and Sharif Hussein, the Grand Sharif of Mecca (July 14, 1915-January 1, 1916). The Arabs were promised independent statehood (for the text see George Antonius, The Arab Awakening , pages 413-417). 2. The Anglo-French-Russian agreement on the discussion of spoils of the Ottoman Empire, divided into spheres of influence, after the War, popularly known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It was concluded in London on May 16, 1916 (ibid., Appendix B for the text). The Russians published the secret accord with all the secret treaties after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to the consternation of the Arabs.

Britain was double-dealing the Arabs, because at the time that it was negotiating with Sharif Hussein over the future of the Asian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, it was discussing the same subject with France and Russia and keeping the two sets of negotiations separate. The secret Anglo-French-Russian accord was a clear decision in principle to divide the whole of Iraq and Syria into spheres of British and French control or influence, leaving only Jerusalem and part of Palestine (on Russian insistence) to some form of international administration.

In the so-called Arab rectangle formed by the Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Iraq of today, Britain and France planned to assume direct control over the most populous and advanced areas. The land in between, which is roughly the Syrian desert, was to form an autonomous Arab region. But this would be so weak and thinly populated as to be at the mercy of British and French power. Only in the backward and impoverished Arabian peninsula were the Arabs to be given real independence. It struck gold and became Britain’s and later the United States’ faithful ally as Saudi Arabia.

3. The Balfour Declaration, unlike the other two documents, was published on November 2, 1917. It read : “Dear Lord Rothschild, I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of his Majesty’s Government the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations, which has been submitted to and approved by the Cabinet: ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, 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.’ I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation. Yours sincerely, Arthur James Balfour.” Note: The Arabs were not even mentioned.

Lord Curzon’s protest in a memorandum of October 26, 1917, was ignored. He accurately predicted strife (for the text, see Zafarul-Islam Khan, Palestine Documents , Pharos, New Delhi, pages 62-65; an excellent compilation).

Intent to deceive

The opaque language itself suggests an intent to deceive. In the early afternoon of October 30, 1917, Weizmann sat waiting outside the room where the British Cabinet met until Mark Sykes emerged calling out: “Dr Weizmann, it’s a boy.” The Cabinet had endorsed the Balfour Declaration. Its opacity hardly concealed deceit. Its record is set out in Michael Makovsky’s book Churchill’s Promised Land : “The definition of ‘national home’ was intentionally ambiguous. The Zionists purposely used the term ‘home’ in Basle in 1897, so as not to provoke the Gentiles, but had made conflicting statements since then about whether they intended a state or not. Weizmann considered development of state a slow process, which certainly would have been necessary for the Jews to become a majority in Palestine. (At the time of the Declaration, there were estimated to be 50,000-65,000 Jews out of a total population of 700,000). Balfour told the War Cabinet on 31 October that ‘national home’ meant an entity under British or American protectorate which permitted the Jews to ‘build up… a real centre of national culture and focus of national life. It did not necessarily involve the early establishment of an independent Jewish state, which was a matter for gradual development in accordance with the ordinary laws of political evolution.’ With ‘centre’, he borrowed the vague term [Lord Herbert] Samuel employed in 1915. Balfour did not commit to a definition in public, but privately confided in 1918, ‘My personal hope is that the Jews will make good in Palestine and eventually found a Jewish state.’ The British press mostly understood the Declaration as promising a Jewish state.”

The Declaration was incorporated into the Mandate of the League of Nations given to Britain to govern Palestine. In August 1919, Balfour wrote in a memorandum in brutal candour: “The contradiction between the letter of the government 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 [that is,. the King-Crane Commission] has been going through the form of seeing 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 of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.

“In my opinion that is right. What I have never been able to understand is how it can be harmonised with the Anglo-French Declaration, the Covenant [or the League of Nations], or the instructions to the Commission of Enquiry.… 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” ( Documents on British Foreign Policy , Series 1, Volume IV, 1952, page 345). Are you surprised at the Arab rage today? Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was not. He was more honest.

“As he told his colleagues, against the backdrop of the Arab Revolt of 1936-39: ‘We must see the situation for what it is. On the security front, we are those attacked and who are on the defensive. But in the political field we are the attackers and the Arabs are those defending themselves. They are living in the country and own the land, the village. We live in the Diaspora and want only to immigrate [to Palestine] and gain possession of [lirkosh] the land from them.’

“Years later, after the establishment of Israel, he expatiated on the Arab perspective in a conversation with the Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann: ‘I don’t understand your optimism…. Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural. We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel. It’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing. We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?’” (Benny Morris, page 393).

What are 70 years in the life of an ancient people like the Arabs? Small wonder that Henry Kissinger demands that Arabs should abandon even the notion of a historic wrong as the price of a settlement. After 1948, American imperialism gradually elbowed out British imperialism from the whole of West Asia. The results of both are spread all over the region today.

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