The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Jonathan Schneer, Random House, 464 pages
Good morning America! It’s a new day in the Middle East as the Arab Spring—now the Arab Autumn—opens uncharted opportunities for the U.S. to shape the region and lay the foundations for liberal-democratic order, not to mention peace between Jews and Muslims.
But wait—haven’t we seen this movie before? Like when President George W. Bush liberated Iraq, promoted his Freedom Agenda in the Middle East, and insisted that the road to (peace in) Jerusalem led through (American occupied) Baghdad?
Or when President Clinton was hoping to negotiate a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians and integrate a New Middle East into the then booming global economy?
Or when the first President Bush celebrated the defeat of Iraqi aggression in Kuwait and convened Arabs and Israelis in Madrid for a peace conference, trying to bring the region into a New World Order?
President Barack Obama’s attempts to ally the U.S. with the spirit of Tahrir Square may be Pax Americana’s latest sequel. But as historian Jonathan Schneer clarifies in The Balfour Declaration, striving for hegemony in the Middle East was not an original American production. It was the Brits who wrote the first script for this story.
From the British imperial project in the Middle East in the early 20th century—which is the subject of The Balfour Declaration—to the American hegemonic undertaking in the region a hundred years later, Anglo-Americans have tried again and again to make and remake the Middle East in the way that would advance their geo-political interests and correspond to their grand ideals.
Impelled by its strategic interests, the smell of oil, and religious sentiment Great Britain invaded the Middle East during the Great War, allying itself with the forces of Jewish and Arab nationalism and other self-interested and ambitious players. Eventually the British found themselves sucked into a military and diplomatic quagmire, betraying their allies and being betrayed by them. As the costs of the imperial project became intolerable in the aftermath of World War II, the Brits passed hegemonic responsibilities in the region to the Americans.
This saga has also provided journalists with great material. Schneer spins a good yarn out of this chapter on modern Middle East history as he recounts the dramatic behind-the-scenes negotiations and intrigues in the early 1900s that led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and to the rise of Great Britain as the region’s dominant power.
With an eye for detail and the creativity of an espionage-thriller writer, Schneer, a scholar at Georgia Tech’s School of History, has produced an informative and entertaining historical epic that stars a cast of characters—British imperialists, Zionist lobbyists, Arab warriors, Levantine conspirators, and an array of larger-than-life spies, schemers, and adventurers—that would make John Buchan green with envy.
In fact, Buchan modeled Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of his thriller Greenmantle, after one of the historical characters depicted by Schneer, Audrey Herbert. “Tall and slim, with thick, wiry, untamable hair that turned gray during the war, an aquiline nose, and gray, heavy eyes, he explored the Middle East and the Balkans as a young man, gaining a reputation for bravery, kindness, eccentricity, and dash even among the Albanian bandits who befriended him—and yet he was nearly blind,” is the way Schneer describes him.
Despite being nearly blind, Herbert joined the British army at the outbreak of the war. He was captured and wounded during the fighting in Europe, and after his rescue and recovery, accepted a posting to Egypt as an intelligence officer, where he favored the Arab revolt against the Turks while working behind the scenes to arrange peace between Britain and the Ottomans.
Then there was Sir Basil Zaharoff, an arms dealer and part-time spy who played a key role in engineering Greek entry into World War I on the side of the Allies while continuing to maintain close ties with the Germans and the Ottomans. And Marmaduke Pickthall—that was his real name!—an author of popular novels with Middle Eastern themes who converted to Islam and wrote a translation of the Koran. He opposed the British declaration of war against the Ottomans and tried to make peace between the two countries.
Readers of the book may have already encountered another important player in the story, Thomas Edward Lawrence, in David Lean’s film in which the legendary English officer and Arabist is played by Peter O’Toole. Lawrence of Arabia, who led the British-sponsored Arab Revolt against the Turks, is as a central to the Schneer’s narrative as is Chaim Weizmann, the British Zionist leader and renowned scientist who led the diplomatic campaign to enlist Great Britain’s support for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine.
Weizmann’s lobbying during World War I helped win over leading British public figures, including Prime Minister Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, for the Zionist cause. The result was the Balfour Declaration, which was issued on November 2, 1917 and in which the British government stated that it would “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The announcement came in a letter from Balfour to Lord Rothschild, the unofficial leader of British Jews, and it was seen as the first major diplomatic victory for the Zionist movement, opening the road for the establishment of the state of Israel 30 years later.
The problem was that the Balfour Declaration was only one of several conflicting diplomatic commitments that the British government had made during the war to the Jews, to the Arabs, and to the Armenians, as well as to wartime French and Russian allies and even to emissaries representing the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany.
Hence, Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons Feisal, Abdullah, and Ali, who with Lawrence’s assistance united the Bedouin tribes against the Ottoman rulers, were under the impression—based on the Damascus Protocol of 1914, which stated that the goals of the Arab Revolt, and letters exchanged between Hussein and Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt—that the British would support the establishment of an independent Arab kingdom consisting of most of the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and Greater Syria, including Palestine.
Then there was the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement negotiated between the British and French to carve up he Ottoman Empire between the two European powers, with France ruling over Syria and a British-French co-administration in Palestine. Later the British even promised Constantinople and most of Anatolia to Russia’s new Bolshevik government in exchange for continuing to fight in the war, while the Armenians expected to have their own independent state.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book discusses the secret talks that the British held with negotiators representing a faction in the Turkish government during 1917 and 1918. Britain proposed that the Ottomans sign a separate peace with the allies; in return the Turks would continue to maintain some control over Palestine—which had already been promised to the Jews, the Arabs and the French—as well as Great Syria—which the British pledged to the French and to the Arabs—and Mesopotamia. These secret negotiations were led by a crew of shady figures, including double- or triple-crossing spies and businessmen led by Zaharoff, who under his proposed deal with the Turks were supposed to receive millions of U.S. dollars in bribes from the British.
That the British had “promised” the Holy Land to the Jews, the Arabs, the French, and the Ottomans—the Four-Times Promised Land—is seen by Schneer (and other historians) as another example of the deceit, if not treachery, exhibited by Perfidious Albion in its dealings with both adversaries and allies. Schneer, like many students of the Middle East, believes that by supporting the establishment in Palestine of “a National Home for the Jewish people” while reneging on promises to the Arab nationalists, the Brits helped sow the seeds of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The diplomatic fight in London between Jewish and Arab nationalists, as their supporters tried to draw a mighty outside power to their cause, could be regarded as the first act in a continuing geopolitical show. In a way, Weizmann and his team of Zionist lobbyists were the forerunners of the present-day Israel lobby in Washington, while the Arabist Lawrence and his allies in the British diplomatic service and military—not unlike the current complex of American oil men and retired Foreign Service officials—represented an effort to counter the Zionists in winning the hearts and minds of the elites and the public whose government is the dominant player in the Middle East.
That Weizmann and the Zionists proved to be more effective was a testimony to their success in tapping into the religious sentiments and romantic outlook shared by Lloyd George, Balfour, and other powerful British public figures who saw the Jews as the descendants of the Bible’s Children of Israel and believed them to be entitled to international support for their effort to reclaim the land of their forefathers.
Moreover, as Schneer points out, despite the fact that the Zionists presided over a relatively small movement, British politicians and diplomats believed that Weizmann and other proponents of building a Jewish State in Palestine enjoyed wide support among Jews around the world. These statesmen exerted extraordinary powers to influence decisions made in Washington and other world capitals. They were confident that British support for Zionism would help draw the U.S. into the Great War on the side of the allies and defuse the revolutionary fervor of the Russian Jews.
At the same time, the British displayed towards the Arabs the same attitude they exhibited towards other native non-European populations of their empire. And under the fantasy concocted by the imperialist crowd in London, a unified Arab State led by King Hussein working together with the Jewish State in Palestine was supposed to perpetuate British hegemony in the Middle East, securing the control of the Suez Canal and the routes to India, not to mention the newly discovered oil wells.
Indeed, while Weizmann and Lawrence were adversaries, they also shared an interest in breaking up the Ottoman Empire and establishing effective British control in the Middle East. The decline of Britain’s anti-imperialist “Little Englanders” in the Liberal Party and the failure to achieve separate peace agreements between the British and the Ottomans fit very much with the interests of both the Zionists and the Arabists. In the same way, both the Israelis and the Saudis are worried today about the erosion of U.S. power in the Middle East and what seems to be the unwillingness on the part of Washington to use military power against Iran’s nuclear military sites.
And not unlike the fantasies of British imperialists in London a hundred years ago, internationalists and neoconservatives in Washington daydream that the establishment of an independent Palestinian State will ensure peace and Arab-Israeli cooperation as part of a revitalized Pax Americana in the Middle East.
So here we go again, juggling commitments to Israel and the Arab states, fostering efforts to bring stability and spread democracy in the Middle East through peace processes that lead nowhere and military interventions that only increase the costs of empire. Before long the Middle East may prove once more to be the graveyard of an outside power’s ambitions.
Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.