Friday, 17 February 2012

The Balfour Declaration

 I sipped at my little cup of strong coffee. ‘Do you think you can take the water bid?’
   ‘Yes. I know we can. We’re a million miles ahead of the British when it comes to our technical bid and they know it. In fact, it’s something of a worry. The British don’t always play fair in Jordan, you know.’
   Ah, the cunning British. The Arabs have never lost their view of the ‘Breets’ as cunning, Machiavellian strategists. What I found odd was how such a bunch of muckle-headed chinless wonders with their classical educations, convictions of racial superiority and love of brown boys’ pert arses could ever be seen as cunning.
   I said as much to Daoud. ‘Ah,’ he said, smiling a rueful smile. ‘But maybe we have to demonise them. Imagine, if we took your view of these people, the Storrs and Glubbs, Philbys and Lawrences. Imagine how little it would make us, to have been conquered by these creatures. We’d rather build them up to be cunning and forceful. At least it would explain how they could take everything away from us.’
Olives, Page 135

You can tell the British were in Jordan, because of the nice, straight borders. Suits with posh voices, pencils and rulers in fact defined much of the Middle East. I am often amazed at how little rancour I have encountered in my time wandering around the region, even when history rears its conversational head.

One thing I hear quoted a lot is the line that the creation of Israel was down to the British and their Balfour Declaration. Few people who state this are aware of what the Balfour Declaration actually is – seven lines of text rather than some grand treaty that defined Israel.

"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."

It’s actually a pretty weasely piece of diplomatic speak as Great Statements go. And it was actually unpopular with the British public of the time. But the Balfour Declaration was part of a prevailing sentiment at the time among the Great Powers that “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” was something to be looked upon favourably.

In fact, British policy in Palestine – in the Arab World in general – was a mess. The Sykes Picot treaty, the McMahon-Hussein treaty, the attempts at settlement of the Hashemites around the region and the subsequent Anglo-French declaration all clearly show the British and French as being the dominant powers in the region, jostling for pre-eminence at every turn. They also show the British had no coherent objective or policy for the region. They didn’t know what the hell they were doing, in short…

A collector of books on Middle East history, one of my more prized possessions is ‘Orientations’ by Ronald Storrs. Storrs, a friend of TE Lawrence’s (who used the defining phrase, ‘clever little Lawrence’), was the governor of Mandate Palestine and his views on Zionism were typical of British views of the time, although his view of the Arabs and the cost of Zionism was more advanced than, perhaps, Joe Public's - and certainly more than Balfour's.

Storrs spent much of his time as Governor trying to perform an impossible balancing act. The British prevaricated and 'viewed with favour', trying to maintain the status quo in Palestine, limiting Jewish immigration as much as they could (Lawrence Durrell’s brilliant Alexandria Quartet is centred around the struggle to obtain entry certificates for Jews from Europe to get into Palestine), while trying to cope with increasingly violent frustration from the indigenous population of Palestine as well as being effectively barricaded out of the institutions of state they had created by the Jewish administrators they had appointed.

Zionism is a world movement. Arabism does not exist. Although it is said that a knowledge of Arabic will take you from India to the Atlantic, yet Arab merits, defects, rights and grievances are essentially local in character... The Arab of Palestine therefore feels himself under an overwhelming inferiority in the presentation of his case to the conscience of the world. He is aware that he has not the ability, the organization, least of all the material resources or the audience for effective propaganda... Against the scientifically controlled publicity of the two greater continents he has about as much chance as had the Dervishes before Kitchener’s machine guns at Omdurman.
Ronald Storrs, Orientations (1937)

However, indecision and inaction had their reward. The Arabs became more rebellious as they realised the impossibility of their position. The Zionists, always a strident voice on the world stage, became a violent  force when the Irgun bombed the King David hotel in 1946, an act of terrorism that incidentally killed more people than any subsequent bombing in the entire Arab/Israeli conflict.

The road to 1948 had been embarked upon. By now the British were still indecisive, but powerless. Filling the vacuum, America took centre stage.

But you know what? If Balfour had never declared, nothing would have changed one jot. Nothing.

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