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Ben Clarke

From Balfour to Boris: Britain's broken promises in Palestine

This November marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration [AFP]

Date of publication: 16 October, 2017

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The long read: In its centenary year, Professor Avi Shlaim examines the impact of the Balfour Declaration and Britain's 'deviousness, duplicity and double-standards' in Palestine, writes Ben Clarke.
"It's a sad story of double standards, broken promises, and betrayals, from Balfour to May," said Professor Avi Shlaim, in his keynote speech at the British Library on 7 October.

Shlaim, one of Israel's so-called "new historians", was speaking at a day-long conference hosted by Middle East Monitor to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration - a public statement issued by then British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, promising government support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.

Over the course of his 45-minute speech Shlaim delivered a scathing analysis of Britain's role in Palestine since the turn of the 20th century, highlighting Balfour's anti-Semitic tendencies, detailing how the only Jew in David Lloyd George's cabinet was opposed to the Balfour Declaration, and explaining why, for once, Boris Johnson has displayed "sound judgment".

Starting his speech, Shlaim noted that while the Balfour Declaration is one hundred years old this year, last year also marked the hundredth anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement – a secret agreement signed by the British and the French, detailing how the two powers would divide the Ottoman's Arab provinces after the First World War.

Though the Sykes-Picot agreement was never actually implemented, together with the Balfour Declaration, it had a "huge influence in shaping the history of the modern Middle East" explained Shlaim. "The Sykes-Picot agreement is the symbol of the European carve-up of the middle east, in total disregard for the rights and aspirations of the local population," he said, "and the Balfour Declaration is the symbol of European colonial imposition of a foreign entity in the heartland of the Arab world".

"The Balfour Declaration is only 67 words long, yet it has the most far-reaching consequences for the Jews, for the Palestinians, and for the region as a whole," Shlaim continued, "it started the process of dispossession, the dispersal, and the exile of the Palestinians, and culminated in the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948".

Although Britain's time in the Middle East was relatively brief, the consequences for the Arabs were devastating

Shlaim described how the Zionist movement was Britain's "junior ally" in the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homeland. "Zionism was a settler-colonial movement," he said, "and the state of Israel, its principle political progeny, is a colonial-settler state".

Although Britain's time in the Middle East was relatively brief, the consequences for the Arabs were devastating, said Shlaim. The Arabs living in Palestine during the British mandate were denied their independence, freedom and democracy.

"The hallmarks of British policy towards Palestine were deviousness, duplicity and double-standards. The French call Britain 'Perfidious Albion'. This description is fully justified, it's spot on, but it equally applies to France as well. France is no better. Egotism is in the DNA of all colonial powers," he said.

Evidencing his provocative description, Shlaim went on to list three "infamous" promises or agreements that were made by Britain regarding the future of Palestine - all of which, he said were incompatible with each other.

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The first was made to Sharif Hussein of Mecca in 1915, when the British promised it would support the establishment of an independent Arab kingdom under the Sharif's rule, if he mounted an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Britain later denied that Palestine was ever promised as part of such independent Arab kingdom, but the Sharif was convinced he had been lied to. Though some historians argue there is a genuine ambiguity in the available documents, Shlaim said that having looked at the evidence, he could say "quite categorically that the British lied and the Sharif was right. Palestine was promised to the Arabs," he remarked.

The second promise was made the following year in the form of the Sykes-Picot agreement which, as noted above, divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence.

"This was a secret agreement, but it was clearly incompatible with the first promise, because Palestine and the other Arab areas like Syria, were promised to Hussein the Sharif of Mecca, but now, they were being carved up between the colonial powers themselves," explained Shlaim.

The third and most infamous promise came a year later: The Balfour Declaration.

British anti-Semitism

Included in the 67-word document, were two promises:

While Balfour pledged that Her Majesty's government would "view with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine," the Declaration conditioned this pledge on there being a clear understanding that "Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." The second promise was overlooked from the date of publication.

Britain had "no moral or legal authority" to make such a promise to the Zionists, said Shlaim. "The concept of a national home doesn't exist in international law," he explained.

In 1917 the Arabs in Palestine constituted 90 percent of the population, while Jews made up 10 percent and owned only two percent of the land. Despite the overwhelming Arab majority, for the Zionists, a "national home" always meant a state, said Shlaim, and that's exactly what they got at the end of the British mandate.

The Declaration was a "classic colonial document which totally ignored the rights and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the people of the county," he said.

The Declaration was a 'classic colonial document which totally ignored the rights and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the people of the county' - Avi Shlaim

There was possibly even an anti-Semitic element behind this initiative, Shlaim continued.

The father of political Zionism, Theodore Hertzl, said that "the anti-Semites will become our most loyal friends," and by the turn of the 20th century there had been a long tradition of anti-Semites supporting the idea of a state for the Jews, to stop Jews being afforded a full right of citizenship in the countries where they lived.

Balfour himself showed anti-Semitic tendencies too. When he was prime minister in 1905, he produced the Aliens Act which blocked the immigration to Britain of Jews who were persecuted in Europe. "This was the first major piece of anti-immigration legislation in this country," said Shlaim.

However, "the real force behind the Balfour Declaration was not Arthur Balfour but Prime Minister David Lloyd George," Shlaim continued. "David Lloyd George was a Welsh radical but in foreign policy he was an old fashioned British imperialist and a land grabber."

Identifying two schools of thought as to why the Balfour Declaration was issued, Shlaim said that some say it was through British "altruism" and "imperial generosity towards the Jews". The Declaration was supposedly a noble Christian project to help the Jews return to their biblical homeland, they say.

The declaration had nothing to do with altruism, but was motivated by imperialism

Denouncing this view, Shlaim placed himself squarely in the other camp that says the declaration had nothing to do with altruism, but was motivated by imperialism. "It was issued as a result of cold and calculating considerations of imperial self-interest," he concluded.

While the Sykes-Picot agreement had placed Palestine under international administration because the British and the French couldn't agree on who would have Palestine, Lloyd George wanted Palestine to be firmly within the British sphere of influence, so he reneged on the agreement.

"He wanted Palestine for two reasons," explained Shlaim. "One was to exclude the French from having any influence south of Syria and Lebanon. Secondly, he wanted Britain to control the approaches to the Suez Canal which was vital for the imperial roots of communications to the Far East."

Radicalism v Reformism

At the time the Balfour Declaration was signed, there was a "radical" faction and a "reformist" faction within the British government. Leading the radical faction, Lloyd George wanted to dismantle the Ottoman Empire and extend the influence of the British Empire into the region, Shlaim said, while the reformers wanted to maintain the Ottoman Empire but to change and reform it.

When Lloyd George became prime minister in December 1916, he began to push the radical agenda extremely hard, and also "fell under the spell" of Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the British Zionists, tells Shlaim.

Due to a convergence of interest between British imperialism and Zionism, in that both wanted Palestine as a British protectorate at the time, Weizmann became a close ally of Lloyd George.

[Click to enlarge]

Yet, explained Shlaim, Lloyd George did not need the Zionists to promote his agenda. In fact, the Arab nationalists, who were already Britain's allies, would have been a much more powerful instrument for dismantling the Ottoman Empire. "So why did he privilege the Zionists?" asked Shlaim rhetorically.

"My answer is that he had a highly inflated idea of the international influence of the Jews," said Shlaim, describing how Lloyd George had seemingly subscribed to the anti-Semitic trope that Jews have some kind of special international influence.

"His support of Zionism was at least in part based on a misperception. In aligning Britain with Zionism he acted in the mistaken, and in a sense anti-Semitic view, that the Jews were uniquely powerful, that the Jews made the wheels of history turn," said Shlaim.

"The reality was that the Jews were a helpless minority and the Zionists were a tiny minority within this minority. The notion of an international Jewish influence, along the lines of the protocols of the elders of Zion was a myth not a reality."

Read more:  Balfour centenary is being used for propaganda not peace

Adding to these misperceptions of influence, is the fact that there was actually a lot of opposition to Zionism in the Jewish community in Britain. Perhaps the most prominent Jewish opponent was Sir Edwin Montague, the secretary of state of India, and the only Jewish member of the Lloyd George cabinet.

"On 23 August 1917 Montague submitted to the cabinet a four page memorandum under the title 'the anti-Semitism of the present government'. This, for the first time, laid out in detail the Jewish case against Zionism, and the memorandum turned out to be very far-sighted," explained Shlaim.

Montague argued that Judaism is a religion and not a nation. "It did not make sense to create a Jewish state, because Jews from different parts of the world had nothing in common, not even language, except their affiliation to the Jewish religion," Montague argued according to Shlaim.

The creation of a Jewish state in Palestine was bound to undermine the struggle for equal rights for Jews everywhere else in the world, Montague contended, because if Jews anywhere complained about discrimination people would tell them to go to their own country.

Though Montague concluded that Zionism was "a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom," the cabinet ignored his pleadings and voted in favour of the Balfour Declaration. 

A colossal strategic blunder

"From the point of view of British interests, the Balfour Declaration was a colossal strategic blunder," said Shlaim, "because it generated no end of ill-will on the part of all the Arabs and the Muslim world - hostilities that continue to the present day."

As the mandatory power in Palestine it can be said that Britain favoured the Zionists. The first high commissioner for Palestine was Sir Herbert Samuel who was a Jew and an ardent Zionist. In 1915 he submitted a proposal for creating a Jewish state in Palestine to the Asquith cabinet, explained Shlaim.

Throughout the British mandate, the Palestinians repeatedly requested a democratically elected national assembly and a national government, but Whitehall turned down all such requests, said Shlaim.

Throughout the British mandate, the Palestinians repeatedly requested a democratically elected national assembly and a national government, but Whitehall turned down all such requests

Describing the element of racism also fuelling British attitudes towards the Arabs, Shlaim noted that when giving testimony before the Peel Commission in 1937 Winston Churchill referred to the Palestinians as "dogs in a manger who stood in the way of the Zionists".

Disgustingly, especially given the fight against genocidal tyranny that will define Churchill forevermore, he castigated the Palestinians for not making way to a "stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly wise race which has come in to take their place" according to Shlaim.

"This is a shocking statement but it's not surprising because racism and imperialism usually go hand in hand," said Shlaim.

Moving to what the Israeli's call the "war of independence" and the Palestinans commemorate as the "nakba" or catastrophe, Shlaim said there is much debate about what actually happened in 1948 when the State of Israel was declared.

"There is a school of old historians who tell the traditional Zionist version of the conflict, and I belong to a group of so called 'new historians' which includes Ilan Pappe, and used to include Benny Morris before he veered to the extreme right," he said.

Read more: The Nakba: 69 years old and still destroying lives

One of the main issues in dispute surrounds Britain's role as the mandate in Palestine was approaching its end. "The Zionist view is that Britain's aim was to abort the birth of a Jewish state and that Britain armed, encouraged and incited its Arab allies to invade Palestine and strangle the infant roots they had birthed," explained Shlaim.

"Ilan Pappe and I argue that Britain was resigned to the emergence of a Jewish state. Its real aim was to abort the birth of a Palestinian state. Hostility towards a Palestinian state was a constant factor in British policy during this period. The Palestinian state, in British eyes, was synonymous with a mufti state and therefore they did not want it," Shlaim countered.

The key to British policy during this period, he argued, was Greater Transjordan. The British supported King Abdullah - who one British official referred to as a "born land grabber" - in his bid to annex the Arab part of Palestine, the West Bank, said Shlaim.

"The 1948 war became a general land grab," he said: "The winners were Israel and Abdullah. The losers were the Palestinians. 730,000 Palestinians became refugees, and the name Palestine was wiped off the map."

Theresa in Wonderland

Skipping forward 70 years, Shlaim described the current prime minister, Theresa May, as an "unqualified supporter of Israel, and perhaps the most pro-Israeli leader in Europe".

Addressing the Conservative Friends of Israel soon after she became prime minister, May called Israel "a remarkable country, a thriving democracy, a beacon of tolerance, an engine of enterprise and an example to the rest of the world," said Shlaim, adding wryly that he would have titled her speech 'Theresa in Wonderland'.

She told her audience that the centenary of the Balfour Declaration was a "special time" for Britain, and went on to deliver a "wholly one-sided verdict" on the infamous document, according to Shlaim. "It is an anniversary we will be marking with pride," she said.

Britain's record in Palestine over the course of the last century has been 'shameful and indefensible - Avi Shlaim

The current foreign secretary Boris Johnson, however, has a different take to Theresa May, explained Shlaim. In an article written two years ago Johnson described the Balfour declaration as "bizarre", a "tragically incoherent document" and "an exquisite piece of foreign office fudgerama".

"This is the only statement by our foreign secretary that I think displays sound judgment and historical insight," said Shlaim sardonically.

Reaching his conclusion, Shlaim said that Britain's record in Palestine over the course of the last century has been "shameful and indefensible". It enabled a small minority to start the systematic takeover of the entire country, he said. "It's a sad story of double standards, broken promises, and betrayals from Balfour to May."

Offering advice to the British government, Shlaim suggested the foreign secretary should give a major speech, objectively reviewing Britain's involvement in Palestine/Israel, starting with an apology for the Balfour Declaration, and ending with a pledge to support Palestinian statehood.

"This would be a genuine contribution to a two-state solution to the conflict. This would not be a move against Israel, but on the contrary, in support of Israel. It would be a move to save Israel from itself," he said.

Arguing that an independent Palestinian state is an "existential necessity for Israel" Shlaim said the alternative is for Israel to be an apartheid state. "This is not just a danger that Israel may become, this is a reality. Israel and the occupied territories is indisputably an apartheid state, an apartheid regime," he added.

Bringing his talk to a powerful end, Shlaim reiterated the point that the Balfour Declaration consisted of two promises.

"Britain has over fulfilled its promise to the Jews; it promised them a national home but it helped them build a Jewish state," he said, "it's high time that Britain started to live up to its other promise, by upholding the rights of the Palestinians, by working for justice for the Palestinians."


Ben Clarke is a law graduate and independent correspondent. His work has featured in Middle East Eye, Mondoweiss and others.

Follow him on Twitter: @benclarke121

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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