Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time...

To adapt the words of the late, immortal George Carlin, I don't just have pet peeves when it comes to politicians, I have major psychotic hatreds. One - just one - relates to Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), the Lord Balfour of the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917.

As David Hirst in his invaluable history of the Arab-Israeli conflict points out: "The Balfour Declaration was one of the two key documents that have shaped the modern history of the Middle East. The other was the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. This secret deal was part of an understanding in which the 3 major allies, Britain, France and Czarist Russia, defined each other's interests in the post-war Middle East. Sir Mark Sykes, Secretary to the British Cabinet, and the French plenipotentiary, M Georges Picot, agreed that, after the break-up of the Ottoman empire, Britain and France would divide its former Arab provinces between them... France was to take over Lebanon and Syria, Britain would get Iraq and Transjordan. Palestine was to be placed under an 'international administration' of a kind to be decided on later." (The Gun & the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, 1977, pp 37)

I'll be returning to Sykes later in this post, but, as Hirst relates, "The Balfour Declation grew out of Sykes-Picot, but, in retrospect, its importance far outweighs it. Indeed, it is difficult to recall a document which has so arbitrarily changed the course of history as this one. The Arab-Israeli struggle is the likeliest of contemporary world problems to precipitate the nuclear doomsday; if it does, surviving historians will surely record that it all began with with the brief and seemingly innocuous letter... which Arthur Balfour, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, addressed to Lord Rothschild on 2 November 1917." (ibid pp 37-38)

You will, of course, be familiar with the second paragraph: "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 the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

In retrospect a colonialist cock-up of the first order, you may, like myself, have wondered from time to time if, in retrospect, Balfour had ever had any regrets over the document that bore his name. Unfortunately, it would appear that he didn't: In 1925 he set sail to inaugurate the new Hebrew University in Palestine. Embarking first at the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, he made his way to Cairo. There he was spared a protest staged by Palestinian Arabs living in Egypt, when the Interior Minister, Isma'il Sidqi, had the protesters arrested - surely proof positive, in light of the reception given by the Mubarak regime to the recent Gaza Freedom March and Viva Palestina aid convoy, that some things never really change in the Land of the Pharoahs. (See Palestine & Modern Arab Poetry, Khalid A Sulaiman, 1984, p 51)

From Cairo, Balfour travelled on to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Balfour biographer R J Q Adams takes up the story: "There was much pausing at kibbutzim and townships where Jewish settlers wished to cheer the man they identified as their benefactor, and Balfour smilingly endured the unwonted part of popular hero. The highlight of the visit was the formal inauguration on 1 April of the new university, and, before an assembly of ten thousand gathered at the foot of Mount Scopus, Balfour did the honours garbed in the gown of the chancellor of Cambridge University. Like Weizmann, he found the long speeches trying - most were in Hebrew, a language of which he knew nothing - but he endured them, and the ceremony concluded to tumultuous applause. Fatigued by the extended ceremonies, he was pleased to spend a few days as the guest of Lord Samuel, since 1920 the high commissioner in Jerusalem. He revived quickly, and was soon enjoying tennis with his host on the clay courts of the residency. The British authorities and the Jewish defence force, the Haganah, provided security for the official party, but Balfour wished to continue on to view the historic sights of Syria, where the protection of the visitors became the responsibility of the French administration, already anxious over a recent insurrection. Their plans soon went awry as in Damascus a hostile Arab crowd - infuriated by the presence of the author of the hated 1917 Declaration - advanced on his hotel, only to be received by French cavalry who fired volleys of warning shots. General Sarrail, the military governor, was anxious to bundle the party out of his city, and Balfour and his friends were packed off to Beirut and kept on board ship for three days before their vessel was allowed to sail. Though Balfour brushed aside his adventure, insisting he had faced worse times in Ireland, later he would speak only of the Palestinian days of his adventure. Certainly it in no way shook his confidence in the rightness of the famous Declaration, and he steadfastly discounted any signs of religious and racial strife in Palestine, writing in 1927, 'Nothing has occurred during that period to suggest the least doubt as to the wisdom of this new departure'." (Balfour: The Last Grandee, 2007, pp 368-369)

Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919), he of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was apparently a different man entirely:

"Sir Mark Sykes had returned to Paris early in February [1919] from a tour of over two months in Palestine and Syria, and had brought disquieting news. What he had observed on that journey had opened his eyes to realities that had hitherto escaped him. He had been particularly affected by his own discovery of the gap between what he had previously understood Zionism to be and what he had just seen of Zionism in the making in Palestine and of its effects on the minds of the Arabs. '... From being the evangelist of Zionism during the War he had returned to Paris with feelings shocked by the intense bitterness which had been provoked in the Holy Land. Matters had reached a stage beyond his conception of what Zionism would be. His last journey to Palestine had raised many doubts, which were not set at rest by a visit to Rome. To Cardinal Gasquet he admitted the change of his views on Zionism, and that he was determined to qualify, guide and, if possible, save the dangerous situation which was rapidly arising'. Syke's views about the Sykes-Picot Agreement had undergone a similar revulsion: he had become convinced of its inadaptability to actual conditions and of the futility of trying to execute it. And, although he was feeling worn out with the exertions of his tour, he had hurried back to Paris bent upon doing all he could to correct false hopes and put a brake upon ambitions which now seemed to him insensate. But within a few days of his return he fell ill and died: and it is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that, for Jews, Arabs and British alike, to say nothing of the French, his death at that juncture was little short of a calamity. Without going so far as to suppose that one individual, however genuine, talented and forceful, could have infected the Versailles peacemakers with his own sense of justice, there is little doubt that, had he lived, his recital of facts and his forecast of consequences might have filled the minds of the politicians with those anxieties which are often, in politics, the beginning of wisdom. In those few days of activity before his fatal illness, Sykes had seen Lord George, Balfour and several of his French and Zionist friends, and had begun the campaign for a return to sanity upon which he had set his heart. What effect his warnings may have had at the time is not known. But when, a few weeks after Sykes' death, [Emir] Faisal's proposal for an inquiry [to visit Syria and Palestine and ascertain the wishes of the population*] on the spot began to be seriously considered, the prevalent sentiment in British, French and Zionist political circles was one of still greater discomfort. And Balfour went to the lengths of addressing a memorandum to his chief, in which he urged that Palestine be altogether excluded from the purpose of the inquiry, while Clemenceau kept insisting that France could not consent to its being held unless it were to cover Iraq and Palestine and well was Syria." (The Arab Awakening, George Antonius, 1938, pp 290-292)

[*This became the King-Crane Commission with regard to Syria-Palestine & Iraq, 28/8/1919. See my 18/6/08 post Avnery's Apology: A Critique]

To draw on Carlin again, it looks like the wrong man got pencilled in for a sudden visit from the Angel of Death.

No comments: