In 1917, a bunch of upper class twits in top hats, collectively known as His Brittanic Majesty's Government, were in the thick of a right royal dustup with their German rivals. Finding themselves in a rather tight corner with Fritz, they foolishly succumbed* to the smooth talk of a certain Mr Chaim Weizmann of the British Zionist Organisation, who intimated both that his 'people' packed a pretty powerful punch and that if Britain wouldn't deliver what he wanted, that is, a Jewish state - sorry, homeland - in Palestine, then Fritz would* - know what I mean? - and so, in the mother-of-all brainsnaps, the top hats issued that Devil of All Promises, the Balfour Declaration.
It came in 2 parts: "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..."
The Palestinian Arabs, of course, insofar as they were thought of at all (after all, were they not merely the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine?), were expected to be deliriously happy with the latter clause as a guarantee of their interests.
[* See my 12/4/11 post Only in The Australian.]
Not unnaturally, they smelt a rat and sent a delegation to London in August 1921 to try to head off the history with which we are now only too sickeningly familiar. Unfortunately, as that Palestinian delegation discovered, and as every Palestinian delegation since has discovered, when dealing with imperial knaves and fools, not to mention their Zionist urgers, all you're ever going to get really is the rough end of the proverbial pineapple.
The story of that first Palestinian delegation and its reception comes from Doreen Ingrams' incomparable Palestine Papers: 1917-1922: Seeds of Conflict (1972), a book that allows "the original documents culled from the secret minutes of Cabinet meetings, and from the telegrams and memos of ministers, generals, ambassadors and the Intelligence Services" to speak for themselves. Read it, learn why the Middle East is in such a godawful mess today, and weep:
"The Cabinet met to discuss the [Churchill] Memorandum on 18 August. The minutes recorded that: 'The Cabinet were informed that recent reports from Palestine were of a disturbing character. Arabs and Jews were armed... and a conflict might shortly ensue, particularly if the Moslem-Christian Delegation, now in London, returned without having secured the withdrawal of Mr Balfour's pledge to the Zionists. The latter were naturally anxious as to their position, and wished to be reassured as to the Government's support. Two courses were open to the Cabinet. They could withdraw from their Declaration, refer the Mandate back to the League of Nations, set up an Arab National Government, and slow down or stop the immigration of Jews: or they could carry out the present policy with greater vigour and encourage the arming of the Jews with a view later on of reducing the numbers of the British garrison and cutting down expenses. A draft pronouncement prepared by Dr Weizmann was read, for which he desired official approval, but objection was taken to its terms, and, in particular, to placing the control of immigration in the hands of the Jews... In the course of the discussion which followed, stress was laid on the following considerations: (i) The honour of the Government was involved in the Declaration made by Mr Balfour, and to go back on our pledge would seriously reduce the prestige of this country in the eyes of Jews throughout the world... (iv) On the other hand, it was urged that peace was impossible on the lines of the Balfour Declaration, which involved setting up a National Home for the Jews and respecting the rights of the Arab population. The result of this inconsistency must be to estrange both Arabs and Jews, while involving us in futile expenditure. Against this position it was argued that the Arabs had no prescriptive right to a country which they had failed to develop to the best advantage'.
"Soon after the Arab delegation arrived in London the members were received by Hubert Young at the Colonial Office. Young made a note of their conversation: 'They started by asking for the immediate establishment of a responsible Government in Palestine on an elective basis; for the abrogation of the Balfour Declaration, for the repeal of all legislation passed by the British authorities since the occupation, for the re-establishment of Ottoman law and for the suspension of all immigration until the National Assembly was formed and could pass its own laws. It did not take long to convince them of the absurdity of some of these proposals and the unlikelihood of others being adopted. They then began to state their case more reasonably. They said that their experience in Palestine during the last year had proved to them that the Balfour Declaration was self-contradictory and that the establishment of a National Home for the Jews in that country was utterly inconsistent with the safeguarding of the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities... they criticised the specially favoured position of the Zionist Organisation in the mandate: the appointment of Sir Herbert Samuel and Mr Bentwich to the chief executive and legislative posts in the administration: the recognition of Hebrew as an official language: the rise in the cost of living and effect on the labour market produced by the immigration of Jews: the importation of Bolsheviks into Palestine..'.
"'I pointed out to them that... all these criticisms were merely repetitions of their objections to the Zionist policy and none of them really provided instances of a breach of the second clause of the Balfour Declaration. So long as the policy of His Majesty's Government was a Zionist policy they must expect administrative measures to be more flavoured with Zionism than they would have been if no such policy existed... I... eventually got them to do what I had all along hoped they would do, which was to ask how we imagined that the Zionist policy could ever be carried out without prejudice to the rights of the non-Jews. I said that this was exactly what we were anxious to explain to them, and that we were ready, if they desired it, to put them in touch with the Zionist Organisation so that they could get some idea of the concrete schemes which are now being considered for the economic development of the country. They said that they would prefer to be re-assured by the Government which had adopted the policy rather than by the people whose demands had been met by it. They said with some force that even if His Majesty's Government could evolve a method of carrying out the Balfour Declaration with equal fairness to all parties there was clearly no possibility of reconciling the repeated claims made by the Zionists that Palestine should be as Jewish as England was English with the preservation of their own rights. I asked them to judge our policy, not by what the Jews said, but by what we did. I promised that any verified instance of the second clause of the Balfour Declaration having been set aside would immediately be investigated'.
"In September the Delegation went to Geneva which had become the headquarters of the League of Nations... The Arab Delegation after conducting 'a long siege' succeeded in meeting Balfour 'who spoke to them with graceful and studied vagueness of the 'experiment' of Zionism. It was their only meeting with him. They returned to London in the autumn'.
"On 7 November John Shuckburgh wrote a note to Sir James Masterton-Smith on the possibility of holding a joint conference of the Arabs and Zionists: 'If the Secretary of State agrees to a joint conference I think it is important to arrange that his speech should be interpreted to the Arabs paragraph by paragraph, as it is delivered... Hardly any of them understand English, and the effect of the speech will be much diminished if it conveys no impression to them at the moment of delivery... I should like to add a word about policy... The Zionist Organisation, in the person of Dr Weizmann, enjoys direct access to high political personages outside the Colonial Office. Dr Weizmann told me recently that he had asked the Prime Minister orally not very long ago... what meaning His Majesty's Government had attached to the phrase 'Jewish National Home' in the famous Balfour Declaration. The Prime Minister replied: 'We meant a Jewish state', and I understand that Mr Balfour, who was present on the occasion, corroborated the Prime Minister's statement. I do not know what may have been the original intention, but it was certainly the object of Sir Herbert Samuel and the Secretary of State to make it clear that a Jewish state was just what we did not mean. It is clearly useless for us to endeavour to lead Dr Weizmann in one direction, and to reconcile him to a more limited view of the Balfour pledge, if he is told a quite different story by the head of the government. Nothing but confusion can result if His Majesty's Government do not speak with a single voice..'.
"A meeting of the Arabs and the Zionists was arranged for 29 November but the Secretary of State [Churchill] did not appear: instead they were received by Shukburgh. Weizmann gave an account of the meeting in a letter to Wyndham Deedes in Palestine, in which he described it as a failure, laying the blame on the lack of proper preparation... He then went on in his letter to blame the majority of the British in Palestine (nine-tenths of whom he considered to be against the Zionists) for the attitude of the Arabs, who thought there was no need to negotiate as they could achieve their aim by misrepresentation and anti-Semitic propaganda... There were also official accounts of the meeting between the Arabs and Zionists. Eric Mills... recorded that: '... Shukburgh suggested that both parties should leave the region of abstract politics and discuss concrete realities, and he offered two points upon which he invited the parties to give their views: (1) The real fear with which the Arabs regarded the idea of Jewish Immigration (2) The real fear with which they regarded the contingency of Jewish political ascendancy in Palestine... Mussa Kazim Pasha el Husseini stated that the Arab Delegation had already forwarded the idea of a proper solution to the problem of Palestine. Mr Shukburgh pointed out that the solution in question could not be the basis of discussion because His Brittanic Majesty's Government insisted on adherence to the Balfour Declaration'.
"'Dr Weizmann... insisted that Zionism meant no encroachment upon the legitimate political aspirations of the indigenous Arabs. He might, if he had chosen, have concentrated upon measures which would have resulted in Palestine being divided into two - one half purely Jewish the other purely Arab. But that solution was not to the advantage of Palestine and he preferred to treat the future Palestine as a country where the two nations could live in political harmony and related reciprocally as Palestinian citizens... In any case he took his stand on the Draft Mandate the principles of which were unalterable..'.
"'Mussa Kazim el Husseini replied that the Delegation had already informed His Britannic Majesty's Government that the Draft Mandate was unacceptable, and had also protested to the League of Nations against its terms. They did not understand the meaning of the Balfour Declaration. Why could not His Britannic Majesty's Government give a clear interpretation so that Arabs might know where they were? In the present circumstances they were unable to discuss anything at all since they knew not what to discuss'.
"'Mr Shuckburgh informed the Delegation that the Draft Mandate must stand but it might be possible to offer a new formula in regard to the substance of the Balfour declaration and its corollary the Draft Mandate. Supposing that it were possible to draw up a formula of this kind as a basis of discussion would the Arabs be willing to enter discussion again?... The Delegation replied that they would welcome another interpretation... but the Government were to remember that the Draft Mandate was quite repugnant..'.
"Shuckburgh wrote a Note on the meeting...: '... The discussion lasted two hours and was, on the whole, conducted with good temper on both sides. The upshot was that Dr Weizmann offered to enter into direct discussion with the Arabs on the two main points raised by me, viz: (1) Limitation of Jewish immigration (2) Constitutional safeguards against Jewish political ascendency. The Arabs did not accept this offer, although I appealed to them to do so... I am afraid that the results of the meeting are rather negative in character, but it is at least something to have brought the two parties together..'.
"Eric Mills commented on Shukburgh's note: 'Dr Weizmann, while his speech was conciliatory, adopted an unfortunate manner in delivering it. His attitude was of the nature of a conqueror handing to beaten foes the terms of peace. Also I think he despises the members of the delegation as not worthy protagonists - that it is a little derogatory to him to expect him to meet them on the same ground. It seems to me that it is quite hopeless to expect Arabs and Zionists to meet on common ground when that ground is already occupied by His Britannic Majesty's Government on the Balfour Declaration, no matter what be the interpretation of that Declaration and no matter in what forms its substance is embodied..'." (pp 143-150)
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.