Times' columnist Ben Macintyre's Britain's Middle East carve-up is no cause for shame (published in The Australian on July 30) is, as the title suggests, an apologia for British imperialism.* Here are the opening paragraphs:
"Boris Johnson is more a historian than a diplomat... The new British foreign secretary has written books on Churchill and London... He is undoubtedly comfortable in the past. This is just as well because one of the first challenges will be to negotiate his way through exceptionally controversial anniversaries of events in Britain's history that have a continuing impact on the present: the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, falls in November next year; 100 years ago this year, British and French diplomats signed the Sykes-Picot agreement that secretly divided up the Middle East between them; October sees the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis, the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in collusion with Israel.
[**The wording of the declaration is actually "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."]
"These events may have lost much of their relevance in western memory but in the Middle East they remain freighted with significance, resentment and pain. The centenary of the First World War has been comparatively plain sailing in commemorative terms but Britain's Middle East diplomacy surrounding that conflict, which paved the way for the foundation of Israel and Arab nation states, is a diplomatic minefield. The letter written by foreign secretary Arthur Balfour in November 1917 pledged British support for a 'national home' for the Jewish people, leading to the Mandate, mass Jewish immigration and the creation of Israel after World War II."
Notice what's missing?
All mention of the 1915 Anglo-Arab treaty negotiated between Britain's high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi, which preceded both the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) and the Balfour Declaration (1917), and without knowledge of which the treachery of those two astonishing manoeuvres cannot be fully appreciated.
Whether this is a deliberate omission or a case of ignorance is anyone's guess. In either case, Macintyre's subsequent thesis - partly unveiled in the title of his piece - which I will discuss shortly, is massively flawed. The simple fact is that, in 1915, the British promised the leader of the Arab nationalist movement, Sharif Hussein, an independent Arab state comprising most of today's Arab world (reserving only the northern coastline of Greater Syria) in exchange for an alliance against the Turks, a pact which the Arabs entered into in good faith, and on the basis of which they launched the Arab Revolt against the Turks, but which the British betrayed twice over, first with the French, then with the nascent Zionist movement.**
It should further be noted that, with respect to the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, as it became known, the British even went so far as to suppress all knowledge of its existence, and, when this did not succeed, blatantly attempted to misrepresent its terms. It is therefore only when the British promise of Arab independence is factored into any analysis of these matters that Britain's treachery becomes fully apparent. In any case, with or without the McMahon treaty, Britain had no right to gift Arab lands to others.
"This week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas raised the prospect of legal action against Britain over the declaration. His spokesman insisted that as a result of Britain's 'ill-omened promise, hundreds of thousands of Jews were moved from Europe and elsewhere to Palestine at the expense of our Palestinian people whose parents and grandparents had lived for thousands of years on the soil of their homeland.' Although Israel is gearing up for a Balfour party, the Foreign Office has spoken merely of 'marking' the centenary, rather than lauding it, a cautious position that will displease both sides..."
Which brings us to Macintyre's thesis, which is essentially that the declaration was born of wartime desperation, and hence "no cause for shame."
The centenary of the declaration, he contends, should be "neither eulogised nor bemoaned but dispassionately explored, analysed and understood, a fraught moment in history whose consequences could not have been foreseen at the time. The declaration was prompted by various factors including a genuine desire on the part of the British government to create a Jewish homeland as well as geopolitical interests. Britain was locked in a desperate war with no certainty of victory, Jews had been prominent in the Bolshevik Revolution and it was hoped the statement might encourage Russia to maintain the battle on the Eastern Front. Britain's support for a Jewish homeland might undermine German-Jewish support for the war, it was thought, while encouraging increased financial contributions to the war effort from the American-Jewish community. At a war cabinet meeting in October 1917, Balfour bluntly observed a statement supporting Zionism would be 'extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America'."
The first matter of note here is Macintyre's bald assertion that the "consequences" of flooding an Arab land with European Jews, "could not have been foreseen at the time." It's as though he's never heard of Ireland, let alone the plantation of Ulster.
The second is that an uninformed reader might conclude from Macintyre's piece that the declaration was an all-British cabinet affair. There is no sign in his account of the Russian-Jewish leaders of the Zionist movement in Britain - Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolov - having been involved in the urging and drafting of the declaration. This is another huge omission. The fact is that without constant Zionist pressure, influence-peddling and propaganda such a declaration would never have eventuated. One need only ask where Balfour and Prime Minister Lloyd George got the patently false idea that a declaration in support of the Zionists would have Jewish communities in Russia, Germany and the United States working their supposed influence on the Allies' behalf, and hence making a real, material difference to the war's outcome.
The third is that nowhere in the declaration is there any indication of support for a Jewish state as such.
"Crucially the declaration also states that 'nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine' - which then made up 90% of the population. Any 'marking' of the centenary needs to acknowledge that while the Jewish homeland envisaged in 1917 has been realised, the promise to protect the rights of the Palestinian people has not been honoured."
While Macintyre correctly highlights the fact that Palestine's population at the time was overwhelmingly non-Jewish, he neglects to mention that that this overwhelming majority was deliberately written off as "existing non-Jewish communities," with no political rights whatever. Colonialism doesn't get much more outrageous than that, Yet here he is warning against using the centenary as "an excuse for political grandstanding," which "will only inflame the situation in the Middle East."
IOW, everyone just lie back and think of what poor old Britain was going through at the time! And Palestinians, whatever you do (and, more importantly, wherever you are) NO GRANDSTANDING next year, OK?
[**Ironically, Macintyre is the author of A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby & the Great Betrayal (2014).]