Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1424, (3 - 9 JANUARY 2019)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1424, (3 - 9 JANUARY 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Incompatible promises, fatal consequences

British historian Roger Owen, A J Meyer professor of Middle East history at Harvard University and author of several classic works on the history of the modern Middle East, speaks to Manal Lotfi about the origins and legacy of the Balfour Declaration, a terse, economically worded statement that opened the doors to the longest running

Roger Owen

The Balfour Declaration was made in 1917 during World War I when the British government was facing many issues which might have influenced its thinking about the future of Palestine, still part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. Why do you think the British government issued the declaration?

The British wanted a buffer zone between them and the French, who were regarded as the enemy, to safeguard the Suez Canal from a French attack. They wanted a tiny piece of what became Palestine where they could establish themselves. They took advantage of the fact that there was some sort of early Zionist presence in London. The British thought the Jews would help British interests in Palestine.


Besides the obvious reason, to create a British foothold in the Middle East, what were Britain’s other motivations for the declaration? Surely it could have protected its interests without promising the Jews Palestine.  

The declaration was a symbolic gesture. The British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour gave Lord Walter Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community, the promise as a symbolic gesture; an exchange for something.

Decisions made during wars are made for all kind of reasons and politicians have no time really to think about their consequences. They were made to gain temporary advantages.


Are you implying that the British did not fully understand the political significance of the declaration?

No. I think if it had not been for Hitler there would probably not have been enough Jews in Palestine to make any kind of problem for its inhabitants. In my opinion most of the Jews, given the choice between Palestine and New York, would have gone to New York. David Ben-Gurion, the primary founder of the state of Israel and the first prime minister of Israel, had to work extremely hard with Zionist leaders to convince Jews to come to live in this extremely uncomfortable place, where malaria was spreading and conditions were tough.  

Allenby enters Jerusalem, 1917

How did the British and the French think they could get away with such contradictory promises?

Britain was searching for allies and she made three promises which were incompatible with one another. The first was to Sharif Hussein of Mecca and the promise was that if he leads an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire Britain would support the establishment of an independent Arab kingdom under his rule after the war.

But in 1916 there was the Sykes-Picot secret agreement between France and Britain to divide the Middle East between them, where Palestine was placed under separate international administration. Clearly Sykes-Picot contradicted the promise of an independent Arab state. But the worse part was in 1917 when the British issued the Balfour Declaration promising Palestine as a national home for the Jews. There is a famous book — Palestine: A Twice-Promised Land? The British, the Arabs, and Zionism — which examines these contradictions.

The promises were contradictory but you must look at the circumstances that made them matter so much later.


Do you think the British officials who were behind the declaration understood its long-term effect on the Middle East?

No. I think they were much more interested in the Sykes-Picot secret agreement and the division of the Middle East between them and the French.

The Balfour Declaration was made during the Great War when politicians had no time to really think about the consequences. And in the Palestinian case it was through a combination of some very particular circumstances that the Balfour promise became important. Hitler came to power in Germany and persecuted the Jews. They wanted to go to Palestine in large numbers, and the British failed to keep the peace.


The Balfour Declaration is a very short document but it does reveal the way in which the British looked at the region and its inhabitants…

Yes. It started like that.

“Dear Lord Rothschild, I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet. His Majesty’s Government views 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.”

This is the opening paragraph. However, it is not clear in the document what Palestine is. What are her borders, her size? For some Palestine was part of Greater Syria, for others it was not clear. At that time Palestine was not a defined territory or a single province. The Balfour Declaration was an indefinite promise about a place that was very ill defined.

It was not until the late 1920s, when the borders between Lebanon, Syria and Palestine were established, that Palestine was defined. Before that and for most people Palestine was a biblical place without particular borders.


It is a murky document. It looks simple but it is far from simple. Does some of the wording of the document strike you as vague or odd?

It does not mention words like Arabs or Palestine when talking about the inhabitants or the residents of Palestine. Instead, the description in the document is “the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. But it was well known there was a strong Arab and Christian presence in Palestine at that time.

In the second paragraph it states that “it [is] 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.”


Do you think the omission of the political rights of the inhabitants of Palestine was deliberate given that in the same paragraph there is a clear mention of the political rights of the Jews?

Of course, this is part of the racist colonial mentality of the time. The Arabs were not identified as a group of people and there was no mention of their political rights. In contrast, the Balfour Declaration was a promise given to an identified group of people, the Jews, with emphasis on their political rights in Europe and elsewhere.


The Balfour Declaration was not a legal document. It was a symbolic gesture as you said. So the establishment of Israel, as we know it today, was not inevitable. How did it happen?

If it had not been for Hitler and World War II, I do not suppose we would have got there. First, within the Jews there were disagreements on the question of whether a Jewish national home should be in Palestine or somewhere else. The majority thought of themselves as European and wanted to stay in Europe. David Ben-Gurion had to work extremely hard to get Jews to come to Palestine. And the only people who really came were bright young men who were prepared to work extremely hard and die from malaria and conflicts. It was only when Hitler came to power that large numbers of Jews migrated to Palestine to escape from him. If it were not for Hitler and the Holocaust I do not think the Balfour Declaration would have been implemented [during the British mandate on Palestine].

The Jews’ national home might have been established somewhere else, Tanganyika or somewhere else, because there were various ideas about the location. It was only a small group of religious Zionists who thought it must be in ancient Palestine.

What played a role in implementing the declaration was the imbalance of power. When it came to the defeat of the Arab armies in 1948 it was clearly “first world people”, European people, fighting a “third world people”. And with the “first world people” protected by the British it was a completely unequal contest and conflict.


How do you think the international community should mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration?

As on all these occasions we need to look back and re-examine the history. I think the legacy of the declaration as far as the Palestinians are concerned is the unbearable conditions they live in. For me the most critical thing now is Gaza which is a huge prison. This is what we must think about now, how to improve conditions in Gaza.

Most of the Palestinians in Israel have given up the Palestinian statehood hope for now. They decided to become Israeli citizens. They try to participate fully in political life and represent their own interests. It is the people in Gaza who are left living in this over-crowded prison. It is an indefensible situation. The world needs to find a solution and try to think of ways of easing the human suffering. I do not usually approve of smuggling but it seems it is the only way to get goods in and out of Gaza. The Palestinians who need medical assistance get help that way. But this is unsustainable and we need to focus on finding a solution.  

What about the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Do you think fighting for an independent Palestinian state is a lost cause even with the numerous UN resolutions supporting it?

No. But I do not think there is any point going on and on about being a victim and saying the UN should do this and that. It does not get you anywhere. The Israelis, wisely from their point of view, disobey international resolutions in all kinds of things. I think you have to do concrete things.


Do you think the Arabs and the Palestinians overplayed the victim role instead of acting to protect their interests in Palestine?

Yes. I think the Palestinians, or some of them, played the victim instead of taking action. Yasser Arafat was the first person, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation [PLO] was the first organisation, to give up the victim role and organise armed resistance. I think it was an important moment in the history of the Palestinian struggle. The emergence of the PLO out of the old order dominated by Ahmed Al-Shukeiri, who was the first chairman of the PLO serving from 1964 to 1967, changed the dynamics of the Palestinian cause. I lived in Egypt and Beirut and I heard this conversation a million times: “The UN should do this, we should have done this.” It does not get you anywhere.


Do you think tying the Palestinian cause up with Arab political and financial influence did more harm than good?

Yes. There were people around Yasser Arafat with different ideas for the conflict. Some argued “let us all be part of the Israeli state. Let us force them to take us as citizens so that at least we can fight for our rights from inside.” Arafat opposed that and argued that with the armed struggle they could get back some part of old Palestine. But they could not do it and they were not supported by anyone in the region.


Do you think the Palestinians should depend on Arab states to achieve their goal of an independent state?

I do not know. There is a whole new politics in the region. There is the Sunni-Shia divide. Regional powers like Iran and Turkey are playing major roles in Arab politics. Iraq and Syria have never settled down to be stable states. This whole new politics is changing everything in the region.


What will happen in 10 years? What do you think the Arabs should do to help the Palestinian cause?

We have to divide the Arab world into two categories. Egypt and all the way to Morocco, these countries are sort of OK. Their big problems are booming populations, unemployment, poverty, desertification, water shortages and terrorism. These are extraordinary social, economic and security challenges, no doubt about it, but they are not squabbling about borders.

In contrast, the eastern part of the Arab world, Syria and Iraq, is facing an existential threat. Iraq is heading towards disintegration and the situation in Syria is very dangerous. I would say to the Arabs go on about the Balfour Declaration but do not get so obsessed about it that you do not address the huge, present-day problems.


Do you think instability in the region is part of the Balfour Declaration’s legacy?

When you talk about the Balfour Declaration you also have to talk about Sykes-Picot and the mandate system which gave the British and the French the tool to divide and rule the Arab world. This chain of events, as we know, produced various consequences.


Do you categorise armed struggle as terrorism?

I think the armed struggle of Arafat raised the Palestinian cause though they knew armed struggle would not get them anywhere. Now it is different politics between Palestine and Israel. Some Palestinians think there is nothing for them but to integrate in Israel. Maybe only Palestinians in Gaza still believe in armed resistance.


What about the West Bank?

Did you visit Ramallah? It is a very strange place. It is full of boutiques. Palestinian elites have huge sums of money coming from the UN and others. They only built skyscrapers. It is a rather disgraceful, un-serious kind of place. The fact is the Palestinian elite was bought off by huge sums of money.

The whole Ramallah model is questionable. If you think it is all part of a Western conspiracy, so you have it. First you divide the Arab world, then you divide the Palestinians. Although we can also say capitalism has something to do with it.


How do you see the future of Israel in 20 years?

I do not know. I think there are many sensible people who know the game is up, who think the whole Zionism project came to no good. But even my liberal friends, they still go to universities and have to join the army. It is very difficult to avoid being an Israeli. My friend Ilan Pappé, the prominent Israeli historian, had a great fight trying to prevent his son from serving in the Israeli army. But in Israel the conscientious objector concept does not exist.

No matter how good and noble you are, if you live in Israel, you must play according to Israeli rules. There are two options: either live with bad conscience or go and live somewhere else.

(First published in 2 November 2017)

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