III. Strategic Aspects of the Balfour Declaration

In March 1915 Britain reversed its Foreign Policy of nearly a century and consented to Russia’s possession of Constantinople/Istanbul after the War. This was done to secure the continued services of the Russian Steamroller in the field and dissuade the Tsar of any thoughts he might have of making peace with the Kaiser.

To secure the agreement of France to this, Edward Grey agreed to accept French designs on Syria. Taken with Britain’s own designs on Mesopotamia this amounted to a break-up of the Ottoman Empire. At a meeting of the War Council, in the same month, Asquith stated: “If for one reason or another… we were to leave the other nations to scramble for Turkey without taking anything ourselves, we should not be doing our duty.” (Cited in Aaron S. Klieman, Britain’s War Aims In The Middle East In 1915, Journal Of Contemporary History, July 1968, p.242) 

In April 1915 Asquith appointed a Committee under the Chairmanship of Sir Maurice de Bunsen to consider “British Desiderata In Turkey-in-Asia.”  The Report concluded that it was always an Imperial objective “to strengthen ragged edges” of the Empire so “we have to take advantage of the present opportunity, and to assert our claim in settling the destiny of Asiatic Turkey.” 

Strengthening ragged edges was Liberal talk for Imperial expansion. Because of the Indian Empire the main area of importance for Britain in the Middle East was the Persian Gulf. Because Basra was essential to the control of the Gulf it was invaded and occupied a few days after War was declared on the Ottomans. The Indian army had left for the conquest a month before Britain had found its excuse for War.

Since Baghdad was important in relation to Basra it became a further necessary acquisition. And Mosul had to be taken to protect the area north of Baghdad. Then Persia had to be controlled to guard the Eastern flank. And at the Western gate the acquisition of Palestine was essential to protect Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and the Suez Canal, and on and on…

That was what strengthening the ragged edges of Empire meant.

The Report of the Committee showed Britain desired a belt of territory between Arabia and the concession to the French in Syria and it would not permit a Foreign Power occupying the area next to Egypt and the Suez Canal.  It recommended support for a devolutionary scheme preserving the Ottoman Empire in five regions, Anatolia, Armenia, Syria, Palestine and Jazirah-Iraq, with the latter four being capable of being detached in the future.

However, the Report’s recommendations were shelved and the Asquith Government took up one of its rejected policy options instead – the partition of the Ottoman Empire between the Imperialist Powers. This option was described by the Committee as having the advantages of: providing Britain with freedom of commerce, a granary and oil reserves in Mesopotamia in which an British Indian colony could be established; and the chance of detaching the Southern part of Syria (Palestine) from Turkey (and France) to construct a buffer zone linking up the Indian Empire to Egypt.

The process of implementing this policy began with the Sykes/Picot Agreement of May 1916.

Therefore, at the same time as the British agreement with Shereef Hussein promising him an Arab state in return for military services, England began making a secret treaty with the French and Russians (The Sykes/Picot Agreement of May 1916) which sought to divide up the Middle East amongst the Western Christian Powers after the War.

Under this Agreement Russia was to have the Dardanelles, Constantinople and a large area around Erzurum and Trebizond. France was to get Cilicia and Lebanon, above Acre, whilst  the vilayet of Mosul, north of Mesopotamia, the areas of Syria were to be included in a large “Arab State A,” under French control. England was to have the vilayets of Basra and Baghdad, and a large tract of land stretching from Kirkuk in the north down past Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf and west to the Jordan, called “Arab State B.” Under Sykes/Picot Palestine was to become a condominium of England, France and Russia.

Hussein knew nothing of this Agreement that aimed to balkanise the region so that the Arabs could not establish a state as promised. The Turks warned him of British duplicity but he chose to have faith in the promises made.

This plan of balkanisation was a most unsuitable way to administer the region because divisions within the Arab world were not national in any way. They were religious and cultural. But the different religions and cultures were spread right across the region and could not be delineated by national boundaries or through nation states drawn in the sand. That was why the Ottoman vilayet structures worked – because they enabled different religious groups and clans with different cultures, ways of life and allegiances to live next to each other, and move freely, with no lines in the sand to bother them or be fought over.

When the lines in the sand were imposed on the Arabs they were forced to see themselves as nationalities, (with no historical meaning) and to see others (who had the same history, religion or culture as themselves) as alien, because they were on the other sides of the newly imposed lines in the sand.

It should be understood that Britain coveted Palestine long before it discovered the Zionists. It was not Zionism that drew England to Palestine, or the Zionists who brought the issue of Palestine up within the British corridors of power. England had its eye on the territory long before the Balfour Declaration or the negotiations that brought it about (which were instigated by Britain and not the Zionists).

For the first two years of the War England showed little interest in Zionism and pursued its objective of getting hold of Palestine without reference to it. Zionism didn’t interest the de Bunsen Commission, Britain negotiated the Sykes/Picot Agreement and the deal with Hussein of Mecca without reference to it and basically took the future of Palestine to be decided without taking into account the views of either ordinary Jews or Zionists. What Britain was mainly concerned about was whether it could wrest the area from France at the hour of victory.

Palestine had not been explicitly mentioned in any of the agreements concluded between Britain and Hussein. The Arabs naturally took this to mean that it was simply included within the area of an Arab State, because it had not been specifically excluded, as other areas west of Damascus had been. However, England carefully avoided mention of the area because it had other ideas for Palestine after the War, and it had other deals to do with other people. Britain is very skilled at this sort of thing, relying on the good nature of others whilst shafting them, good and proper.

Under the Sykes/Picot Agreement the status of Palestine had been left unclear. England, France and Russia all had an interest in administering it, but Britain, despite having the least claim to it, had its heart set on acquiring it for its expanding Empire. The problem, from Britain’s standpoint, was how to devise a scenario whereby the Empire could get control of Palestine. And that is where the Jews came in and Zionism became a significant element in Imperial affairs.

It was certainly the case that the French had much greater historical ties to Palestine than the English (from the time of the Crusades) and if any of the Imperial Powers had a right to supervise the region it was the French.

As far back as the 1840s Lord Palmerston recognized the potential value of utilizing the Jews in relation to gaining influence within the Ottoman Empire. Palmerston noticed that both of England’s rivals, France and Russia, had achieved leverage over the Sultan by adopting a religious minority in Jerusalem for “protection”. But Reformationist England had no such influence due to the lack of Protestants there. So, to achieve influence in the region another religious group would have to be adopted and the obvious candidates, given England’s Old Testament orientation, were the Jews. In the 1880s Laurence Oliphant contacted Lord Salisbury with a scheme for Jewish colonization in the Holy Land.

The first argument used by England to counter the French claim to Palestine was that the existence of the Holy Places in and around Jerusalem called for a special régime. But when this did not convince the French they produced the Jews from their hat.

With regard to Britain’s manoeuvrings against France, Lady Hamilton explains the use that England had for the Jews:

Imperially minded Britons knew that ever since Napoleons massive fleet had landed in Alexandria in 1798 the French had wanted to hold the Holy Land. French missionaries were active throughout Syria and Palestine, and their schools had transformed thousands of intelligent but illiterate Arabs into well-informed intellectuals, writers and poets. A Jewish homeland would provide a rational reason to block the French from taking too much territory in the Levant, and create a reliable and strong client population. Their presence would guarantee Britain a hold on this strategic area. If the Allies won the war, France would take the place of Germany and would be the most powerful nation on the continent. Frances power would need to be checked. Britain did not want France also to be the dominant power in the Middle East. (God, Guns and Israel, p.136)

This was the Balance of Power policy and it remained an Imperial constant after temporary enemies e.g. Germany and the Ottomans were seen off.

Britain calculated that a proposed Jewish Homeland in Palestine would tip the balance in moral claims to the territory in England‘s favour. Since it was England who would give the Jews a solemn undertaking of a National Home in Palestine it was only fitting that Britain should govern the territory to see that this promise was fulfilled. So England would get Palestine for the Jews and the Zionists would get Palestine for Britain.

It could be said that England cheated the Arabs of Palestine by saying it had been promised to the French and then cheated the French of it by promising it to the Jews. And all the time the objective was to keep it for the British Empire.

The strategic reason for the alliance between British Imperialism and the Zionist Movement was the British desire to enlist the support of International Jewry in the War effort against Germany, and then to manoeuvre itself into control of Palestine, through the use of the advocation of the moral right of the Jews to settle there.

Britain is used to setting the moral standard for the world and the Balfour Declaration was a new standard for it to live by.

By 1916 it was becoming to be understood in Britain that the French, Russian and Italian Allies it had procured to destroy Germany and the Ottomans were not up to the job. The United States was needed not only to finish the War but to save it from being lost or drawn – which was seen as a loss. And this introduced another factor favourable to a Anglo-Zionist alliance.

James Malcolm was an Oxford educated Armenian who acted as an adviser to the British Government on Eastern affairs. He was a personal friend of Mark Sykes and upon hearing Sykes’s concern that Britain was having no success in persuading Jews to support an American entry into the War Malcolm advised him that he was approaching the wrong Jews. It was the Zionists who were the key to the problem, he suggested.

Sykes had a problem with this solution because he knew the terms of the secret Agreement he had concluded with the French and Russians. Although he told Malcolm that to offer to secure Palestine for the Jews was impossible Malcolm insisted that there was no other way and he urged Sykes to take the suggestion to the Cabinet. The matter was taken up by Lord Milner who asked for further information.

Malcolm pointed out the influence of Judge Brandeis of the American Supreme Court on President Wilson and the fact that the President himself held strong Zionist sympathies. Sykes and Malcolm were then authorized to engage in a series of meetings at Chaim Weizmann’s London house, with the knowledge and approval of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey.

A Programme for a New Administration of Palestine in Accordance with the Aspirations of the Zionist Movement was issued by the English Political Committee of the Zionist Organization in October 1916, and submitted to the British Foreign Office as a basis for discussion and in order to give an official character to the informal discussions. It contained the main Zionist demands for an International recognition of Jewish rights to Palestine, nationhood for the Jewish community in Palestine and the creation and recognition of a Jewish chartered company in Palestine with rights to acquire land.

But it did not reach the Cabinet because it was known that Asquith was unsympathetic to the Zionist ideal. With Lloyd George replacing Asquith as Prime Minister (and Balfour replacing Edward Grey as Foreign Secretary) from December 1916, Zionist relations with the British Government gathered momentum. The Balfour Declaration was now a possibility.

Chaim Weizmann and the Zionists were presented with something of a problem when the Tsarist State began to collapse during early 1917. The Zionists had argued that Tsarist oppression made a sanctuary for the Russian Jews necessary and that this was estranging the US from the Triple Entente. So the Tsarist collapse threatened to remove some of the rationale behind providing a Home for the Jews and the antagonism they had for the Entente, which Zionists promised they could counter if they were given a Declaration. Weizmann overcame the fall-out from this event by utilising it to the advantage of Zionism by planting the idea in the new Prime Minister’s head that Russian Zionists could affect the course of the Russian Revolution and undermine the defeatist policy of the emerging Bolsheviks, saving Russia for the Allies.

The Balfour Declaration appeared for the first time in public view in The Times on 9th November 1917 – a month after the Bolshevik takeover and a month before the British capture of Jerusalem. The momentous announcement was produced from behind closed doors and was never debated in Parliament.

Its timing was important. To have made it earlier would have had a disorganising effect on the Arabs who were doing the fighting for Britain against the Turks.

Published in The Irish Political Review September 2017

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