On July 20, 1903, father of political Zionism Theodore Herzl implored prominent British-Jewish journalist Leopold Greenberg to revive the “popular” alternative of El-Arish, on the Turco-Egyptian frontier in the Sinai Peninsula, as the land for the future Jewish state.
"We must indeed take East Africa, or at least the Charter, but we must not deceive ourselves as to the fact that all the non-English Jews are against East Africa. I shall have to use a great deal of patience for it, whereas El Arish is popular,” Herzl wrote.
Herzl sought, temporarily, to settle Jews in the northern Sinai – in the “Egyptian province of Judea,” as he named it, before the project was cut short by local and international objections.
A year before receiving the letter, Greenberg had assisted Herzl in arranging a meeting with British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, and had conducted preliminary meetings in Cairo with the British and Egyptian administrations to secure British help in establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in Sinai.
Impressed with Herzl and his ideas, the British Foreign Office invited a Zionist commission to explore possible settlement sites in Sinai.
A Zionist delegation was therefore sent to examine the possibility of establishing agricultural settlements in the El-Arish area, with Herzl himself visiting Egypt in March – April 1903. There, he met with the British governor and with then-Egyptian foreign minister Boutros Ghali.
Lord Cromer, British Controller-General of Egypt set about in composing a report on conditions and prospects to lease the land to the Jews.
He stated that if the report turned out favorable, the Egyptian government would be able to offer liberal terms for Jewish colonization. He appeared to envisage the Jewish settlers under Turkish rule, as Ottoman subjects bound by Egyptian law, with the dubious guarantee of the British occupation securing fair treatment to the new settlers.
The Commission was composed of surveyors drafted to report on the conditions and prospects of the land, agriculture and building possibilities.
Herzl appointed South African engineer Leopold Kessler as leader of the commission "for the exploration of the feasibility of settling in the northern half of the Sinai Peninsula.”
The delegation’s findings were positive, with journalist Max Nordau sending a wire to Herzl stating: "Greenberg had obtained everything that can possibly be conceded in an official agreement."
However, after encountering border disagreements with Turkey and personal disagreements with Greenberg, Herzl received Lord Cromer’s report from Cairo, which advised the scheme’s rejection, observing “under existing conditions the land is quite unsuitable for settlers from European countries.”
The Egyptian government also received the report unfavorably, and intended to reject the plan. It was found that the area would require five times as much water as had been first estimated. Egypt, it stated proudly, could not permit the diversion of such a quantity of water from the Nile. The Turkish Government, through its Commissioner in Cairo, also objected Herzl’s proposal following the report.
Chamberlain also dismissed the findings, telling Herzl on April 23rd, “On my travels I saw a country for you, Uganda. ..I thought to myself, that is just the country for Dr. Herzl.”
This was the first mention of Uganda as a project to be presented to the Zionist Congress.
Following this meeting, negotiations with Egypt broke down and even the ICA (Jewish Colonization Association) in Paris voiced reservations.
By May, Herzl was ready to deem the El-Arish project a failure. Herzl wrote in his diary: "I thought the Sinai plan was such a sure thing that I no longer wanted to buy a family vault in the Döbling cemetery, where my father is provisionally laid to rest. Now I consider the affair so wrecked that I have already been to the district court and am acquiring vault No. 28."
This did not stop him entirely from seeking out the El-Arish option, possibly because of its eager backing by Baron Edmond de Rothschild who had been “delighted” with the plan.
Thus in July of that same year, Herzl reached out one last time for the Sinai Project, writing to his British correspondent whilst meanwhile preparing steps to approach Portugal for a Charter for Mozambique, Belgium for a territory in the Congo and Italy for a section of Tripoli. It appeared Herzl would leave no stone unturned in his search for a Jewish homeland.
READ: Desmond Steward, Herzl's Journeys in Palestine and Egypt.