In the latest twist on questioning Israel’s legitimacy, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called on the Arab League to help prepare a legal file against the British government for issuing the “catastrophic” Balfour Declaration almost 100 years ago (Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2016). If Maliki were to check the historical data more carefully, he might be forced to arrive at a different conclusion.
Over a year before the Balfour declaration, in January 1916 Britain and France secretly divided among themselves large tracts of Arab lands in the Ottoman Empire. In the Mark Sykes- Charles Picot agreement, Britain was to get most of modern Iraq, Palestine and what today constitutes the kingdom of Jordan, whereas France was to receive Syria, Lebanon and the northern Mosul region of Iraq. So the die was cast between these two then-superpowers before any pro-Zionist declaration.
Earlier, in October 1915, in the equally secret exchange of letters between Henry McMahon, British high commissioner in Egypt, and Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite Sharif (spiritual leader) of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, McMahon promised British help in the establishment of an Arab kingdom, to include the area of the Arabian peninsula, as well as Syria, excepting “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo,” in return for the Arabs joining Britain in the war against Turkey. While Arabs have maintained that this included Palestine, this was later denied by McMahon, who had in mind French interests Syria and Lebanon.
In fact, when Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met Faisal, son of Hussein, at his military outpost in Aqaba, in June 1918, he was warmly received, and offered a sumptuous banquet in his honor. In December 1918, the two met again, in London, in preparation for the Versailles peace conference. At a luncheon in his honor, Faisal, the presumptive Arab national leader, spoke in praise of the Zionist endeavor. \
He stated that “no true Arab can be suspicious or afraid of Jewish nationalism... We are demanding Arab freedom, and we should show ourselves unworthy of it, if we did not now, as I do, say to the Jews – welcome back home – and cooperate with them to the limit of the Arab State.” “Our two movements complete one another,” Faisal underlined. “The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist.”
A month later, on January 4, 1919, a document co-signed by Weizmann and Faisal began with the words: “Emir Faisal...Dr. Chaim Weizmann...mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people, and realizing that the surest means of working out the consummation of their national aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration in the development of the Arab State and Palestine,” agree among others to the right of free immigration of Jews into Palestine and settlement on the land.
In his agreement with Weizmann, the words “the Arab State and Palestine” implied two separate entities, with Faisal agreeing that Palestine was to become the territory of the Jews, separate from the new Arab state. Faisal, however, wary of French encroachments on Syria and Lebanon, attached a codicil on the Arabic version: “Provided the Arabs obtain their independence...I shall concur in the above.”
In other words, if the promised Arab kingdom, not including Palestine, did not materialize, the agreement with the Zionist movement would be nullified. A month later, on February 6, 1919, when Faisal appeared before the Peace Conference on February 6, 1919, he spoke of Palestine as the enclave of the “Zionist Jews.” But he also expected Zionist diplomatic support against the French, and opposed their claims to Syria (except perhaps for Lebanon).
Back in Mecca, Sharif Hussein’s newspaper extended a cordial welcome to the returning exiles, “the original sons of the country from which their Arab brethren would benefit materially as well as spiritually.”
However, a year later, when Faisal was crowned king in Damascus, the capital of the ancient Arab Ummayad Empire, he was told to submit to the French. Refusing, he was expelled from the country. His brother Abdullah, at the head of Arab forces in what is today Jordan, decided to seek revenge for his brother’s humiliation, by challenging the French militarily. He was stopped at the last moment by British colonial secretary Winston Churchill who, in order to pacify the two brothers, decided on a clever ploy.
Abdullah was to be made king of newly constructed country, called Transjordan (today Jordan), where his forces were located, with British financial assistance, whereas his brother, the deposed Feisal, was to be crowned king of Iraq that would now include also the northern Mosul region, detached from the French.
A war had been avoided between the Arabs and the French, but at the same time, the promised Arab kingdom did not come to fruition.
The Zionist movement had nothing to do with this change of fortunes of Arab aspirations. The blame lies at the door of the framers of the Sykes-Picot agreement, not Lord Balfour, who issued a pro-Zionist declaration, that Faisal, the presumptive head of the Arab national movement at the time, did not challenge.
Maliki should then be advised to direct his accusation at the British and the French for undermining the aspirations of Arab unity at the end of World War I, not the 1917 Balfour Declaration, or the Zionist movement which had no role and was not even aware of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.The author is a leading scholar on the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust, as well as the history of Zionism and the Arab-Israel conflict, and currently teaches at Yeshiva University-Stern College and Touro College, in New York.