PEOPLE HOLD up peace signs. But who wants peace more – Israel or the Palestinians?.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
November 2, 1917, the date of the Balfour Declaration, and November 29, 1947, the date of the UN resolution on the partitioning of Palestine, are generally recognized milestones on the path toward Israeli statehood – but arguably, another date could be added to the above, namely May 16, 1916, 100 years ago this week, the day on which two European diplomats, Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes and France’s Francois George-Picot, reached a “secret” agreement for carving up many of the lands then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence and domination once the war against Turkey was won.
Originally, Imperial Russia had also been part of the secret talks leading up to the agreement, and it and Britain had reached an agreement which would have handed to the former parts of Turkey itself, including its capital Constantinople and control of the strategically important Dardenelles – but after the Russian revolution and Russia leaving the war, nothing more was heard of this.
But what should interest us as Israelis is that the accord, entering history as the “Sykes-Picot Agreement,” also predetermined the general borders of Mandatory Palestine, and in consequence also, at least in part, those of the State of Israel – as well as politically and materially contributing to the realization of the Zionist vision.
The principal purpose of the agreement and the strategic considerations behind it were, of course, geopolitical, related to Middle Eastern oil and with regard to Britain also securing the passage to India, the crown jewel of the British Empire, while France intended to obtain for itself control of Syria including the predominantly Christian parts later to become modern-day Lebanon – but other factors, such as Arab nationalism and several particular interests, also came into play.
Arab leaders, such as the Hashemites, threw in their lot with the British in order to gain domination over most of the Arab lands to be taken after the war from the Turks, but as their contribution to the war effort was practically nil (and the Hashemites had in the meantime anyway been turned out of the Arabian peninsula by the Saudis), the promises made to them by the Allied powers were largely ignored after the war.
While France was to establish its rule, not always successfully in retrospect, over Syria – the parts which later became Iraq, Kuwait and Transjordan were assigned to Britain.
The status of Palestine was to be determined at a later stage, with the Zionist factor specifically to be taken into consideration.
And that’s where Mark Sykes’ role comes into play: Sykes was one of those committed British Christian Zionists who saw in the reestablishment of a national home for the Jewish people in its ancient homeland a moral and historical obligation – a sentiment shared at the time by another British Zionist, Winston Churchill, who in 1949, criticizing the anti-Semitic Ernest Bevin’s adamant refusal to recognize the new State of Israel (yes, there were anti-Semites in the British Labour Party then, too – though to countervail this there were also many friends of the Jewish people and Zionism like Richard Crossman and many others) declared in the house of Commons: Israel’s statehood marked “an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.”
Needless to say that Sykes, in addition to his moral and historical leanings, was also motivated by his belief that Jews, especially in America (which had not yet entered the war) could make an important political contribution to victory over Germany and its allies, as well as by the expectation that once the war was won, the Jewish presence in Palestine would act as a natural mainstay of British interests in the region. This indeed was also the position of the Zionist movement led by Chaim Weizmann – and Sykes’ attitude had a significant impact on the Balfour Declaration one year later (though Sykes, by then, had died).
The original Sykes-Picot agreement was reconfirmed at the 1920 San-Remo Conference, incorporating on Britain’s insistence the Balfour Declaration – without, however, drawing final borders, including those between the Galilee and the Golan. The Zionist movement had laid claim to all the land up to the Litani river, now in Lebanon, and to the sources of the river Jordan, but while the border of Palestine was eventually extended northward, mainly as a result of the Jewish settlements in what is now called the “Galilee salient,” the Litani river, most of the Golan, excluding the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and the Banias river, remained French and later Syrian or Lebanese – until the Six Day War in 1967.
On the downside, it must be admitted that in creating the artificial states of Iraq, Syria and to some extent, Jordan, the Sykes-Picot agreement can also be blamed for the present mayhem in the Middle East and in consequence, many of the dangers facing Europe and the rest of the world today.
The author is a former ambassador to the United States.
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