McMahon, Sykes, Balfour: Contradictions and Concealments in British Palestine Policy 1915-1917


Lecture given to the History Group of The Norfolk Club, 14 April 2016 to mark the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916


These three war-time initiatives are presented as part of a compressed, uncoordinated, two-year sequence set against the changing circumstances of international rivalries, imperial anxieties, and domestic politics.  Contradictions  were especially pronounced over Palestine – first designated, 1915, as part of an independent Arab polity;  then, 1916, as under international jurisdiction; and finally, 1917, as territory for a Jewish national home.  Such stark inconsistencies, in the compelling context of war, forced a high degree of official secrecy over the content of the policies.  This combination of contradiction and concealment, corroding trust in British good faith, did serious long-term damage to relations between the imperial power and the Arab and Jewish communities under its authority, the consequences enduring to the present day.


Three bits of policy, all belonging to the short period October 1915 to November 1917 – the first two, the McMahon-Hussein correspondence  and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the work of the Asquith Liberal government; and the third, the Balfour Declaration, coming from the succeeding Lloyd George coalition.

None of them, it`s important to emphasise, arose from parliamentary debate, and none constituted any formal public pronouncement,

The critical, determining context for all three was the Great War and the closely related issue of imperial security – or, rather, imperial insecurity.

The War meant that the perspectives were, inevitably, short-term and opportunistic;  that the policies were, to varying degrees, secret;  and that there was, in consequence, much mutual contradiction and inconsistency – most notably in relation to Palestine.

As for imperial insecurity – a chronic, perennial condition that afflicted all colonialist nations – this was much aggravated by the War, especially in relation to the political integrity of the Eastern Empire and access to it, critically, through the Levant – where serious threats were perceived as emanating from Germany and France.

All three proposed settlements, note, pre-dated Britain`s ability to act on them – most of Palestine remaining in Ottoman hands until the end of 1917.  Capt. W. R. Hall of British Naval Intelligence commented on Sykes-Picot that it was `in reality an arrangement for dividing the bear`s skin while the bear is alive`.

But one must, I`d suggest, avoid any lapse into facile, moralistic judgment.  The War was a matter of national survival;  and imperialism, among the great European powers, was the international order of the day.  There were no alternative scenarios.

The War did, however, produce differing emphases among policy-makers, notably between so-called Westerners and Easterners, depending on which battle-grounds they wished to privilege – European or Middle Eastern.

And imperialism had both its enthusiasts and sceptics, the former including the Prime Minister after December 1916, David Lloyd George, and his Leader of the House of Lords, George Curzon;  and the doubters  including Lloyd George`s predecessor in Downing Street, Herbert Asquith, and, interestingly. the coalition`s first Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfou


1) In 1915-16 we have the letters exchanged between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, and the ruler of the Hejaz, Emir Hussein, offering the Arabs a post-war independent polity extending from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, this as a means of winning Arab support in the war against the Turks and their German allies.  In McMahon`s words, `immediate assurances were necessary if the Arabs were not to be lost to the British cause`, and taken `into the hands of Germany`.  The only exception was to be the area lying to the west of a line drawn from Aleppo south to Damascus – ie present day Lebanon and north-west Syria – in which there were substantial non-Arab and Christian populations, and in which France had a long-term imperial interest.  As McMahon expressed it, Britain had `to act without detriment to the interests of her Ally, France`.

All this, however, was subject to a startling reconstitution, post-Balfour and the Jewish-National-Home policy, by the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, who, in a White Paper of 1922,  trying to place Palestine in the exclusion zone, insisted that Damascus, at the bottom end of the McMahon line, extended as an administrative area hundreds of miles south from Syria all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba – i.e. with Palestine to the west.

That splendid Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan has described it as `a defiance of geography`, and John Marlowe, writing back in the 1940s, described as `the most inexcusable…piece of duplicity in the whole  tale of Allied promises to the inhabitants of the Middle East`.

Lord Curzon, in the War Cabinet, and shortly to be Balfour`s successor at the Foreign Office, confirmed at a private meeting in 1918 that in McMahon`s 24 October letter to Hussein, `we gave him the assurance that…Palestine…should be Arab and independent`.  And in a note to the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office stated: `With regard to Palestine, H.M.G. are committed by Sir Henry McMahon`s letter to the Sherif on October 24, 1915, to its inclusion in the boundaries of Arab independence…`.

Clear and unconditional.  But when the leaders of an Arab delegation to London in 1921 referred to that commitment, Churchill was reported by his short-hand copyist as replying: `No!  When was the promise?  Never!`

2) But with the second of our initiatives, Sykes-Picot, confirmed in May 1916, that promise had already been suspended, the bulk of the territory to be placed, it was proposed, under international supervision – modified marginally by the award of the cities of Haifa and Acre to the British, with the right to build a rail line from Haifa to the Persian Gulf, and some land in the far north, in Upper Galilee, to the French.

(Beyond Palestine, the main aspect of Sykes-Picot was the division of the entire Middle East north of Arabia  between Britain and France, with direct control in some areas and a measure of Arab self-government in others – the British taking a rough approximation to present-day Iraq and the French ditto to Syria.   [And of course, to come speedily and unpleasantly up to date, it is that incipient `geopolitical architecture`, as it has been termed, that Islamic State has explicitly vowed to demolish.])

The two men in question were Mark Sykes – Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark  Sykes – the Conservative M.P. for Hull South, a committed Roman Catholic, something of a Francophile, and proprietor of the large East Riding estate of Sledmere, described by his first biographer, Shane Leslie, as `a ducal demesne among the Wolds` –  born in 1879, much travelled since boyhood in the Middle East,  with past diplomatic experience in Constantinople and Cairo, and performing various semi-official roles in and around the Foreign Office during the War.

And Francois Marie Denis Georges-Picot, born 1870, and a diplomat of colonialist temper serving in 1916 as the French High Commissioner for the Occupied Territories in Syria.

They started meeting at the end of 1915 – only weeks after the McMahon promise to Hussein – drawing up rough proposals in January 1916, travelling to Petrograd to seek Russian approval (Russia an interested party as the historic defender of Orthodox interests and personnel in the Holy Land), and winning the stamp of approval from the British and French governments in May 1916 – Sir Edward Grey signing off in London.

What is particularly notable about Sykes-Picot is that not only did it contradict McMahon, but that it was itself to be contradicted the following year by Balfour – and this, oddly, with Sykes`s enthusiastic support.  There had been no mention whatever of Zionism in his Agreement – Sykes at the time indeed regarding the movement with anti-Semitic-flavoured hostility.

Only months later, however, having read into the subject, he had become one of Zionism`s strongest supporters.  In the words of Geoffrey Lewis, in his recent book Balfour and Weizmann: The Zionist, the Zealot and the Emergence of Israel, Sykes`s `mind was not only quick but quick to change.  It did not at all embarrass him to be advancing an opinion which was  dramatically opposed to the one he had held previously` – `a visionary who was easily swayed from one extreme to the other`.  In the slightly barbed judgment of John Grigg, in his biography of Lloyd George, Sykes had `a sanguine ecumenical outlook`.   `The war`, Shane Leslie wrote in 1923, `had made him a disposer of boundaries and an abettor of nationalities, a weaver of flags`.  But by then Sykes was dead, victim of the 1919 influenza epidemic just a few weeks short of his 40th birthday – so passes from the scene.

3) With the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, then, both the Arab claim and the international idea were scrapped, on the assumption that Palestine would, on account of British military successes in the Levant, be placed under exclusive London rule, and the area designated as the location of an ill-defined and only recently  conceptualised Jewish National Home, with the resident Arab majority accorded protection of their `civil and religious` rights, butquite deliberatelynot of their `political` rights.

Ronald Storrs, successively military governor of Jerusalem and civil governor of Judea between 1917 and 1926, observed later that –  by the language of the Declaration –  the Arabs were `lumped together under the negative and humiliating definition of “Non-Jewish Communities”, and relegated to subordinate provisions.`  This gave the impression, the journalist Joseph Jeffries suggested, in one of the newspaper articles featuring in the book I`ve recently edited, The Palestine Deception, that they – 670,000, against 80,000 Jews – `were some specialised sort of bodies and not the mass of the population…. Does Lord Balfour call the British people the “non-foreign community in England?”

So:  an uncoordinated sequence, and one which, in its individual parts, was characterised, as I`ll show later, by varying degrees of secrecy: sometimes even the participating parties themselves not knowing quite what their predecessors had arranged only months before – the consequence being (as secrets tend to get out in the end, in dribs and drabs) that the British came to be regarded as duplicitous double-dealers by both Arabs and Jews, this, for decades ahead, compromising the mutual trust necessary for successful policy-making.

Again:  we don`t moralise here.  It was war-time.  Edward Grey, by then Viscount Grey, observed in the House of Lords in March 1923 – with specific reference to what he termed `the pledges [1915] which were undoubtedly given to the Arabs` (when, note, he was Foreign Secretary) – that the changing fortunes of war had, over the course of its four-plus years, inevitably led to an accumulation of mutually contradictory undertakings: `the pressure of the emergency`, as he put it, `being so great that no Government has much time in which to consider what the indirect and ulterior consequences may be`.  This could, post-war, prove `exceedingly embarrassing`, but to avoid further political damage  governments had humbly to acknowledge the contradictions and their provenance, and make a clean breast of any culpabilities.  It was, however, a forlorn request.

On such confusions, Arthur Balfour provides eloquent contemporary testimony.  `We have got into an extraordinary muddle…`, he wrote to George Curzon, his soon-to-be successor at the Foreign Office, in September 1919, `partly owing to the complicated and contradictory character of the … engagements into which we have entered`.  And a few weeks earlier, he suggested it was a bad idea to talk publically about such matters – `unless we can reconcile our letter to Husain of 1915 with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. I cannot.  Can anyone else?

Lloyd George, however, had no time for hand-wringing.   Described by Margaret MacMillan (intriguingly, Lloyd George`s great-granddaughter) as `a Liberal turned land-grabber`, he was contemptuous of any arrangement standing in the way of a British annexation of  Palestine – referring to Sykes-Picot as `this egregious document`.   Maurice Hankey, secretary to the Cabinet, records in his diary for October 3rd 1918 that when Balfour seemed to be still working with the French on the basis of Sykes-Picot, Lloyd George and Curzon were `furious`, as they had been `trying to think out a plan to dodge the agreement…`.  And three days later, conferring with the French in Paris: `Lloyd George took a very intransigent attitude and wanted to go back on the Sykes-Picot agreement, so as to get Palestine for us …`.


I have been talking in rather general terms about the critical context of war.  A bit more specificity, however, is required – especially with regard to imperial worries.  The gravest of all the war-time upsets in the Middle East, with ominous imperial implications, and the prime determinant of the various policy shifts, was the loss of the traditional  buffer ally, Turkey – guarding, through long-standing alliances, British land and sea routes to the East  – to the German enemy in 1914.   One must never forget, in any analysis of foreign policy, the over-riding concern with imperial security.  British political expansionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – anxiety-driven, fearful, negative in spirit – was overwhelmingly preoccupied (in Africa and the Far East, as well as in the Middle East) with the continuation of British rule in India, and all that that implied in terms of trade, finance, the national balance of payments, military manpower, and that vaporous but critical necessity for a great power – prestige:  the self-serving semblance, however fanciful, of potent, unchallengeable authority around the globe.

Andrew Bonar Law, Lloyd George`s Chancellor of the Exchequer, effectively his deputy in the War Cabinet, and briefly his successor as prime minister, told the House of Commons in March 1918 that it would be `a great mistake to suppose that the value` of the invasion of Palestine `is purely political or moral.  This is very far from being the case….We are a great Eastern Power, and anyone who regards the situation at all closely will realise that the view which is taken of our position in India…is…a question of our strength in India and of what possible prestige may come of it…`.

Barbara Tuchman has written of Palestine`s `fatal geography` on the edge of the desert approaches to Suez.    The Foreign Secretary (and of course one-time Viceroy of India), Lord Curzon, informed the House of Lords in 1920 that, regarding Palestine, `we went there…for distinct military and strategic objectives – namely to protect the flank of Egypt…`. A little later, on expansionist policy generally in the Middle East, he remarked: `You ask why should Great Britain push herself out in these directions?  Of course, the answer is obvious – India`.

The particular fear energising the British was not so much that Germany, in her alliance with Turkey, might prevail in the Levant to Britain`s obvious strategic cost – though there were, during the War, two alarming Turko-German assaults on the Suez Canal, coming in by way of Palestine.  The main worry, especially towards the end of hostilities, was that the French – holding long-term imperial ambitions in the area, and pumped up by a highly ambitious and anti-British colonial lobby in Paris –  might, post-War, try to take charge of what they termed  La Syrie Integrale, which, in accordance with much contemporary usage, included Palestine, and ran south to the borders of British Egypt and the approaches to the Suez Canal.

On the matter of imperial anxieties, these were not some uniform body  of concerns affecting the entirety of British officialdom.  It is of the greatest importance that the Asquith-Grey government, responsible for McMahon-Hussein and Sykes-Picot, gave way, in December 1916, to the Lloyd George coalition.  Asquith was no expansionist, and, southern Mesopotamia apart, harboured no imperialist ambitions in the Middle East.   Neither the McMahon nor the Sykes initiatives involved any British annexation of Palestine (apart that is from the Sykes-Picot designations of Haifa and Acre as mentioned).  With Lloyd George`s arrival at the end of 1916, alongside George Curzon as Leader of the Lords and later Foreign Secretary, all that changed.   The War, John Gallagher has observed, in his 1982 Ford Lecture: `The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire`, `brought back to power obsolescent imperialists, as it was to again in 1940.  Indeed it would be hard to find any more imperially-minded government in British history than Lloyd George`s…`.

And it was imperialism with a powerful Levantine focus, not only because of the obsessive India concern, but because Lloyd George, with many of his colleagues, was a so-called `easterner`, wanting to see some decisive military successes away from the morale-sapping stalemate of the western front in Europe. – and by way of compensation for the horrendous failure at Gallipoli.  Palestine, with biblical resonances that appealed to the former chapel boy from north Wales, had to be annexed, not internationalised.  `We must grab that`, he insisted.

But there was no inevitability here.  Again one must emphasise contingency.  Lloyd George encountered much opposition to such priorities – indeed almost sufficient, in the judgment of John Grigg, to unseat him in the spring of 1918 by a combination of soldierly Tories and resentful Asquithians – following the lead of Douglas Haig and the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson.   The `first rule in all wars`, Robertson had declared to the War Cabinet in December 1917, `is to concentrate in the main [ie European] theatre all forces that can be made available`.  He and his staff, he said, had `never been able to regard an extensive offensive campaign in Palestine as a sound military measure`.

And it was of course the successful pursuit of  this eastern priority of `the little man`, as Robertson called him, that made Balfour feasible.  Britain could only promise a national Jewish homeland if the territory in question was hers to dispose of.   And the Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, rode quite deliberately on the back of the new expansionism. `We shall have to be the guards of the Suez Canal`, one of his colleagues Max Nordau told an Albert Hall audience in 1919 that included Lloyd George and Balfour:  `We shall have to be the sentinels of your way to India via the Near East`.

It is also the case – and this is a key point – that Britain, in its attempts to marginalise the French, was able to move from the internationalisation under Sykes-Picot to the outright annexation required for the implementation of Balfour, because of the very decisive improvement in its comparative military position in Palestine.  With Allenby marching on Jerusalem in December 1917, and progressing north into Syria in the course of 1918, Britain was the paramount force on the ground.   France being then overwhelmingly engaged on the Western Front, her Syrie Integrale ambitions could now be more or less ignored.


What now of the concealments attending the three initiatives? – these, as suggested, causing much damage to both Arab and Jewish trust in the good faith of British policy-makers.

First, McMahon:    The correspondence in question, 1915-16, was not, of course, some private, internal Whitehall messaging.  The letters, sent to Hussein from Cairo, were in Arabic.  George Antonius, in his 1939 book The Arab Awakening – incorporating his own translations – wrote that it was `open to any person with a knowledge of Arabic, who can obtain access to the files of defunct Arab newspapers, to piece the whole of the McMahon notes together…`.


And as The Palestine Deception sets out, the journalist Joseph Jeffries offered his own public translation in early 1923 – this taken up in a couple of debates in the House of Lords in March and June of that year, in which Edward Grey and others, including three former imperial governors, Lords Islington, Lamington, and Sydenham, argued the case for official publication – only to be met with total resistance by the new Conservative Colonial Secretary, the Duke of Devonshire and his colleagues in the House.

`The correspondence is long and inconclusive`, Devonshire insisted on March 1st,  in the first of a number of stonewalling statements. `I admit that these are not reasons why it should not be published, but there are very strong reasons indeed which show that the publication of the correspondence would be detrimental to the public interest` – indicating that `this is also the opinion of my advisers`.

Well, the principal adviser, as it happened, was the senior official at the Colonial Office, Sir John Shuckburgh who, fully aware of the stark contradiction between McMahon in 1915, promising Palestine independence, and Balfour in 1917, offering the territory as a Jewish National Home, wrote privately in 1923: `there is sufficient doubt in the matter to make it not desirable to drag the controversy out into the daylight` – and, separately, `our best policy is to let sleeping dogs lie as much as possible`, the current official stance on McMahon being `one of the weakest points in our armoury`.  When queried during the War on the 1915 promises by his Arab friends, T.E. Lawrence assured them, as he put it, `that England kept her word in letter and spirit`.  He went on: `In this comfort they performed their fine things; but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed`.

Official secrecy, absurdly, continued until publication was finally permitted in 1939, at the time of the St. James`s Palace Conference on Palestine – when it was officially admitted `that His Majesty`s Government were not free to dispose of Palestine without regard for the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of Palestine`.  The worst of all worlds politically, in terms of trust and good faith – a correspondence unofficially available and officially suppressed for the best part of a quarter-century.

With Sykes-Picot, at least partial concealment was maintained from May 1916 till November 1917, and the Agreement would probably have continued unrevealed had the Bolsheviks in Russia, on coming to power, not provocatively and deliberately spilled the beans with full texts in both Izvestia and Pravda on 23 November 1917.

The archaeologist, David Hogarth, who worked closely with T. E. Lawrence in the Arab Revolt, and who ran the Arab Bureau in Cairo for a time in 1916, commented that year:  as `the conclusion of this Agreement is of no immediate service to our Arab policy as pursued here, and will be a grave disadvantage for some time to come, it is kept strictly secret`.  In the words of another British official in 1917, we have been playing `a wholly undignified and distressingly dishonest game of hide-and-seek with a very dignified and honest old man` – i.e.  Hussein.

Edwin Montagu, Lloyd George`s India secretary, records a meeting he had with Feisal, Hussein`s son (and future King of British Iraq), in which Feisal commented that his father had been `greatly disturbed by the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement….He had no idea, when engaged in a struggle against the Turks that any agreement of the kind was in existence, or that Arab rights in Syria had been bargained away in advance`.

But the Zionists were also left in the dark, their leader, Chaim Weizmann, a man in regular contact with politicians at the highest level, only finding out eleven months on in April 1917 from his Manchester Guardian friend C. P. Scott – who had picked up the basic facts in a  French journal.  `This was startling information indeed!`, Weizmann records in his autobiography, Trial and Error.  `It seemed to me that the proposal was devoid of rhyme or reason.  It was unjust to England, fatal to us, and unhelpful to the Arabs`.     `And the most curious part of this history,` he went on,` is this….Sir Mark Sykes entered into negotiations with us, and gave us his fullest support, without telling us of the existence of the tentative agreement`.

Even the American president, Woodrow Wilson – whose support for the Zionist cause the British were actively seeking – had been fed only the most garbled information by Arthur Balfour when he visited Washington in April 1917.  Did he tell Wilson about the so-called Secret Agreements, of which Sykes-Picot was one, his niece Blanche Dugdale asked him in 1928.  `Oh yes`, Balfour replied. `I was bound to tell him.  But it was a very delicate business, for of course they were secret.  The way I got over it was to tell him about them, as a secret – man to man`.  But later on, `I think he said he had never been informed`.

As for his own Declaration of November 1917, I shall be brief.  It was a private letter sent to Lord Rothschild – Lionel Walter Rothschild – but news immediately got out, a jubilant public meeting being held in London shortly after.  But there was no formal announcement in Palestine – again this mess of public knowledge and official denial.  Ronald Storrs records  that `with 95 per cent of my friends in Egypt and Palestine…the Balfour Declaration…passed their notice…`.  A copy was sent to the chief of the so-called Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (South), responsible for the military governance  of Palestine immediately after the War, as late as October 1919, with instructions to treat it as `extremely confidential, and on no account for any kind of publication`.   That did in fact follow in Jerusalem – but not until April 1920 – 29 months on from its issuance.

It is difficult to see the sense in all this, especially after the War had finished.  It was bound to cause suspicion and offence among the very people who had to be won over to an acceptance of the Declaration – especially when modern communications more or less guaranteed reportage in the Near East.

Was it all a matter of casual arrogance in relation to people of whom ministers and officials in London knew little?   And what of the flippancy displayed by the philosopher-statesman Arthur Balfour himself?  Talking to the French foreign minister, Paul Cambon, some short time after the Declaration, he apparently remarked – according to the British Ambassador in Paris, Lord Bertie –  that `it would be an interesting experiment to reconstruct a Jewish kingdom`.  When Cambon reminded him of the biblical prophecy that a restored King of the Jews would mean the end of the world, Balfour replid: `such a dénouement would be even more interesting`.


On the matter of long-run consequences, I hardly need labour the point that the political displacement of the Arabs in Palestine at the end of the First World War, and contrary to the McMahon promises, has never been rectified.  The present impasse in Israel-Palestine has century-old roots, and shows no sign whatever of being alleviated.  Read, for example, the despairing article in the last-but-one issue of The New York Review of Books (April 7-April 20, 2016), `Israel: The Broken Silence`, by David Shulman, Professor of Humanitarian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,

On the matter of Arab sensitivities, the man more than any other who had acted to offend them, Lloyd George, pronounced in the House of Commons in 1920 that the sense that `somebody has broken faith with them` was `disturbing the Arabs throughout the whole of this great area [the Middle East]….The Arab race, its pride, its sense of justice and fair play, has been outraged by the feeling that somehow or other things have not quite been done in the way they had expected`.  Even the leading `revisionist` Zionist, Vladimir Jabotinsky, a man of harsh political commitment, could see that any historic compromise between Arabs and Jews in the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration was a virtual impossibility.  `Any native people`, he wrote in 1925,  `views their country as their national home, of which they are complete masters.  They will not voluntarily allow, not even a new master, but even a new partner.  And so it is for the Arabs….They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervour that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or a Sioux looked upon the prairie`.

Outrage, as identified by Lloyd George, and across a range of political and physical forms, was guaranteed to continue.  But, less obviously perhaps, the contradictions and secrecies conditioned Zionist political behaviour as well – and again in ways that persist to the present day.   The failure of Mark Sykes and others to inform Weizmann of the 1916 Anglo-French Agreement was hardly confidence-inspiring:  and indeed there was no certainty in Zionist circles before late 1917 that a National Home declaration – described by one of Weizmann`s biographers as `one of the most improbable acts in the history of British foreign policy` – would ever materialise.  It was the consequence, I have argued elsewhere (Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter 2011), of a number of War-time contingencies and not of any substantive long-run historical process.  The Zionists knew that the men behind the policy, Balfour included, were to varying degrees anti-Semitic; and that the majority of British Jews, like those in Western Europe and the United States, were opposed to the Declaration.  Britain`s Palestine Mandate, finally confirmed in 1923, and incorporating the Declaration, was the consequence – and again I`ve argued this elsewhere (British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, July 2013) – not of any official enthusiasm for Zionism but of strategic anxieties centring on Suez.  And it ran into mounting opposition, not only in Palestine – notably among the resident Jewish religious communities, objecting to the secular incomers –  but in the British press and parliament as well.  And, at the highest levels of government, it had been unambiguously opposed from the outset by Lord Curzon and the Jewish India secretary Edwin Montagu

From Baghdad, Gertrude Bell wrote to her parents in November 1917:  `I hate Mr Balfour`s pronouncement….To my mind it`s a wholly artifical scheme divorced from all relation to facts and I wish it the ill success that it deserves…`. And later: `It`s like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can`t stretch out your hand to prevent them`.

Given the seeming fragility of the British commitment, dating back to the Sykes-Picot confusions, and uncertain as to its permanence, Zionists – coming in the main from the illiberal societies of eastern Europe – resorted vigorously to two lines of action that have been part of the so-to-speak Zionist genome ever since – the rapid establishment of inalienable facts on the ground, and the intensive lobbying in the offices of the main metropolitan power – Britain in the past, the United States today, never shy of accusing their opponents of anti-Semitism, and representing what might be seen, variously, over the past century as a compelling combination of assertive power and existential insecurity.

Given this, and the profound, enduring Arab disaffection in Palestine, it is all too obvious that we are still living with the legacies of McMahon, Sykes, and Balfour.  There are few, if any, other places in the world where the century-long past is as present, and as invidiously active, as it is in the post-colonial Near East.

But Zionist and Palestinian behaviour throughout has, I`d suggest, been essentially systemic – the assertive quasi-colonial incomers against the politically and territorially disadvantaged residents.   And the conditioning  system, in which both sides have been trapped for almost a hundred years, was manifestly a piece of British handiwork.

If there is a simple, elementary moral to be drawn, it is that war and empire – in our case the Great War of 1914-18, with its confusions,  concealments, and attendant imperial insecurities  – are highly defective incubators of humane, liberating political change.


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