October 24, 2004

Secret Agreements - The Legacy of the Middle East, Part Three

The Balfour Declaration

The British entered into a series of three secret – and conflicting – agreements concerning the eventual disposition of the Ottoman Empire during the fighting of World War I, assuming that they would be victorious over the Turks. The first of these agreements was between Great Britain and Sharif Husayn bin ‘Ali of Mecca, leader of the Hashimites, then the rulers of the Hijaz. The second, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was made between Great Britain and France (and for a short time Russia). The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 committed Great Britain to share administration of the soon-to-be former Ottoman territories with the French.

By 1917, the British began to rethink their obligation to jointly administer the region with the French. As a method of gaining French acquiescence, the British sought French approval of the nascent Zionist movement, hoping that French support for a Jewish homeland would replace its designs to share power in the area with the British. The French responded in June 1917 to the British overtures by stating its support for the “renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many years ago.”

After securing French support for the Zionist cause, the British sought further support from other countries with sizeable Jewish and Zionist populations, particularly the United States and Russia. This support was detailed in what is now known as the Balfour Declaration.

The Balfour Declaration

There was an exchange of drafts for the British declaration between the Anglo-Jewish community, under the leadership of Lord Rothschild, and the British government, represented by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour. The differences between the first Zionist draft and the final declaration are subtle but significant.

First Zionist proposal:

1. His Majesty's Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.

2. His Majesty's Government will use its best endeavors to secure the achievement of this object and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Zionist Organization.

The final text, in a letter from Secretary Balfour to Lord Rothschild:

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

The Reaction

To this day, Arabs cite the Balfour Declaration with contempt. At the time, the British press widely publicized the declaration and American President Woodrow Wilson’s statements in support of it. However, news of the declaration was censored in those newly liberated parts of Palestine under the control of British forces led by General Sir Edmund Allenby.

Following the end of the war, the British were now faced with living up to their agreements with the Hashimite Arabs, the Saudi Arabs, the French, and the Jewish groups. Needless to say, they could not honor all of them. The resulting partitions of the former Ottoman territories into Palestine (what is now Israel and the areas under the Palestinian Authority), Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and parts of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon created the political instability that remains today.