North Africa, West Asia

The perils of improvising policy: from the Balfour Declaration to Brexit

As we experience the consequences of the referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU, we might fruitfully revisit an earlier case of casually self-inflicted political damage in Palestine.

Gardner Thompson
4 September 2019
The Arab Revolt: British troops rounding up Arabs in Jerusalem, 1938.
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Wikimedia Commons

Separated by 100 years, two Davids – Prime Ministers Lloyd George and Cameron – made decisions which in one case certainly, and in the other case almost certainly, changed the course of history. In 2015, David Cameron offered that referendum – to win over members of UKIP, a fringe nationalist political party. Back in 1917, David Lloyd George offered Palestine as a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ – to win over Zionism, a minority, fringe, national, political movement. Both Davids were short-sighted, careless, and too clever by half.

Lloyd George endorsed Zionism, in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, initially as a war measure designed to persuade Jews in Russia and the USA to redouble their support for the Allied war effort. Ultimately, supporting Zionism made no difference to the Allied cause. After 1918, Lloyd George decided not to break this promise, and incorporated the Balfour Declaration into Britain’s mandate for ruling Palestine. His decision - to retain this commitment in peace-time - was far more significant than his decision to issue it during the war.

The main criticism of Lloyd George’s post-war commitment to Zionism is that it was undertaken in the face of all the facts, arguments and prophesies that cautioned against it – before 1922, when the mandate was awarded. For example, Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the cabinet, forecast in August 1917 two likely consequences. ‘When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home … you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country’. Meanwhile, ‘Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine’. For Montagu, Zionism was ‘a mischievous creed’. His concerns were brushed aside.

1. David Lloyd George.jpg
David Lloyd George (1863–1945) - British Prime Minister, 1916–1922. | Wikimedia Commons

Then, in 1919, two eminent Americans, Henry King and Charles Crane, investigated Palestine for the Paris peace-makers. They reported that ‘the non-Jewish population of Palestine – nearly nine-tenths of the whole – are emphatically against the entire Zionist programme’. They continued: ‘No British officer consulted by the Commissioners believed that the Zionist program could be carried out except by force of arms’; rather, Zionism ‘would intensify with a certainty like fate the anti-Jewish feeling both in Palestine and in all other portions of the world’. The report was ignored.

Yet this was no Project Fear. In 1936, the Arabs revolted against British rule amid rising levels of Jewish immigration. The following year, the report of a commission of enquiry headed by Lord Peel was unambiguous in its conclusions. It served to emphasise how tragically prophetic were Montagu, and King and Crane, and numerous others - many of whom had predicted ‘another Ireland’. ‘The belief that the obligations undertaken towards the Arabs and the Jews respectively would prove in course of time to be mutually compatible … has not been justified’. ‘An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities’. There was ‘no hope of compromise’.

The consequences of Lloyd George’s ill-conceived policy were disastrous for the British Empire and, in the longer term, for the Middle East. In Palestine and beyond, it alienated both Arabs and, in time, the Zionists, whose militias, during and after the Second World War, helped force the British to leave.

By the late 1930s, the future for Palestine, now a country which was proving ungovernable, was already most uncertain. The British proposed, in turn, two contrasting exit strategies: in 1937, a ‘two-state solution’, via partition; in 1939, a ‘one-state solution’. After the Second World War and the Holocaust, the UN opted for the former of these approaches. But more than 70 years after the founding of the state of Israel, in the deeply divided Palestine bequeathed by the British Empire, a solution of neither type is in sight.

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The Arab Revolt: British retribution in Jenin, 1938. | Wikimedia Commons

Lloyd George has been fortunate in his posthumous reputation. A celebratory exhibition at the National Library of Wales in 1914 was called ‘Lloyd George: The Wizard, the Goat, the Man Who Won The War’. It is not widely recognised that he caused lasting turmoil in the Middle East. ‘An improviser of speech and an improviser of policy’, he ignored inconvenient truths. He appears to have been driven by his love of the Old Testament, and a view of the Jews which combined sentimentality with anti-Semitism (judging by his depiction of Edwin Montagu as ‘a dirty coward: men of his race usually are’). He loathed, and felt an irrational rivalry with, the French. And, charismatic himself, he fell for the charms of others: especially Chaim Weizmann, the irresistible spokesman of the Zionist cause (though also, later, Adolf Hitler).

Lloyd George was buoyed by wishful thinking: although he was right that Jewish capital and enterprise would help fund Britain’s administration, he was tragically wrong in supposing that the inhabitants would welcome immigrant Jews for the prosperity they brought. The Wizard failed to anticipate – either with political acumen, or with sympathetic imagination – how the resident Palestinian Arab majority were bound to respond to Britain’s endorsement of the Zionist colonisation of their country. His legacy should have warned all subsequent statesmen to take reality into account before meddling in the affairs of distant countries and faraway peoples.

David Cameron’s short-sightedness and failure are comparable. While Lloyd George created lasting division in a distant land, Cameron has already produced deep division in his own – though of course it is a little early to know quite how the reputation of this latter-day David will fare.

Legacy of Empire: Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel by Gardner Thompson is published by Saqi Books.

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