An Anemone in the King’s Buttonhole

Review of One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, by Tom Segev. 612 pp., Little, Brown, 2000.

Avi Shlaim

Literary Review,  February 2001.


 In 1915 Britain promised Hussein the Sharif of Mecca an independent kingdom in return for mounting an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire; in 1916 Britain reached a secret agreement with France to divide the Middle East into spheres of influence in the event of an Allied victory; and in 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to support the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Even by the standards of Perfidious Albion, this was an extraordinary tale of double-dealing and betrayal, a tale that continued to haunt Britain throughout the 30 years of its rule in Palestine.

Of the three incompatible war-time pledges, the most curious one was the Balfour Declaration. At the time that the declaration was issued, the Jews constituted less than 10 per cent of the population of Palestine. The proviso that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ implied that, in British eyes, the Arab majority had no political rights. As Arthur Koestler wrote, here was one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation. Britain herself gained nothing from sponsoring Jewish nationalism towards the end of the First World War. The Balfour Declaration was not only unfair to the Arabs but detrimental to the interests of the empire. Indeed, it was one of the worst blunders in British imperial history. So what lay behind it?

    In his new book Tom Segev, a distinguished Israeli journalist and historian, provides a full and fascinating account of the murky roots of British rule in Palestine. The treatment of the Balfour Declaration is a good example of the originality, insight, and rigorous objectivity that shine through the entire book. The prime mover behind the Balfour Declaration was David Lloyd George. In his memoirs, written some twenty years after the event, Lloyd George explained his support for the Zionist movement during the First World War as an alliance with a hugely influential political power whose good-will was worth paying for. The common wisdom in Britain at the time was that the country had erred in supporting the Zionists and Lloyd George was trying to justify his wartime policy. Segev would have none of it. Lloyd George’s support for Zionism, he argues, was based not on British interests but on ignorance and prejudice: he despised the Jews but he also feared them and he failed to grasp that the Zionists were a minority within a minority. In aligning Britain with the Zionist movement, he acted in the mistaken — and anti-semitic — view that the Jews turned the wheels of history. In fact, as Segev shows, the Jewish people were helpless, with no influence other than this myth of clandestine power.

    Once Lloyd George’s government had thrown its weight behind Jewish aspirations in Palestine, it could not have chosen a more suitable man for the post of High Commissioner. Sir Herbert Samuel was sent to Palestine not because of — or despite — his Jewishness but because he was a Zionist. The appointment pleased the Zionists but it destroyed the last vestiges of Arab faith in Britain’s honesty and justice. Before Samuel took over from the military government, the chief administrative officer asked that he sign one of the most quoted documents in Zionist history: ‘Received from Major General Sir Louis J. Bols, K.C.B. — One Palestine, complete.’ Samuel signed.

    The troubled and tangled history of the British Mandate in Palestine has been told many times before, most recently by Joshua Sherman and Naomi Shepherd, but Segev makes an immensely valuable contribution to the existing literature both with the new information he has unearthed and by suggesting fresh interpretations. Most historians of this period regard Britain as pro-Arab. Zionist writers go further: they accuse Britain not only of persistent partiality towards the Arabs but of going back on her promise to the Jews. Tom Segev puts Britain’s record as the mandatory power under an uncompromising lens. His verdict is that British actions considerably favoured the Zionist position and thus helped to ensure the establishment of a Jewish state.

    To develop his thesis, Segev draws on a great wealth of archival material, official documents, diaries, and letters. The evidence he presents of British support for the Zionist position is both rich and compelling. So is the evidence he adduces for the proposition that once the Zionist movement came into Palestine with the intention of creating an independent state with a Jewish majority, war was inevitable. From the start, Segev notes, there were only two possibilities: that the Arabs defeat the Zionists or that the Zionists defeat the Arabs. British actions tended to weaken the Arabs and to strengthen the Zionists as the two national movements moved inexorably towards the final showdown. The Palestinian nationalists, under the leadership of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, despaired of Britain and eventually threw in their lot with Nazi Germany. The Zionists, under the leadership of Chaim Weizmann, hitched themselves to the British Empire, advancing under its sponsorship to the verge of independence.

    In times of crisis, the fledgling Zionist project was protected by the bayonets of the British army. This was particularly true during the Arab Rebellion of 1936-39. The rebellion showed that there could be no compromise between the two rival communities in Palestine: only war could decide the issue. The Jewish community was weak and defenceless. It would have easily been defeated had Britain not intervened to restore law and order. In November 1938 Major General Bernard Montgomery arrived in Palestine. His task was to crush the revolt. ‘Monty’ was a short-tempered professional soldier with no inclination to study the details of the conflict in Palestine. He gave his men simple orders on how to handle the rebels: kill them. This is what his men did and, in the process, they broke the backbone of the Arab national movement. So when the struggle for Palestine entered its most critical phase, following the passage of the UN partition resolution on 29 November 1947, the Jews were ready to do battle whereas the Arabs were still licking their wounds.

    The costs of the British presence in Palestine were considerable whereas the benefits remained persistently elusive. Palestine was not a strategic asset: it was not a source of power but of weakness. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, the highest ranking British soldier in the Middle East, reiterated that the British had no business being in Palestine and the sooner they left, the better. ‘The problem of Palestine is exactly the same … as the problem of Ireland’, he wrote, ‘namely, two peoples living in a small country hating each other like hell.’ Wilson castigated the civilians — he called them the ‘frocks’ — for failing to understand that the empire could not afford the luxury of spreading itself too thin. Again and again he demanded that Palestine, or ‘Jewland’ as he called it, be abandoned. The logic of his position became irresistible following India’s declaration of independence in 1947. For if India was the jewel in the empire’s crown, Palestine was hardly more than an anemone in the king’s buttonhole.

Another theme that emerges clearly from Segev’s wide-ranging and elegantly written survey is that the British had no coherent or consistent policy towards Palestine. ‘Their regime’, he writes, ‘was a kaleidoscope of perceptions and positions and conflicting interests constantly tumbling over one another and rearranging themselves. Officials, diplomats, and politicians, military men and journalists contended and competed in a never-ending torrent of words, intrigues, alliances, and betrayals’ (p.9). Tom Segev’s own study sheds a great deal of new light on this policy or rather non-policy of which the only real beneficiaries were the ungrateful Zionists.

    As the British Mandate approached its inglorious end, the conflicts and contradictions, the hesitations and the helplessness that had characterised British policy from the beginning, became even more pronounced. Most British officials departed Palestine disappointed, disillusioned, disgruntled, and rather sad. Sir Henry Gurney, the last of the Mandatory government’s chief secretaries, was left with but a single word to account for the British presence in Palestine: stupidity.