How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
WHEN the representatives of a war-weary world met at Paris in 1919 the problem of Palestine seemed one of the simplest of the many that confronted them. Turkey made no claim for the retention of her sovereignty. The system of Mandates was established with general approval, and Palestine was obviously a case for its application. As to the choice of a Power as Mandatory, there was only one candidate. Great Britain was willing to accept the duty; her strategic interests would have made the establishment of any other Power in that territory unwelcome to her; it had been the British armies which, after a brilliant campaign, had conquered the country, and were still in occupation. There had been a tentative suggestion in some quarters that the United States might undertake the task; but her traditional policy of avoiding foreign entanglements had ruled this out from the beginning. France and Italy, the only other possible candidates, offered no competition. All agreed to honor the pledge to the Jews of the world which in November 1917 had been given by the British Government, under the signature of Lord Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, favoring the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish National Home.
The Arab peoples were represented at the Conference by a Delegation under the leadership of the Emir Feisal, one of the sons of the King of the Hejaz. Feisal had been the leader of the Arab Revolt during the war and was destined to become the first King of an independent 'Iraq. Although most of its members were against Zionism, the Arab Delegation itself made no official protest either against the conferment of a Mandate for Palestine on Great Britain, or against the Balfour Declaration. On the contrary, the Emir Feisal publicly referred to Dr. Weizmann, the leader of the Zionists, and himself as being "in perfect accord" and engaged in a "common cause." Into the tangle of knotty problems which harassed the Paris Peace Conference for so many arduous months, the question of Palestine did not enter. There at least no serious difficulties arose. The country was launched on its new career without controversy, almost silently, with good prospects of peaceful and rapid development.
The Zionist Movement, which for thirty years had been struggling, slowly and painfully, to found colonies of Jews in Palestine in the face of stolid Turkish obstruction, now took a leap forward. Year after year, with immense energy, the Zionists collected funds from their co-religionists all over the world. They bought land, trained young men and women as colonists, organized emigration from the crowded and often unfriendly countries of Europe to the promised land, so old and so new, that was at last opened to them. Although many of the leading Jews in all countries were doubtful about the enterprise, or even opposed to it, the Jewish people as a whole, now more numerous in the world than ever before, gave Zionism enthusiastic support. They felt that in their dark history there had once more been kindled a shining light.
During the seventeen years that have since elapsed a considerable part of the cultivable land of Palestine has passed into Jewish ownership, bought, often from absentee landlords, at prices many times its previous value. The Jewish population of Palestine has risen from some 60,000 to over 400,000. Voluntary contributions have been collected all over the world, largely in small amounts from poor people, to a total of seventy million dollars. This money has been spent on land purchase, house building, the training and transport of immigrants, the erection of schools and hospitals, the preparation of the land for cultivation and a score of other purposes. In addition there has been invested more than three hundred million dollars in industrial and agricultural enterprises.
But meanwhile there had also been growing a movement of nationalism among the Arabs. Simultaneously with the striking progress of the Zionist Movement, a spirit of Arab patriotism, previously almost non-existent in Palestine, had arisen. The younger generation especially became fired with the same nationalistic idea which had inspired the Arab revolt against the Turks. It had swept over the whole Arabian peninsula, and was destined to establish independent Arab Kingdoms and Principalities in the Hejaz, Yemen, 'Iraq, Trans-Jordan and Syria. Those in Palestine looked upon themselves as an outpost of the Arab world, specially charged with the guardianship, within the old city of Jerusalem, of one of the three most sacred shrines of Islam. They viewed with apprehension the Jewish incursion (for so it appeared to them) and feared that at no distant date they would be swamped altogether by it. If the time came when Great Britain should decide to surrender a mandate which was avowedly only temporary, they feared that they would find themselves under the permanent rule of an eager, capable Jewish majority, whose constant professions of goodwill might or might not be fulfilled. Under these conditions they gave little weight to economic considerations. The fact that many of the Arabs had been enriched through the high prices they had received for their lands; that the taxation upon most of their peasantry had been reduced by two-thirds; that ample employment at higher wages had been given their artisans and laborers -- all of which had resulted from the general prosperity diffused throughout the country by the sudden and vast expenditures accompanying the Jewish immigration -- all these economic factors weighed little in comparison with their political fears. Moslem Arabs and Christian Arabs, moderates and extremists, united in opposition to Jewish immigration, to the Balfour Declaration, and often to the British Mandate itself.
It was claimed that, prior to the Arab Revolt, the British Government had assured the Arab leaders that, if the Allies were successful in the war, Palestine would be included in a great Arab dominion which the victorious Powers would help to establish. This claim was based mainly upon a letter written in 1915 to the King of the Hejaz, then Sherif of Mecca, by Sir Henry McMahon, who had been charged by the British Government with the conduct of the negotiations that had led to the Revolt. Even apart from that, said the Palestine Arabs, the Mandate itself clearly contemplated the establishment of self-government in Palestine, as in other mandated territories of the same class. All the others were, in fact, on the road towards independence. If no advance was made in Palestine, this was not due to any exceptional incompetence on the part of the people, but to the consequences of the Balfour Declaration. But had self-government been granted, this would certainly have resulted in blocking the development of the Jewish National Home. The Jewish National Home was therefore taken as blocking the establishment of self-government.
As a result of the nationalist movement among the Arabs, disorders had broken out on a small scale as early as 1920, and on a somewhat larger scale in 1921. Then for a period of eight years there was tranquillity, though there continued to exist an undercurrent of political tension. In 1929 serious and widespread disturbances occurred in many parts of the country, resulting in some hundreds of deaths. Finally in 1936 disorders broke out again, and lasted for many months, reaching almost the dimensions of a rebellion and requiring the dispatch of two divisions of British troops to Palestine.
Public opinion in Great Britain had by this time become seriously perturbed, and the Government determined to review the whole situation. The first stage was to order a thorough inquiry into the facts. Observers in other countries may not fully realize how large a part is played in the British governing system by Commissions or Committees of Inquiry. Important legislation or administrative measures at home, or changes in colonial policy in any part of the Empire, are seldom undertaken without an impartial and thorough investigation having first been made. Men of experience as ministers or administrators, in business or in the professions, are always ready to take part without remuneration of any kind in these honorable tasks. The highest grade in the hierarchy of these inquiries is the Royal Commission: the members are chosen by the Government of the day, but with an understanding that no bias shall enter; the appointment is made by the Crown; the Commissioners proceed with their investigation in whatever way they think fit, are not subject to any kind of Government control or influence, and report at the end directly to the King.
Such was the form of inquiry that was set up in the case of Palestine. Six Commissioners were appointed; their competence and impartiality were acknowledged on all hands. They went to Palestine; spent several weeks in visiting all sections of the country and in hearing the views of all parties; and on June 22, 1937, presented a unanimous Report.
It is a comprehensive survey of the whole situation: sincere, impartial, written with understanding, and in a lively and human style not often found in official reports.
The Commissioners speak in most appreciative terms of the work already accomplished by the Jews in Palestine. They write: "It is impossible, we believe, for any unprejudiced observer to see the National Home and not to wish it well. It has meant so much for the relief of unmerited suffering. It displays so much energy and enterprise and devotion to a common cause." They praise highly its achievements, both economic and cultural. And they declare, repeatedly and with emphasis, that the Arabs have greatly gained in a material sense from the Jewish immigration. While the Jewish population has grown since the Mandate by 350,000, the Arab population has increased by exactly the same figure. Nevertheless, the conclusion reached by the Royal Commission is pessimistic. On the political side they consider that the problem as hitherto presented is insoluble. "The obligations Britain undertook towards the Arabs and the Jews some twenty years ago . . . have proved irreconcilable, and, as far ahead as we can see, they must continue to conflict. . . . We cannot -- in Palestine as it now is -- both concede the Arab claim to self-government and secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home." Yet neither of these aims can be discarded. "Arab aspirations towards a new age of unity and prosperity in the Arab world" are legitimate and praiseworthy; to those aspirations "British public opinion is wholly sympathetic." On the other hand, it is out of the question that, having encouraged the intense Jewish effort in Palestine by assurances of the most formal character, Great Britain should now merely wash its hands of the whole matter and discard responsibility. "Manifestly," the Commissioners say, "the problem cannot be solved by giving either the Arabs or the Jews all they want. The answer to the question 'Which of them in the end will govern Palestine?' must surely be 'Neither.' We do not think that any fair-minded statesman would suppose, now that the hope of harmony between the races has proved untenable, that Britain ought either to hand over to Arab rule 400,000 Jews, whose entry into Palestine has been for the most part facilitated and approved by the League of Nations; or that, if the Jews should become a majority, a million or so of Arabs should be handed over to their rule."
The Commission criticizes some aspects of the British administration of the country. In particular they comment on the almost complete removal of military force during the years of tranquillity prior to 1929. All the troops had been withdrawn. A corps of British Gendarmerie, which I had found invaluable during my High Commissionership, had been disbanded. There was nothing left but a police force, mostly Arab and not highly trained, supported by a small number of armored cars and airplanes, which are in any case almost useless for the suppression of disorders in the intricate streets of oriental cities. For a government to rely merely upon force and repression is indeed the negation of statesmanship. On the other hand, for any administration, whether in an eastern country or a western, to be denuded of armed support is to invite disaster. The Commissioners point out that the disturbances of 1929 were quite unimportant at the outset, and could easily have been stopped. The conflagration spread among a highly inflammable people because there was no one to stamp it out at the beginning. In the end much blood was shed, and from that moment the political position rapidly deteriorated.
The Commission imply in their Report that the fomenters of the disturbances of 1936 had been allowed too much scope. They understand the desire of the local Administration not to adopt ruthless measures, not to suppress the expressions of political discontent -- however destructive or even murderous those expressions might be -- by shootings and hangings on a large scale. At the same time they strongly urge that any renewed outburst should be met by the prompt declaration of martial law.
The Commission are inclined to criticize also the choice of officials for the British service in Palestine. The administration of that country requires very special qualifications: a wide sympathy and an understanding of the deep emotions aroused among the peoples of three faiths by the historical associations and the present appeal of the Holy Land. Those qualifications have not always been present. Many of the officers of the British administration have been sent to Palestine in the ordinary course of promotion in the colonial service. They have regarded their few years there as they had regarded their previous service in Africa, eastern Asia, the West Indies, or wherever it might be; they have known nothing of the languages of the country, and have taken no special interest in its past history or future destinies.
The Commission, again, repeatedly express their regret that more had not been done to promote Arab education. After seventeen years of British administration, only one in five of the Arab children of school age receive any education at all. And this in striking contrast with Jewish education. All the Jewish children go to elementary schools, a considerable proportion to secondary and elementary schools, and some go on to the admirable Hebrew University at Jerusalem.
My own experience in Palestine leads me to endorse fully these criticisms as to the lack of sufficient force and activity in the maintenance of public security; the failure to recognize the need of specialists in the higher ranks of the administration; and the insufficient provision made for Arab education, which has led the Arabs, however unjustly, to doubt the sincerity of the British professions of a desire to advance their culture and raise the standards of their civilization.
But the Commissioners are clearly of opinion, that, even if all those things had been different, even if none of these mistakes had occurred, the underlying problem would have remained. There would still have been the essential antagonism, as they regard it, between the Jewish aims and the Arab aims, and still the impossibility of finding any policy, along the lines hitherto pursued, that would end it. So they have devised a wholly different plan, not previously advocated in any quarter. Their proposal is a division of the country into three parts: a new Jewish state; an Arab section which would be united with the existing Arab Principality of Trans-Jordan; and a neutral section which would remain under the administration of Great Britain as mandatory.
The accompanying map, reproduced from the Commission's Report, shows the new boundaries that are suggested. The reserved area is to comprise Jerusalem and Bethlehem and a corridor down to the sea, which would serve as an outlet from the Arab state to the Mediterranean at Jaffa. That town itself, however, would be an outlying part of the Arab state. The Mandatory would also remain responsible for Nazareth and the waters of the Sea of Galilee, on account of their religious associations; and for the four towns of Haifa, Acre, Safad and Tiberias, which although geographically within the Jewish State would need a special régime on account of their mixed populations. Each of the two new states should be wholly independent and eligible for membership of the League of Nations. Each should have complete control of its own finances, including tariffs, but the Jewish State would be required to pay a subvention to the Arab, on account of the severance of valuable territory; and the British Treasury would also make it a grant of £2,000,000 to help it on its way. Each State would decide the character and the number of the immigrants it would admit.
The new régime would be set up through the conclusion of Treaties of Alliance between the Mandatory Power and each of the two states; following the precedents of the Treaties of Alliance between Great Britain and 'Iraq, and between France and Syria and the Lebanon. "The Treaties would include strict guarantees for the protection of minorities in each State . . . Military Conventions would be attached to the Treaties, dealing with the maintenance of naval, military and air forces, the upkeep and use of ports, roads and railways, the security of the oil pipe line [from the oil-fields of 'Iraq to the Mediterranean at Haifa] and so forth." The practical problems of administration that would arise from the severance are lightly touched upon in the Report. Indeed the whole scheme of partition is presented as little more than a sketch, occupying only twelve pages in a volume of four hundred.
The British Government, simultaneously with the publication of the Report, declared its general acceptance of these recommendations. It announced that it would forthwith approach the League of Nations with a view to the ending of the present Mandate, and the substitution of a new one on the lines proposed. Meanwhile Great Britain would continue to bear responsibility for the government of Palestine; if serious disorders should again break out, martial law would be declared; land sales by Arabs to Jews would be restricted during the period of transition; Jewish immigration would only be allowed to continue at a rate not exceeding in any circumstances the figure, suggested by the Commission, of 12,000 a year.
The declaration of the British Government was prompt, definite and uncompromising. Nevertheless it did not command general acquiescence. The British press, indeed, gave it almost unanimous support. But the situation was different when the matter was debated in the two Houses of Parliament, and when it was considered by the bodies representing the Arabs and the Jews.
As the only member in either House who had held the post of High Commissioner for Palestine, it fell to me to take part in the debate in the Lords and to offer an examination of the conclusions of the Royal Commission. I could not but agree with their judgment that it was necessary to make a fresh start. Undoubtedly the present situation is a deadlock. There is no reason why a British Government should consent to engage in a policy of repression and coercion; to sacrifice the lives of British soldiers and policemen; to be exposed to active, and sometimes bitter, criticism from the Jewish side, while they found that they were alienating at the same time the whole of the Arab world and offending Moslem opinion in India and elsewhere. The British Government, I held, were right to say that this could not continue indefinitely.
The scheme of partition, however, is subject to grave objections. It does not effect, and no scheme of partition possibly could effect, a clear severance between the Arab and the Jewish populations of Palestine: the geographical conditions do not allow it. From the Jewish State as now proposed, one-third of the Jews of Palestine would be excluded, and within it would be included one-fourth of the Arabs. Its population would consist of 250,000 Jews and 225,000 Arabs. The Commission recommended that a large number of the Arabs should be induced to remove to Trans-Jordan or elsewhere, and be settled on land to be provided, with the help of generous financial assistance; in the last resort the Arabs in the districts of the plains should be transferred compulsorily. But, in my view, it is exceedingly doubtful whether any such transfer, on a considerable scale, could be effected. And how could compulsory removal of people whose families had been established in their present towns and villages often for a thousand years be reconciled with the "strict guarantees for the protection of minorities?"
The land frontiers of the Jewish state would extend for two hundred miles, crossed at a thousand points by roads and paths, with the railways repeatedly passing in and out again. How would it be possible to maintain any customs control, or immigration control, along such frontiers? How could crime be suppressed when any criminal, political or other, could come from one state into the other, commit his offense, and in a few minutes, perhaps, disappear again across the frontier into the jurisdiction of another police authority -- possibly suspicious and unhelpful? The Commission had said nothing on any of these points.
Most of the towns of Palestine were to be enclaves surrounded by Jewish or Arab territory. What was to be the national status of their inhabitants, the system of law under which they were to be governed, the fiscal régime to which they were to be subject? The Commission seemed to have picked out all the most awkward provisions of the Peace Treaties of Versailles, and to have put a Saar, a Polish Corridor and half a dozen Danzigs and Memels into a country the size of Wales.
I ventured to suggest an alternative plan: not to end the existing Mandate, not to regard as altogether hopeless the policy of coöperation, remembering that since peace and tranquillity had reigned for eight years it was not impossible that it might be restored, though on a new basis. The alternative might embrace five points: First, a recognition by the Jews that they must make some sacrifice in order to reassure the Arabs and arrive at a reconciliation; and this sacrifice should take the form of a limitation of the Jewish population of Palestine, during a period of years, to an agreed percentage of the whole. (I suggested, tentatively, forty percent; the present percentage is about thirty.) Secondly, the aspirations of Arab nationalism should be recognized and should be assisted, and efforts made to promote the formation of a great Confederation in the Middle East, in which Palestine should be included, to which it would bring wealth, and in which the industries of Palestine would find a vast and valuable market. Thirdly, Trans-Jordan should be opened by agreement to the settlement of both Jews and Arabs, and a loan arranged to promote that object. Fourthly, the ownership of the Moslem Holy Places in Palestine should be guaranteed by the League of Nations in perpetuity. Fifthly, the Jewish Community in Palestine as now organized, and the Arab Community, provided with a new organization, should each be given large powers over the education of their own peoples and over public health and other matters, and be provided with adequate revenues from taxation. A new Advisory Council should be established, in which each Community would be represented as such; the Council should also contain the principal British officials: it would be consulted by the High Commissioner on all matters of common concern. I agreed that, if Jews and Arabs did not come to an agreement on some such basis as this, the only alternative would be to face partition with all its disadvantages and risks.
In the House of Commons matters took an unexpected turn. Although the Government commands there a two-to-one majority, the House on this occasion showed a large measure of independence. The Government had given notice of a motion approving the recommendations of the Royal Commission and their own acceptance of them; but this motion was subjected to vigorous criticism on the part of both the Labor and the Liberal Oppositions. These criticisms were supported from the Government side by two ex-Colonial Secretaries -- Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Amery. It was urged that the Government were acting too hastily; that the plan of partition raised very grave issues, and, even if accepted in principle, might have to be modified in many points of application; time should be given for the reactions of both the Jews and the Arabs to be ascertained. Ultimately these views carried the day. The motion proposed by the Government was modified by an amendment framed by Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Lloyd George, and in that form was unanimously accepted. It provided that the whole matter, after being considered by the League of Nations, should come back to Parliament, which would then be prepared to consider a plan from the Government drafted in more definite terms, and not necessarily embodying but "taking into full account" the recommendations of the Royal Commission.
At the time when this article is being written the whole matter is under the consideration of the Congress which is the final authority in the Zionist Movement; of the two sections of the Palestine Arabs -- the more intransigent, led by the Mufti of Jerusalem, and the more moderate, led by Ragheb Bey Nashashibi; and of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations. Before it is published, decisions are likely to have been reached by all those bodies. Then it will be for the Council of the League to express its opinion, and after that for the British Parliament. Nor are the Governments of the United States and of European Powers interested in the matter from various aspects likely to withhold the expression of their views. It will be some months before the question of principle is decided. If the judgment is in favor of partition, two years perhaps will elapse before a Boundary Commission will have fixed the frontiers, before the many technical questions relating to the defense, trade and finances of the new states will have been settled, even in outline, and before the new régime will actually come into being.
The Mandates Commission of the League have always given the most conscientious care to the duties entrusted to them. They have kept in close touch especially with the vicissitudes of Palestine during the last fifteen years. They will certainly examine in a spirit of impartial detachment not only the proposals of the Royal Commission, which have been commended to them by Mr. Ormsby-Gore, the Colonial Secretary, in the name of the British Government, but also all the possible alternatives. They will listen, with critical attention, to the authorized spokesmen of the Arabs and of the Jews. This survey, and the manner in which they will present it to the Council of the League, will be of the highest importance. Although the League of Nations cannot compel a Mandatory Power to accept a policy of which it disapproves -- for after all it is the Mandatory which has to provide the men and the resources necessary for the execution of the task -- the moral effect of any opinion expressed by the Council of the League, after consideration of the findings of the Mandates Commission, must carry great weight. No one is enamored of the solution by partition. Its difficulties and dangers are recognized on all hands. The Royal Commission would undoubtedly have preferred to recommend an alternative based upon coöperation between the two parties if they had regarded such coöperation as a possibility. It cannot be doubted that the British Government would still welcome that solution if it were attainable. But whether either of the parties directly concerned would consent to such a sacrifice of its particular aims as would be necessary to win the assent of the other party, is very doubtful. Both dislike the very idea of the partition of Palestine, but neither shows -- as yet -- any sign of such a change of attitude as would permit an escape from that drastic solution.
Among some of the leading Zionists, indeed, partition is definitely regarded as preferable to any of the alternatives that are within sight. They press for the attachment to the Jewish state of an enclave that would include the large Jewish population in the new quarters of Jerusalem outside the walls of the Old City; a re-adjustment of the frontiers in the north that would bring in the great hydroelectric station on the Jordan and some of the Jewish settlements in the same region; the inclusion also of a large sparsely-inhabited district in the south-west of Palestine. Given these conditions, they would welcome the independence that is offered to them -- the prestige of a real Jewish state -- however small, and the opportunities that it would open. Among the Arabs, the more moderate party might accept partition in default of any willingness to compromise on the part of the Zionists, and then await future developments. It would be futile to attempt to forecast the outcome of these conflicting forces. Events will show -- and soon.