THE Report of the Royal Commission on Palestine closes an episode for whose origins we have to go back nearly a quarter of a century. In 1913 Abdullah, second son of Sherif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, was passing through Egypt on his way to Constantinople, where he and his younger brother Feisal represented the Hejaz in the Turkish Chamber of Deputies. Lord Kitchener, then British Agent in Egypt, took advantage of Abdullah's temporary presence at Cairo to pay him a semi-formal visit of courtesy. Accompanied by Mr. (now Sir) Ronald Storrs, the British Agent thanked the representative of the Hejaz for his father's kindness and consideration towards the pilgrims visiting Mecca from British India. Nothing more was said. A friendly foundation had been laid for future parleys. Abdullah hastened to inform the Turkish High Commissioner at Cairo of what had passed at an interview which was sufficiently unusual to occasion comment -- and suspicion.

A year passed. Abdullah again passed through Cairo, in July 1914. The forward policy of the Turks in the Hejaz was causing a good deal of friction and trouble. The clouds of war were gathering fast. Lord Kitchener again met Abdullah and this time discussed politics -- cautiously. The British Government was anxious for the continuance of its friendly relations with Turkey. Subject to this it was ready to help the Arabs in pursuance of its traditional policy. Abdullah was at Constantinople on the out-break of war. On August 22, 1914, he was back at Cairo. Lord Kitchener was away on more important business, but Mr. Storrs handed to Abdullah a letter for his father from the British Government. Friendly sentiments this time accompanied a statement that Great Britain "would not oppose the restoration of the Caliphate to the Arabs." A month passed and Mr. Storrs sent to Abdullah by the hand of a trusty messenger the following letter: "Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, has directed me to write to your lordship, enquiring whether you are still of the same opinion in regard to the defence of the rights of the Arabs. Though he formerly replied to you that he was unable to assist you in securing them, it is now within the power of His Majesty's Government to afford you all the assistance required in view of the determination of the Turkish Government to join the ranks of the enemy and to sever the traditional friendly relations between the two countries." No reply was sent to this letter. A fortnight later Mr. Storrs wrote again: "Whereas the Turks have finally determined to enter the war on the side of the Germans and, whereas the opportunity is favourable for the achievement of the aims of the Arabs, I regret that you should have left my letter without reply and hope that you will hasten to send a reply to my question." A short and cryptic reply to this produced a third letter from Mr. Storrs: "Now that the Turks have entered the war on the side of the enemy we are wholly prepared to help the Sherif of Mecca in his cause and to afford him all the help he desires." The Emir Abdullah replied evasively that "it was not in his father's power to do anything until he had consulted the Arabs and asked their opinion;" but he promised to forward definite proposals in due course.

It will be seen from the foregoing that the initiative and pressure for an Anglo-Arab understanding were British. The Arabs, nervous of staking all on a doubtful throw -- the military reputation of Germany was a legend in the East -- preferred to keep a foot in either camp until the issues were clearer. The Turks, with German advice, had much to offer, short of complete independence of the Arab territories. It is very important to realize this if we would understand the implications of the Anglo-Arab negotiations of 1915-16. British recognition of the independence of the Arabs in all the Arab territories except Aden was the first and principal stipulation of Sherif Hussein in his first formal letter of July 14, 1915. Sir Henry McMahon accepted this condition with certain modifications in his famous letter of October 24, 1915. Sherif Hussein knew that the British had promised more than the Turks ever would or could. No one doubted that that promise would be fulfilled in the event of ultimate victory. The retreat from Ctesiphon and the siege of Kut impaired British military prestige, but Sherif Hussein proceeded unmoved with his negotiations and preparations. When Kut fell at the end of April 1916, he was ready to act. A month later he was in the field -- a rebel against his spiritual and temporal sovereign. He staked all -- confident that Britain would win the war and never doubting that she would honor her engagements.

Yet 1916 witnessed the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in virtue of which Great Britain, France and Russia sought, without consulting King Hussein (as he now styled himself), to modify the promises made to the Arabs in the McMahon correspondence. And who can doubt that at this very time the British Government was in touch with the Zionist leaders with a view to some arrangement for the return of the Jews to Palestine? Certain it is that, for nearly eighteen months, the Arabs were allowed and encouraged to coöperate with the Allied forces against the Turks without so much as a whispered suggestion that the independence they were fighting for had already been whittled down or modified to their detriment by the principal Allied Powers. Disillusionment came only in November 1917. In that month the Russian Bolshevik Government published the text of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, not without a shrewd suspicion that it might embarrass the Allied Powers. In the same month the publication of the Balfour Declaration filled Hussein's cup of bitterness and humiliation to the brim. A month later Jerusalem fell. As the Royal Commission records, the Arabs' "coöperation was unquestionably a factor in the success of the campaign which culminated in" its capture. King Hussein had gone too far on the road of revolt to draw back. His coöperation had helped to win the first round. Protestingly he reserved his right to claim the full reward in the event of victory in the second and last round, in which the Arabs coöperated with energy. With the fall of Damascus the war virtually ended. The council table took the place of the battlefield. The Allies quarrelled among themselves over the prostrate body of the enemy.

In Arabia the two principal Allies, Great Britain and France, have ever since been in armed conflict with the least of them -- the Arabs, who had contributed in no small measure to the success of the most decisive campaign of the whole war. The Allies in council held themselves free to deal with the Arab countries at their discretion. The McMahon promises were interpreted to suit their convenience. The "fertile crescent" was withheld from Arab sovereignty under a system of Mandates differing only in theory from actual annexation. A part of it was reserved for Jewish colonization at the discretion of the Mandatory. The Mandates and the National Home -- and particularly the latter -- were anathema to the Arabs. The armed might of the Mandatory Powers was the only guarantee of the execution of the obligations of their mandates. They hoped, by patience and perseverance, to secure the acquiescence or coöperation of the Arabs in a policy that the Arabs have consistently regarded as a breach of the promises which the British Government has steadily refused to publish. Slowly but surely Arab intransigence has won back some of the losses.

'Iraq was the first to rebel in 1920. In the following year it became a Kingdom under mandate; and, thanks to Feisal's personal influence and prestige with the British Government, the Mandate was terminated a few years later, to be replaced by an alliance with Great Britain. This pattern has now been adopted for Syria, where an alliance with France is to put an end to the Mandate and the periodic rebellions it has occasioned. Only Palestine remained -- its eastern section beyond Jordan peacefully under Mandate administration through an Arab prince, but barred to the Jews; its western part the scene of recurrent revolts occasioned by periodic floods of Zionist immigration. That the British Government has persisted gallantly in a most intractable task is sufficiently proved by the fact that today there are 400,000 Jews settled in Palestine in comparison with the 55,000 of twenty years ago. That its task is an unenviable one is shown by a long series of Arab risings against the Mandatory Power, culminating in the undisguised rebellion of last year. Small wonder that the British Government, impressed at last by the suspicion that there might be something radically wrong with this Palestine business, should have had recourse to the sovereign remedy of a Royal Commission. In framing the terms of reference, however, the Government seemed to assume that the trouble lay in the personnel or methods of the administration or, alternatively, in the innate unreasonableness of the Arabs or Jews or both. It is indeed difficult to read the terms of reference of the Commission without feeling that the British Government did not specifically intend the Commission to challenge the Mandate itself. The Royal Commission has evidently felt that this was the case. It has devoted no fewer than 368 pages of its Report of 397 pages to an examination of the problem on the assumption that the Mandate itself is sacrosanct. It is, indeed, only with a parting shot of despair that it brings the whole fabric of the Mandate toppling down in irretrievable ruins. The Commission has certainly succeeded in its efforts "to ascertain the underlying causes of the disturbances which broke out in Palestine in the middle of April," though scarcely in the way suggested for its guidance in the remainder of its terms of reference. Lord Peel and his colleagues are to be warmly congratulated on their courage in going beyond their reference in search of ways and means of removing and preventing the recurrence of grievances whose reality is sufficiently proved by the chronic outbreak of disorders in the Holy Land.

The Royal Commission's verdict is that, owing to the mutually incompatible and hopelessly irreconcilable ambitions of the Arabs and Jews, the Mandate is unworkable and ought to be terminated in favor of another arrangement. The Arabs in general accept the premise of the unworkability of the Mandate but object to the solution proposed by the Commission. The Jews also object to the proposed solution, but strongly deny that the Mandate is intrinsically unworkable. They blame the vacillation of the Mandatory and the inefficiency of its agents on the spot for the present impasse in Palestine. This charge requires examination. It challenges the whole foundation of the Commission's Report. If it is made out, the Report goes by the board with its recommendations. In fact the Commission itself has fully answered the charge in advance. It has carefully and laboriously analyzed the course of events in Palestine and the measures taken by the Government to cope with them. It has criticized the tendency of individual officials to betray at times a personal bias. It has criticized the inadequacy of the public security arrangements to cope with serious trouble. But it says explicitly: "We doubt, indeed, if anywhere else the principle of impartiality between different sections of a community has been so strictly applied." Implicitly it condemns the Palestine administration as "government by arithmetic." But it explains that the arithmetical balance is inherent in the very terms of the Mandate itself which "was framed mainly to realize the nationalist ideals of Zionism." That of course is exactly why the Mandate is unworkable. The desire to do justice to the Arabs under an instrument so strongly biassed in favor of the Jews created the system of mechanical calculation, which in its turn dulled the wits of officials constantly confronted by a clash of loyalties. That those officials have failed to discharge the task to which they were set is undeniable. But the fault is not theirs. It rests rather with the framers of the task -- the British Government, which can blame nobody but itself. for the terms of the Mandate which it drafted in consultation with none but the Zionist leaders and piloted without alteration through Geneva. The Commission has rightly condemned the Mandate and not the officials confronted with an impossible task. It has even put forward elaborate proposals for coping with the inevitable troubles of the future in the event of the continuance of the present Mandatory arrangements. But it courageously recognizes that such recommendations are useless. "The disease is so deep-rooted that, in our firm conviction, the only hope of a cure lies in a surgical operation."

And so we come to Partition and the termination of the British Mandate. Cantonization under the Mandate is rightly rejected as presenting "most of the difficulties presented by Partition without Partition's one supreme advantage -- the possibility it offers of eventual peace." There is indeed only one possible alternative to Partition -- an alternative which the Commission does not even mention, namely the annexation of Palestine as a Crown Colony of the British Empire. The Jews would welcome such a solution, the Arabs decidedly not. Yet the Arabs have to consider whether their continued intransigence in face of so substantial a verdict in their favor by the Commission may not ultimately force the British Government to adopt an alternative which would be the death-knell of all their hopes. In effect the Commission has recognized the justice of the Arab claims arising out of the McMahon promises. To meet those claims it has gone as far as it reasonably could in view of the fact that to meet them in full would involve a grave injustice to the nearly half million Jews settled in Palestine as the result of an error of British judgment. To remove those Jews is clearly unthinkable. To leave them to the tender mercies of an Arab Government is impossible. The only alternative is to give them the tract they are settled in, to have for their own. They would like more -- but they cannot have it. In what is now left to them in sovereign independence they cannot develop on the lines envisaged by Zionist idealism. The Jews will yet learn that by the surrender of their empty sovereignty and restricted territories to the Arabs they can secure a field of useful and honorable activity in an area vaster than Zionism has ever dreamed of. The Partition arrangements should provide full liberty to both parties to come to such an understanding and, if the Arabs will only look far enough into the future, they must see that Partition, while being the only possible solution of the present deadlock, will be but a stepping stone to the realization of their full national aspirations. In Syria, 'Iraq and the Yemen -- and even in a corner of Sa'udi Arabia -- Jewish minorities live on friendly terms with the Arabs. In Palestine it will be the same, but the Jews themselves must be left to take the initiative. The power that placed them in Canaan cannot place them under the heel of the Amalekites. The Zionist policy germinated peacefully under the ægis of Ottoman Turkey. Under British protection its field has been swept by the whirlwind. It may yet ripen under the sunny zephyrs of Arabia -- but in no other wise. The Zionist leaders are fully aware of such a possibility but cannot yet bring themselves to put faith in the Arabs. Today they see that the faith they put in Great Britain has been sorely strained.

As for the Arabs, their hostility to the Commission's proposals is a little difficult to understand. The purely religious difficulty must not be underrated -- it is difficult for any Moslem to ignore it; it is a theme calculated to rouse all the passions of fanaticism. The answer is surely: (1) that elsewhere than in Palestine the Jews are tolerated by Arab governments; and (2) that in Palestine itself the Arabs desire not to exterminate the Jews but to rule them. And on religious grounds it might easily be argued that continuance under the rule of an infidel (Christian) Power is not less objectionable than acquiescence in a Jewish self-governing enclave. At any rate it is significant that none of the existing independent Arab states -- apart from the shortlived and ill-advised outburst of the 'Iraq Government actuated by motives unconnected with the merits of the proposed solution -- has publicly denounced the proposal for Partition on religious grounds. Admittedly none of them regards Partition with favor, and some of them have represented their views on this question to the British Government in the ordinary diplomatic manner in the hope of securing modifications of the scheme now under discussion. No one indeed questions that some modifications will be necessary. But the root-and-branch opposition of the Palestine Arabs and their supporters can only be regarded as manœuvring for position. The Arabs are bad bargainers. In this case nine-tenths of their full demands have been conceded. They reject the concession in the hope of getting ten-tenths. It is inconceivable that they should get that. It is conceivable that they may lose what is now offered. Yet they persist in their obstinate refusal. By accepting the scheme in principle they could secure substantial modifications in their favor. By opposing it tooth and nail they may find themselves confronted with the choice between the scheme as it stands and nothing at all.

The Arab attitude is, of course, all important. The Partition scheme cannot go forward without their approval. No true friend of the Arabs could advise them to reject it. It is, indeed, remarkable that it is from Jews -- like Lord Samuel -- that the most serious constructive criticism of the report has come. Lord Samuel has made objection to the 225,000 Arabs of the northern area being left in the proposed Jewish state. He has objected to the baiting of the Mufti who is the greatest opponent of the proposed scheme. He has objected to the dangerous corridor between Jerusalem and Jaffa. He clamors for the continuance of the British Mandate and persistence in an experiment which has been tried and found impracticable. In general, Lord Samuel's specific criticisms are perfectly sound and can be incorporated in the ultimate scheme of Partition. But the Arabs should not be deluded into the belief that criticisms of this kind, however reasonable and however skilfully handled, are intended to advance their claim for the restoration of the whole of Palestine to Arab rule. For the Jews it is neck or nothing to secure the continuance of the present Mandatory system, to intensify their plans for immigration, colonization and development, and to await the not-distant day when a Jewish majority can face the future without British assistance. And they have a second string to their bow to be used at need. When all else fails they will turn to the Arabs. With Arab goodwill they can secure the substance of Zionism.

For Great Britain and the Powers within and without the League peace in Palestine is now a primary consideration. The Commission has demonstrated with impressive logic that peace is unattainable under the present system. To secure peace the British Government has announced its willingness to forgo its privileged position in Palestine. But neither the British Government nor the Royal Commission appears to appreciate the point that British privilege in Mandated territory is but the consequence of British responsibilities. In theory, at any rate, the Mandate system confers on the Mandatory no strategic, economic or other interests in Mandated territories. In practice both England and France have not only claimed but secured a special position in 'Iraq and Syria respectively with League approval. The Royal Commission has missed a great opportunity of pointing out so striking an anomaly. Explicitly it recognizes certain strategic interests of Great Britain in Palestine and makes suggestions for their protection under the new régime. This is perhaps regrettable, though unavoidable unless the League is prepared to assume certain responsibilities which the British Government has refrained from thrusting upon it.

Here again it is the opponents of the Partition scheme who put forward the most cogent arguments against the retention of strategic privileges (and responsibilities) in Palestine after the termination of the Mandate. Chief among them is Mr. Winston Churchill who criticizes the dangerous experiment of the Jerusalem-Jaffa corridor and other doubtful military commitments. His arguments are apparently sound from the military point of view. They can easily be met by a simple modification of the proposed arrangements. The Arabs would not object to a special autonomous régime for the holy cities under British or League control. The Haram tracts of Mecca and Madina provide an analogy and precedent for such an enclave, immune from molestation. Arab acceptance of such an enclave, with free access to all intending visitors, would do away with the risks involved in the corridor, which would thus become an integral part of the Arab state with Jaffa as the seaport, wholly under Arab control. An arrangement with the Jews not to develop the rival harbor of Tel Aviv would be balanced by the acceptance of full Jewish sovereignty over Haifa, while Acre and the northern Arabs, included under the Commission's proposals in the Jewish state, should obviously be allowed to amalgamate bodily with the soon-to-be-independent state of Syria. Indeed, the prospect of union between Syria and Arab Palestine may be envisaged with confidence in the not distant future. The whole of the military problem faced by the Commission primarily in the interests of Jerusalem's security thus solves itself. If the single guarantee of Arab Palestine is not sufficient, it could easily be reinforced by a joint guarantee of all the Arab states. And there is something definitely attractive in the idea of reserving the holy cities area in perpetuity as a haven of peace and goodwill.

One little difficulty arises in respect of Rehovoth and other Jewish colonies south of the corridor. Their separation from the Jewish state is certainly undesirable if it can be avoided. Would it not be possible to exchange this area for another of equal merit contiguous to the Jewish State, preferably in the northern area? In any case this is a minor matter, capable of resolution by agreement between the two parties. Another matter of minor importance arises out of the proposed Mandatory arrangements for the port of Aqaba. It is difficult to see any justification at all for such a proposal except as a sop to British strategic interests. No Arab-Jew question is involved. When the Arab state comes into being Aqaba will be surrounded by Arab territory. It belongs legally to Sa'udi Arabia in virtue of the Wahhabi conquest of the Hejaz, of which it formed a part in 1925 when the British Government occupied it by force. Ibn Sa'ud has never recognized such British occupation. He has now, in consequence of the Commission's report, definitely put forward his demand for the restoration of Aqaba to his jurisdiction. In the interests of future friendly relations between Sa'udi Arabia and Arab Palestine this bone of contention should certainly be restored to whom it belongs.

With the modifications proposed above, practically all the serious objections to the Commission's proposals disappear, so far as Arab and Jewish differences are concerned. Apart from the area inevitably reserved for the Jewish state and the neutralization of the holy cities the Arabs receive payment in full on the McMahon bonds. The British Government is wholly relieved of its obligations in return for the surrender of its strategic privileges. And there remains only the question of the future security of the Jewish state. By implication the Jews will have to assume full responsibility for the protection of their frontiers. Under a conscription system, by no means alien to their communal tendencies, this responsibility should occasion no difficulty. If it does, there is nothing whatever to prevent the Jews from arranging with the British Government for the accommodation of a British garrison on Jewish soil. Indeed, this might be a satisfactory solution of the strategic problem from the British military point of view.

For better or worse the British Government's proposals on the recommendations of the Royal Commission are now before the League for examination and decision. From every side those proposals are being vigorously assaulted. The British Government finds itself in an altogether unusual position of isolation. In the League generally and in America the Jewish point of view is better understood and more strongly supported than the Arab case. In the League there is a danger that the Moslem elements, inevitably favoring the Arab standpoint, may play into the hands of the Powers who are more concerned to promote the Zionist interest. The League is not an impartial judicial body like the International Court. Its members, one and all, are inevitably swayed by political considerations. The British Government has confronted it with responsibility for deciding one of the gravest political problems of our time. But the British Government has approached the League with clear and definite proposals -- confessing its failure in a task assumed under the auspices of the League fifteen years ago and condemning the League's Mandate as unworkable and impracticable. The League, responsible for a decision, cannot complain that it is left without guidance by its Mandatory. It can, perhaps, complain that in one aspect the Mandatory failed to take its fellow members into its confidence at the beginning or at any subsequent time during the currency of the Mandate. It can complain that the position as regards the promises made to the Arabs was never made clear to it. The British public itself has only within the last months learned what those promises were. Those promises make all the difference. The Royal Commission has placed them on record for the first time. Its recommendations envisage the redemption of those promises so far as is practically possible. The position today is very different to what it was a few months ago. The League cannot ignore the now ascertained rights -- moral and legal -- of the Arabs. Only the Arabs themselves, by rejection of what is in effect the fullest possible measure of reparation now offered them, can release Great Britain from the obligations incurred in 1915-16. They alone can now relieve the League of the obligation to give effect to that measure of reparation which the British Government has proposed as reasonable and unavoidable.

It is for the Arabs to show statesmanship at this important crisis of their fortunes. In five and twenty years the wheel has come full circle back to the point where Lord Kitchener led the Arabs to hope that their independence might be secured by British help. At long last, after many lapses, British credit is restored by the offer of that independence in all but a tiny corner of the Arab world. If the Arabs accept the offer the League cannot but endorse the scheme. They will surely accept.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • H. ST.J. B. PHILBY, in charge of the British Political Mission to Central Arabia, 1917-1918; British Representative, Trans-Jordan, 1921-1924; traveler and explorer in Arabia; author of "The Heart of Arabia," "The Empty Quarter" and other works
  • More By H. St.J. B. Philby