Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Britain's Self-Serving Motives in the Middle East

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Britain's Self-Serving Motives in the Middle East

Article excerpt

Byline: DOMINIC SANDBROOK

THE BALFOUR DECLARATION: THE ORIGINS OF THE ARABISRAELI CONFLICT by Jonathan Schneer (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]25) ARTHUR Balfour was a very unlikely candidate to become the author of the foundational text of the state of Israel. Born into the aristocratic Cecil dynasty in 1848, he was generally seen as a languid, willowy, effete figure, earning the nicknames "Daddy Long Legs" and "Niminy Piminy". But although he cultivated an air of insouciant indolence, famously remarking that "nothing matters very much and few things matter at all", he was one of the dominant figures in British politics for more than two decades.

By 1917, having already served as Prime Minister, he was Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George's wartime coalition. And it was from that position that he issued the declaration for which he is now best remembered, voicing British support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people".

As Jonathan Schneer explains in his splendid history, Balfour's short letter, originally sent to the Zionist banker Lord Rothschild, was at once a tremendous advance for the Zionist cause and a terrible blow for Palestine's largely Arab population. It not only gave official sanction to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in modern-day Israel, but it seemed to betray the interests of millions of Muslims who considered Palestine their home already. Yet the irony, as Schneer shows, is that the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues were never very interested in either the Arabs or the Jews. Their priorities were simple: to beat the Ottoman Empire, win the First World War and ensure Britain the leading position in the post-war Middle East. Everything else was irrelevant.

While Schneer's great accomplishment is to set the Balfour Declaration in the wider context of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and British imperial ambitions, he has a keen eye for the twisted paradoxes of history. …

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