October 16, 2000
How did Israel get to be there? No, not how was it founded, but how did it get to be in Palestine? The question is very important because it shows the unintended and lasting effects of Empire. In 1917, the Balfour declaration was proclaimed with the effect that the British supported the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A lot of work has gone on the Zionist element of this declaration, why the British supported a Jewish homeland. However, little work has gone on the Palestinian element, why was the Jewish homeland going to be in Palestine. And how could the British grant this?
Between Richard the Lionheart and Queen Victoria Britain's interest in Palestine was incidental. It was part of the more adventurous Grand Tours, the Turks were seen as beastly, Anglican churchmen thought Jerusalem worth a pilgrimage, but it played little part in British strategic thinking. The Ottoman Empire had the place tied up, and Britain paid little heed to it. The French naturally were more concerned about this place with an extensive Mediterranean shoreline, and they harried the Sultan as self-appointed protectors of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire. The Russians also paid a large interest in this area, of course as protectors of the Christian peoples and holy places. As Turkey got sicker Britain at first did little to help, indeed at times they deliberately hurt, as when they helped the Greek rebellion in 1820.
The interest in Palestine, indeed in the Eastern Mediterranean, became a full time obsession with the British with the Suez Canal. Just as Britain had tenaciously kept control of the Cape Colony and Natal on the southern tip of Africa to keep control of her Indian trade, so now she would look to gain control of the man-made short cut, Suez. As the French had built, the Suez Canal then the British had a bit of a job on their hands to get a foothold. However the bankrupt Khedive of Egypt let them in when he sold Britain, represented by Disraeli, Egypt's half share of the Suez canal.
At first the British were not interested in anything as abstract as homelands, they were interested in keeping control of the Passage to India. This meant that a new interest was paid to that grab bag of colonies like Gibraltar and Malta, which had been picked up in various European wars although they had always been seen as important. It would also lead to Britain's overlordship of Egypt, and bloody expeditions into the Sudan. At the periphery of the Ottoman Empire the British started consolidating their colonies like Aden, and protectorates like Qatar, Sharjah and Dubai to be used as fueling stations on the way to India. But the central aim was to maintain the lynch pin of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean through which the British steamers would have to go the Ottoman Empire. Obviously the main threat to the Turks, the sick man of Europe, were their old enemies, the Russians, and this fitted nicely into the paranoia that the English had about the north-west frontier and Afghanistan.
It is a necessary condition of history that we must look at history and its relationship with today. However, this leads to the weakness of considering everything in history inevitable. When we look at the Russian revolution, it is easy to think of Russia as poor, backwards and with an unstable regime. Obviously there is a large degree of truth in this; otherwise, there would have been no revolution. At the same time the Russian state was remarkably virulent, sending its massive armies throughout the central Asian Khanates and appealing to the peoples of European Turkey with an hypnotic mixture of pan-Slav nationalism and appeals to the Orthodox faith. The ultimate aim of the Tsar's Balkan maneuvers was to gain control of the Bosphorous straits and so be able to send the Russian navy from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean in all seasons, their fabled "warm water port". This would not do to the British, never mind the balance of power, what about the route to India if the Russians got their gun ships all over the Aegean? Britain had already fought one war in the Crimea over this desire to stop Russia's warm water ambitions
And what of India? Why were the British so keen on it that they were prepared to play politics with half the world? It is still a bit of a mystery. To be sure, India was once profitable when it had been run by the joint stock East India Company. Firstly trading with Indian princes and then taking a hand in the government of the principalities the Company quickly latched on to the extremely lucrative business of growing and selling opium, a business who's margins were diminishing. Obviously the private company developed into a state, literally a Business Empire, with a civil service and army. It was the army that was to cause the problem. In the 1850s the Indian troops, the Sepoys, rebelled. The immediate cause was obscure, but the effect was catastrophic. The British settlers were imprisoned, butchered and raped. A major world power had to act. What did the British do? Did they say that the East India company would have to wind up its territorial interests? Or that India was a lucrative but inherently risky area and British subjects would have to take their own chances? Or that the British state could not stand such an affront to its pride and so would nationalise the East India company? What do you think? Overnight India became a vital national interest. Vital for what, no one was quite sure, but it would distort British foreign policy for more than a century.
We know why the British were interested in the area around Palestine, to stop interference, especially Russian interference, in the route to India. What is not clear is how the British changed from supporting the Ottoman empire to dismantling it. Of course, the Ottoman Empire was slowly drawing back, in the Balkans and North Africa especially, and Britain was not itself averse to grabbing bits, like the island of Cyprus or de facto control of Egypt. But the British still saw the Ottoman Empire as the best bet in keeping order, often ruthlessly, in places like Palestine. It was another irrational fear, that of an undivided continent of Europe that preoccupied the British and led them, mostly by accident, into Palestine. The rise of Prussia was the real story of nineteenth century Europe, as a power they had already defeated France in 1870 and from the British point of view they could quite easily occupy all the Channel ports. It was here that the British imagination failed them. Whereas the British phobia of an undivided European shore was justified in the time of Elizabeth and, to a far lesser extent, the time of Pitt it was not in an age of global trading links and unquestioned maritime supremacy. Britain's economic survival was no longer at threat from a European blockade and no matter how large the opposing army, it didn't matter if they could not get across the English Channel. The balance of power in Europe was less important when the whole world was in play. It simply did not matter if Germany invaded France, Holland and Belgium. A pity British ministers didn't realise.
The hostility to Germany, the central point of British diplomacy from at least the Liberal victory in 1906, would have a number of interesting effects. Firstly the hostility to Germany meant a friendliness to her neighbour and enemy France. This in turn meant that France's ally and Germany's enemy, Russia, also had to be accommodated. So the buffer to Russia's ambitions, Turkey was an inconvenient ally. The Sublime Porte, slowly realising that their onetime solid allies would now rather forget about them, went to the Germans. This would be fatal, especially after Turkey declared war on Germany's side during the First World War.
The obvious interest of the British was now to dismember Germany's ally, especially as she bestrode the Asian side of the Suez canal. The British started speaking an unfamiliar language, that of Arab nationalism in an effort to speed up the dissolution of the Ottoman realms. And how it worked! The British, French and their new allies very shortly had control over most of Turkey's Arab lands Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Syria. It was in this atmosphere that the British said that they would support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Although it now seems obvious all along that this was where any Jewish homeland would be, this was not the case when the Ottoman Empire were in charge of the area and it would be even less so if an indigenous Arab government took over. Zionist dreamers, although looking fondly at Palestine, were prepared to build a Jewish homeland in Kenya, Australia, anywhere as long as there was a haven from persecution and a chance to share in the all enveloping nationalist dream.
The British offered Palestine as a romantic gesture, little thinking that romantic gestures could have unromantic consequences. When the war was over, the enemy territory that was not seen as fit to be self-governing was divided up amongst the victorious powers. France was given Lebanon and Syria and Britain was given Palestine, near to the Suez canal over which the British were still obsessed. The rate of Jewish settlement, already high under Ottoman suzerainty, increased despite halting British attempts to stop it. After the Second World War, and a good deal of terrorism, the British saw no need to stay in Palestine. They attempted to partition the country between the Arabs and Jews, the Arabs refused the partition and attempted to invade the country, lost, and the rest is history.
As you may be able to tell, I am mildly Zionist. I naturally feel culturally closer to the Israelis than the Arabs, as do almost all non-Muslim westerners. I also note that Israel is a democracy and a fairly free economy, and the Arab world is notoriously bad at sustaining either. However, neither Britain nor America has any compelling strategic interest in sustaining regimes in the Middle East, not even oil. There was nothing inevitable about Israel in Palestine. Like the Crusader States before them, Israel may be noble, it may be romantic, it may be an outpost of Western values but it is draining blood and treasure out of the West.
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