Ninety-nine and a half years after Britain and France reached the secret Sykes-Picot agreement to carve up Arab territories of the defunct Ottoman empire and on the 98th anniversary of the Balfour Agreement, it is possible to look back at the post World War I peace talks and consider US efforts to consult the peoples involved and come up with different policies.
Without Sykes-Picot, the unified Arab state might have emerged in exchange for the Arab revolt against German ally Turkey that helped win the war. Without the Balfour Declaration it is unlikely that the Zionists would have been able to colonise and seize Palestine.
Under Sykes-Picot, London and Paris agreed that Britain would rule Palestine and Iraq while France would control Lebanon and parts of Syria and the two powers would have influence over any Arab state that would emerge in the rest of Syria.
The Sykes-Picot deal decision over Palestine was contradicted by the Balfour Declaration of Nov.2, 1917, which stated: "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done that would prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status of Jews in any other country."
Both Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration contradicted pledges made by Britain to Sherif Hussein of Mecca about the creation of a unified Arab state in key former Ottoman Arab territories following the war. The colonial powers were, after all, past masters in double dealing.
Their double dealing might have been foiled and countered if only US President Woodrow Wilson had followed the advice of two honest and authoritative investigators he dispatched to the region to ask Arabs and Jews their opinions. This commission was headed by Henry Churchill King, president of Oberlin College in Ohio, and Chicago businessman Charles Crane, both imbued with Wilson's call for granting subject peoples self-determination.
They summed up their recommendations in a cable sent Aug.30, 1919, to Wilson by saying that "Syria including Palestine and Lebanon be kept a unity according to the desires of [the] great majority; .. Syria be under a single mandate [granted by the League of Nations];.. Emir Faisal [Sherif Hussein's son] be king of the new Syrian state;.. the extreme Zionist program [involving mass Jewish immigration into Palestine] be seriously modified;.. that America be asked to take the single mandate for Syria" and if the US refuses this should be given to Britain which, the commission, recommended would be awarded the mandate for Iraq.
In the full report, completed on Aug.28, King and Crane concluded, "The settlement of every question must be based on the free acceptance of that settlement by the people concerned..and not upon the basis of the material interest or advantage of any other nation...If that principle is to rule, and the wishes of Palestine's population are to be decisive..then it is to be remembered that the non-Jewish population of Palestine - nearly nine-tenths of the whole - are emphatically against the entire Zionist program."
While he may have received the cable, it is doubtful if Wilson ever saw the report. He had been exhausted by efforts to convince the Versailles peace conference to agree to establish the League of Nations and a gruelling tour of the US to persuade US voters to do the same. After some weeks he was felled by a stroke.
The first and only comprehensive study of the King Crane Commission's mission was made in the 1940s by Harry N. Howard, a US diplomat, but was rejected by US publishers fearing Zionist pressure, and was not issued until 1963 by Khayat's in Beirut - after which it was bought up in bulk and disappeared from the shelves of US libraries.
The removal of Howard's book left a gap in information on the post-World War I period until US academic Janice Terry's book, William Yale appeared this year, published by Rimal Publications in Cyprus. The book has been included in Rimal's display at the Sharjah Book Fair that opened on Nov.4.
An impecunious adventurer, Yale prospected for oil in Palestine before the war, became acquainted with British spy T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), reported to the US State Department on the region during the conflict, and served as an adviser to the commission.
Having made friends with Palestinians from Jerusalem's elite as well as drillers sinking test wells, Yale responded to the announcement of the Balfour Declaration by warning it had "aroused great agitation.. Syrians, Christians and Moslems alike, are all opposed to the giving of Palestine to the Jews.. they believe that the coming of the Jews.. will result in the gradual absorption of the country by the Jews. [They] fear the ultimate loss of their country, their language and their national identity.. [and consider that Britain] is sacrificing one small and oppressed nation in favour of another."
His early comment was, of course, ignored in the halls of power where Wilson had already been approached by the Zionists in the persons of US Supreme Court justices Felix Frankfurter and Louis Brandeis, both highly respected figures who strongly supported the cause of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This project, however, ran counter to Wilson's ringing call for self-determination that should have embraced the Arabs. Unfortunately, Terry says the Commission's crucial report, the first ever opinion survey in the Arab world, was shelved and not released until 1922 - after Britain and France had established their rule over Syria and Palestine. In Palestine the Zionists were given free reign and have never been reined in.
Terry describes how Yale abruptly - and perhaps opportunistically - adopted the Zionist position while serving with the Commission. She argues Yale "and too many of the decision makers in Paris knew what the local people wished" but because they had already accepted the division of the region and "some form of the Zionist program, they refused to accept Arab desires." She observes, "This approach continues in United States policies in the Middle East" and gives the example of the 2003 invasion of Iraq against the wishes of the vast majority of Arabs, a war which, she says, has had "disastrous human consequences."
Perhaps regretting his adoption of dishonest realism, Yale shifted his stance to become a sharp critic of Zionist influence on US policies. Too little, too late. If Yale and other informed figures had stood up to early Zionist pressures and prevailed with Wilson, this region might have been spared a great deal of grief and bloodshed.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
Review by Micheal Jansen