The traditional interpretation of the Great War’s ending is to examine how the map of Europe changed after all the carnage. The Austria-Hungarian Empire broke into the two discrete nations of Austria and Hungary; at the same time, two other nations were formed, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. That other empire, the Ottoman, ceded their lands in Asia but kept a presence in Europe as Turkey. Poland, long a playground of the Austrian-Hungarians, Germany, and Russia, was reconstituted. The new lands of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania came out of Russia. The history lesson often closes with how the terms of the Treaty of Versailles for Germany seeded the rise of Adolph Hitler. There is another haunting, much less discussed consequence of the First World War, an unspoken legacy, which is the violent and volatile situation in the Middle East.
Step back for a moment, back before the war, to 1907. Leaders from around the British Commonwealth met in London for a conference to discuss the status of self-governing British colonies. The London Colonial Conference would confer dominion status to the colonies, but not before expressing concerns about an Arab threat to British imperialism and Europe. The report and its recommendations to Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman are chilling:
To promote disintegration, division, and separation in the region.
To establish artificial political entities that would be under the authority of the imperialist countries.
To fight any kind of unity—whether intellectual, religious or historical—and take practical measures to divide the region’s inhabitants.
To achieve this, it was proposed that a “buffer state” be established in Palestine, populated by a strong, foreign presence that would be hostile to its neighbors and friendly to European countries and their interests.
Move forward in time: Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, declared his support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the area known as Palestine, an area of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The month: November. The year: 1917. The problem: the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, had already entered into an agreement with the Sharif of Mecca, Husayn bin Ali, through a series of letters written in the years 1915 and 1916 in which McMahon promised lands in exchange for Arab support against the Turks, a German ally. T.E. Lawrence, embedded amongst the Arabs, shaped Arab dissent against the Turks.
Balfour and McMahon were not examples of one hand not knowing what the other hand was doing. The Balfour Declaration was addressed to Lord Rothschild, intended to solicit his support (he bankrolled British work in the Suez area of Egypt), the support of British Jews and their American relations. The United States entered the conflict in April of 1917. British diplomacy did not end there. In 1916, Britain brokered the Sykes-Picot Agreement with…the French, with Russia’s approval, to divide Arab lands with the Ottoman Empire into provinces ruled by Great Britain and France. The gentlemen’s agreement was being discussed at the same time McMahon was writing and receiving letters from Sharif. The unexpected Russian Revolution of October 1917 provided another unexpected result: the Bolsheviks exposed the duplicity. The Arabs voiced their displeasure. T.E. Lawrence, instrumental in the Arab Revolt against the Turks in 1916, voiced his own displeasure with his superiors in London: The Home Office had compromised his reputation with his Arab allies.
The Sykes-Picot division was such that British took land (southern Iraq) and, more importantly, access to the Mediterranean (Jordan, the Jordan River). The agreement would establish the British Mandate, a set period of time after which the British would vacate the land. The French took a part of southern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon; they, too, established their own mandate, the French Mandate. Russia would get Istanbul and the Turkish straits. The Arabs, who had helped the British, were left outside the tent. Of the two Mandates, the French Mandate expired first, but not before the French established the “confessional” model of government in Lebanon. In short, positions in the government’s cabinet were decided along religious lines, thereby seeding sectarian discord and violence. Lebanon would become the smoldering matchstick in the haystack.
British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau managed to do some clever footwork to negate the Hussein–McMahon agreement. Letters between men of honor meant nothing. It would seem that the Balfour Declaration would come back to haunt the British, or was the duplicity part of a greater plan? The League of Nations backed the British Mandate in 1922 and 1923 respectively. Throughout the 1930s, both Arab and Jewish nationalism fermented: the British would quash the Arab Revolts of 1936-1939. The British Mandate was set to expire in 1948. The British administered Palestine, west of the Jordan River, and ceded the land east of the river to Hussein bin Ali for his help against the Turks with T.E. Lawrence. The British in effect had both sides of the river. The eastern side would become independent in 1946.
In the eleventh hour of 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine before the British Mandate expired. The UN resolution, in addition to spelling out the details of the British departure, recommended independent Arab and Jewish states. The emphasis is on two independent ethnic states. The majority of Jewish leaders accepted it. Arab leaders, for the most part, rejected it because it violated the UN’s own charter for national self-determination. The General Assembly approved the resolution. At midnight, in the last minutes of 1947, the British terminated the Mandate, and the UN recognized the State of Israel. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria attacked Israel. The result is the 1948 Arab-Israeli Civil War. The flood of refugees from the conflict has not stopped since.
Its colonial empire in the ether, the British kept a presence in the Middle East until they surrendered the Suez Canal in 1954. The financing of the Canal was another feast, another opportunity for foreign investors. There is no doubt that the discovery and documentation of the horrific magnitude of the Holocaust added to the urgency for an ethnic Israeli state, but the debacle had begun with colonial imperialism and politics, with opportunities while the world was at war, 1914-1918.
The Number One recipient of defense aid from the U.S. is Israel, and not far behind is Lebanon.
Odd bedfellows: the haystack and the match.