Tony Blair's election victory on May 1 left many Israelis wondering whether Britain under "new Labour" would become more deeply involved in Mideast peace efforts. The two nations go back a long way. History records that the relationship has often been far from warm.
IF ONE were to ask the average late-20th century consumer of news about the historical relationship between Britain and Israel, the response would most likely go little further than a vague reference to the Balfour Declaration and British Mandate. With the arrogance characterising so much of British media coverage of Israel, one would be forgiven for thinking Britain had a moral right to play "honest broker" in the region today, because of its "historical links" to Palestine. The assumption is quite wrong.
Not only did representatives of His Majesty's Government betray the Zionists early this century, in favour of a policy to create a united Arab federation across the Middle East "looking to Great Britain as its patron and protector", they also played a key role in agitating the then relatively tranquil Arab inhabitants of Palestine against the Jews, helping sow the seeds of conflict which haunts the region to this day.
n 1917, the British government published the Balfour Declaration, saying it "view[ed] 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" while not jeopardising the "civil and religious"--note, not political--rights of non-Jews in Palestine. The League of Nations subsequently granted Britain the mandate over Palestine, precisely on the understanding that the Balfour Declaration be implemented, along with "close Jewish settlement in the land".
Yet working against their own political masters in Whitehall, British officials based in the Middle East began conspiring to marginalise the Zionists in their quest for a state. Driven by a vision of an Arab fertile crescent under British domination, they took control first of the British military administration in Palestine, and then of the civilian administration which followed in the early 1920s. Under their influence, the British rulers:
In December 1938, as the Holocaust loomed, the mandatory administration rejected Jewish pleas for the immediate rescue of 10 000 Jewish children from central Europe. Several months later, the British treachery against the Zionists culminated in the publishing by colonial secretary Malcolm MacDonald of his notorious White Paper, an apparent death knell to the Zionist dream of a Jewish state. The document stated that the authors of the Balfour Declaration "could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish state against the will of the Arab population of the country". Britain would thus organise an independent state of Palestine within 10 years, while forbidding Jewish land acquisition and severely curtailing Jewish immigration--at a time Europe's Jews faced annihilation.
Six years later, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the British continued to block Jewish immigration to Palestine, and incarcerated tens of thousands of survivors in concentration camps in Cyprus. More were sent back to their European ports of origin.
In November 1947, the United Nations decided in favour of partitioning Western Palestine between Jews and Arabs, prompting widespread attacks by Palestinian Arabs on the Zionists. The British administration reacted by:
(Some would argue that the Zionists did owe something of a debt to the British, despite this shameful history: the Balfour Declaration did, after all, set the foundation for the establishment of a Jewish state; Jews in Palestine enjoyed British military protection from the Nazis, especially from Rommel in North Africa; the Zionists participated in the sterling bloc of trade and finance, and had access to markets in Britain; Israel also inherited a sound administrative and judicial infrastructure from the Mandate authorities.)
Sources and recommended further reading:
Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, Shmuel Katz (Bantam Books, New York, 1973)
A History of Israel, Howard Sachar (Knopf, New York, 1991)
Story of the Jewish Legion, Vladimir Jabotinsky (Bernard Ackerman, New York, 1945)