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Diplomatic Relations between the Arabs and Jews: Analysis of Arab-Israeli Conflict

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Section I: identification and evaluation of sources

The purpose of this investigation is to evaluate the question: “To what extent did Britain’s involvement in Palestine, from 1916 to 1948, maintain diplomatic relations between the Arabs and Jews?” In this section, the values and limitations of two sources will be analysed to determine whether Britain’s involvement in Palestine was effective in maintaining diplomatic relations between the Arabs and Jews. On one hand, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 is a primary source that provides evidence for the argument that Britain’s intention was to permanently resolve the conflict. On the other hand, Israeli historian Avi Shlaim’s book “Israel and Palestine: Reappraisal, Revisions, Refutations,” is a secondary source which provides evidence for the argument that Britain’s intervention revolved around the prospect of gaining political benefits over maintaining peace.

The Balfour Declaration has many values to the focus of this investigation. With reference to its origin, the source is valuable because of its relevance to the context of this investigation and its credibility due to being a statement by the British government. With reference to its purpose and content, the source is valuable as it contains information on Britain’s stance of favouring the Jews over the Arabs. This aspect of the source’s purpose and content is relevant to this investigation as it justifies the way Britain would act in the forthcoming years to prevent the escalation of the conflict.

However, the Balfour Declaration also has its limitations to this investigation. Firstly, with reference to its origin (British government), the source is a limitation as it prevents the audience from learning about the hidden political purposes associated with Britain’s support for the Jews. Secondly, with reference to its purpose, the source is a limitation as it doesn’t specify Britain’s reasons for supporting the Jews over the Arabs. Lastly, with reference to its content, the source is a limitation as it lacks details pertaining to Britain’s methods of maintaining diplomatic Arab-Jewish relations, thus creating ambiguity.

Moreover, the excerpt from historian Avi Shlaim’s book “Israel and Palestine: Reappraisal, Revisions, Refutations,” has many values to this investigation. Firstly, with reference to its origin, the source is valuable because its author, being an Oxford University emeritus, has lots of credibilities. Secondly, with reference to its purpose, the source is valuable as it provides two perspectives on Britain’s involvement in the Palestine. While one perspective conveys that Britain got involved to maintain peace, the other conveys that Britain got involved because of its “alliance with a hugely influential political organisation.” Lastly, with reference to its content, the source is valuable as it contains details on the way in which Britain wanted to maintain peace in Palestine.

However, the excerpt also has its limitations. With reference to its origin, the author is of Israeli nationality, which implies that there may be biases. With reference to its content, the source is a limitation because while there are implicit references to “memoirs” on Lloyd George’s “support for the Zionist government,” there are no explicit details of these memoirs that explain why he supported Zionism. Hence, even the source’s content leaves ample room for subjectivity and uncertainty.

Section II: Investigation

Diplomatic relations refer to the mutual understanding of a state’s sovereignty and the acceptance of peaceful collaboration. These relations can determine the fate of a nation, and such was the case in Palestine. The deep-rooted conflict between the Arabs and Jews stemmed from the 1880s when Jewish immigration into Arab Palestine dramatically increased. Since then, several anti-semitic (pro-Arabic) and Zionist (pro-Jewish) movements have taken place, which have culminated into conflict and deteriorated diplomatic relations between the Arabs and Jews. However, during the First World War, Britain took the unilateral decision of resolving the conflict by attempting to establish a safe haven for Palestinian Jews. Yet, the extent to which Britain’s intervention in Palestine was successful at maintaining Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations can only be determined by chronologically evaluating its successes and failures during its prime years of intervention: 1916-1948.

The first action that Britain took to establish diplomatic relations between the Arabs and Jews was through the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence of 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Signed between Henry McMahon of the British High Commission and Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, the Correspondence stated that Britain would recognise the independence of Arab states if they led a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Through this Correspondence, Britain tried to establish diplomatic relations with the Arabs. Moreover, Britain planned on using its newly established relations with the Arabs to convince them into negotiating peace terms with the Palestinian Jews. However, the plan of using this Correspondence to establish peace between the Arabs and Jews backfired when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration a year later. Sent to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Zionist movement, the Balfour Declaration was a letter according to which Britain vowed to “use their best endeavours to facilitate” the establishment “of a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. While this action appealed to the wants of the Jewish population in Palestine, it deteriorated Britain’s relations with the Arabs, who felt that the Declaration was a sign of British favouritism towards the Jews.

Hence, Britain’s plan of establishing diplomatic relations with the Arabs and Jews so that it could act as a mediator for the two parties failed since the Arabs didn’t view the Balfour Declaration as it was supposed to be interpreted. While the Balfour Declaration states that Britain promised a “national home” for the Jews, it did not promise a Jewish state. As said by historian Norman Rose, the ambiguity in the phrasing of the Balfour Declaration was intended because it was the culmination of “a compromise between those Ministers who contemplated the ultimate establishment of a Jewish state and those who did not.” Even though the phrase “national home” has no legal value in international law related to the establishment of new states, the Arabs and Jews interpreted it incorrectly. Hence, Britain’s issuing of the Balfour Declaration and creation of the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence did not work as planned. While these documents were supposed to bring Britain to a stage where it could mediate the Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations in Palestine, they escalated the conflict by creating confusion.

Moreover, when the details of the Skyes-Picot Agreement of 1916 were exposed by Russia, the conflict only grew. Under this agreement, Britain and France would carve up Arab states for themselves and internationalise portions of Palestine. The leaking of this agreement further deteriorated the Anglo-Arab relations and resulted in the Arabs no longer complying with Britain’s demand of establishing diplomatic relations between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine. Additionally, the Arabs also felt that Britain’s attempt to carve up only Arab land was another sign of British favouritism towards the Jews, as seen in the case of the Balfour Declaration. Hence, Britain’s creation of the Skyes-Picot Agreement made it fail at maintaining diplomatic relations in Palestine.

Historians like Charles Smith argue in favour of this view by stating that Arab leaders such as Hussein bin Ali “would not accept an independent Jewish State in Palestine” after learning about what “was contemplated by Great Britain” in the Skyes-Picot Agreement. However, historians like Kedourie and Isaiah Friedman argue that Hussein bin Ali, in reality, found that the Skyes-Picot Agreement lacked legitimacy and, hence, didn’t escalate the conflict. The subjective interpretation of the implications of the Skyes-Picot Agreement provides arguments and counterarguments on whether Britain’s intervention in Palestine maintained or deteriorated diplomatic relations between the Arabs and Jews.

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Although the Balfour Declaration, McMahon-Hussein Correspondence and Skyes-Picot Agreement deteriorated the Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations, Britain’s enforcement of the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement of 1919 says otherwise. Accepted by Emir Faisal (King of Syria) and Chaim Weizmann (a Zionist leader), the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement ensured that “Palestine…be left on one side for the mutual consideration of all parties concerned.” Through this, Britain managed to restore the deteriorated Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations by 1919.

Furthermore, Britain took the initiative of establishing a “British Mandate” in Palestine. As per Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, the mandate’s purpose was to ensure “the well-being and development of” the Palestinian Jews. While Britain could have used its position as a colonial power to use its military to restrict the conflict, it instead accepted three Aliyahs (waves of Jewish immigrants) in Palestine upto 1939. Britain’s acceptance of these Aliyahs escalated the conflict as the Arabs had to bare the influx of approximately 370,000 Jews in their homeland. This attributed to an increase in antisemitism amongst the Arabs, which is reflected in the consequent outbreak of the Arab revolts of 1936-1939. Aimed at the British Mandate and the Jews, the Arab revolts led to the formation of right-wing Zionist paramilitaries such as the Irgun militia, which fought against the Arab League and even the mandate. Hence, Britain’s intervention through the creation of the mandate further deteriorated the Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations.

However, the British Mandate’s structuring of education systems, investment in public projects, provision of civil rights, the establishment of national councils, and facilitation of economic support through the Histadrut (trade union), helped maintain the Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations. For example, the Jaffa Electric Company, which was set up by a Zionist in 1923, provided electricity to both Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine. As a result, a mutual dependence burgeoned between the two ethnic groups. Moreover, the reformation of education systems in Palestine between 1923-1932, significantly increased the literacy rates for both communities. Lastly, the funding provided by Britain till 1932, allowed Palestinian Arabs and Jews to create their own businesses, which greatly developed the standards of living for both communities. Hence Britain’s intervention in Palestine from 1923-1932 maintained Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations.

Contrastingly enough, Britain’s intervention through the education systems and public works between 1923-1932 could also be viewed as another reason for the deterioration of Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations. While both communities prospered because of Britain, the Jews benefited much more than the Arabs did. While literacy rates for Jews reached 86% in 1932, it was only 22% for the Arabs. Moreover, the establishment of the Jaffa Electric Company by a Zionist leader, made the Arabs feel as though the British viewed the Jews as superior. This led to an increase in antisemitism amongst the Arabs, thus making the few instances of Britain’s success at maintaining diplomatic Arab-Jewish relations the reason for its eventual deterioration. The subjective interpretation of Britain’s involvement in Palestine through the mandate between 1923-1932, makes it appear as if it was successful yet unsuccessful at maintaining diplomatic relations between the Arabs and the Jews.

However, Britain’s issuing of the Peel Commission’s 1937 two-state report and enforcement of the White Paper of 1939, were attributed to the maintenance of diplomacy between the Arabs and Jews. The two-state report appealed to both Zionists and Arabs after further deliberation in 1937, hence calming the heightened tensions during the Arab revolts of 1936-1939. Moreover, Britain’s White Paper of 1939, “offered a prospect that Palestine might…become a Jewish State,” but it would share a government that would “ensure the essential interests of each community.” This, along with the clause that restricted further Jewish immigration and their right to buying Palestinian land, was acceptable and appealing to the Zionists and the Arab League.

Yet, despite its short-lived successes between 1937-1939, it was Britain’s final action of supporting the creation of Israel in 1948 that led to the complete downfall of the Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations. Britain’s support towards establishing the “home for the Jewish” people that was promised in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, led the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 right after Israel was formed. This marked the end of any Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations.

In conclusion, Britain’s involvement in Palestine through the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement (1919), the British Mandate (1923-1932) the Peel Commission’s two-state report (1937) and the White Paper (1939), maintained diplomatic Arab-Jewish relations. However, the ultimate result of the Arabs and Jews having no diplomacy towards each other, arose from Britain’s intervention in Palestine through the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (1916), Balfour Declaration (1917), Skyes-Picot Agreement (1916), the British Mandate (1923-1932) and the establishment of Israel (1948). Yet, it is imperative to consider the dichotomous role that some of these actions —such as the Skyes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the British Mandate— played towards the maintenance and deterioration of the Arab-Jewish diplomatic relations. Through the use of historiography and the evaluation of multiple perspectives for the chronologically analysed examples, a balanced and unbiased conclusion can be drawn for this investigation. Whether observed in hindsight or not, Britain’s involvement in Palestine from 1916 to 1948 was far more responsible for the deterioration of diplomatic relations between the Arabs and the Jews, rather than its maintenance.

Section III: Reflection

Over the course of this investigation, I dealt with many of the problems faced by historians, particularly determining “the extent” to which a factor of an event played a specific role. In the context of my investigation, this was determining the extent to which Britain’s intervention —a factor of the Arab-Israeli wars— played the role of maintaining diplomatic relations between the two. This made me undergo the process of inputting mixed perspectives, analysing the values and limitations of sources and maintaining a balance between my arguments. To me, this became the link between the difficulties faced by me and the difficulties experienced by historians.

Before formulating this research question, I only had a vague idea for my investigation. Hence, I was unaware of the fact that most historians viewed Britain’s involvement in Palestine as the root cause for the decades-long conflict between the Arabs and Jews. This brought me to my first problem: dealing with an extremely one-sided question. To overcome this, I had to do extensive research to find counter-arguments to Britain’s deteriorating Arab-Jewish relations and learn to interpret evidences in two perspectives to provide a balance of arguments. Moreover, the fact that very few historians supported the idea of Britain maintaining diplomatic Arab-Jewish relations, taught me the difficulty of being a historian who supports an atypical view. Despite being subjected to criticism for supporting the weaker argument, the fact that historians Kedourie and Isaiah Friedman defended their stance, proves that even “in a case of dissension, never dare to judge till you’ve heard the other side.” —Euripides.

Another challenge was looking for sources. Considering the context of 1916 in a European-Middle Eastern conflict, it was difficult to find primary sources that I could integrate in my investigation. Hence, to support and oppose arguments, I resorted to evaluating and interpreting the many agreements that were signed during this time period. This process made me realise the difficulties faced by historians who create secondary sources of knowledge and information on less popular topics. Moreover, the identification and evaluation of sources taught me how to weigh the significance of one source against another. This was invaluable as weighing the importance of sources helped me determine the strength of each argument I built.

The entire process made me aware of the fact that history, unlike mathematics or the natural sciences, is a subject that revolves around subjectivity, objectivity, controversiality and juxtapositions rather than just proofs and theories.


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