Monday, December 06, 2004

Until the End of the World

In these times of Anti-Americanism among those of us living in Europe, it is always worth remembering that many of the worlds geopolitical problems are rooted in European imperialism. Central and Latin America, from where Spain had to beat a hasty retreat in the 1820s, have been plagued by violence, poverty and corruption ever since. Trouble and strife just bubble away in the region out of the limelight as the world is always more pre-occupied with more immediate dramas. There are hundreds of University Theses to be written about the mess that became post-colonial Africa and who remembers that France's "Vietnam" was, in fact, Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. However surely the most intractable of present day conflicts is that in the Middle East, in Israel/Palestine.

Following the Napoleonic Wars Britain was the Global Superpower until World War 1 at least and maybe until the outbreak of World War 2. In that context the British fomented an Arab rebellion against their Ottoman Empire enemy in World War 1 (i.e. the Turks), promising self-determination for the Arabs as a reward. The Arab revolt (made famous by Lawrence of Arabia) was successful and, following WW1, the British secured a "mandate" over the area that marks present day Jordan and Israel. The mandated area was split in two along the River Jordan by the British and modern-day Jordan was formed. Famously, however, the British Foreign Secretary wrote a letter confirming Britain's support for an independent Jewish state:

Foreign Office
November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

"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 which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

Now others, far more learned on such matters than me, have documented (for ever and a day) what has happened in the region since but, at its roots, a simple fact remains - the British, in pursuing their own imperial self-interest, made conflicting promises to rival ethnic groups that were already in conflict over the same patch of land west of the Jordan river. The key line above is "...it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine." The Balfour declaration is what gives Israel its original legitimacy (not the genocide of the Holocaust some twenty years later) yet the British failed miserably to manage both sets of claims to Palestine that it had encouraged and ended up running away from the problem in 1948.

World security quite probably depends on a resolution of this conflict. When Europeans criticise the US for its conduct in the region they should remember the conduct of one of its own that helped cause the problems in the first place.
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