Was the Balfour Declaration at Risk in 1923? Zionism and British Imperialism

Michael J Cohen. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 29, Issue 1. March 2010.

“…had there been no Zionists … the British would have had to invent them.” ~ Mayir Vereté

Two students of Britain’s policy in Palestine during the early 1920s have asserted that in 1923 the British government was about to abrogate the Balfour Declaration. Both claim that this was averted by the efforts of a single man. Bernard Wasserstein, a biographer of Britain’s first high commissioner to Palestine, has accredited Sir Herbert Samuel with the feat of rescuing the Zionist cause:

seldom had Britain’s policy in Palestine seemed less of a chose jugeé than during the first half of 1923, when the entire government seemed occupied with delving into its very foundations….

The weakness of the Zionists in 1923 both in Palestine and in British politics was such that a British decision to abandon the Jewish National Home might have aborted the Zionist enterprise. That the Cabinet decided otherwise was not the least of the services rendered by Samuel to Zionism—although it was little recognized by Zionists then or since.

Sahar Huneidi, an Arab scholar, has asserted that Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, deserves the credit, that he exerted an irresistible influence over John Shuckburgh, founder and head of the Middle East Department at the Colonial Office: “Weizmann had only to threaten to resign from the Zionist Organisation, thus leaving the movement in the hands of the ‘extremist elements,’ for Shuckburgh to bend over backward to give him his way.” Huneidi concluded that Shuckburgh was “without doubt manipulated by Weizmann, whose omnipresence at the Middle East Department promoted the Zionist cause and influenced British officials.” Walid Khalidi, the noted Palestinian scholar, added his own embellishment, to the effect that Shuckburgh appears to have been “mesmerized” by Dr Weizmann.

 The claim that the British were on the point of renouncing the Balfour Declaration rests also on the contention that the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) decided that “Palestine was not as important strategically as once thought,” and that the General Staff ruled that the country was no longer essential for the defense of the Suez Canal. Weizmann has been credited with the remarkable feat of surmounting even this obstacle, single-handed:

Weizmann had managed to convince British statesmen and politicians that the Balfour Declaration, which many had come to regard as a political mistake, meant much more than was originally intended, and that abandoning the Palestine Mandate and the Zionist policy would lead to a severe loss of prestige and ethical stature for the British Empire. Weizmann was able to do this despite the fact that the Committee of Imperial Defence had decided that Palestine was of no strategic importance to the British Empire.

Huneidi has also noted the influence of Samuel, who in July 1923 warned the cabinet that due to the unsettled situation in Palestine, a final decision on future policy in Palestine could not be postponed any longer.

This last argument is a non sequitur. By July 1923 the Conservatives had held office for some eight months. It hardly needed Samuel to remind them of the need for haste. However, had the cabinet given overriding priority to Samuel’s argument—the need to quell the prolonged instability in Palestine—its logical conclusion would have been to abandon Zionism and the Balfour Declaration, not the opposite!

Moreover, for many decades popular folklore recounted that the Balfour Declaration had been given to Weizmann by Prime Minister Lloyd George as a reward for his scientific contribution to the British war effort. The legend was invented some 16 years after the event, by the fertile mind of Lloyd George. In his War Memoirs, Lloyd George “recalled” that when Weizmann turned down his offer to accept some personal honor in return for his wartime services to England, he had persisted:

But is there nothing we can do as a recognition of your valuable assistance to the country?…. He [Weizmann] replied: “Yes, I would like you to do something for my people.” He then explained his aspirations as to the repatriation of the Jews to the sacred land they had made famous. That was the fount and origin of the famous declaration about the National Home for the Jews in Palestine.

The myth proved robust enough to withstand even Weizmann’s own denial, some 15 years later:

His [Lloyd George’s] narrative makes it appear that the Balfour Declaration was a reward given me by the Government … for my services to England. I almost wish that it had been as simple as that, and that I had never known the heartbreaks, the drudgery and the uncertainties which preceded the Declaration. But history does not deal in Aladdin’s lamps.

The first serious fissure in the myth appeared in 1970, with the publication of a seminal article by Mayir Vereté. His basic thesis was that the Declaration had been issued to promote British rather than Zionist interests: “The British wanted Palestine—and very much so—for their own interests … it was not the Zionists who drew them to the country … had there been no Zionists … the British would have had to invent them.” Here is not the place to detail British calculations in 1917; suffice it to say that they concerned Britain’s wartime military exigencies and long-term strategic interests. However, after the war, the Declaration came to be regarded by many in Britain as an oppressive, even excessive burden.

Indeed, the fate of the Zionist enterprise never hung on the word of any single person—certainly not on that of either Weizmann or Samuel. However, as will be seen below, the debates on Palestine during the first half of 1923 were influenced by two senior British officials; the first was Lord Curzon of Kedleston, the foreign secretary; the second was Brigadier-General Sir Gilbert Clayton, a veteran senior British official in Egypt and, from June 1922, the chief secretary-designate to the Palestine administration. General Clayton’s expert military opinion on Britain’s need of Palestine as a strategic buffer to the Suez Canal served cabinet ministers as a useful counter to the General Staff.

The Balfour Declaration Under Attack

After the war, the government’s support for a Jewish National Home in Palestine excited fierce and bitter opposition, both in Britain and in Palestine. In Britain, the anti-Zionist campaign was infused with anti-Semitic prejudices, which were a facet of the cultural climate of the time. Indeed, a large part of the British Establishment, including some ministers, shared them. On the one hand, the Jews were stereotyped as “wealthy and powerful,” and on the other, as the masterminds behind the Bolshevik revolution, the agents of universal social upheaval.

Such views were aired both in Parliament, and in the press. In Parliament, the campaign was spearheaded by the Conservative Opposition, in particular, by the so-called “Tory Die-Hards,” those who had chosen to remain outside the Lloyd George coalition. Parliamentary debates on Palestine were laced with anti-Semitic vitriol. In June 1921, in a Commons debate on the Colonial Office vote, Esmond Harmsworth—nephew of Lord Northcliffe, the press baron—resorted to anti-Semitic stereotypes, an approach that apparently failed to evoke any protest in the House:

I do not pretend to be either a Zionist or an anti-Zionist … I say that it is a mistake that the taxpayers of this country should be asked to pay for a national loan to the Jews. The Jews are a very wealthy class, and should pay for their own national home if they want it. I have never yet met one who would go and live there, but, if they want their national home, after all, they are the richest nation in the world, and let them pay for it. As representing a portion of the British taxpayers, I do protest most strongly that any money of theirs should be thrown away in Palestine to provide for that home.

Just over a year later, William Ormsby-Gore MP openly denigrated the anti-Zionist opposition as belonging to a long tradition of native prejudice:

Then there is what I call quite frankly the anti-Semitic party, that is to say those who are convinced that the Jews are at the bottom of all the trouble all over the world… it is the rich Jews who are all blood-suckers and the poor Jews all Bolshevists—they have the particular Hebrew mania, and they have fastened on Palestine with a view to paying off those medieval scores.

Parliamentary opposition was buttressed by the right-wing press. The Conservative press barons—notably Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times and the Daily Mail, and Lord Beaverbrook, who controlled the mass-circulation Express group—were increasingly at odds with Lloyd George personally, whom they regarded as “the dominant and malign political force” in the country. On 23 November 1917 (just three weeks after the issue of the Balfour Declaration), the Times published an article repeating the calumny that the Bolsheviks were “adventurers of German-Jewish blood and in German pay.” It has been claimed that for the right-wing press, “Zionism represented an invasion of the Holy Land by godless Bolsheviks.” The press accused the government of wasting the taxpayers’ money in order to finance the establishment of a national home for Zionist Jews in Palestine. The Jews were stereotyped as “foreign, powerful, wealthy, money-grubbing, arrogant and pushy.” After a visit to Palestine in February 1922, Lord Northcliffe published an article in the Times, in which he referred to the Jews there as “grasping and domineering.”

On 11 February 1923, Beaverbrook’s Sunday Express asserted that “British troops had died to establish a Jewish despotism over Christians and the ‘subsidised importation of Jews from Russia'” and accused the government of having established in Palestine, at the expense of the British taxpayer, “a Zionist Government, with a Jewish Governor.” However, it should be emphasized that whereas government officials and ministers could not have failed to note the anti-Semitism that fueled much of the opposition to Zionism, none had any delusions about the existence of very real problems in the relations between the “triangle” of Arabs, Zionists, and the British in Palestine. These problems could not simply be ignored, no more than the public agitation could be dismissed as empty, racist bigotry.

After World War I, the military also vigorously opposed holding on to what they referred derisively as the “New Provinces”—i.e., Britain’s conquests in the Middle East. Their opposition was articulated vigorously by Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the Imperial General Staff, a “political soldier.” Wilson’s preoccupation after the war with domestic security and with the Irish problem, combined with his “contempt for the dithering and lack of judgment of the politicians” was reflected in his campaign against “the dispersal of diminished British forces across the Middle East.” At the end of December 1920, in a personal letter to a fellow senior officer, Wilson asserted: “The countries that do belong to us are England, Ireland, Egypt, the lower part of Mesop [otamia—later Iraq] and India. The countries that do not belong to us are the plebiscite areas, Constantinople, Palestine, all Persia and the greater part of Mesopotamia….”

Field Marshal Wilson earned himself a reputation for being a man of poor judgment, who at times went out on a limb. However, his political overlord, Winston Churchill, adopted his views. From 1919, until the middle of 1921—first as secretary of state for war and air, and from February 1921, as colonial secretary—Churchill penned several private appeals to Lloyd George, urging him to relinquish all of Britain’s Middle Eastern mandates. For example, in October 1919, he advised that “the Greeks should quit Smyrna, the French should give up Syria, we should give up Palestine and Mesopotamia, and the Italians should give up their sphere.” Churchill sent his last appeal to Lloyd George on 2 June 1921, during the crisis that followed the Arab riots in Palestine that had begun on 1 May. Preoccupied with Britain’s involvement in the Greek-Turkish war in Smyrna, Churchill seized the opportunity of the delay in the ratification of Britain’s Middle Eastern mandates by the League of Nations and again urged that Britain should relinquish all of her Middle Eastern conquests—in order to appease Mustapha Kemal (Atatürk):

I now learn that the League of Nations wish to postpone the Mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia until the Americans are satisfied…. I ought to warn you that if this course is followed, and if at the same time the Turkish situation degenerates in a disastrous manner, it will be impossible for us to maintain our position either in Palestine or in Mesopotamia and the only wise and safe course would be to take advantage of the postponement of the Mandates and resign them both and quit the two countries at the earliest possible moment, as the expense to which we shall be put will be wholly unwarrantable.

During the first years of the Mandate, the British were indeed perplexed by the Palestine imbroglio. The transcript of John Shuckburgh’s private conversation with Sydney Moody in April 1923 provides a rare, if not unique insight into the private thoughts and feelings of British officials charged with administering the Mandate during this period. The fact that successive governments continued to support the Zionists at all—in the face of Palestinian Arab protests—was due in no small measure to the conviction that the Palestinian Arabs did not pose any serious threat to the empire. Moody told Shuckburgh that “Palestine is so very small and confined that it is easy enough to settle any internal troubles, and external ones are not serious enough to threaten the peace of Palestine.”

In October 1922, the Lloyd George coalition fell and the Conservatives won the ensuing general elections. The new administration, under Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law, went through much soul-searching over the Palestine question. As noted already, the Conservatives had spearheaded the opposition to the previous government’s pro-Zionist policy. It now seemed to many that the natural, even inevitable course of events must be the abrogation of the Balfour Declaration and the termination of the previous government’s support for the Zionists in Palestine.

Indeed, the Arabs of Palestine hoped initially for the abolition of the British Mandate itself. Following a series of Turkish military victories in September 1922, the Entente Powers had been forced to renegotiate the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which had laid down the legal basis for the mandatory system in the Middle East. The Arabs dispatched a three-man delegation to lobby the powers in conference at Lausanne, but, failing to persuade the Turks to support their cause, they proceeded to London, arriving there on 24 December 1922.

During his short tenure as prime minister, Bonar Law took no concrete steps towards either solving the Palestine problem or assuaging the continuing public agitation. It remained to Stanley Baldwin, who replaced him as prime minister in May 1923, to act on the issue. In June 1923, one of Baldwin’s first decisions was to set up a cabinet subcommittee on Palestine, whose terms of reference were: “to examine Palestine policy afresh and to advise the full Cabinet whether Britain should remain in Palestine and whether, if she remained, the pro-Zionist policy should be continued.”

In the meantime, the officials charged with the day-to-day administration of Palestine were reduced to disillusion and despair. Shuckburgh confessed that he:

had a sense of personal degradation. He had always had this feeling during the two years he had been at the Colonial Office. The British policy in Palestine was built on … ambiguity and the Middle East Department suffered from it. He could not go on, they could not go on, feeling this sense of equivocation. It was personally degrading and unworthy of the British Government. It was of course a result of the War, an evil result and furnished an explanation but not a justification for prolonging it.

Lord Curzon—Imperialism and Zionism

It has been claimed that the Zionists prevented the Arab point of view from reaching the cabinet. Such claims are not true. The Arabs had their own effective advocates: in the press, in Parliament, and among senior British officers who had served in Palestine. But after the war, British policy makers did not seek the favor of either the Arabs or the Zionists. Their goal was to further Britain’s own imperial interests. An understanding of those interests is a prerequisite for comprehending the very essence of Britain’s 30-year-long control of Palestine.

There is no better illustration of the paramountcy of imperial interests than in the key role—one that has been all but overlooked—played by one British statesman in the decision to continue with a pro-Zionist policy in 1923. That man was George Nathanial, Lord Curzon of Kedleston. Curzon rose to prominence as viceroy of India (1899-1905) at the precocious age of 40. Such was his reputation that after 1903 the Persian Gulf came to be known as the “Curzon Lake.” He was a member of the House of Lords from 1908 and served continuously as a senior cabinet minister from 1915 to 1924; although he held the sinecure position of lord president of the council for the duration of the war, he was chosen by Lloyd George to be one of the three permanent members of his five-to-seven-man inner war cabinet.

During the war, many officials at Whitehall identified Curzon with “a bygone era of British imperialism in the East.” Foreign and India Office officials tried to marginalize him and his anachronistic, nineteenth-century colonialist notions, which did not fit in with their own visions of the new world order that would emerge after the war. But the officials’ views did not prevent Lloyd George from appointing Curzon to head some of the inner war cabinet’s more important subcommittees; among these were the so-called Curzon Committee set up in 1917 to report on Britain’s territorial war aims, which insisted on the importance of postwar British control of Mesopotamia and Palestine; and the Eastern Committee, which from April to December 1918 was charged with coordinating policy in the Near East and Central Asia, including Persia.

Curzon was vulnerable to some extent, being a cabinet minister without a department. The potentially powerful cabinet committees that he headed risked becoming redundant when bypassed or ignored by ministers with executive authority. However, in October 1919 his status was enhanced, when Lloyd George removed Balfour from the Foreign Office and appointed Curzon in his place. His promotion, a personal rehabilitation, has been seen as an attempt to bring some order to the “jungle” of British policy in the East—the result of the near “incompetence” of the Foreign Office delegation (headed by Balfour) in Paris. The switch in offices has been called “the most glaring indictment of any notion of inter-Allied or international co-operation or of a new age in world affairs.” As foreign secretary, Curzon held ministerial responsibility for Palestine until March 1921, when jurisdiction was transferred to the new colonial secretary, Winston Churchill. In October 1922, when the Conservatives replaced the Lloyd George coalition, Curzon was the only senior minister to retain his post. Thus he oversaw Egypt from 1919 to 1924.

By 1923 Curzon had sat at the pinnacle of the British political establishment for over two decades. His was the quintessential voice of British imperialism, the ranking expert in the cabinet on “the East”—from India to Egypt. In 1923 Curzon exerted the major influence on the discussions in the special cabinet subcommittee appointed by Baldwin to reassess the government’s policy in Palestine, and on the drafting of its final report for the cabinet.

At first glance, any suggestion that Curzon played a major role in keeping Britain faithful to the Balfour Declaration would appear to be almost counter-factual. He has gone down in most history books, with good reason, as an anti-Zionist. This has, perhaps, put historians off the trail. For Curzon’s advocacy of adherence to the Declaration derived solely from his concern for British imperial interests, not from any conversion to Zionism.

During the final discussions on the Balfour Declaration in the inner war cabinet in October 1917, Curzon did express serious reservations. He was probably the only member of that body who had actually visited Palestine. At the 4 October meeting, he advised his colleagues that the country was arid and poor, with no mineral resources. He asked how was it proposed to “get rid of” the existing Muslim population (some half a million) and expressed his doubts whether the Arabs would consent to be expropriated by the Jewish immigrants or to become their “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” However, at the final, decisive meeting of the war cabinet on 31 October, Curzon relented, and agreed to the issue of the Declaration. All considerations of objective conditions in Palestine gave way to calculations of wartime propaganda. Balfour himself set the tone: “If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal [Zionism], we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and in America.”

Curzon still feared that the Declaration might “be raising false expectations which could never be realized,” but he agreed that “some expression of sympathy with Jewish aspirations would be a valuable adjunct to our propaganda.” (By 1923 his apprehensions about Palestine’s economic future had been assuaged by the large infusions of Jewish capital.) In effect, Curzon had determined long before October 1917 that Palestine must become British, to serve as a strategic buffer for the Suez Canal. Earlier in the year, on 19 April, he told “his,” the “Curzon” committee that “the only safe settlement was that Palestine should be included in a British Protectorate.” Curzon was supported by Jan Smuts, the South African general and statesman and a member of the Imperial War Cabinet. Smuts argued that Britain “ought to secure the command of Palestine in order to protect Egypt and our communications to the East.” Curzon’s proposal was endorsed by the committee.

In 1917, Zionist aspirations in effect played into British hands, “freeing them of any annexationist taint” and paving the way to the assent of other powers to British control of Palestine.

Palestine as a Strategic Asset

The events of the last year of the war fused the Declaration and Britain’s strategic interests in Palestine into inseparable Siamese twins. Curzon himself appreciated that “there was an inevitable link between the British presence in Palestine and British adherence to the policy of support for Zionism.” Curzon never became a Gentile Zionist, nor did he ever share Balfour’s philosophical admiration of the Jews. Indeed, during the first years of Britain’s military occupation, Curzon protested that Zionist pretensions in Palestine and their talk of a Jewish state were provocative and dangerous. He feared that their ambitions might even “seriously jeopardize Britain’s own position in the country.” However, when the military administration repeatedly urged the government to drop its pro-Zionist policy, Curzon reminded them that in the eyes of the Powers, Britain was now bound to the 1917 Declaration: “Britain was committed to support for Zionism and … ‘Zionist aspirations have been endorsed by the Italian, French and United States Governments.'”

Notwithstanding all the anti-Zionist protests and agitation, both in London and in Palestine, and the private despair of Whitehall officials, until the late 1930s there was never any real risk that a British government would abandon the Zionist cause in Palestine. Until 1936, the year of the Arab revolt in Palestine—which for the first time brought the intervention of the neighboring Arab states—Palestine was treated as sui generis.

First, all governments agreed that Britain had vital imperial interests in Palestine, quite apart from any differences among the Services over whether or not Palestine was required for the defense of the Suez Canal. Indeed, for the chiefs of staff, Britain’s strategic need for Palestine would increase, right until the Attlee-Bevin government’s decision to leave the country, in 1947. These imperial interests were dressed up in her so-called “civilizing mission.” In the case of Palestine, it was the “altruistic” sponsorship of the “Return of the People of the Bible to the Land of the Bible.”

Second, given Britain’s virtual bankruptcy after World War I and imperial fiscal orthodoxy—that colonies must pay their own way—the maintenance and future development of Palestine became ipso facto contingent upon the continuing influx of Jewish capital and enterprise. It was quite clear that this would cease the moment that any British government withdrew its support from the Zionists.

Third, until the late 1930s—when realpolitik dictated otherwise—there was a broad consensus in British cabinets on the need to honor the pledge given to the Jews in 1917. Unlike the correspondence with the Arabs in 1915-16—which was never consummated by an agreement between the two sides, much less sanctified by a cabinet decision—the Balfour Declaration was a formal, public declaration of policy by a British government. As such, it became the license wherewith Britain secured international recognition of her exclusive control of Palestine: it was approved by President Wilson and by all of Britain’s allies; it was accepted by the principal Allied powers in the Treaty of Sèvres and was written into the Mandate for Palestine (article 4), which was approved by the League of Nations in July 1922. In Palestine, after the Arab boycott of the elections to the Legislative Council provided for by the 1922 White Paper, a new constitution was drafted and published in the Palestine Order-in-Council on 10 August 1922—it too included the text of the Balfour Declaration, in its preamble.

It is in this context that one must examine the apparent dismissal of Palestine’s strategic value by the British General Staff, which has attracted the attention of historians. But before examining the military’s views in depth, a few caveats are in order. The military—like the politicians, of various persuasions—rarely spoke with a united voice. Debates on strategy were usually marked by inter-service rivalry. Each branch of the armed forces sought by special pleading to increase its own share of the military budget. It is also well to remember that in 1923 the fleet—not the army—was still the senior and the most important of Britain’s three armed services. Without the fleet, Britain could not have maintained its scattered, overstretched empire. Most of the British Establishment would have concurred with Churchill’s obiter dictum that without its empire, “Great Britain” would be reduced to “Little England.” Note needs to be taken also of the ambitions of the up-and-coming Royal Air Force (RAF), whose full potential still lay in the future. The RAF had already fixed its eyes on Palestine as a major imperial staging-ground for aircraft flying to Britain’s far eastern imperial outposts.

One study has asserted that as early as 1920 it was made clear to the government that “the occupation of Palestine fulfilled no strategic need.” Another work concluded, more specifically, that in 1923 the General Staff dismissed Palestine, as being “of no strategic value in defending the Suez Canal.” Given the General Staff’s reticence about “the New Provinces,” it is not surprising that in 1923 they contended that “Palestine is not of strategic importance for the primary task of defending the Suez Canal … it might well prove a weakness by increasing our commitments and making calls upon the garrison in Egypt.” They argued that any estimate of Palestine’s strategic value depended upon the military decision about which of three alternatives would serve as the best defense line for the canal: (a) the northern frontier of Palestine; (b) an intermediate position in Palestine itself; or (c) the Sinai desert. They chose the third option, from Rafa in the Sinai Peninsula, with the main force based in Egypt.

They continued that whereas there were certain advantages to holding off an enemy attack at a distance from the canal—i.e. in northern Palestine—in practice, any advantage would be more than offset by “the dissipation of forces and effort resulting from a longer line of communications and the rearward services which these entail.” Further, they warned that “any advantages possessed by a forward position” might be more than offset by disturbances in the rear of the area of operations. For this same reason, they also dismissed the admittedly promising potential of Haifa as a deep-water port.

But the General Staff’s warnings about “disturbances in the rear of the area of operations” could be, and indeed was argued both ways. No less an authority than Brigadier-General Sir Gilbert Clayton asserted that the volatile position in Egypt in fact tended to increase the strategic value of Palestine. Britain could not have gone so far as she had in Egypt (in repressing Saad Zaghlul’s national movement) had she not been in secure possession of Palestine.

The General Staff argued that Rafa (at the southern limit of the Gaza Strip) was still some 120 miles from the canal—a considerable distance (in 1923), even for air action. However, the idea that any significant military base could function in the Sinai desert—”thanks to improvements in communications during World War One”—was purely fanciful, even when the project was revived, ephemerally, in the late 1940s.

But the fact is that in 1923, the General Staff did insist that Britain must hold on to Palestine, even if for reasons that had nothing to do with the defense of the canal. Britain had to retain Palestine, if only to prevent any potential enemy from moving into the resulting vacuum. The chief of the air staff added that if a hostile power occupied Palestine, it would be able to develop air bases there that “would prove a grave menace to shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean and to the Suez Canal.” The General Staff warned that a British withdrawal from Palestine would result in a domino-like deterioration of “Britain’s entire strategic position in the Middle East” and would “result ultimately in the resumption of Turkish rule over Palestine, including Trans-Jordania.” If this occurred, the French position in Syria would be compromised, and the chances of Turkey retaking that country would increase; a return of the Turks to Syria would in turn undermine Britain’s position in Iraq. They concluded that for as long as Britain’s relations with Angora (capital of modern Turkey, Ankara, from 1930) remained uncertain and “conflicting Arab aspirations are in a state of flux… our control of Palestine exerts an influence the loss of which would be to our detriment strategically.”

On 24 July 1923, Britain and her allies signed the Treaty of Lausanne with the Turks; this replaced the defunct Treaty of Sèvres, and was supposed to settle all differences with Atatürk. Yet one week later, the agreement did not even rate a mention during the cabinet’s final deliberations on Palestine.

The chiefs of staff failed to agree on Haifa’s strategic potential as a deep-water port. The conquest of Palestine during the last months of the war had opened up the irresistible prospect of a strategic link between northern Iraq (with Mosul’s huge oil reserves) and a terminal on the Mediterranean coast, in Palestine. The Colonial Office suggested that the development of this “trans-desert route,” whether by rail and/or by oil pipeline, would require “our retention of Palestine” or, at a minimum, “a friendly Palestine.” The General Staff conceded that in that eventuality, “Palestine, with its port of Haifa, would become of greater importance.” However, as noted already, they still dismissed Haifa, due to their fears of “disturbances in the rear.”

But the navy clearly wanted Haifa as a port. They rejected the army’s dismissal of Palestine as a strategic buffer for the Suez Canal and highlighted the canal’s logistical significance: the sea route from Britain to Singapore was 11,600 miles via the Cape route, but only 8,000 miles via the canal. They next warned that if Palestine’s ports were to fall into hostile hands, this would constitute a “grave menace to the Mediterranean approaches to the Canal, and would probably necessitate the establishment by Great Britain of a naval base on Cyprus.”

The navy’s view prevailed. In late 1923 a scheme for the construction of a deep-water harbor at Haifa was drawn up. It was budgeted at £1,000,000, to be paid for by a Palestine Loan, covered by an Imperial Guarantee. After protracted wrangling with the Treasury, the loan guarantee was finally approved by the cabinet in March 1926, by which time the cost of the project had risen to £1,115,000. In November 1927 a Palestine loan stock issue, to cover the construction costs, was published in the Times. It was fully subscribed immediately. A study of Britain’s economic policies in Palestine has concluded that “the overriding reason for guaranteeing the loan was to enable Palestine to repay its ‘debts’ to His Majesty’s Government and to satisfy the Imperial need for a deep-water harbour at Haifa.”

And finally, the General Staff also conceded Palestine’s potential as an important “link in the air route to Baghdad.” Albeit, when the Air Staff had the temerity to claim that Palestine would be an important station in the construction of a worldwide chain of imperial air bases, the General Staff responded caustically, “if we are to hold and garrison increasingly broad areas of the earth’s surface in order to confine foreign aerodromes to a safe distance from our own territories, we shall presently, as the range of aircraft increases, have to control most of the world.” But in any case, the General Staff’s views had little or no influence on cabinet ministers in 1923. At the decisive meeting of the CID on Palestine in July, Sir Samuel Hoare, the secretary of state for air, insisted that “it was not merely the defence of the Canal, but the broad air strategy of the Empire which required the retention of Palestine.”

The military’s contempt for ministers, whom they dismissed derisively as “the frocks,” was reciprocated in kind by Whitehall. In April 1923, Shuckburgh dismissed a recent statement in the House of Lords by a War Office “expert” that “Palestine was rather a source of weakness than of strength.” Shuckburgh observed: “But of course you cannot set overmuch value on official military opinion because it is usually conflicting and even if not conflicting it varies every six months.” In its final report, the cabinet subcommittee on Palestine reproduced almost verbatim a Shuckburgh memorandum of 2 July 1923, which brushed aside the views of the General Staff: “Although the strategical value of Palestine is rated by the Imperial General Staff less highly than it has been placed by some authorities, yet none of us can contemplate with equanimity the installation in Palestine of another Power.”

Lord Curzon’s views on Palestine’s strategic value are of special significance. His long experience in a series of key positions made him especially sensitive to the strategic link between Egypt and Palestine. Immediately after the war, at a meeting of the cabinet’s Eastern Committee on 5 December 1918, he adumbrated a doctrine that became cabinet orthodoxy:

Has not the whole history of the war shown us… that Palestine is really the strategic buffer of Egypt, and that the Canal, which is the weak side of Egypt, if it has to be defended in the future, it will have to be defended—as it has been in the war—from the Palestine side?…. from the strategic point of view there is a close interest between Palestine and Egypt.

While Curzon proffered some pious words about the Mandate for Palestine being allotted to either the United States or to Great Britain, he made quite clear his own belief that Britain should take it.

In the 1923 debates on Palestine, the Colonial Office case for retaining the Mandate and for adhering to the Balfour Declaration leaned heavily on the briefs of Brigadier-General Sir Gilbert Clayton, a veteran Middle East “hand” who was appointed chief secretary to the Palestine administration, in June 1922, but took up his position only in April 1923. Prior to his posting to Palestine, he had served in a series of senior official positions in Egypt. Clayton developed “a certain personal commitment to the Anglo-Arab alliance” which he had helped to foster during the war. But he came to know and respect Samuel and believed that the 1922 White Paper on Palestine had put the country back “on the right track.” Further, from his Egyptian perspective, he was convinced of Britain’s strategic need for Palestine. Indeed, it has been claimed that Clayton went to Palestine in 1923 “with the hope that there he would again be at the center of Britain’s imperial strategy in the Middle East.”

Like Curzon, Clayton appreciated the nexus between Britain’s Mandate in Palestine and her need to adhere to the 1917 pledge to the Zionists. In 1925, for a time, he was even the favorite to succeed Samuel as high commissioner—his candidacy was publicly supported by the Zionists.

In July 1923, Clayton’s opinions as “the expert-on-the-spot” had a significant influence on the cabinet’s subcommittee on Palestine. Their report cited him several times, as an authority, once, as a corrective to Samuel’s naive optimism about the situation in Palestine: “Sir H. Samuel, in his recorded evidence, placed before us his estimate of the future of Palestine…. These estimates may turn out to be unduly sanguine; already they have to some extent been checked by the less rosy forecast of Sir G. Clayton.” Significantly, Clayton’s 22-line analysis of Palestine’s importance as a strategic hinterland to Egypt was reprinted in both the Colonial Office’s major cabinet memoranda on Palestine in 1923: that of February, and again, in its annex to the subcommittee’s report of July 1923.

The Palestine subcommittee also adopted and cited in its report Clayton’s political conclusion: “there is no ground whatever for advocating the abandonment of the Zionist policy or relinquishing the Mandate,” as well as his recommendation that an answer to Palestinian Arab objections might be found “by modifying objectionable Articles in the Mandate, or at least by removing all possible grounds for any charges of partiality or bad faith, to dissipate the present fear and distrust of the Arabs.”

The Colonial Office tour d’horizon on Palestine’s importance as a strategic buffer to the Suez Canal, presented to the CID in July 1923, deserves to be quoted here at length:

Previous to 1914 and during the critical phases of the Great War, Egypt was the essential link between Europe and our Eastern possessions. The Suez Canal assumed an importance which rendered its defence of vital consequence. Nevertheless the Turks reached the Canal, and at one point [February 1915] succeeded in crossing it…. The geographical defence of Egypt, namely, the Sinai Desert, had proved itself inadequate in modern warfare, and still more apparent would this become in any future war.

As the Great War developed and military operations in the Middle East expanded, it soon became apparent that not only Egypt but Palestine rose in importance in the political and strategic world. Palestine… assumed the proportion of a strong enemy base, both naval, military and air, whose occupation became necessary for our security in the East and Mediterranean.

….Many as were the advantages of defending Egypt along the lines of the Suez Canal, a line some 80 miles long, and with a desert glacis stretching to the east, there were disadvantages. The line was too attenuated except for a large body of troops. Any strategic counter-attack was impossible owing to a lack of water in the Sinai Desert…. The bombing of Cairo was undertaken by the Turks in days when aeronautics were in their infancy. To remove this menace a methodical advance was undertaken by us across Sinai and the Turkish army was defeated in Palestine.

The Economic Factor

As noted already, a major taunt in the campaign against the government’s Palestine policy had been the alleged waste of the taxpayer’s money. One typical article, published in the Daily Express in February 1921, condemned the squandering of British resources “in the arid wastes of the Middle East at a time when the British people were already crushed by taxation, oppressed by restricted trade and widespread unemployment.”

In 1922, one-third of all government expenditure was still going to service the government’s war debt. Given that the British wanted to retain control of Palestine, and that no government would willingly spend taxpayers’ money on the Zionist enterprise—who would? The obvious solution lay in the pockets of the Jews, the alleged “richest nation on earth.” By 1923, no official disputed the fact that without the continued import of Jewish capital and enterprise into Palestine, not only would the pace of development in the country slow down drastically, or even come to a halt, but any expenses incurred in its routine administration would fall on the British taxpayer. Such a prospect was pure anathema to all postwar British governments.

Lord Curzon had found the “solution” to his earlier fears of fostering unrealistic hopes of a large Jewish immigration into an undeveloped country. At an imperial conference in October 1923, after reiterating his views on the strategic importance of Palestine, he explained how the Jews themselves were going to finance the development of the country: “We cannot now recede [from Palestine]. If we did the French would step in and then be on the threshold of Egypt and on the outskirts of the Canal. Besides Palestine needs ports, electricity, and the Jews of America are rich and would subsidize such development….” The pragmatic, imperialist viewpoint, was never stated more candidly, albeit in private, than by Sidney Moody, in April 1923:

I have no fervent belief in the fulfilment of prophecy by the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. The historical and sentimental arguments left me cold. It is time to [recognize] that Palestine is underpopulated and underdeveloped and suffering from the neglect of centuries and that the Jews are the only people who are capable of rebuilding it because they have the necessary money, enthusiasm and manpower.

The need for Jewish capital to finance the development of Palestine was one of the key planks in Colonial Secretary Lord Devonshire’s case. He began by correcting the “gross exaggeration” upon which much of the public campaign against the government’s “Zionist policy” had been based—that it was costing the British taxpayer a lot of money. He reported that the actual cost of holding Palestine had been just over £2 million in 1922-23, and it was planned to reduce this sum to £1.5 million. On the other hand, the Zionists had already spent £5 million developing Palestine and were ready to spend much more. He next reminded his colleagues of a few “home truths” about Britain’s need of Jewish investment in Palestine:

It is they alone who are both able and willing to supply capital enterprise and additional labour. Palestine is a poor country and unlikely to attract capital from the outside world on its own merits. The Zionists have a special incentive, unconnected with calculations of profit and return, to devote their brains and resources to the development of the country.

In total contrast to Moody’s privately expressed views (cited above), Devonshire closed his case by mobilizing the well-worn “civilizing mission” cliché: “It may well be argued that by giving them [the Jews] the opportunity of doing so, we are serving the interests of civilization as a whole, quite apart from any sentimental considerations about restoring a scattered people to its ancient fatherland.”

In its final report, the cabinet subcommittee also chose to emphasize the need for Zionist capital to develop Palestine:

it [the Balfour Declaration] has been the basis upon which Zionist co-operation in the development of Palestine has been freely given and upon which very large sums of Jewish money have since been subscribed….

… we do not want to staunch the flow of subscriptions from the Jewish world, which are still essential for the continued existence of the colonies in Palestine, and secondarily for the future development of Palestine as a whole…. the best hope for the relief of the British taxpayer lies in improving the economic conditions of the country.

The International Commitment

For England, a small island kingdom that did not have a significant land army but controlled an empire scattered across the globe by means of its fleet, the need for continental land alliances was obvious. The importance of honoring promises was much more than just another item in the cultural baggage of the consummate English gentleman. It was regarded as a sine qua non for the conduct of the nation’s foreign affairs. On countless occasions, English statesmen argued that if the word of English governments could not be relied upon, how could they ever hope to persuade other states to forge alliances with her?

The general consensus, led by Curzon, was that the Balfour Declaration constituted one of England’s binding commitments. But perhaps no one gave better expression to this principle than Winston Churchill. In private, he had initially opposed the retention of Britain’s Middle Eastern conquests. In August 1921, when colonial secretary, he conveyed his personal misgivings about Palestine in a secret cabinet memorandum:

The whole country is in ferment. The Zionist policy is profoundly unpopular with all except the Zionists. Both Arabs and Jews are armed and arming, ready to spring at each other’s throats…. It seems to me that the whole situation should be reviewed by the Cabinet. I have done and am doing my best to give effect to the pledge given to the Zionists by Mr Balfour on behalf of the War Cabinet….

However, he bowed to the cabinet consensus: “I am prepared to continue in this course, if it is the settled resolve of the Cabinet.”

Eleven months later, Colonial Secretary Churchill was called upon to defend the 1922 Palestine White Paper in the House of Commons. He proceeded to harangue no less than 12 MPs—each by name—who had supported the Balfour Declaration in 1917 but were now opposing the government’s pro-Zionist policy. With typical Churchillian rhetoric, he harangued the opposition:

You have no right to say this kind of thing as individuals; you have no right to support public declarations made in the name of your country in the crisis and heat of the War, and then afterwards, when all is cold and prosaic, to turn around and attack the Minister or the Department which is faithfully and laboriously endeavouring to translate those perfervid enthusiasms into the sober, concrete facts of the day-to-day administration…. I appeal to the House of Commons not to alter its opinion on the general question, but to stand faithfully to the undertakings which have been given in the name of Britain, and interpret in an honourable and earnest way the promise that Britain will do her best to fulfill her undertakings to the Zionists.

However, Churchill took care to divest himself of all responsibility for the Declaration: “I remained quite silent [in 1917]. I am not in the ‘Black Book‘. I accepted service along the lines laid down for me.” (In May 1939 Churchill would call the 1939 White Paper a breach of Britain’s undertaking to the Zionists, comparable to the “betrayal” of the Munich agreement.)

In July 1923 the Palestine subcommittee’s final report dwelt at length on the need to honor the Balfour pledge:

it is often represented that the Zionist policy was a mere fad of the late Government and (to quote Lord Sydenham’s words) “one of the many legacies of evil which the coalition has ‘bequeathed’.” This view cannot possibly be sustained. The policy is a legacy, not of Mr. Churchill or of the Coalition, but of the Great War. The Balfour Declaration was a war measure, taken by the War Cabinet (of which Mr. Churchill was not a member) after full deliberation at a time when the military situation was exceedingly critical, and designed to secure tangible benefits which it was hoped would contribute to the ultimate victory of the Allies. These benefits may or may not have been worth securing, and may or may not have been actually secured; but the objections to going back on a promise made under such conditions are obvious. The Jews would naturally regard it as a matter of baseness if, having appealed to them in our hour of peril, we were to throw them over when the danger was past…. The policy of the Balfour Declaration was accepted by the Principal Allied Powers…. We are in fact committed to the Zionist policy before the whole world in the clearest and most unequivocal fashion….

In presenting the report to the cabinet on 31 July, Curzon reiterated the potential harm to Britain’s international reputation should she renege on the Balfour Declaration:

it is well nigh impossible for any Government to extricate itself without a substantial sacrifice of consistency and self-respect, if not of honour. Those of us who have disliked the policy are not prepared to make that sacrifice. Those of us who approved the policy throughout would, of course, speak in much less equivocal terms.

The cabinet “rubber-stamped” the Palestine subcommittee’s report, noting only Curzon’s palliative proposal, the creation of an Arab Agency that would have “a position in regard to the question of immigration” identical to that of the Jewish Agency.

It is appropriate to leave the last word to John Shuckburgh, the éminence grise who since February 1921 had sat at the very fulcrum of day-to-day policy-making in Palestine. When asked by Moody in April 1923 if he thought that Britain had “got her money’s worth” from the Balfour Declaration, Shuckburgh replied:

He thought not, but pointed out that it was nevertheless a bargain into which we had entered and from which we had expected certain advantages. Whether we had actually got our money’s worth did not affect the binding nature of the bargain….


During the early years of the Palestine Mandate, British officialdom—both in London and in Palestine—undoubtedly felt ill at ease with Britain’s promotion of the immigration of Jews against the will of the native Palestinian Arab majority. Shuckburgh confessed to feeling “degraded” by the need to “force on the Arab population of Palestine a mass of alien immigrants mostly Russian and Polish.” Unrest in Palestine itself and vociferous public agitation at home—which provided ventilation for some of the basest, most xenophobic prejudices in English society—did not make the task of Whitehall any easier. But those seated at the helm of power gave first priority, perforce, to “higher” considerations of realpolitik, to what they perceived as vital imperial interests. In 1923 (as in 1917), Britain still needed the Zionists at least as much as they needed her.

There is no evidence that in October 1917 any member of the war cabinet took the time to consider the long-term implications of the Balfour Declaration for Britain’s future position in the Arab world. In retrospect, it is quite clear that from the moment of the cabinet decision—until the regional and international maelstroms of the late 1930s dictated otherwise—the Declaration was in effect, a chose jugée.