Early this month, U.S. President Barack Obama brought Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington to discuss settlement of long-standing grievances. Talks will resume in Egypt this week; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, will also attend. We all know many reasons for pessimism here, but observers have been commenting upon an usual optimism in the air.
History suggests that the air is thin, however, and I do not mean the 62-year history of sporadic violence with which most of us are familiar. For a better appreciation of what may or may not happen, we need to go back even further than 1948.
In November, 1917, with the First World War raging and victory very much in doubt, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, pledging to support establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. Today we consider that promise to be the foundation stone of modern Israel. But it was only one aspect of a larger policy whose reverberations we still feel.
British leaders issued the declaration to gain Jewish backing in the war. Incredibly, they believed that Jews controlled American finance and Russian pacifism; that American Jews could bring their country into war; that Russian Jews could keep their country from dropping out; that the vast majority of Jews were Zionists (they were not) and desired to return to their ancient homeland. With the backing of "international Jewry," they thought they had a better chance of beating Germany. So they offered a great bribe to Jews in the form of the famous Balfour Declaration.
British leaders also bribed the Arabs. They feared that the Ottoman Sultan, who was also the Caliph of Islam, would declare jihad against them. Then Muslims in South Asia, Egypt and Sudan would rise up against their Imperial masters. They knew, however, that if the second-ranking figure in Islam, Grand Sharif Hussein of Mecca, supported Britain against the Ottomans, it would weaken the call to holy war. So, in a series of famous letters, the British Consul General in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, promised to support the establishment of an independent Arab kingdom in Syria, Lebanon, Arabia and Mesopotamia. It remains unclear whether McMahon promised Palestine, too, but it is indisputable that he allowed Grand Sharif Hussein to think that he had.
Meanwhile, back in London, even though they were not yet victorious, Britain and France were secretly redrawing the Ottoman map. France would obtain direct and indirect control over Syria and Lebanon; Britain over Mesopotamia. Because Palestine contained Jerusalem, Holy City to three great religions, it would be governed by an international "condominium" of allied powers.
When British Zionists and Arabs learned about this, they responded with outrage. The Zionists concluded they must obtain a written promise about Palestine because spoken pledges were "weak as water." Eventually, they got the Balfour Declaration. The Arab leader Hussein recalled his correspondence with McMahon. He told his son: "I have in my pocket a letter which promises all I wish." He trusted Britain to keep McMahon's pledges and rein in the French. Then Hussein learned about the Balfour Declaration. He thought he had been doubly betrayed.
Neither Zionists nor the Arabs ever knew, however, that British prime minister David Lloyd George also had opened a back channel to the Ottomans! After all, a separate peace with Turkey would do more to win the war than anything involving Jews or Arabs. So he offered the Ottomans bribes, too. If they signed a separate peace treaty, then, in addition to receiving a huge sum of money, they could continue flying their flag in the Middle East, Palestine included. Lloyd George's emissary to the Turks repeated this offer in January of 1918 - two months after the Balfour Declaration had been made public.
Even this does not cap our story of intrigue and deceit. When Lloyd George made the offer to the Turks, not only did he keep it secret from British Zionists and Arabs, he also kept it secret from his own foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour. And Balfour had just signed the famous declaration that bears his name.
During the First World War, British policy in the Middle East engendered recrimination, suspicion, resentment. Those sentiments have compounded over the years. We must not be surprised if today Arabs and Israelis do not take Western leaders at face value, or if they look first to their own interests as they understand them. History suggests that no one else will.
Nor should we take the statements of leaders at face value either. Although they claim to be honest brokers, we cannot be sure that Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton are more pure than were British leaders 90 years ago, when they were willing to betray all the parties in the Middle East, and when a prime minister was prepared to double cross even his own foreign secretary.
Jonathan Schneer is the author of The Balfour Declaration: Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.