Modern believers in the meaning, importance and necessity of Israel as a safe home for Jews had best come to terms with its less-than-organic birth — it did not magically appear on the sands of an empty landscape.
By David Sarna Galdi
A day before the Paris peace summit last month, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, tried to delegitimize the French plan by comparing it to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. “One hundred years ago, two officials by the name of Mark Sykes and Francois-Georges Picot tried to dictate a new order in the Middle East,” Gold said at a specially called press conference. “It was at the apex of the era of colonialism in our area. It utterly failed then and will completely fail today.”
Later that week, in a Haaretz oped, former Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens all but grabbed the baton from Gold: “One hundred years after Francois Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes decided how the two imperial powers would divide the Middle East after World War I, Francois Hollande assembled two dozen foreign ministers in an attempt to dictate to Israel the steps it should take so that a Palestinian state could be imposed on the region.”
The right wing in Israel likes to recklessly hijack history for its faulty arguments. A few months ago Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed that it was Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and not Hitler, who came up with the idea for the Nazi annihilation of the Jews — a disgusting distortion of the truth he later retracted.
Gold, Arens, and anyone else attempting to use the Sykes-Picot Agreement as an example of illegitimate, imperialist European interference or colonialism in order to stymie European peace efforts should be careful. If Sykes-Picot is illegitimate, then so is Israel’s existence; the “era of colonialism” or imperialism that produced Sykes-Picot is the same the era that allowed for the rise of Zionism.
Sykes-Picot, a secret agreement negotiated during the First World War between the French and the British, carved up the Middle East in anticipation of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It aimed to create two French and British controlled zones, as well as a third area, constituting most of Palestine, which was to be under international administration, with its final status to be decided later.
Ever since the First Zionist Congress in 1897, the Zionists had been settling Jews in Palestine and seeking British political support for their project. So they were shocked to learn about Sykes-Picot, which had been negotiated behind their backs. It divided the existing Jewish settlements in Palestine in two and completely ignored Zionist goals.
Middle East scholar Martin Kramer explains, “From April 1917 [Chaim] Weizmann devoted himself and his movement to overturning Sykes-Picot. The Zionists had one aim: to swap the Sykes-Picot partition plan for an exclusively British protectorate over the whole of Palestine. Only under a British Protectorate, Weizmann rightly concluded, could the Jewish home project take root and flourish.”
Weizmann got what he wanted. After more secret negotiations, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour declared in a letter dated November 2, 1917 that Britain would use its “best endeavours” toward “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” What became known as the Balfour Declaration had ripped up the Sykes-Picot map.
Zionist success in securing the Balfour Declaration effectively meant the gears of a future Jewish state were already turning. The concept and its colonial machinery could, for the first time, claim international legitimacy and support.
For the indigenous Arab majority in Palestine, however, the Balfour Declaration spelled disaster: it was a complete betrayal of promises that the British had made to their wartime Arab allies who had their own nationalist aspirations. Balfour himself declared, “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
If anyone should lament Sykes-Picot it is the Palestinians.
Any Zionist foolish enough to criticize Sykes-Picot as a blunder of orientalist European arrogance that ignored the complexities of Middle Eastern tribal society, ethnicity and religious sensitivities must admit the same of the Balfour Declaration. Both initiatives were issued by the same authority, written by the same hands, and established the same disruptive principle, that Palestine should be divided up artificially (and not left whole) and be placed in the control of white men, without considering the indigenous people who shared religion, language, ancestry and generations of life under Muslim rule.
In fact, Zionists and Israelis should celebrate Sykes-Picot for paving the road for the future Jewish state by setting the borders of Mandatory Palestine that would eventually become those of 1948 Israel, 25 years later. Sykes-Picot was no less than the first partition plan for Palestine, created by an imperial power that had colonialist Zionist interests in mind ab initio.
Believers in the meaning, importance and necessity of Israel as a safe home for Jews had best come to terms with its less-than-organic birth — it did not magically appear on the sands of an empty landscape. Israel exists largely because of the international support and license it received, which came from the same imperious, Eurocentric, imperialist worldview that produced Sykes-Picot. One hundred years later, Israel today is strong enough to honestly confront its founding narratives and survive the rectification of historical transgressions like Sykes-Picot, a process happening all around it in very scary ways.
David Sarna Galdi is a former editor at Haaretz newspaper and an activist. He currently works for an Israeli nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.