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Balfour Centenary: War Aims or Bargaining Chips?

Balfour Map Large

By Dr Steven Wagner
Lecturer in International Security, Brunel University London

On 2 November I had the pleasure of joining colleagues from the UK and Palestine at the Palestinian national theatre, El-Hakawati, for a roundtable event to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, Britain's public promise to establish a Jewish National Home in Palestine during the First World War.

My contribution to the discussion was based on my research on British intelligence in Palestine, and is the basis of the first chapter in my forthcoming book, Statecraft by Stealth: How Britain Ruled Palestine 1917-40. In my research, I noticed that it was not until August 1919 that British intelligence officers realised that the Balfour Declaration contradicted Britain's other First World War promises regarding Palestine and the Middle East: The Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the region into British and French spheres of interest, and the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence which promised an Arab Kingdom as a result of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans. This struck me as strange, and counterintuitive – surely British intelligence officers who were involved in these three promises had to foresee the inherent contradictions between them?

Not so.

If any map helps to explain how the First World War reshaped the Middle East, it is the one above. This was enclosed with Britain and France's reply to US President Wilson's peace mediation efforts toward the end of 1916. It is based on an ethnographic survey taken before the war, but conveniently leaves out the diverse ethnographic makeup of Britain's Russian ally, and it glosses over other issues. The map signals, as did the entente's response to American peace intervention, that even if an armistice could be achieved, there would be no peace until the small nations of Europe achieve self-determination and were freed from the militaristic domination of the Central Powers (the Austro-Hungarian, German, Bulgarian and Ottoman alliance.)


This propaganda aimed to create bargaining chips for a peace conference. Between the first and final 100 days of the First World War, none of the belligerents expected to achieve total victory. Rather, with little progress in the battlefield, they imagined that peace would be reached through negotiations. Palestine was one of Britain's few territorial gains by late 1917. Britain and France hoped to crowd out German, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian claims at a peace conference by promoting the rights of small nations. Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and by 1917, Poles, as well as Jews, Arabs and Armenians would become the entente's bulwark against the claims of the Central Powers at such a conference. They would also become territorial buffers to the central powers after the conference. Under British and French leadership, an Arab-Armenian-Zionist alliance against the Ottomans made sense, so long as Britain's opponents survived the war. At no point during the war did British policymakers imagine that they would become responsible for governing the region. Even if it were conquered, it was still just a bargaining chip.

But such a peace conference never occurred. Contrary to wartime expectations, the Central Powers collapsed rapidly and dramatically during the final 100 days of the war. Russia succumbed to revolution a year prior. They were not represented at the Paris Peace Conference, and the peace terms were dictated to the defeated. Suddenly, small nations were no longer bargaining chips, and unlike the central powers, they were represented at the peace table. Britain and France faced the maximum hopes, dreams, and expectations of nationalists in Europe and the Middle East. The contradiction between Britain's promises to Arabs and Jews over the future of Palestine was discovered only after the Paris Peace Conference recommended that Britain receive a League of Nations mandate over Palestine. The same process that redrew the European map led to the Zero-Sum conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism which emerged during British rule in Palestine. 

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Reported by:

Tim Pilgrim, Media Relations
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