OPINION: How the Arabs Have Betrayed Palestine – Again

The Arab world, led by the predecessors of today’s Saudi Arabia, willingly relinquished sovereignty over Palestine to a superpower a century ago. Nothing has changed

SERAJ ASSI — The Arab betrayal of Palestinians has a long history, and a stirring one. It predates Trump’s “Deal of the Century” by exactly one century. It could be called: the Deal of the Past Century.

On January 3, 1919, shortly after WWI ended, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met with Emir Faisal, whose father, Hussein bin Ali, the Grand Sharif of Mecca, had just proclaimed himself King of the Arabs. The meeting took place at a London hotel, where Weizmann and Faisal signed a secret agreement, brokered by T. E. Lawrence, in which Faisal pledged his support for the Balfour Declaration in exchange for Zionist support for an Arab state in the former Arab provinces of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire. The territory of that potential Arab state excluded Palestine.

In pursuit of his Hashemite ambitions, Faisal endorsed the Jewish colonization of Palestine as the necessary quid pro quo. He recognized the national and historical rights of Jews to Palestine, where “all measures shall be adopted” to implement the Balfour Declaration, including “immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale.”

In February, the two leaders traveled to the Paris Peace Conference to pitch their agreement before the victorious Allies, where Faisal reiterated his concession to exclude Palestine from his demand for Arab independence. Because of its “universal character,” he told his European patrons, “Palestine is to be left on one side for the mutual consideration of all parties interested.”

Following the conference, a bewildered Weizmann wrote to his wife Vera that he had found Faisal a “very honest man,” who, to Weizmann’s sheer astonishment, was “interested in Damascus and the whole of northern Syria (but) not interested in Palestine.”

In March, the New York Times published a letter by Faisal to Felix Frankfurter, under the headline “Prince of Hedjaz Welcomes Zionists,” in which the Emir reiterated his support for the Zionist cause, writing: “Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted by the Zionist Organization to the Peace Conference, and we [Weizmann and I] regard them as moderate and proper, and are working together for a reformed and revived Near East.”

To his dismay, the Allies did not grant Faisal his independent Arab state. Instead, they devised a mandate system that divided the Arab land between Britain and France. It gave France control over Syria and Lebanon, while the British took control over Palestine and Transjordan.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas shows maps of historical Palestine over time at the emergency Arab League summit called to discuss the Trump peace plan. Cairo, Feb 1, 2020

Faisal left the Paris conference with a dreadful sense of betrayal. He himself had betrayed his Ottoman masters to fight alongside the British, only to be betrayed by the British after the war. He then tried to make amends. A few months later, in July 1919, the Syrian National Congress, formed in support for his putative Arab Kingdom of Syria, adopted a resolution that rejected the French mandate over Syria, declared Palestine an inseparable part of Syria, and opposed Jewish immigration to Palestine.

But it was too late. That year the French expelled Faisal by force from Syria, and three years later, Britain was given a United Nations mandate to implement the Balfour Declaration in Palestine. As a compensation, the British installed Faisal as king of Iraq, his brother Abdulla as king of Jordan, while the Hejaz became part of Saudi Arabia.

Faisal died in 1933, his dream Arab state, still under European mandates, vanishing like ripples of a distant mirage. Having presaged the loss of Palestine in the name of Arab independence elsewhere, the only part of his vision that would ultimately be fulfilled was the Belfour Declaration.

Weizmann, meanwhile, would go on to invoke Faisal’s pledge on every diplomatic occasion. In 1936, in what read like a eulogy for his Arab friend, he told the British Peel Commission on Palestine: “There was one distinguished Arab who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Arab armies, the then-Emir Faisal. I frankly put to him our aspirations, our hopes, our desires, our intentions, and I can only say – if any oath of mine could convince my Arab opponents – we found ourselves in full agreement, and this first meeting was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and our relationship was expressed subsequently in a treaty.”

By 1946, all Arab countries except Palestine had gained independence. The British Mandate would linger on in Palestine for two more years, as if to ensure the fulfillment of Faisal-Weitzmann’s vision.

Jared Kushner: “What I would encourage people to do is try to divorce yourself from all of the history that’s happened over the years and read this plan.”

On October 18, 1947, on the eve of the Partition Plan vote, Weizmann addressed the United Nations: “There was a time when Arab statesmanship was able to see this equity in its true proportions. That was when the eminent leader and liberator of the Arabs, the Emir Faisal, later King of Iraq, made a treaty with me declaring that if the rest of Arab Asia were free, the Arabs would concede the Jewish right freely to settle and develop in Palestine, which would exist side by side with the Arab states. The condition which he then stipulated, the independence of all Arab territories outside Palestine, has now been fulfilled.”

The next year, the British finally left Palestine, and Israel declared independence.  

On May 16, 1948, two days after Israel’s declaration of independence, Weizmann sent a message to a celebration rally at Madison Square Garden in New York. He evoked his treaty with Faisal as a milestone in Israel’s path to independence, before declaring: “The Jewish State always ready and eager to enter into neighborly relations and to join with them in a common effort to increase the welfare and prosperity of the Near East.” But then the Arab neighbors declared war on Israel, to reclaim Palestine, and by the time it ended, the loss of Palestine was complete.

A century after the historic Faisal-Weizmann meeting, a sense of historical déjà vu now creeps over Palestine as Faisal’s successors, the current rulers of Saudi Arabia, have embraced Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which all but hands Israel the rest of Palestine in the name of “peace, prosperity, and a brighter future.” 

Chaim Weizmann, left, wearing an Arab headdress as a sign of friendship, and Emir Faisal ibn Hussein in Transjordan in 1918

The Trump deal would place an undivided Jerusalem, including its Old City, under Israel’s control, and give Israel the right to annex all settlements as well as the Jordan Valley – nearly a fourth of the West Bank. The plan envisions a “conditional” Palestinian state that will be completely demilitarized and devoid of an army and air force, and over which Israel will continue to exercise full military and airspace control. This “state-minus,” as Benjamin Netanyahu has cynically dubbed it, would be a discontinuous, canonized archipelago in the West Bank and Gaza, as plainly exhibited in the plan’s map, surrounded by a sea of Israeli settlements and military installments.

From Israel’s perspective, the Trump’s plan is indeed the deal of the century. Not since the century-old Balfour Declaration have Israel’s leaders had a foreign ally who is willing to promise them sovereignty over most of Palestine. And not since the Faisal-Weizmann agreement have they had an Arab ally who is willing to concede to that promise.

For Palestinians, the Trump plan is nothing but a tragic reincarnation of the sense of betrayal that had felt a century ago. They even have a name for it: The Balfour Declaration No. 2.

The Trump plan clearly embodies the Mandate system, which was imposed on Palestinians a century ago and which named the British government “trustees” until the native inhabitants were “able to stand on their own.” The Trump plan’s architect, Jared Kushner uses this same mandatory tone: “They [the Palestinians] are proving through their reaction that they are not ready to have a state,” “The hope is, is that over time, they can become capable of governing.”

Just as the Balfour Declaration excluded Palestinians from the national rights it accorded to Jews, the Trump plan views Palestinian national rights as dispensable. And just as the Balfour Declaration failed to mention Palestinians by name, instead referring to them as the “non-Jewish population of Palestine,” U.S. peacemakers continue to plan for the future of Palestinians in the absence of Palestinians.

Once again, Palestinians are faced with the grim prospect of having their destiny dictated by foreign officials who, endowed with a superpower mandate and armed with secret memos and proposals, are telling them what Lord Curzon condescendingly told their ancestors a century ago: “You cannot do without us.”

Meanwhile, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, who seem to learn nothing from history (even attending the plan’s launch in Washington), are asking Palestinians to fall twice into the same abyss, and in the same way. The Arab League “rejection” of the Trump plan is purely formalistic, declarative and insignificant.

Arab leaders, desperately clinging to power amid regional chaos, have once again sold Palestinians out, believing that the road to Washington begins in Jerusalem, just as they believed a century ago that the surest path to Paris or London was to bypass Palestine. But history teaches us that trading Palestine for political survival and fanciful regional ambitions is a prelude to disaster. 

Seraj Assi holds a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Georgetown University, and an MA in Middle East History from Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimagining Nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routledge, 2018).