Sunday, January 3, 2010

3 January 1919: Chaim Weizmann and Emir Faisal Sign Agreement on Encouragement of Jewish Settlement in Palestine

We recently had occasion to allude to the fact that, popular notions of eternal hatreds notwithstanding, Arabs and Jews were not doomed to endless conflict, and rather, enjoyed moments of cooperation and hope in modern as well as more ancient times.

As chance would have it, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has chosen to republish (without commentary except for the descriptive passage below) the agreement between Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and Saudi Emir Faisal:
Within the framework of the Paris Peace Conference, a political accord was signed on January 3, 1919, by Dr. Chaim Weizmann in the name of the Zionist Organization and by the Emir Feisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Arabs would recognize the Balfour Declaration and would encourage Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine. Freedom of religion and worship in Palestine was set forth as a fundamental principle, and the Muslim holy sites were to be under Muslim control. The Zionist Organization promised to look into the economic possibilities of an Arab state and to help it develop its resources. In the same year, the Arabs and their representatives repudiated the agreement. The Weizmann-Feisal agreement was never implemented. (read the full text of the original document)
To be sure, the facts of the case are nothing new. Israeli and Zionist historians have frequently referred to it and cited the passage:
mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people, and realizing that the surest means of working out the consummation of their natural aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration in the development of the Arab State and Palestine, and being desirous further of confirming the good understanding which exists between them
Arab critics and their supporters have just as frequently dismissed the episode as irrelevant or aberrant, the easier to do because it led nowhere.

One can only speculate as to why the document appeared now. On the simplest level, publication coincides with the date of the statement. Still, little in the Middle East is simple or without meaning (or at any rate, will fail to be seen as having some deeper or hidden meaning). Last year rather than this one would have marked the 90th anniversary. So I'd guess that there is at least a plausible subtext. Facing increasing international isolation and hostility even from erstwhile friends, Israel is attempting to convey the traditional message that it has always sought peace, and that its opponents are the intransigent ones. And if one is looking for any more recent and specific motivation: Just a few days ago, the Saudi Foreign Minister charged, "Israel has become in the international community like a spoiled child." "It does what it wants without being questioned or punished." What better retort than to remind him of the more forthcoming attitude of his forebears?

Whatever the case, it's worth remembering the original incident, its context, and its consequences: (1) It was an early example of dashed hopes and mutual misunderstanding. (2) Each side continues to blame the other for the failure. (3) That agreement collapsed not only because of intrinsic problems but also because of external circumstances: the Allied failure to support genuine Arab independence, and specifically, the decision to give Damascus to the French rather than Faisal, which led him and his supporters to refocus their efforts on the quest for control of a greater Palestine. It was neither the first nor the last time that the great powers, through sins of commission or omission, hindered an accommodation among the people of the region themselves.

Plus ça change . . .

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