Howard Epstein



Do you remember the great age of diplomacy? You may have in mind, perhaps, Henry Kissinger, who practised so-called shuttle-diplomacy – courtesy of jet travel – criss-crossing fraught frontiers to close unbridgeable gaps. (He is still at it, at the age of 92, even today.)



Not bad. But with all that blood on his hands, for despatching to South-East Asia the high-explosive and chemical ordinance (Agent Orange – such an ingenuous, almost edible, name, for something that laid waste vast areas of the Tropics) and despatching the innocent to oblivion, he must surely be regarded as one of the major war criminals of the modern age. This should push his reputation from positive territory to negative, and never be allowed redemption by future historians. (Unless you are Israeli, and recall the massive airlift to Israel when it was all but out of ammunition in October 1973, you cannot in all conscience find it within yourself to praise this genocidal operative who (Eichmann-like) slew Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians with an insouciant stroke of a White House pen, left around like so many forgotten tape recordings by the detached, Watergate-obsessed, President Nixon.)



Surely there were other less benighted diplomats. Well, one could hardly call diplomacy the “Peace In Our Time” disaster that was the 1938 visit of British PM, Chamberlain, to Adolph Hitler for a piece of paper written upon in disappearing ink. Appeasement, rather; like the JCPOA “negotiated” for Obama with the Ayatollahs, in much the same way as North Korea was (dry laugh) restrained for Clinton from building a nuclear ICBM threat to America. (I still think that “diplomat” Wendy Sherman should be forcibly relocated to Japan or Hawaii, to see at close quarters the fruits of the first of her two seminal diplomatic achievements.)

Fortunately, Trump has few points in the brownie bank to squander, so, if he nukes the evil Kim (perhaps killing a million Koreans, of both the north and the south, but saving 75 million others), he can lose little in terms of popularity amongst the Coastal Americans, whom he would thereby save from nuclear vaporization.

The vastly under-rated President Harry Truman did just that at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 because the calculus demanded it – what one might call “unilateral diplomacy”. (After Hiroshima, Hirohito did not immediately conclude that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”. That was the view the Emperor endorsed only after Nagasaki, three full days later.)

Also in the basket of diplomatic deplorables are Herr Ribbentrop and Comrade Molotov who so diplomatically carved up Poland months before WWII erupted. Their suave encounter was neatly encapsulated by David Low’s famous cartoon that appeared in the London Evening Standard of September 20, 1939. As Hitler and Stalin bow graciously to one other, over the corpse of Poland, Hitler says to Stalin: “The scum of the earth, I believe” and Stalin replies: “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume”.

As compelling as the classic drawing is the homage version in the Times of London this weekend.



It needs no explanation but surely earns the comment: “Plus ça change, plus ça la même chose”. No. We are not going to get any inspiration, à la Reagan/Thatcher and Gorbachev, from those two. Diplomaticus interruptus, and very much so.

For real diplomatic skills we have to go back to the late 19th century and the work of Count Otto von Bismarck. By 1871, he had unified a mélange of princedoms and statelets to create Germany, and went on to ensure that a balance was held between the competing ambitions of Russia, France, Germany and the UK. It was his dismissal by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, that led to Germany seeking to out-gun the Royal Navy and to invade Plucky Little Belgium thus sparking the “War to End All Wars” in August 1914. This grandiose title was demoted to the “First World War” on the outbreak of the Second, just two decades later. For this we can blame the vicious French and the indolent Colonel House, whom President Woodrow Wilson tasked to oversee matters, diplomatically, in Versailles – but was too indolent to try to restrain the French as Wilson had asked.

Some-one who should be recognised as one of the most successful diplomats in of the 20th century is Chaim Weizmann. His achievements are as multifarious as they are now disregarded. He was indispensable to the obtaining of the Balfour Declaration, the centenary of which we celebrate this coming November, and for three more massive diplomatic coups that he scored with Truman a quarter of a century later, in 1947 and 1948. Without these, and his three indispensable educational achievements in setting up science and technology centers of excellence, there would have been no State of Israel, much less one with an economy over which the Americans, British and Europeans can only salivate, each with their GDP growth at 10% of that of Israel, and each with foreign reserves as a percentage of GDP – and as percentage of population – way, way below those of Israel, which is in the top 13 and 7 respectively out of 193 countries.

Getting back to Weizmann the diplomat, there are more accomplishments to consider. Pursuant to the Feisal-Weizmann Pact, signed in London in January 1919, a Jewish Homeland in Southern Syria (Palestine) would have been the quid pro quo for lifting the indigenous Arabs out of their Ottoman neglect into the 20th Century. A condition precedent was written into the agreement: Emir Feisal made it dependent on his getting control of Syria. The French tossed Feisal out, thereby cancelling the Pact, and Weizmann never found another local Arab on whom he could work his magic. (Pogroms, the Second Arab Revolt and the White Paper followed.)

Israel Sieff (one of Weizmann’s close colleagues working on the British government in 1916/7 and, in the following years, on the Palestine Commission) first funded in 1933 what was to become the Weizmann Institute. One of his many appreciative comments on Weizmann was:

With only the Balfour Declaration behind him, and with the Sykes-Picot Agreement hanging over him, he had to convince Feisal on the one hand and the American Jews on the other that he, Weizmann, represented a strong and viable Jewish state. He had to behave towards the British Government as though World Jewry were at his back, giving him plenary powers.

To leading militant Zionists on the other hand, he had to pretend that his power was very limited so that they would not try to push him further than the British Government could stand. Much bluff and counter-bluff was required. In 1919 Weizmann behaved as though he had a great Jewish state behind him. In fact all he had, if he had been asked to show, was his handful of Manchester friends …!”

The further recognition of Weizmann as a statesman and diplomat, this time on the world stage, is seen in his addressing the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, which led to the San Remo Treaty and the word-for-word inclusion of the Balfour Declaration in the British Mandate document. Without that, the Yishuv would have had no standing in British-controlled Palestine.

Another Weizmann devotee, Meyer Weisgal wrote of Weizmann the statesman:

“Without question, the life of modern Israel is the real expression of Dr Weizmann’s astonishing gift for creation. Perhaps more than any other statesman of our time, he succeeded in effecting an organic fusion between the abstractions of the mind and the practical activities demanded by man’s physical existence. This fusion is reflected in the very core of life in Israel today.

This serves to remind us that it was Weizmann who laid the foundation stones of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, with Allenby in attendance, in 1918. Seven years later, thousands from the Yishuv, and – from abroad – dozens of political notables, over fifty delegates from universities and academic organisations, the leaders of the Jewish world and hundreds of public figures from all over the western world, including Field Marshall Viscount Allenby and Sir Herbert Samuel, attended the formal opening of the University. The Earl of Balfour made the inaugural speech.

Now, Weizmann. There was a true diplomat.

© Howard Epstein – July 2017

Weizmann – The Indispensable Zionist”, by Howard Epstein, will be published in August.



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