Howard Epstein



At 07:00 hours on the morning of Friday, July 14, three Arab gunmen from Umm-el-Fahm, in Israel, shot and killed two Israeli policemen, seriously wounding another, while they were minding their own business – and ours – at an entrance to the Temple Mount compound. Since then, in time-honoured tradition, the Arabs have behaved as though they were the victims, protesting about enhanced security measures and objecting to passing through metal detectors on their way to the holy places, as those entering from the Jewish side do.

Depraved. Utterly depraved! To take the lives of young men with young families, wantonly, to express a grievance in a way that achieves nothing other than the death of the murderers themselves, can be described in no less critical terms.

It is true that the Palestinians feel deprived of their state but that does not justify depraved conduct. It demands analysis. So let’s analyze.

At the time of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, all that the bulk of local Arabs wanted was to be left alone to tend their goats on the land of who-knew-whom in far-away Constantinople or Damascus. As the great Arab scholar, Bernard Lewis, teaches: when an Arab looks towards the horizon, it is not to discern where a distant frontier may lie. Arab lands to him are as a vast ocean. He and his ancestors of countless generations had been content to reside quietly in an Ottoman backwater, content also that Filastin, or Palestine, was merely a southern Syrian province. Not for the Palestinians a Herzl who would meet with Sultan Abdul Hamid II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople, in 1901, to seek to sell him the idea of a Jewish state (as in his 1896 epoch-making pamphlet, Der Jüdenstaat).

The Palestinian Arabs had some 450 years in which to seek to persuade their Ottoman rulers that they should be granted a Palestinian homeland in Southern Syria. It just did not occur to them. It was not until the Jews began to make the land produce enough to sustain them and those who came, from surrounding Arab lands equally as from the Pale of Settlement, that there were the first stirrings of a nationalist urge.

The arrival of the British — Weizmann’s Zionist Commission in the spring of 1918 hot on the heels of Allenby’s British Army in Jerusalem the previous December — awoke a dormant Arab consciousness about their own position in Palestine. It seems that it was one thing to be neglected and ignored by Constantinople for almost half a millennium but quite another when the same disregard, or worse, closer scrutiny, began to emanate from London.

The local Arab elite then found its political identity but, other than awakening a violent objection to increasing numbers of Jews which expressed itself in the form of pogroms and the marauding of Jewish settlements, they created nothing more, and certainly no significant institutions with which they would be able to carve out a Palestinian movement for independence in Palestine.

Weizmann, immediately alive to the predicament of the Palestinians, undertook, in June 1918, an arduous journey to the desert north of Aqaba, where he met with Emir Feisal, the would-be King of the independent Syria he expected to emerge from WWI, as a reward for leading the Arab Revolt against the Turks. Early in 1919, Weizmann signed an agreement with Feisal in London whereby Arab and Jew would work and live in peace and harmony in Palestine. Feisal added a manuscript rider to the agreement to the effect that if he did not get his Syrian state, all bets were off.

Early in January 1919, WWI over, a series of peace conferences were held in and around Paris. The Syrian representative (Feisal’s man) at the Paris Peace Conference, Chekri Ganem, spoke generously:

Palestine is incontestably the Southern portion of our country. The Zionists claim it. We have suffered too much from sufferings resembling theirs, not to throw open wide to them the doors of Palestine. All those among them who are oppressed in certain retrograde countries are welcome. Let them settle in Palestine, but in an autonomous Palestine, connected with Syria by the sole bond of federation. Will not a Palestine enjoying wide internal autonomy be for them a sufficient guarantee?

If they form the majority there, they will be the rulers. If they are in the minority, they will be represented in the government in proportion to their numbers.

Pursuant to the secretly-forged Sykes-Picot agreement, the Middle East was carved up between Great Britain and France. The latter got Damascus and held onto it, dashing any hopes that Feisal had about being the ruler of Syria. With his hopes went the Weizmann-Feisal pact and any prospect of cooperation between the Yishuv and their neighbouring Arabs.

A Jewish homeland was an aim of the international community who enshrined the Balfour Declaration in the Mandate Document issued at the Treaty of San Remo in 1922. (This was the first of two such international endorsements, the second being in the UN general assembly vote of November 1947.)

So far, then, we have seen the Palestinians deprived of a state by the Turks for 450 years, and then by the French in 1922. Even more significantly, there was no suggestion of autonomy in southern Syria for the Palestinians being granted by Feisal (had he not been sent packing by the French). Apparently, nobody recognised the Palestinians as a body of people, discrete from the Syrians. They would have been Syrians, not Palestinians, living in Southern Syria alongside an autonomous Jewish entity. They were to be offered an opportunity in the following decade.

The British Peel Commission was formed in 1936 to see how the increasingly mutually‑hostile Arab and Jewish entities could be, instead, mutually accommodated in Palestine. Peel offered a Two State Solution — called Partition. At last there was something upon which the Jews and Arabs could agree: each agreed that it was unacceptable and rejected the idea out-of-hand. One man saw the flicker of the light of redemption in the Partition proposal, and that man was Chaim Weizmann.

Weizmann carried the concept of Partition in his mind (and doubtless his heart) for a further decade — through WWII and the Holocaust, through his ejection as President of the World Zionist Commission in 1946 (for being too closely identified with the British), and into the crucial year of 1947. His opportunity was provided by the UN. It was then that he pounced.

Extracting themselves from the desolation of WWII, the British, exhausted fiscally and otherwise, bereft of the desire to continue with the Mandate a day longer than necessary, tossed the hot coals of the warring Arabs and Jews of Palestine into the hands of the newly-formed United Nations (successor to the League of Nations). The UN proposed Partition — the Two State Solution. The representatives of the Yishuv at the UN, spurred on by Weizmann, lobbied furiously for it. The Arabs again rejected it.

Then, thanks to the magic worked by Weizmann on two separate occasions with President Truman, a tiny state was declared by Ben Gurion just before Shabbat on May 14, 1948, comprising the Galilee, Hadera to Gadera, including the wasp’s waist of twelve kilometres in the Sharon region, and — due entirely to Weizmann and his influence on Truman — the Negev. (Thanks also to Weizmann, a drift away from the November 1947 UN resolution for Partition by the State Department in early 1948, was halted; and Truman, still under Weizmann’s spell, ensured that the USA was the first country to recognise the State of Israel, eleven minutes after it was born.)

Utterly indefensible borders were transformed by the war thrust on Israel, by the five invading Arab armies, into just‑about‑defensible borders. The West Bank was held by Jordan. No-one thought to call it Palestine. No Palestinian protested.

So, responsibility for starving the Palestinians of their own state is not down only to the British, with the Balfour Declaration. It lies also with Emir Feisal who, in signing with Weizmann a pact that would have given the Jews their homeland, omitted to identify another for the Palestinians; the League of Nations, who conferred the Mandate on Britain; the Arabs at the UN who rejected Partition (the Two State Solution) in 1947; and the Jordanians who took Judaea and Samaria in 1948 but made no move to create there the State of Palestine.

The Palestinians did not see themselves in national, or nationalistic, terms until the PLO/PLA materialised in 1964. Yasser Arafat neglected to demand the West Bank from the Jordanians for a Palestinian state, nor did he embark on his terrorist activities to fight Jordan for control of those areas. He undertook terrorism with the intention of destroying Israel. The Six Day War of 1967 gave the PLO/PLA the mantle of freedom fighters for the West Bank; later, the incorrigible terrorist, Arafat, drove away all save the most left-wing Israelis from the promise of Oslo with the Second Intifada.

For the ordinary Arab, it is a long tale of disappointment (and possibly not an exhaustive one), but what runs through the whole story of Palestinian state-starvation has been their own culture. At first bucolically simple, later, it sought to change but not constructively. When they should have been mimicking the Yishuv (which spent the Mandate years creating a state-in-waiting, with many institutions fully operational, ready for 15 May 1948), the Arab leadership adopted nihilism, terrorism, anti-Semitism, the BDS movement and implacable hostility to compromise, twice rejecting Partition (the now supposedly-craved Two State Solution). Israel, meanwhile, just keeps getting stronger.

Pity the poor Palestinians. Whether in pre-1948 Palestine, the West Bank or refugee camps in Lebanon, their leadership has preferred to brutalise them for further struggle with the Jews, whom they traditionally regard as inferior, as dhimmis[i], in preference to seeking to improve their lot by compromise with those who have patently taken great strides since 1917, to the benefit of Arab and Jew alike within Israel’s borders. (When mercurial Israeli MK, Avigdor Lieberman proposed in 2006 that 130,000 Israeli Arabs become citizens of a Palestinian state without leaving their homes, by way of land swaps, the most vocal opposition came from those – living in Israeli Arab towns – who did not wish their political status to be altered.)

Apart from the rare Israeli Arab terrorist, how do we get along together within Israel? Day by day, so far as Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews are concerned, we live in peace and harmony alongside each other. Israeli Jews get on just fine side-by-side with Israeli Arabs (and vice versa) on the road; on the sidewalks; in the shops, supermarkets and shopping malls, as both consumers and sales staff; on the promenades and on the beaches; in hi-tech companies; and most especially in the health service, as major consumers and equally major providers. The Israeli Arabs’ disposition of calm dedication and pleasantness is appreciated and reciprocated by the Jewish Israelis.

There is more: there are Israeli Arab law-makers (17 at present), policemen and judges (one in the Supreme Court). They do not pretend to be Israeli Jews. They just behave in a civil manner, just like the overwhelming bulk of Israeli Arabs.

We know we are different from one another; but so are the Scots from the English and the English from the Welsh. They all need to rub along together and they do. So do we here.

The truth is that the Arabs we meet in Israel are gentle, polite and indulgent. We think that Palestinian Arabs are like those divided from the Israeli variety by lines on maps. We do not blame them as a whole when things go horribly wrong. We blame their leadership. So should they. Were Arab leaders to adopt a constructive approach, and abandon the anti-Semitism they espouse and teach their children, Israel would confer on them a cornucopia of beneficence. One can but hope and pray: one day they may adopt Jewish positivity, abandon victimhood and seek to achieve progress for their children and grandchildren

© Howard Epstein – July 2017

The above is extracted from Howard Epstein’s Chaim Weizmann: the Indispensable Zionist which will be published in August..

[i] For a fine exposition of the dhimmi issue, see the works of Bat Ye’or, (the pseudonym of Gisèle Littman), author of the history of religious minorities in the Muslim world and of modern European politics. See for example: Europe, Globalization and the Coming Universal Caliphate, Bat Ye’or, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison Teaneck 2011

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