Thursday, 16 November 2017

Kurdish pawn sacrificed on the Middle East chessboard


 Polls, referendums and declarations of independence have become a 21st century fashion, but none can claim much success.  South Sudan has been a hotbed of civil strife ever since it broke away from Sudan in 2011.  When the prospect of Scottish independence was put to the people in a constitutional referendum in 2014, it failed to gain a majority.  Catalonia’s bid for independence in an unconstitutional poll on October 1, 2017 is collapsing before the Spanish government’s determination to uphold the constitution.  And the referendum held by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on 25 September, despite achieving over 90 percent approval from voters, has backfired spectacularly. Instead of paving the way to statehood, or boosting the Kurds’ bargaining power in negotiations, it has triggered a humiliating reversal of fortunes for Iraq’s Kurds.

Denounced as illegal by Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, the Kurdish referendum was – for various reasons, not all of them consistent – viewed as “untimely” by the US and much of the Middle East.  As far as the US was concerned, the referendum came at a peculiarly inappropriate moment.  President Donald Trump’s administration has committed itself to the delicate process of tying Saudi Arabia into the anti-Islamic State (IS), anti-Assad, coalition in Syria, of creating a Saudi-Iraqi alliance, and thence possibly of binding Saudi into a broader initiative aimed at addressing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy, has played a key role. When Iraqi prime minister al-Abadi (a Shia Muslim) met King Salman of Saudi Arabia (leader of the Sunni Muslim world) on October 22. 2017, McGurk was present, together with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson.  This wooing of Saudi Arabia – which may have started in earnest in May 2017, with Trump’s visit to Riyadh – was carried a stage further in late October when Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, undertook a secret mission there, his third in 2017.    

It was into the midst of this flurry of diplomatic activity that the Kurdish referendum and its aftermath intruded.  It was an unwelcome distraction from what the Trump administration undoubtedly regarded as matters of greater moment.  The trouble is that in Iraq Trump, perhaps unwittingly, has been pursuing a policy – including his attitude to Kurdish independence – ultimately destined to empower the very player he least wishes to: Iran. 

Iran’s influence within Iraq is formidable and growing. In 2014 when IS, having seized Mosul, advanced south towards Baghdad, the first power to respond was Iran.  It rapidly dispatched weapons and military advisers to support Iraq’s struggling army. Since then Iranian-backed Shia militias have formed part of Baghdad’s efforts to defeat IS.

 The weak and ineffective Iraqi military of the early 2000s, transformed by US training and equipment into a highly effective fighting force, is now largely run by Iran which vastly increased its influence during the Obama years. Iran also controls a significant part of Iraq’s political apparatus.  The Shi’ite Supreme Islamic Council parliamentary bloc, under Iranian guidance, introduced laws on October 31 making it illegal to demonstrate support for Israel, for example by raising the Israeli flag in public.    

Behind this new anti-Israel legislation lies the long-standing warm relationship between the Kurds and Israel.  Media images during the independence campaign showed the Israeli flag in rally after rally being waved alongside that of the Kurds. This counted for nothing with Washington as far as the independence referendum was concerned.  “The vote and the results lack legitimacy,” declared Tillerson, “and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.” 
          
          But the Trump administration seems to have turned a Nelsonian blind eye to the true state of affairs in Iraq.  In pursuit of prime minister al-Abadi and a possible Iraqi-Saudi coalition, they chose to sacrifice the freedom-seeking Kurds on the altar of a so-called democratic Iraq that is already under the thumb of the President’s main bête noir – Iran.

It was always most unlikely that any Saudi-Iraqi agreement would stick, but the firing of an Iranian missile on November 4, 2017 by the Iranian-controlled Houthis in Yemen aimed at Riyadh, almost certainly scuppers the idea before it was launched.  Fortunately the Saudis intercepted and destroyed it in mid-flight, but the moving spirit behind the operation could scarcely be in doubt.

Meanwhile al-Abadi, backed by the US and also the Iranian power brokers in Iraq, has moved decisively against the disheartened Kurds.  He tried to assure them that they are not the enemy, even as Iraqi forces backed by Shi’ite militias moved into areas of the north previously held by the KRG.  Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, who announced on 29 October that he was resigning, blamed the loss of Kirkuk on a deal cut by a wing of Kurdistan’s other main party to allow Iraqi troops to enter. As a result the KRG’s international airspace has been closed, and the Kurds have lost nearly half of the territory they have controlled since the war against IS began. Neighboring Turkey and Iran have closed their borders to the land-locked area. 

Some newspaper reports allege that the Trump administration attempted to broker a delay in the Kurdish independence referendum.  In return for a postponement, it is suggested, the Kurds were offered letters from the United States and Britain promising to facilitate and support the Kurds’ negotiations with Baghdad, and if, after two years, negotiations had not progressed, the US would support a referendum.

Saadi Pira, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the main opposition to Barzani, said members of his party told Barzani that they supported the US initiative. But, said Pira, nothing would dissuade Barzani from conducting the referendum.  Two US officials did not deny to the Washington Post that a draft letter had been written, but said Tillerson never sent it to Barzani.

Barzani blames elements in “another party” for the loss of Kirkuk, but the PUK maintains that a deal was necessary to avoid bloodshed, and that economic pressures could bring Kurdistan, already struggling to pay salaries, to its knees.

As Iraqi forces entered Kirkuk, the Peshmerga were ordered to stand down in line with the deal.

“We have betrayed Kirkuk,” said Lt. Burhan Rashid, a Peshmerga fighter.  “We have betrayed Kurdistan.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 November 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Kurdish-pawn-sacrificed-on-the-Middle-East-chessboard-514199

Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 November 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/18112017-kurdish-pawn-sacrificed-on-the-middle-east-chessboard-oped/

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Putin's Syrian strategy

In March 2011, inflamed by the popular uprisings then spreading across the Middle East, 15 boys from a Syrian village scrawled on a wall some graffiti in support of the so-called Arab Spring. They were arrested by Syrian security forces and brutally tortured. One of them, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, was killed. Protests erupted across the country. The response by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces was to kill hundreds of demonstrators and imprison many more. Opposition to Assad hardened, and in July defectors within the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group dedicated to overthrowing the government. Syria slid into civil war.

          The UN Security Council viewed the situation developing in Syria with alarm, and on October 4, 2011 put to the vote a statement expressing grave concern, maintaining that the solution to the crisis was "through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population." The resolution was vetoed by both China and Russia.

          The position adopted by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was dictated by his belief that the rapidly worsening Syrian crisis provided him with a major political opportunity.

          Historically, Russian influence has been strong in Syria. It extends back to before Syria emerged from French control as an independent sovereign state in April 1946. Two months earlier an agreement between the USSR and Syria had already guaranteed Soviet support for Syrian independence. No surprise, then, that in 1971, under an agreement with President Hafez al-Assad, the Soviet Union was allowed to open a naval base in Tartus, a facility which Russia continues to regard as vital to its national interests. The collaboration deepened. In October 1980 Syria and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation providing for regular consultations, coordination of responses in the event of a crisis, and military cooperation. That treaty remains in force.

          This is the background to Putin’s declaration, early in 2012, of his firm support for Assad in the civil conflict then raging in Syria. Shortly afterwards Russia began supplying him with large quantities of arms. On 20 August 2012, moved no doubt by suspicions that chemical weapons were being deployed by the Assad regime, US President Barack Obama declared: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Just a year later, on 21 August 2013, suburbs around Damascus held by forces opposed to Assad were struck by rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. Estimates of the death toll ranged up to 1,729.

          Despite his clear warning, Obama havered and wavered over his response. Putin, however, sprang into action. Setting himself up as an honest broker, Putin succeeded in diverting Obama from taking military action by convincing him that Assad had agreed to dismantle and dispose of his chemical arsenal - the arsenal that Assad had
 denied owning in the first place.

          In the event Assad did nothing of the sort. Chemical stockpiles were retained, production of nerve gas maintained and its deployment continued. Despite this, Russia has subsequently vetoed no less than nine Security Council resolutions that sought to condemn Assad's government for its conduct of the war, impose sanctions or refer it to the International Criminal Court.

          Putin’s latest blocking action is particularly egregious.

          In April 2017 there was a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that left dozens of civilians dead and hundreds wounded.

          Back in 2015 the UN had set up its Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) specifically to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks, and to assign accountability for human rights abuses that have drawn international condemnation. The mandate of the JIM. which was to report on the nerve agent attack on Khan Sheikhoun by the end of October, was due to expire in November. On October 24 a resolution intended to extend the JIM’s mandate was put to a Security Council vote. It was vetoed by Russia.

         The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria is tasked with probing war-crimes allegations, and its investigators had already formally accused the Syrian government of using sarin in that attack. Their report added that this was one of over 20 Syrian government attacks involving chemical weapons since March 2013. This report, too, was rejected by Russia.

          Moscow’s veto decisions have been condemned by the US, Britain and others as an attempt to shield the perpetrators from answering for the most controversial human rights abuses of Syria’s six-year civil war. But in the realpolitik world of the Middle East nothing succeeds like success. When Putin sent his forces into Syria on September 30, 2015, he had two main objectives in view – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the region, and to secure his hold on the Russian naval base at Tartus and the refurbished air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He achieved both, as he launched massive air and missile attacks mainly against Assad’s domestic enemies, namely the rebel forces led by the FSA.

          With the sustained support of Russia, allied to the huge self-interested Iranian military effort, Assad has succeeded, against all the odds, in retaining his grip on power and in winning back large areas of Syria once overrun and occupied by Islamic State. As a result his hand has been greatly strengthened in the Geneva-based peace negotiations with the various rebel factions. 


          Assad continuing as president of Syria, even in the short-term, would guarantee Putin’s military presence and consolidate his increasing political clout in the affairs of the Middle East. It would also raise the prospect of replicating the old Cold War alignments, with the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its allies in one camp, and Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Shi’ite world of Islam in the other. Fortunately that outcome is not really in prospect because Russia’s relations with Israel, a matter of commercial self-interest on both sides, are particularly close, centred as they are on the natural gas deposits in Israeli waters. In that lies the hope of a non-confrontational outcome to the Syrian tragedy.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 November 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Putins-Syrian-strategy-513646

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 November 2017:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/09112017-putins-syrian-strategy-oped/

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

How France pre-empted Balfour, and why he came to Palestine

           For so historic a document, the letter that has come to be known as the Balfour Declaration is surprisingly, even starkly, simple. It is difficult to believe that the British Foreign Office in the very heyday of British imperialism did not run to crested notepaper. Yet the letter from foreign secretary Lord Balfour to one of the leading figures in Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, is a small sheet of paper with the words “Foreign Office” typed just above the date, November 2nd, 1917.
        Asking Rothschild to “bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation”, the declaration in question ran:
        “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

        Subsequent events are too well known to require elaboration. Following the Great War, the League of Nations endorsed an Anglo-French agreement to dismember the Ottoman empire, assigning control of the territories mainly to the two colonial powers. The British government was mandated to take over the whole region then known as Palestine, and to put into effect its desire, as expressed in the Balfour Declaration, to establish there a national home for the Jewish people.

        The declaration has come to be remembered as either “one of the greatest acts of Western statesmanship in the 20th century” (vide British parliamentarian Richard Crossman) or “the single most destructive political document on the Middle East in the 20th century” (according to Palestinian scholar-activist Walid Khalidi). What is not generally known is that Britain’s Balfour Declaration was preceded – and may have been kick-started – by a letter from the head of France’s foreign office, Jules Cambon, issued on the authority of French prime minister, Alexandre Ribot.

        On June 4, 1917, Nahum Sokolow, secretary-general of the World Zionist Organization, received the following:
        “You kindly explained to me your project to develop Jewish colonization in Palestine. You believe that, given favourable circumstances, and with the independence of the Holy Places assured, it would be an act of justice and reparation to help in the rebirth, under the protection of the Allied Powers, of Jewish nationality in the land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago. The French government, which entered the current war to defend a people unjustly attacked, and which continues the struggle to ensure the victory of right over might, can feel nothing but sympathy for your cause, the success of which is linked to that of the Allies. I am happy to give you such an assurance.”

        As Chaim Weizmann’s biographer Jehuda Reinharz has noted, the Cambon letter “in content and form was much more favorable to the Zionists than the watered-down formula of the Balfour Declaration” that followed it. The French accepted a rationale for the renaissance of the Jewish people in terms of “justice” and “reparation,” and acknowledged the historical Jewish ties to the land. The letter bound Zionism to the cause of all the Allies.

        Historians Andrew and Kanya-Forstner, praising Nahum Sokolow’s diplomatic skills in circumventing the strong anti-Zionist feeling within official French government circles, judged that “the Quai d’Orsay had been skilfully and decisively out-maneuvered.” French objections to a possible British declaration had been neutralized.

        “Our purpose,” explained Sokolow, looking ahead, “is to receive from the [British] government a general short approval of the same kind as that which I have been successful in getting from the French government.”

        And indeed as soon as he could Sokolow deposited the Cambon letter at the British foreign office, where it stimulated a spirit of competition. British officials who sympathized with Zionism now urged that Britain “go as far as the French.”

        From whichever side of the fence one regards the events of 1917 and beyond, it seems clear that France shares with Britain both the bouquets and the brickbats.

        Although the British Mandate for Palestine did not come into force until September 1922, its terms were drawn up in April 1920. As soon as they became known, Arab riots broke out in Jaffa. This affected British public opinion, and voices began to be raised opposing the whole enterprise, and especially its likely cost. An All-Arab Congress, meeting in Geneva in July and August 1921, demanded all-Arab self-government for Palestine. Back in Britain, although a motion to repeal the Declaration failed in the House of Commons, it won a majority in the House of Lords.

        This growing opposition gave impetus to the idea that Lord Balfour should visit Palestine and that, through him, the world could be shown what had been achieved since his historic letter. Chaim Weizmann arranged for Balfour to conduct the opening ceremony of the Hebrew University on April 1, 1925. In March Lord Balfour’s party travelled by ship to Cairo, and from there took the train to the Holy Land. As early as the 1920s Palestine Railways had a line running from Egypt via Lydda and Tel Aviv as far as Haifa.

        On the appointed day a vast crowd assembled on Mount Scopus. “A new era has begun,” said Balfour. “The great cultural genius that came to an end, and that had been dormant for so many years, is now going to be renewed.” A long list of diplomats and academics who attended the ceremony described it in glowing terms.

        The fact that the historic event had been recorded on film seemed to pass from the public consciousness. It was only in 2013 that film researcher Yaakov Gross rediscovered the rare footage, and published it on YouTube. In fact a cameraman, Kamil Suago, funded by the French-Jewish banker Albert Kahan, accompanied Lord Balfour throughout his travels in Palestine. Balfour was greeted everywhere by enthusiastic crowds, and his visit was adjudged an outstanding success. It confirmed the British government’s determination to exercise its Mandate.

        Despite Britain’s eventual failure to fulfil the hopes set out in the Balfour Declaration, the British government continues to endorse the part it played in the eventual emergence of the State of Israel. In May 2017 a petition to Parliament called on the government to “apologise to the Palestinian people” over the Balfour Declaration because the UK’s colonial policy had caused “mass displacement” and injustice. The petition failed to gather sufficient signatures to trigger a parliamentary debate, but nonetheless the Government issued a formal response: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”

        As an earnest of Britain’s stance, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when in the UK in February 2017, was invited by prime minister Theresa May to attend the centenary celebrations in London.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 November 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/How-France-pre-empted-Balfour-and-why-he-came-to-Palestine-510940

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 November 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/01112017-how-france-pre-empted-balfour-and-why-he-came-to-palestine-oped/

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Trump and the Iran deal – a game of poker


Tuesday July 14, 2015 is a date with double significance. It was the day on which world powers, led by the United States, signed the so-called JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the deal with Iran that nominally limits its nuclear programme. It also marked the re-emergence of Iran into world markets after decades of crippling sanctions. In truth the consequential commercial and economic benefits of the deal are as vital to Iran’s ambitions as the nuclear. 

        As for those ambitions, Iran’s leaders have never concealed them. The Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to become the dominant political and religious power in the Middle East. As the prime exponent of the Shi’ite tradition of Islam, Iran views as its main rival the leading Sunni state, Saudi Arabia, which it has constantly sought to suborn. It regards Western democracy with contempt, dubs its leading exponent, the United States, the “Great Satan”. and has for decades initiated and supported terrorist attacks on US targets, many of them deadly. Iran abhors Israel in particular, and makes no secret of its intention eventually to eliminate it from the map of the Middle East.

        It is to this rogue state that the much-vaunted nuclear deal has handed the keys to an eventual nuclear arsenal, and the means to enjoy a flourishing economy and commercial growth on a previously unimaginable scale. Long starved of economic development, and with a population of some 80 million, Iran is replete with juicy commercial plums simply waiting to be plucked.

        The negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) in an attempt to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, involved the retreat, step by step, of the world powers. The prime policy objective of the Obama administration from the first – to bring Shia Iran “on side” in order to counter the activities of Sunni al-Qaeda, and later of IS – presupposed appeasement. Other western powers, mesmerised by Iran’s apparent access of flexibility, bent over backwards to accommodate its demands and finalise a nuclear deal. Trumpeted as a triumph, in fact the outcome opens the door to Iran eventually becoming a nuclear power – a fact still often ignored or obscured by pro-dealers.

        Significantly, though, the US State Department’s former special adviser for non-proliferation and arms control in the Obama administration, Bob Einhorn, recently described the nuclear deal’s ‘sunset’ provisions as the risk that, “when key nuclear restrictions of the JCPOA expire, Iran will be free to build up its nuclear capabilities, especially its enrichment capacity, and drastically reduce the time it would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.”

        This was the main objection voiced by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2015 when he publicly opposed Obama’s deal with Iran. The fact is that between 2025 and 2030 the agreement to limit Iran’s stocks of low-enriched uranium and the number of centrifuge cascades it can operate will expire, allowing Iran to erect an industrial-scale nuclear program if it chooses. Other ambiguities built into the agreement allow Iran to continue testing ballistic missiles and to block inspections of its military sites. So while it may be accurate to say that Iran is complying with the letter of the deal, it is also likely that, thanks to this deal, Tehran will be able to rebuild its economy, expand its military and, at some point in the future, be in a position to construct a nuclear arsenal.

        All of which has led Washington to a new high-risk strategy vis-à-vis Iran. The timetable is significant. On September 14 President Donald Trump agreed to extend sanctions relief for Iran, since re-imposing sanctions without a pressing reason could have led Iran to renounce the deal and revert back to rapid uranium enrichment. Nine days later, perhaps emboldened by the US’s move, Iran chose to test-launch its newest missile which is reportedly capable of carrying multiple warheads, and to have a range placing Israel and Saudi Arabia within easy striking distance.

        Speaking during a military parade featuring the new missile, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said: "We will promote our defensive and military power as much as we deem necessary. We seek no one's permission to defend our land."

        Trump responded with a tweet: "Iran just test-fired a ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel. They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have."

        This was perhaps the opportunity Trump was waiting for. On October 13 he certified that Iran was not complying with the agreement, and gave Congress 60 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions waived under the deal. Trump hopes this move will provide leverage to deal with the deficiencies in the current agreement. He knows that a re-imposition of sanctions is the last thing that Iran, currently blossoming economically, would wish. His high risk strategy may succeed.

        So far world opinion has vehemently opposed it. The fear is that the nuclear agreement could unravel, leaving the international community with even less transparency about Iran’s nuclear program. It would also scupper the myriad highly profitable commercial deals with Iran that have mushroomed since sanctions were lifted.

        The ink was barely dry on the nuclear agreement, before a German government plane filled with some of the nation’s top economic and commercial interests touched down in Tehran. The team included the chief executive of Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate, and leading figures from Daimler, Volkswagon and ThyssenKrupp.

        Germany was far from alone. European ministers and business people flocked to the country. Agreements were soon being negotiated and signed with an Italian bank and a major French hotel chain. Two Russian companies signed a deal with an Iranian firm to develop a remote-sensing satellite observation system based on the Russian Kanopus-V1. The launch is scheduled for 2018 aboard a Soyuz carrier rocket. Satellite observation systems can be used to gather information about the Earth's atmosphere, surface, and oceans. What else they can be used for was not specified in the Iranian news report, leaving the imagination to run riot.

        Russia was reported to be cooperating with Iran in the fields of aviation, shipbuilding and the supply of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems. Other reports suggested that Iran had begun negotiating with Boeing and Airbus to rebuild its commercial air transport system, thus tempting both the US and the EU into the burgeoning and highly lucrative Iranian renaissance.

        The Trump administration and the Iranian leadership are certainly playing a high stakes game of poker. The first party to blink risks losing everything.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 October 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Trump-and-the-Iran-deal-a-game-of-poker-508505

Published in Eurasia Review, 29 October 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/29102017-trump-and-the-iran-deal-a-game-of-poker-oped/

Friday, 20 October 2017

Can Putin out-fox Trump in the Middle East?

                                                                             
   
          On October 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, made his first state visit to Russia. The most newsworthy of the resultant deals was a $3bn commitment by Russia to supply the Saudis with its most advanced air defence missile system, the S400 Triumph.

          The Saudi state visit and the subsequent agreements were surprising in light of the opposing positions held by the two nations in the Syrian conflict. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is being supported by Russian military power, while the Saudis are funding rebel groups seeking to overthrow him.

          An explanation was provided by Yuri Barmin, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. The Saudis, he said, “realise that Russia now owns the crisis. They see how the balance of power is changing in the region: how the US is pulling out and how Russia is now increasing its influence in the Middle East.”

          Russian President Vladimir Putin is intent on re-establishing Russia as a major force to be reckoned with, and the Middle East is one area where he is succeeding. If he managed to pre-empt US President Donald Trump in the region, he would enhance Russia’s global status enormously.

          At present not a single foreign embassy in Israel is located in Jerusalem. This is because the exact status of Jerusalem, left undetermined in the UN partition plan of 1947, has remained so. On the other hand both the UN and the EU support “a viable state of Palestine in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem." UN Security Council Resolution 2334, passed on 23 December 2016 refers three times to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.” If the status of East Jerusalem can be affirmed so confidently, it must follow that West Jerusalem at least is part of sovereign Israel.

          It was way back in 1995 that Congress passed legislation requiring the US embassy in Israel to be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Although adopted with overwhelming majorities by the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Jerusalem Embassy Act has never been implemented. Section 7 of the Act gave the president power to sign a waiver every six months to protect “national security interests,” and every six months every president from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump has done so.

          Throughout his presidential election campaign, Trump pledged unreservedly to relocate the US Embassy. His first chance to allow the Act to come into effect was June 1, 2017, when the last waiver signed by ex-President Obama ran out. But when June 1 came around, lo and behold Trump fell into line with all his predecessors and signed a further 6-month waiver.

          There seemed to be good reasons for Trump’s decision. Between taking office and June 1 he had embarked on an ambitious plan to broker a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He had hosted discussions with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas. He had undertaken his first foreign tour, which had included a meeting in Saudi Arabia with over 50 leaders of the Arab world, followed by visits to Israel and to the PA-controlled city of Bethlehem. He had extracted promising indications from all parties of support for a renewed peace effort. He and his advisers must have judged that to implement his promise on the US embassy would be to damage the delicate state of his peace deal initiative.

          On October 7, 2017 Trump reiterated this position. During a TV interview he told former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee that he would not consider moving the US embassy to Jerusalem until his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative had been given a chance to succeed.

         “Right now,” said Trump, “we are actually working on a plan that everyone says will never work, because for many years it hasn’t worked. They say it is the toughest deal of all – peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” If the peace effort fails, he continued, “and that is possible, to be totally honest,” he would think again about the embassy move, but he wants to “give it a shot” first.

          Is he right in assuming that moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem would overturn his peace deal in the making?

          Of the 15 members of the Security Council, only one nation has recognized the logical implications of what they voted for in Resolution 2334 – namely that if East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, then West Jerusalem must be Israeli. On 6 April 2017 Russia issued a statement reaffirming its support for the two-state solution and for East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, but adding: "At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel."

          Apocalypse did not follow Moscow’s declaration. Arab states accepted the pronouncement with equanimity. So perhaps Trump’s assessment of the effect of relocating the US embassy to West Jerusalem is misconceived. Rather than disrupting his peace effort, if coordinated with those Arab states most closely concerned – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia – it might have the opposite effect. By sketching out the possible future structure of a two-state set-up, it could act as an incentive to all parties to move to meaningful negotiations.

          Meanwhile Putin may very well be tempted to out-trump Trump. To be the first nation to establish its embassy in what Putin himself has declared to be the capital of Israel would snatch the ball from Trump’s grasp, and establish Russia firmly as a major player in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process. How Putin views Trump’s efforts to foster credible peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is not known, but he would undoubtedly jump at the chance of brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks himself.

          Immediately after UN Resolution 2334, Russia issued a statement that, far from endorsing the attempt to impose a two-state solution on Israel, favoured direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis. “We would also like to reaffirm our readiness to host a meeting of the leaders of Israel and Palestine in Moscow.”

          If Trump does not watch out, he may find himself out-manoeuvered by Putin in his favoured area of diplomatic activity – achieving an Israel-Palestine accord.
                                                                        


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 October 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Can-Putin-out-fox-Trump-in-the-Middle-East-507906

Published in Eurasia Review, 23 October 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/23102017-can-putin-out-fox-trump-in-the-middle-east-oped/

Friday, 13 October 2017

Syria's humanitarian crisis

          Syria’s civil war has created a humanitarian crisis of horrendous proportions.  With most media comment focused on the struggle against Islamic State and the consequent gains and losses on the battlefield, far too little attention has been paid to the immeasurable suffering the conflict has inflicted on huge numbers of the Syrian people. 

          Civilian deaths as a result of the fighting and from poison gas attacks in the course of combat have been estimated at some 300,000.  That, indeed, is a massive toll of innocent life.  But the truly staggering statistics relate to the living.

          The country’s pre-war population was some 21 million.  UN figures show that at the last count, on 28 September 2017, well over half the population – something approaching 12 million Syrians – had been displaced from their homes. Some 6.3 million are homeless within Syria, but no less than 5.2 million have fled the country and are now refugees – over half of them, it has been estimated, under the age of 18. This figure includes 2 million Syrians registered by UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, over 3 million registered by Turkey, and more than 30,000 Syrian refugees registered in North Africa.

          All this translates into a humanitarian tragedy that ought to be attracting global attention.  As far as the media is concerned, it seems to have been buried under competing news stories of more immediate public interest.  In the political arena, however, something more sinister seems to be happening.  As Bashar al-Assad’s forces, empowered by Russian and Iranian military support, wrest increasing amounts of territory from Islamic State, and as the regime reasserts authority over it, the prospect of the president remaining in power, at least for a transitional period, seems to be gaining acceptance.  Reports back in March indicated  that US diplomatic policy is “no longer focused on making the war-torn country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leave power.”

This shift in sentiment could only be enhanced by signs of a return to normality within Syria, such as a flow of returning displaced civilians.  The International Organization for Migration said in August that some 600,000 displaced Syrians had returned to their homes in 2017. When Andrej Mahecic of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spoke of the trend, he felt bound to add that the number of those coming back was a "fraction" of the estimated 12 million displaced Syrians. 

Turkey, host to by far the largest number of Syrian refugees, offered them a major concession in 2017, perhaps in the hope of trimming the numbers.  It gave formal permission to all Syrian refugees to return temporarily to their country to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which began on June 25. Those taking advantage of the offer had to register on a dedicated website and were required to return to Turkey by a given date, different depending on which crossing they chose to use. Otherwise they would be treated as new arrivals and subject to the regular immigration process.

          Missing the due date would indeed have constituted an obstacle of major proportions. Turkey has sealed off its Syrian border with fences, minefields, ditches and a massive security wall aimed at stemming the refugee flow into the country. There are reports of Turkish border guards shooting at Syrian refugees trying to cross the border without going through the formal registration process.  Media reports indicated that most Syrians taking advantage of the Eid al-Fitr concession intended to return to Turkey, but that some 9,000 opted to stay.

The concession was renewed a few weeks later to mark the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha. The main border crossing between Turkey and Syria opened on August 15, and five days later around 12,000 refugees had passed into Syria.  They were allowed back into Turkey as from September 5, and the crossing closes on October 15.

  Meanwhile the snail-pace UN-backed peace negotiations crawl on. Seven previous rounds have failed to persuade the adversaries to hold face-to-face talks, let alone make progress.  Nonetheless the persistent UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said in mid-August 2017 that the United Nations hopes for a “serious negotiation” between the government and a still-to-be-formed unified Syrian opposition in October or November.  He expected a unified position to emerge after the three opposition delegations took “stock of the realities on the ground”, at a meeting in October. 

Progress towards meaningful discussions on ending Syria’s civil war and planning a viable future for the country has been frustrated by the failure of the opposition parties to agree a common approach.  The main opposition is the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which is totally opposed to Bashar al-Assad retaining power of any sort in a reconstituted Syria. The two other dissident groupings, the “Moscow” and “Cairo” platforms, are much less opposed to Assad being associated in some way in a post-war arrangement, perhaps for a “transition period”.

Unsurprisingly, the Syrian government team has refused to engage with the HNC, and would be likely to do so with a united opposition only if the HNC’s hard line had somehow been softened.  

          Ever optimistic, de Mistura has said ““Regarding the (Syrian) government, we are counting very much on Russia, on Iran, on anyone who has got major influence, and on the government of Syria to be ready finally to initiate, when they are invited to Geneva, a genuine, direct negotiation with whatever (opposition) platform comes out.”

          Clearly a long, difficult diplomatic process stretches out ahead.  Meanwhile Syria  remains a battlefield, civilians are still being killed, thousands are fleeing their country, and 12 million displaced Syrians struggle to live anything approaching a decent life.

          The Vatican recently published a 20-point plan on refugees which encourages countries to introduce community sponsorship legislation such as Canada’s system, which allows concerned citizens to organize and raise money to bring refugees to their country and help them towards citizenship. Now other governments, such as Ireland and New Zealand, are exploring the possibilities of allowing citizens to take action through such schemes. Last year the UK actually introduced legislation to make community sponsorship possible. Such people-powered initiatives enable ordinary citizens to demonstrate the humanity that has been conspicuous by its absence in the responses of world leaders. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 October 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Syrias-humanitarian-crisis-507281

Published in Eurasia Review, 16 October 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/14102017-syrias-humanitarian-crisis-oped/

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The other Kurdish poll


As far as Kurdish affairs are concerned, the world’s attention is currently focused on the independence referendum held on September 25, 2017 by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in north-eastern Iraq and that, despite considerable international pressure, there was a 92 percent vote in favour, on a 72 percent turnout.  Little attention has been paid to the fact that just three days earlier, another historic Kurdish election took place in neighbouring Syria.

The 5 million Kurds of Iraq represent only a small proportion of their 40 million-strong nation. Most Kurds – some 25 million – live within Turkey’s borders, and nearly 7 million are trapped inside Iran’s extremist Shi’ite regime.  

As for the 2 million Kurds in Syria, accounting for 15 percent of the population before the civil war, they had aspired for some time to a degree of autonomy.  The internal uprising in 2011 against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad gave them their opportunity.  As the civil war inside Syria descended into a maelstrom of at least six separate conflicts, up in the north the Syrian Kurds were battling Islamic State, and successfully winning back swathes of Kurd-inhabited territory.

Today, after a complex series of political and administrative changes mirroring their slow but steady success, the Kurd-occupied area is formally known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). 

In the early stages of the Syrian civil war. Syrian government forces withdrew from the Kurdish enclaves, leaving control to local militias.  The original three self-governing cantons, namely Afrin Canton, Jazira  Canton and Kobani Canton, emerged in 2012, to be joined in 2016 by the autonomous Shahba region as a fourth.  Meanwhile the leading political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was establishing the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), a coalition based on the concept of grassroots democracy – a concept virtually revolutionary in the region.

TEV-DEM has been highly successful. In March 2016 it was agreed that the ever-expanding Kurdish area should be ruled under a new federal and democratic constitution.  Hediya Yousef and Mansur Selum were elected as joint chairmen of a body established to organise it.   The decision to set up a federal government was, Yousef asserted, in large part driven by the expansion of territories captured from Islamic State.

"Now,” he said, “after the liberation of many areas, it requires us to go to a wider and more comprehensive system that can embrace all the developments in the area, that will also give rights to all the groups to represent themselves and to form their own administrations."  

The only political camp fundamentally opposed were Kurdish nationalists, in particular the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which believes in pressing for a nation-state of Kurdistan rather than a polyethnic federation as part of Syria. However, on December  28, 2016, after a meeting of the 151-member Syrian Democratic Council, the new constitution was adopted,  Despite objections by the Kurdish nationalist parties, the whole region was renamed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The constitution, known as the "Charter of the Social Contract", provides for all citizens to enjoy gender equality, freedom of religion and property rights.

          As regards a poll of Kurdish opinion, the DFNS took their cue from the KRG’s decision to hold an independence referendum in neighbouring Iraq.   They decided to hold their own elections at about the same time.  Accordingly a poll was organized in northern Syria on Friday, September 22, 2017, as the first of a three-stage process to strengthen Kurdish regional autonomy in the country.

Voters elected leaders for about 3,700 "communes" spread across the regions of northern Syria where Kurdish groups have established autonomous rule.  The first poll will be followed in November by votes for local councils, and the process will culminate in January 2018 with the election of an assembly that will act as a parliament for a federal system of government in northern Syria.

The reaction of the Assad regime has been astonishing – a virtual volte-faceIn August 2017 Faisal Mekdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, labelled the elections a joke. "Syria will never ever allow any part of its territory to be separated," he said.

   But on September 26, according to SANA, the Syrian state news agency, Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister, said that his country was open to the idea of greater powers for the country's Kurds. They ”want a form of autonomy within the framework of the borders of the state," he said. "This is negotiable and can be the subject of dialogue."  He indicated that discussion could begin “once the military campaign of President Bashar al-Assad’s government against the Islamic State group operating in Syria is over.”

This acceptance on the part of the Syrian government is likely to be anathema to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Syria’s Kurds may not be seeking independence, but the degree of autonomy they seem likely to attain can only reinforce the Kurds in Turkey in their separatist demands. Nor is Erdogan likely to find much external help in opposing the activities of the DFNS.  The Syrian Kurds currently enjoy the support of both the US and Russia in the anti-IS struggle, and these two key permanent members of the UN Security Council seem willing to contemplate Kurdish autonomy within a unified post-war Syria. 

The worst scenario, from Erdogan’s point of view, would be if something like Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan were to be established in Syria, and then amalgamate or federate with Iraq’s KRG.  In that eventuality, demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way might become irresistible.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 October 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/The-other-Kurdish-poll-506818

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 October 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/09102017-the-other-kurdish-poll-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 October 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/?p=6541

Monday, 2 October 2017

How France beat Balfour to his Declaration

          The 2nd of November 2017 will mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – the seminal document that has come to be remembered as either “one of the greatest acts of Western statesmanship in the 20th century” (vide British parliamentarian Richard Crossman) or “the single most destructive political document on the Middle East in the 20th century” (according to Palestinian scholar-activist Walid Khalidi). What is not generally known is that Britain’s Balfour Declaration was preceded – and may have been kick-started – by a letter from the head of France’s foreign office, Jules Cambon, issued on the authority of French prime minister, Alexandre Ribot.

          On June 4, 1917, Nahum Sokolow, secretary-general of the World Zionist Organization, received the following:

          “You kindly explained to me your project to develop Jewish colonization in Palestine. You believe that, given favourable circumstances, and with the independence of the Holy Places assured, it would be an act of justice and reparation to help in the rebirth, under the protection of the Allied Powers, of Jewish nationality in the land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago. The French government, which entered the current war to defend a people unjustly attacked, and which continues the struggle to ensure the victory of right over might, can feel nothing but sympathy for your cause, the success of which is linked to that of the Allies. I am happy to give you such an assurance.”

          As Weizmann’s biographer Jehuda Reinharz has noted, the Cambon letter “in content and form was much more favourable to the Zionists than the watered-down formula of the Balfour Declaration” that followed it. The French accepted a rationale in terms of “justice” and “reparation,” and acknowledged the historical Jewish tie to the land. The letter bound Zionism to the cause of all the Allies.

          “The Quai d’Orsay had been skillfully and decisively outmanoeuvered” according to historians Andrew and Kanya-Forstner. The French obstacle to a possible British declaration had been neutralized.

          “Our purpose,” explained Sokolow, looking ahead, “is to receive from the [British] government a general short approval of the same kind as that which I have been successful in getting from the French government.”

          And indeed Sokolow deposited the Cambon letter at the British foreign office, where it stimulated a spirit of competition. British officials who sympathized with Zionism now urged that Britain “go as far as the French.”

          Nahum Sokolow has been almost neglected by history. Born in Poland, he received a traditional rabbinic schooling but taught himself secular subjects and quickly gained a reputation as a prolific writer. In 1880 he moved to Warsaw, edited a Hebrew journal and was soon acknowledged as the world’s most prominent Hebrew-language journalist.

          In 1897, Sokolow reported from the First Zionist Congress and fell under the spell of Herzl. It was he who translated Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland into Hebrew. Leaving journalism in 1906, he became the secretary general of the World Zionist Organization. He then threw himself into lobbying, diplomacy, and propaganda.

          As for the Balfour Declaration itself, for so historic a document, it is surprisingly, even starkly, simple. It is difficult to believe that the British Foreign Office in the very heyday of British imperialism did not run to crested notepaper – which the Cambon letter certainly did. The letter from foreign secretary Lord Balfour to one of the leading figures in Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, is a small sheet of paper with the words “Foreign Office” typed just above the date, November 2nd, 1917.

          Asking Rothschild to “bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation”, the declaration in question ran:

          “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

           Subsequent events are too well known to require elaboration. Following the Great War, the League of Nations endorsed an Anglo-French agreement to dismember the Ottoman empire, assigning control of the territories mainly to the two colonial powers. The British government was mandated to take over the whole region then known as Palestine, and to put into effect its desire, as expressed in the Balfour Declaration, to establish there a national home for the Jewish people.

          Despite Britain’s eventual failure to fulfil the hopes set out in the Balfour Declaration, the British government continues to endorse the part it played in the eventual emergence of the State of Israel. In May 2017 a petition to Parliament called on the government to “apologise to the Palestinian people” over the Balfour Declaration because the UK’s colonial policy had caused “mass displacement” and injustice. The petition failed to gather sufficient signatures to trigger a parliamentary debate, but nonetheless the Government issued a formal response: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”

          As an earnest of Britain’s stance, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when in the UK in February 2017, was invited by prime minister Theresa May to attend November’s centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration in London.

          From whichever side of the fence one regards the events of 1917 and beyond, it seems clear that France shares with Britain both the bouquets and the brickbats.


Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 October 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/03102017-how-france-beat-balfour-to-his-declaration-oped/

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Balfour in word and deed


         Did Lord Balfour, Britain’s foreign secretary in 1917 and author of the historic Balfour Declaration – the document generally accepted to be the foundation stone of today’s Israel – ever visit the country? Well yes he did, once, and for a very good reason. 

        In the seven years following his letter announcing that the government favoured establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, and especially after the League of Nations had mandated the British government to do just that, opposition to the Declaration had been growing. So it became increasingly important for the world to see what had been achieved by the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. What better way than a highly publicised visit by Lord Balfour to the Holy Land?

          For so historic a document, the letter that has come to be known as the Balfour Declaration is surprisingly, even starkly, simple. It is difficult to believe that the British Foreign Office in the very heyday of British imperialism did not run to crested notepaper. The letter from foreign secretary Lord Balfour to one of the leading figures in Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, is a small sheet of paper with the words “Foreign Office” typed just above the date, November 2nd, 1917.

          Asking Rothschild to “bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation”, the declaration in question ran:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

          Subsequent events are too well known to require elaboration. Following the Great War, the League of Nations endorsed an Anglo-French agreement to dismember the Ottoman empire, assigning control of the territories mainly to the two colonial powers. The British government was mandated to take over the whole region then known as Palestine, and to put into effect its desire, as expressed in the Balfour Declaration, to establish there a national home for the Jewish people.

          Although the British Mandate for Palestine did not come into force until September 1922, its terms were drawn up in April 1920. As soon as they became known, Arab riots broke out in Jaffa. This affected British public opinion, and voices began to be raised opposing the whole enterprise, and especially its likely cost. An All-Arab Congress, meeting in Geneva in July and August 1921, followed up the riots by attacking the Declaration and demanding all-Arab self-government for Palestine. Back in Britain, although a motion to repeal the Balfour Declaration failed in the House of Commons, it won a majority in the House of Lords.

           This growing opposition gave impetus to the idea that Lord Balfour should visit Palestine and that, through him, the world could be shown what had been achieved since his historic letter. Chaim Weizmann arranged for the visit to coincide with the formal opening of the Hebrew University, and Balfour was invited to conduct the opening ceremony on April 1, 1925. In March Lord Balfour’s party travelled by ship to Cairo, and from there took the train to the Holy Land. Yes, as early as the 1920s Palestine Railways had a line running from Egypt via Lydda and Tel Aviv as far as Haifa.

          On the appointed day a vast crowd assembled on Mount Scopus. At the opening of the university Balfour said: “A new era has begun. The great cultural genius that came to an end, and that had been dormant for so many years, is now going to be renewed.” A long list of diplomats and scientists who attended the ceremony described it in glowing terms.

          The fact that the historic event had been recorded on film seemed to pass from the public consciousness. It was only in 2013 that film researcher Yaakov Gross rediscovered the rare footage, and published it on YouTube. Rushes and out-takes from the filmic record of Balfour’s visit to Jerusalem show men and women, unsegregated by gender, praying together at the Western Wall.

          In fact a film crew, led by Kamil Suago and funded by the French-Jewish banker Albert Kahan, accompanied Lord Balfour throughout his travels in Palestine. Balfour was greeted everywhere by enthusiastic crowds, and his visit was adjudged an outstanding success. It confirmed the British government’s determination to exercise its Mandate.

          Despite Britain’s eventual failure to fulfil the hopes set out in the Balfour Declaration, the British government continues to endorse the part it played in the eventual emergence of the State of Israel. In May 2017 a petition to Parliament called on the government to “apologise to the Palestinian people” over the Balfour Declaration because the UK’s colonial policy had caused “mass displacement” and injustice. The petition failed to gather sufficient signatures to trigger a parliamentary debate, but nonetheless the Government issued a formal response: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”

          As an earnest of Britain’s stance, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when in the UK in February 2017, was invited by prime minister Theresa May to attend November’s centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration in London.

          The declaration has come to be remembered as either “one of the greatest acts of Western statesmanship in the 20th century” (vide British parliamentarian Richard Crossman) or “the single most destructive political document on the Middle East in the 20th century” (according to Palestinian scholar-activist Walid Khalidi). What is not generally known is that Britain’s Balfour Declaration was preceded – and may have been kick-started – by a letter from the head of France’s foreign office, Jules Cambon, issued on the authority of French prime minister, Alexandre Ribot.

          On June 4, 1917, Nahum Sokolow, secretary-general of the World Zionist Organization, received the following:

“You kindly explained to me your project to develop Jewish colonization in Palestine. You believe that, given favourable circumstances, and with the independence of the Holy Places assured, it would be an act of justice and reparation to help in the rebirth, under the protection of the Allied Powers, of Jewish nationality in the land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago. The French government, which entered the current war to defend a people unjustly attacked, and which continues the struggle to ensure the victory of right over might, can feel nothing but sympathy for your cause, the success of which is linked to that of the Allies. I am happy to give you such an assurance."

          Sokolow deposited the Cambon letter at the British foreign office, where it stimulated a spirit of competition. British officials who sympathized with Zionism now urged that Britain “go as far as the French.”

          From whichever side of the fence one regards the events of 1917 and beyond, it seems clear that France shares with Britain both the bouquets and the brickbats.