Delusions of British power in Mideast



There are two articles, the first by CAABU’s Chris Doyle the second by Ruth Eglash, Washington Post. Plus Notes and Links at foot.

Young Jews, who identifed themselves as Zionists, demonstrate against Palestine White Paper*, May 18, 1939, Jerusalem.


The myth surrounding Britain and the Middle East

By Chris Doyle, Al Arabiya
October 15, 2016

Myths about the Arab world and the broader Islamic world flourish in the “West” with a seemingly never-ending shelf-life but this is also a two-way street.

Even as the British pound crashes, its future exit from the European Union creates seismic jitters, and the United Kingdom looks more disunited than ever, it is still astonishing that the myth persists in too many quarters that Britain pulls all the strings not just in the Middle East but in Washington as well. Occasionally, London even controls Moscow.

Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would splutter over their breakfast at this thought but these views are very much out there. Flattering at one level that Britain is seen as powerful, damning that the notion of Perfidious Albion flourishes.

In an interview on Egyptian television, I was assailed as to why Britain was installing Muslim Brotherhood governments all across the region. Everywhere.

Another Arab journalist asked me recently why Britain tried to bring about a coup in Turkey arguing that it was not to topple Erdogan but just to make him weaker. Another claimed the opposition that it was a clever, devious plan to make the Turkish president stronger and more powerful. For sure Britain manipulating Washington is not a novel view even if flawed, but it is hard not to laugh when you are told that Putin’s Russia also acts solely on the say-so of Britain.

In Egypt these views seem particularly strong. The British travel advice for Egypt is seen as Exhibit A of Britain’s Machiavellian intentions. “Sharm El Sheikh is so safe.” Gently pointing out that a flight was blown up coming out of the airport less than a year ago makes little impression nor that the travel advice only warns against flying to the Sinai resort capital not against being there. It becomes clear that many critical Egyptians have not even read the advice. Quite what the political and economic advantage to Britain is to maintain this advice is not answered and the argument that the priority is the safety of British citizens similarly carries no weight. As ever, there must be an agenda.

British soldiers transfer child refugees from the Aliyah Bet (illegal immigration) ship Theodor Herzl to a vessel for deportation to Cyprus detention camps. Haifa port, Palestine, April 24, 1947.

Palestinians can have a tendency to believe that it is almost as if Arthur Balfour and Mark Sykes are still running the British Foreign Office. For sure the colonial mentality in some British quarters is far from dead but thankfully Britain has moved on.

More assumptions

The other line is that Britain is pro-Shi’ite. The assumption here is that as we gifted Iraq on an open platter to Iran, this must be the case. All this is based on the startling assumption that the Anglo-American project for Iraq succeeded, not failed, that deliberately this alliance wanted to just wreck the country and invite Tehran in. Once again the reality is that most British MPs, as one survey, found could not even tell the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite.

Some years back one British diplomat remarked to me that these views can sometimes work in his favour. He was asked which month Assad would fall as if London was determining the exact date on a planned calendar. The belief that Britain was all-powerful meant that that local politicians listened and studied his every word.

The secondary myth is the Britain knows the Middle East better than anyone else and therefore is able to collapse governments at will, instal its chosen proxies and decide the future of an entire region. The reality is that expertise is fading. The quality of Arabic speaking the Foreign Office has declined. Fifty years ago there were British diplomats who had run areas of the Arab World like Aden for example, and knew nearly all the tribal chiefs personally. A bygone era. Most British MPs are honest enough to admit their knowledge of the region is scant.

The sad thing is that Britain has suffered from a whole raft of major policy failures not least because of false policy assumptions and ill-informed notions of the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Palestine are all exhibits of British decline, not supremacy. Equally the tendency to blame the outside for the ills of the region remains powerful, dangerously glossing over what [factors are home-grown.]

Another remarkable feature of this enduring mythology is that well-educated, well-travelled worldly wise commentators indulge in this. It would be a mistake to see this is as just ill-informed group-think hypnotized by official media outlets.

Britain does have influence, with major historic and present interests in the region. But having influence is not control and does not mean that Britain is still capable of pulling all the strings as it did 100 years ago. Most British people have zero desire to see their country craving any colonial style powers and want their government to sort the country’s own issues. The Britain of the 21st century is a different world where, increasingly instead of gazing out across the world and the Middle East through an imperial lens, it can barely see across the White Cliffs of Dover.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honours degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.

British soldiers (here, the parachute regiment) round up Jewish men in Tel Aviv for interrogation about terrorist acts, 1946.

Most Palestinians still blame Britain for the Israeli occupation, poll finds

By Ruth Eglash, Washington Post
October 18, 2016

JERUSALEM — At last month’s gathering of the U.N. General Assembly, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas placed the responsibility for the 50-year-long Israeli occupation of his people squarely on the shoulders of the British.

“Yes, 100 years have passed since the notorious Balfour Declaration, by which Britain gave, without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people,” he said. That declaration, Abbas said, “paved the road for the Nakba of the Palestinian people and their dispossession and displacement from their land.” Nakba, or the catastrophe, is the term used by the Palestinians in reference to the 1948 war.

Abbas was referring to a letter from November 1917 sent by the British foreign secretary at the time, Arthur James Balfour, to Walter Rothschild, a British Jewish community leader, stating that the British government will support the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The words of the Palestinian Authority president were immediately mocked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took the U.N. lectern less than an hour later. Netanyahu joked: “He’s preparing a lawsuit against Britain for that declaration from 1917. That’s almost 100 years ago — talk about being stuck in the past.”

“The Palestinians may just as well sue Iran for the Cyrus Declaration, which enabled the Jews to rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem 2,500 years ago. Come to think of it, why not a Palestinian class-action suit against Abraham for buying that plot of land in Hebron where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish people were buried 4,000 years ago? You’re not laughing. It’s as absurd as that. To sue the British government for the Balfour Declaration? Is he kidding? And this is taken seriously here?” Netanyahu said.

Joking aside, a poll released this week by the Centre for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies at An-Najah National University in Nablus of Palestinian attitudes to peace and their own leadership showed that the majority of Palestinians agree with Abbas.

Among the questions asked of 1,362 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank ages 18 and older was whether they “support or reject the call from President Mahmoud Abbas on Britain to accept the historical, legal, political, material and moral responsibilities relating to the consequences of the Balfour Declaration including offering an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes and injustice committed against them?”

The majority, 75 percent, said they did. When asked whether they consider Britain responsible for the catastrophes that befell the Palestinian people, 79 percent said yes.

The survey also questioned Palestinians about their views on peace. Although most of those questioned said they support the various international initiatives promoting peace talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, whether organized by France or Russia, the majority of respondents were not optimistic that such efforts would prove successful.

The survey also questioned Palestinians on whether there was any future for the Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the Palestinians more than two decades ago. Most, 74 percent, said they did not believe the Palestinian Authority should remain committed to the agreement, while noting that “Israel is not committed to it.”

The poll, conducted Thursday through Sunday, also looked at Palestinian attitudes toward the postponement of their municipal and local council elections (supposed to be held in November), the boycott campaign against Israeli products, and the possibility of conducting presidential and legislative elections.


* The White Paper of 1939 was a policy paper issued by the British government under Neville Chamberlain in response to the 1936–39 Arab Revolt, and approved by the House of Commons on 23 May 1939. Although never formally approved, it acted as the governing policy for Mandatory Palestine between 1939 and 1945.

The policy, first drafted in March 1939, was prepared by the British government unilaterally as a result of the failure of the Arab-Zionist London Conference. The paper called for the establishment of a Jewish national home in an independent Palestinian state within ten years, rejecting the idea of the creation of a Jewish state and the idea of partitioning Palestine. It also limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 for five years, and ruled that further immigration was to be determined by the Arab majority (section II).

Restrictions were put on the rights of Jews to buy land from Arabs (section III). Further, it promised that only with Palestinian support would Britain allow a Jewish state. This greatly upset Zionists because of the increasing persecution of Jews in Europe at the onset of World War II, particularly in Germany. White Paper of 1939, Wikipedia

Amos Oz, in his autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Chatto & Windus hb (UK) and Penguin, pb, describes the young Amos in 1930s Jerusalem. When he is not reading he is planning a military onslaught on the British who are responsible repressive rule and for not allowing a Jewish state.

Operation Action: Rescue from the Holocaust by William Perl, Frederick Ungar 1983 [first publication) details the efforts of Jews to get to Palestine against the best efforts of the British military.

The Balfour Declaration

Foreign Office
November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.


Arthur James Balfour

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