Palestine: British Foreign Office torn by Indecision

The determination of Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine President, to put his country’s claim for international recognition as a state before the United Nations has placed the British Foreign Office in a familiar state of indecision: namely which of two protagonists should they propitiate?

On the one hand the United States and its client state Israel; on the other hand the whole of the Arab world plus Iran (300 million people).  If the rest of the Islamic world is counted that makes (nearly 900 million people).  Faced with the fact that in voting for or against recognition of Palestine, Britain will offend one of them, the Foreign Office has fallen back into the role which it so loves, namely acting as a go-between in the middle of the two protagonists, the honest broker trying desperately to avoid actually making a decision for itself.

Why not try putting Britain’s national interest first?

Each year Britain educates (for money) over 50,000 students from the Islamic world – over 10,000 from the Arab world alone.  Britain’s exports to one small part of the Arab world, the United Arab Emirates (population 4.6 million) alone exceed those to all other countries in the world save the USA, Germany, France, Italy and the Republic of Ireland[1], and six times those to Israel (population 7.1 million).

Besides these direct trade links, four of the Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates) account for 50% of the world’s proven commercially accessible oil reserves (Iran accounts for another 11%).  Britain has a massive interest in both ensuring continuity of supply in the years ahead when North Sea oil supplies will have ceased, and through its huge oil companies exploiting these reserves.

In all my 40 odd years in industry and academia, I have met or lectured to hundreds of people from every country in the Islamic world, including the biggest population countries – Pakistan and Indonesia – as well as the small, rich gulf states.  I have never encountered anyone that has not at some time expressed wonderment that Britain has consistently supported the Israelis in their 90-year dispute with the Arabs about land in the Mandate territory of Palestine.  Backing the 3.6 million Palestinians’ right to an independent homeland in Palestine is the one issue which unites everyone in the Islamic world against the West, with the USA and Britain singled out for hostility on this issue.

Why do we do it?

The short answer is that successive United States administrations from the beginning of the British Mandate in 1921 have exerted every pressure they could command in favour of the Israelis in what started as and continues to be a dispute over land.  And for the British Foreign Office the over-riding objective is keeping in with the Americans (only for a brief period during Heath’s premiership was this replaced by keeping in with Brussels).

Influence of American domestic politics

Supporting Jewish claims in Palestine is arguably the most consistent, if not the only consistent, strand of American foreign policy over the last 90 years.  For one year in four, US politics are dominated by the processes involved in selecting candidates for the 4-yearly presidential elections and then campaigning for the election itself.  Dominant among concerns of the candidates is propitiating, or at least not saying anything to offend, the multifarious ethnic groups which make up the American electorate – chief among them those of Jewish descent (for the Democrats), Polish (for the Republicans).  Even though these particular groups make up perhaps only about 2% and 4% of the US population respectively, they have a particular influence in favour of the Israelis right across the political spectrum.  (Many of the early Jewish settlers in Palestine came from Poland – Menachem Begin, the Stern gang terrorist, later Israeli Prime Minister, chief among them.)

Population Facts

The British Empire defeated Turkey in 1918 and as a result the whole of the Arab world temporarily fell under British control.  The French claimed a special position in what became Syria and Lebanon which was respected by the British although bitterly opposed by the local people in those areas.

Although not bound to do so, the British surrendered Palestine to the new League of Nations and then received it back as a Class A Mandate (like Iraq) in 1921.

One of Britain’s first actions was to conduct a census where it found to its and the world’s great surprise[2], that only around 70,000 (or 7%) of the population was Jewish; the other 900,000 were Arab.

By 1936, through heavy immigration and land sales, strongly opposed by the Arabs and only half-heartedly resisted by the British administration, the Jewish population had expanded five times to about 305,000 (plus an unknown number of illegal immigrants – sounds familiar?) by which time the Arab population of around 750,000 (71% of the total population) was profoundly alarmed.  Strikes and disturbances broke out and the usual British palliative – a commission of enquiry was despatched to Palestine on 5th November 1936.  The commission made a number of important observations, the chief one being that the land of Palestine was already full up.  Given the irreconcilable hostility between Arab and Jew, the commission proposed partitioning the country into Arab and Jewish sections, with Jerusalem made into an international enclave – a proposal rejected by both parties, who each wanted it all.

Today (2011) as a result of continued Jewish immigration since the state of Israel was proclaimed on 14th May 1948, high rates of natural increase among both Jews and Arabs, and expulsions of Arabs into neighbouring Jordan in the various Arab-Israeli wars, there are around 7.1 million people in Israel itself (8,050 square miles) of whom 1.4 million are Arabs, and around 3.8 million Arab people living in the two areas of the West Bank and Gaza, which together amount to 2,370 square miles.

Altogether, of the original Palestine Mandate area (which in 1921 was 93% Arab and 7% Jewish), the state of Israel (with 5.7 million Jews) occupies today around 77% of the land and the 5.2 million Arabs claim the 2,370 square miles or around 23% as their state on the (Israeli occupied) West Bank and Gaza.

On numbers grounds the Palestinians easily meet the UN criteria for statehood

  • The 3.8 million Arabs actually in the West Bank and Gaza on 2,370 square miles makes them bigger by population than Iceland and six member states of the European Union, almost as big as Ireland, Norway, Finland and Denmark; bigger by area than 3 of them, and bigger by area and population than a dozen other members of the United Nations.
  • No amount of negotiation will deflect the Israeli government from its constantly reiterated aim of ruling the whole of the Mandate area of Palestine and its opposition to an independent Palestine on the Left Bank and Gaza territories, and continuing to build settlements on what outside Israel and the USA is universally recognised as Arab land.
  • After 90 years of upheaval and fighting to retain the land they had at the beginning of the British Mandate in 1921, the least Britain can do for the Arabs in Palestine today is to support their bid at the UN to obtain recognition of their right to 23% of that land.
  • This will mean Britain publicly disagreeing with the American government on this issue, but the British Foreign Office may find their action would strike a resonant chord with a large section of the American people as well as the British.

[1] Exports to the Netherlands, and to Belgium are shown in the National Statistical Office Pink Book as a bit higher that those to the United Arab Emirates, but this is before the well-known Rotterdam and Antwerp entrepôt effect for British exports is factored in.

[2] The reason for this surprise was that British and other Western people in 1918 through Sunday schools and sermons, identified the Judaea of the Bible in the first century with the Palestine of the twentieth century.

Top| Home

Leave a Reply

Top| Home