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Britain, San Remo and the birth of the Zionist state
By Roddy Keenan/ PNN/
“It could perhaps be said that the Jewish state was born in San Remo,” declared Alberto Biancheri, mayor of the small picturesque town on the Italian Riviera.
Mayor Biancheri was speaking via videolink at an online conference on April 25th, organised by the Brussels based European Coalition for Israel, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the San Remo Conference of April 1920. For it was in that northern Italian town that the Britain secured the Mandate for Palestine. Even more significantly, the text of the Mandate officially called for the implementation of the Balfour Declaration, which in November 1917, had committed the British government to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.’ The conference included contributions from politicians across the world, as well as Israeli politicians including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And while the events at San Remo have tended to be overlooked, Mayor Biancheri’s words are not without foundation. In fact, if the Jewish state was conceived in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the future Israeli apartheid state was arguably born on April 25th 1920.
San Remo and the peace settlement
Following World War 1, a series of conferences took place to discuss the post-war settlement. One of these took place in San Remo, between April 19th and April 26th, 1920. The gathering of the Allied Supreme Council included the leaders and foreign ministers of the UK, France and Italy. Meanwhile, the US and Japan were represented by their respective ambassadors to Italy.
The purpose of the conference was to discuss a peace settlement with Turkey, and to decide the future of the Middle East. The interlocutors were following on from a previous conference in London at the end of 1919, where French and British mandates over Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine were discussed. At San Remo, it would be decided how the former Ottoman territories would be governed, ‘until such time as they are able to stand alone.’
While the conference began on April 19th, it wasn’t until April 24th that attention turned to Palestine. Consistent with the Sykes-Picot agreement, the secretive colonialist carve-up revealed by the Bolsheviks after coming to power in Russia, France would govern Syria and Lebanon as Mandates while Britain would rule over Iraq and Palestine. From the outset, the UK were insistent that the Balfour Declaration, facilitating a settler-colonialist policy in Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish national home there, be included in the Mandate. This had not been discussed at the London Conference and the French opposed its inclusion. However, Britain refused to budge, determined that the declaration be part of the legal text.
The French were also keen to have a special status for the Holy Sites that were situated within Palestine, contending that they should be ruled by an inter-Allied Commission. However, yet again, the British were obstinate, arguing that only one country should have responsibility for the Mandate in Palestine, rather than joint control of particular areas within it.
Eventually, following a rather toothless compromise, the UK agreed to a commission dealing with issues pertaining to the various communities, and in return, the French agreed to the Balfour Declaration being incorporated into the Mandate. The French desire to emphasise the importance of political rights as well as civil rights culminated in the British stating that nothing in the mandate would ‘involve the surrender of the rights hitherto enjoyed by the non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’
The key paragraph in the final text of the San Remo resolution stated,
‘The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the declaration
originally made on November 8 (sic), 1917, by the British Government, and
adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine
of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that
nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and rights of existing
non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political
status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’
Zionist lobbying and influence
The inclusion of the Balfour Declaration in the agreement was the culmination of years of Zionist pressure, and provided it with its greatest victory. In the weeks and days leading up to the meeting in northern Italy, this pressure was particularly noticeable, with the Zionist lobby being extremely assertive as they sought to influence the British delegation.
Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist Congress, had been persistently urging the British government to include the Balfour |Declaration in the Mandate. In March, he wrote to UK Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon’s secretary Robert Vansittart in his capacity as member of the Zionist Organisation to emphasise the necessity of this inclusion.
Demanding that there should be no further postponement of the formal recognition of the Declaration, he insisted that the League of Nations receive ‘special instruction regarding the objects of the Mandate to be issued to Palestine.’ The Mandate should, in Weizmann’s words, ‘have as its guiding objects the establishment of the Jewish National Home….’
The Zionist movement also mobilised members of its organisation in the UK and USA to bombard Lloyd George and the British government with telegrams and letters urging them to commit to a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine as outlined in the Balfour Declaration.
Meanwhile, meeting in London, the Labour Parliamentary Party, the Labour Party Executive Committee and the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress, adopted resolutions to ‘remind’ the government that it must ‘endeavour to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine.’
Confirming their commitment to the Zionist cause, they argued that the government must accept the Mandate ‘for the administration of Palestine with a view to its being reconstituted the National Home of the Jewish People. ’Interestingly, the Labour resolutions referred to ‘Palestine’, and not a particular area within it.
Pressure had also come from across the Atlantic. A despatch in the The Times of London from its Washington correspondent on 13th April, a week before the San Remo Conference was due to start, expressed the concerns of American Zionists that the British government might be trying to ‘get out of’ their official promises with regard to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
‘The Balfour Declaration was made the basis by the Peace Conference for an arrangement whereby the Zionists should get Palestine under something tantamount to a British protectorate,’ the correspondent wrote, adding that any deviation from this line would be ‘distinctly explosive’ from the point of view of Anglo-American relations, with such a powerful Zionist lobby in Washington. The reference to the idea that the Zionists would ‘get Palestine’ proved entirely indicative of the actual aims and mindset of Zionism from the outset.
In response to this, two days later, a Times editorial subsequently urged UK Prime Minister Lloyd George to follow through with this commitment and expressed the view that it was ‘hardly credible that our government can be contemplating so complete a volte-face……the harm it would do would be immense.’ Emphasising that 90% of Jews in the USA were Zionists, any failure of the UK fail to support Zionism ‘would do harm to Britain not only amongst Jews, but in America. ‘
The editorial concluded with a plea to the government to remain committed to what had been articulated in the Balfour Declaration. The government ‘had a solemn promise which they cannot break without doing untold harm. They might indeed, do worse than to register it, once and for all in the Treaty peace with Turkey.’
The extent of Zionist influence was evident, even throughout the San Remo gathering. On the morning before the commencement of the very discussions that would decide the future of Palestine, Lloyd George, Lord Curzon and Sir Herbert Samuel, who would become High Commissioner of Palestine some weeks later, met with a Zionist delegation, in what British journalist Joseph Jeffries described as ‘the Conference before the conference.’ Once again, the Zionists were able to exert their influence on the British right up to the decisive moment.
Reaction to the San Remo Resolution
The implications of what was agreed in the San Remo Resolution provoked immediate reaction. The Arab community was now presented with a concrete expression of what had been promised in the Balfour Declaration. One could argue, if a Jewish National Home was conceived in the Balfour Declaration of November 2nd 1917, the future Israeli apartheid state was born on April 25th 1920.
Amongst the protests from native Palestinians, the Moslem-Christian Society of Nablus summed up the hypocrisy of what had taken place, when it derided the notion that the UK, France and its allies were fighting ‘to avoid war and establish peace, and restore scattered people to their countries.’ Evidently, nothing could have been further from the truth.
‘Is it therefore admissible for them, under right and justice, to create in the Arabic country a national home for foreigners,’ they asked, ‘causing the country terrible material and moral injuries, and to increase the number of a strange nation in the country they intend to destroy the inhabitants therof…?’
The prescience of these words, in the context of the intervening 100 years, is evident for all to see.
From the United States, US President Woodrow Wilson expressed abhorrence at what he described as the ‘whole disgusting scramble’ for the Middle East that had taken place. The ruthless and nakedly imperialist division of the Middle East perpetrated by the UK and France ran counter to Wilson’s view of the basic tenets of the League of Nations. Indeed, British claims that they had been fighting for ‘the freedom of small nations,’ was exposed for the fiction that it was, underlined by their overtly cynical and grubby actions in the Middle East.
Zionists celebrate San Remo Resolution
Meanwhile, Zionists around the world were under no illusions as to the momentous nature of what had just taken place. They knew that this was indeed the moment when the promise of the Balfour Declaration had been fulfilled. And they were euphoric.
Telegrams and letters from Jewish organisations across the world flooded into the British Foreign Office, expressing their gratitude that the declaration was legally part of the Mandate. The Zionist Organisation of America was one such group praising the UK, celebrating the fact that, in their words, ‘the San Remo Conference crowns the British declaration by enacting it as part of the law of the nations of the world.’
On their return to England from San Remo, the Zionist representatives, Weizmann and Nahum Sokalow, were greeted at Victoria Station in London by a large jubilant crowd, before going on to a subsequent rally at the World Zionist Organisation headquarters in Great Russell Street later that evening.
Reporting on the celebrations under the headline, ‘Zionist rejoicings. British mandate for Palestine welcomed’, The Times captured the mood and reflected the significance of San Remo for Zionism. ‘The event will be celebrated in all Jewish centres with great joy’ The Times report declared. Recognising the importance of San Remo, the correspondent also suggested that ‘the date April 24, 1920, will perhaps become a Jewish national holiday.’ (The Times inaccurately suggested that the agreement was signed on 24th April, when it was actually on the 25th)
Netanyahu, San Remo and Annexation
Now, a century later, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the recent online commemoration and described the San Remo conference as ‘a seminal moment’, he was not wrong. (Yes. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day)
“In San Remo, the victorious allied powers of World War I recognized the Jewish people’s right of self-determination,” said Netanyahu.
With characteristic cynicism, the Israeli prime minister went on to take the opportunity to link the San Remo Conference and its outcome with the so-called ‘Plan of The Century’ and US support for the illegal annexation of the West Bank. ‘A couple of months from now,’ he declared, ‘I’m confident that that pledge will be honoured, and that we will be able to celebrate another historic moment in the history of Zionism. A century after San Remo, the promise of Zionism is being realized.’
Unfortunately, for Palestinians, the date of April 25th will not be commemorated or celebrated. Indeed, for anyone who opposes oppression, persecution and tyranny, the outcome of San Remo will never be a source of jubilation. Quite the contrary, in fact.
For only the day that Palestine is free, from the river to the sea, is the day when Palestinian men, women and children will finally be able to rejoice.
And those who believe in justice, freedom and basic human decency, from every country, across every continent, will join with them in celebration when that day arrives.