Today in Middle Eastern history: the Faysal-Weizmann Agreement (1919)

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As World War I was wrapping up, and the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, the question of what to do with a very large swathe of soon-to-be-former Ottoman land loomed large. Most Ottoman territory outside of Anatolia was predominantly Arab, and the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt had done much to advance British war aims in the Middle East, so the Arabs—or, rather, one particular Arab, Sharif-turned-King Hussein of Mecca (d. 1931)—naturally expected that those lands would become independent under his control. After all, Hussein’s negotiations with Britain’s High Commissioner for Egypt, Henry McMahon, over whether or not to lead an Arab revolt in the first place had made it very clear that he expected all those Arab lands to become his new kingdom after the war. But while those negotiations concluded with Hussein agreeing to lead the revolt, there were a few loose ends that wound up becoming big problems once the Ottomans had been defeated. For one thing, Hussein and the Brits seem to have held different interpretations as to which lands, precisely, could be called “Arab.” For another, France had something to say about the disposition of the former Ottoman Empire too.

One of those loose ends, as we all now know, involved the question of establishing a Jewish homeland in what had been Ottoman Palestine (or the Sanjak of Jerusalem, if you want to be technical). In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued a letter to Zionist (please note that I’m using that term historically, not pejoratively) leader Walter Rothschild in which he promised that the British government would “facilitate” the creation of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. We can parse what Balfour wrote and its implications until the end of time, and it often seems like some people are inclined to do just that, but it’s important here to note that Balfour’s letter did not satisfy leading British Zionists, like Chaim Weizmann (d. 1952), the head of the World Zionist Organization. Weizmann wanted a firm British commitment to a Jewish state encompassing Palestine, and whatever Balfour was, it wasn’t exactly that.

On the Arab side, Hussein wasn’t exactly thrilled with the Brits by 1918 either. He’d learned of the secret Sykes-Picot arrangement in late 1917. British authorities assured him that the agreement didn’t violate any of their pre-revolt promises about a future independent Arab state, but that’s blatantly untrue and so Hussein had reason to be concerned. Likewise, Balfour must have caused Hussein to do a double-take. While there’s some evidence that he was open to Jewish settlement in Palestine, he was clearly opposed to any sort of independent Jewish state there, as he believed (though this was later disputed by London) that his negotiations with McMahon had left Palestine as part of his future Arab nation.

It was in this context that Weizmann began direct talks with Emir Faysal (d. 1933), Hussein’s son and the commander of the Arab rebel army, over the future disposition of Palestine. The two men met in mid-1918 and apparently bonded over a mutual antipathy toward Palestinian Arabs and some assurances (questionable to say the least, in hindsight) from Weizmann that the Zionists weren’t out to establish an independent Jewish state. On this basis, they agreed to scratch each others’ backs: Faysal and his father would support Jewish settlement in Palestine, while the World Zionist Organization would support and help establish an independent Arab kingdom along the lines envisioned by King Hussein during his interactions with McMahon.

In advance of the Paris Peace Conference, which began on January 18, 1919, Faysal and Weizmann signed the Faysal-Weizmann Agreement on January 3 (ostensibly; there are some Palestinian leaders who have alleged that it was signed later and back-dated), which put their accord into writing. The document says that Faysal (representing his father) and Weizmann,

mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people, and realizing that the surest means of working out the consummation of their natural aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration in the development of the Arab State and Palestine, and being desirous further of confirming the good understanding which exists between them, have agreed on the following:

The subsequent articles call for the parties to implement the Balfour Declaration, to delineate borders between the Arab state and Palestine, to maintain “the most cordial goodwill and understanding” between the two parties, to encourage Jewish immigration to Palestine while protecting the rights of the Arabs living there, and to work jointly on development projects (specifically, Weizmann promised to make the WZO’s team of “economic experts,” who would be sent to evaluate the prospects for development in Palestine, available to do the same work for Hussein in his Arab kingdom).

It’s pretty easy to see what happened here. Faysal, and Hussein, needed the British government to uphold the terms of the McMahon correspondence, and particularly to stand up to France, which wanted Syria and had no interest in enabling the creation of some pan-Arab kingdom. They calculated that getting the WZO on their side would give them leverage over London, and they were willing to toss Palestinian Arabs overboard if that’s what it took. It should be noted that there’s no particular reason to believe that Faysal and Hussein could actually have pulled this arrangement off—Palestine was so deeply ingrained in the Syrian national consciousness that there’s a strong likelihood that the people there would have sooner revolted against Faysal and Hussein than to abide by the terms of this deal they’d negotiated. However, this never became an issue because the agreement was never actually implemented.

Faysal appended a note to the document he signed, which said that he would implement the accord “if the Arabs are established as I have asked in my manifesto of 4 January, addressed to the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.” That manifesto reiterated Hussein’s demand for a single independent Arab kingdom, and so you can see where this is going. Instead of establishing an independent Arab kingdom under Hussein, Britain and France divided the Arab lands into colonial mandates, and Faysal-Weizmann was kaput before it ever got off the ground. Also kaput were Hussein’s dreams of ruling an Arab empire (or anything at all, once the Saudis—with British acquiescence—deposed him as King of the Hejaz in 1924), and any hope that the interests of Palestinian Arabs would get a fair hearing in whatever was to come.