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The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

by Jonathan Schneer

Pub Date: Aug. 10th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6532-5
Publisher: Random House

Schneer (History/Georgia Tech Univ.; The Thames, 2005, etc.) examines the divide-and-conquer politics of the colonial powers as they were brought to bear on 20th-century Palestine.

On the surface, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was well intentioned. Named for its “odd protagonist,” British diplomat and government official A.J. Balfour (1848-1930), it afforded a sympathetic vehicle to Zionist aspirations for a homeland in the old Holy Land. In a time of widespread anti-Semitism, Balfour paid heed to Zionist pioneer Chaim Weizmann and his insistence that European Jews had contributed immeasurably to the ascendant cultures of Germany and France. Others within the British government were unenthusiastic at the prospect of a Jewish return to Palestine, with Lloyd George, by one fly-on-the-wall account, caring not a whit for the Jews in question but taking a strong view that without them, all of the Holy Land might “pass into the possession or under the protectorate of ‘Agnostic Atheist France.’!” French aspirations in Syria and Lebanon entered into the picture, as did the disposition of the doddering Ottoman Empire, which crumbled with Turkey's defeat in World War I. Schneer offers a portrait of events that are confusing at best, and that have many origins, whether in British designs to contain those French aspirations, to temper—and here his account is timely—the rising mood of jihad among Muslims living in British colonies, and to limit the growth of the Russian Empire to the north. To a large extent, the author writes, the Zionists and the Arabs whose land would be in play were unaware of those larger imperial games; “neither party,” he writes, “understood that they were in a race at all, and both parties incorrectly identified their adversary.” The result, which Schneer examines in an overworked metaphor, was the sowing of dragon's teeth that yield fierce monsters to this day.

A complex-enough tale that the lengthy dramatis personae that opens the book is not a feature but a necessity.