The Paris Peace Conference Déjà Vu

The mess created by Western powers in the Levant was nearly solved by Jews and Arabs in direct talks 98 years ago… but a Paris Peace Conference torpedoed the agreement. This January the saboteurs return for an encore.

Part 1 of 3: The History. How the West repeatedly derailed Middle East peace

On Dec. 22, 2016 Reuters reported that the postponed Paris Middle East Peace Conference will take place on Jan. 15, 2017. This conference has provoked months of controversy, which only intensified as its sponsors attempted to justify its illogical aspects. For one thing, despite the desperate conflicts raging across the region, killing and displacing millions, this conference has only one “peace” goal: getting the century-old Israel-Palestinian stalemate to move another inch toward the Palestinian goal-line.

For another thing, despite allegiance to “the necessity of a two-state solution“, the two states in question are not among the 70 countries invited to this conference. They did not attend its preliminary conference last June either. Reuters blamed Israel’s exclusion personally on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who “repeatedly rejected the conference proposal“. It failed to relay Netanyahu’s reason, namely that only direct talks could bring peace. That context was hidden in a separate report which carried the blaring headline, “Israel says ‘no’ to Middle East peace conference in Paris”. There we also discover (paragraph 12) that the PA says “no” to direct talks unless Israel grants all their demands first. But Reuters showed no interest in why the Palestinians, although heartily “in favor of the conference“, were likewise not invited.

Instead, Paris “will invite the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet separately at its conclusion,” when President Francois Hollande will privately tell them what the world decided in their absence. If that meeting doesn’t materialize, Times of Israel reported that France will send conference representatives to Jerusalem and Ramallah, to deliver the script written for the two sides.

The absurdity of this Middle East strategy is underscored by comparison with another conference almost a century ago, where a real two-state solution was proposed, concluded… and then systematically sabotaged. Ironically, it carried the same name: the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. That conference was dominated by four nations – France, Britain, Italy and the U.S. – three of which are again calling the shots in its 2017 namesake.

The 1919 gathering had wider ambitions: drafting punitive treaties with the nations defeated in World War I, and restructuring the vanquished Ottoman Empire. But a tangled web of double-dealing was already producing Middle East friction. Two years before (1917), Britain’s Balfour Declaration had publicly promised Palestine to the Jews (including Jordan, which did not yet exist). Still earlier, before the Allies won the war, another British declaration had privately promised Syria, which then included Palestine (and Iraq, which did not yet exist), to Hashemite Emir Faisal Hussein, in return for rebelling against the Ottomans. But overriding both was the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret arrangement between Britain and France that divided these same lands between themselves, arbitrarily drawing borders that would separate Arab clans and force bitter rivals into artificial nations. They splintered the Jewish homeland into a handful of tiny districts, none of them allotted to the Jews.

When the duplicity was leaked, both Arabs and Jews responded with a healthy pushback. Emir Faisal, supported by his British comrade-in-arms T.E. Lawrence, appealed to the Paris Conference to honor the British promise of an independent Arab kingdom in Syria, which he already ruled but was now claimed by France. Meanwhile, World Zionist Organization leader Chaim Weizmann (who eventually became Israel’s first president) also appealed to the conference to honor the Balfour Declaration and grant the Jews the right of return to their ancestral homeland.

Emir Faisal I and Chaim Weizmann (left, wearing Arab headdress as a sign of friendship) in 1918. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Emir Faisal I and Chaim Weizmann (left, wearing Arab headdress as a sign of friendship) in 1918. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Amazingly, these two leaders arrived not as rivals but as partners. Weizmann and Faisal had pledged Jewish-Arab coexistence the previous year, and they were at the conference to lobby for it. They brought with them an agreement they had already hammered out and signed on January 3, 1919, two weeks before the Paris conference even opened. It was a de facto two-state proposal – an Arab nation in Hejaz (Syria-Iraq-Jordan) and a Jewish nation in Palestine (Israel-Judea-Gaza).

The text is remarkable. It called for “immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale and as quickly as possible.” The Zionists promised to develop both the Jewish and Arab states, anticipated by Faisal to greatly improve living standards for the existing Arab towns. In Article Three the monarch of greater Syria pledged to carry out the Balfour Declaration west of the Jordan River, with the East Bank ruled by his brother Abdullah (who likewise favored the Zionist cause). Article Two illustrated the borders of the Jewish homeland with a map including slightly more than all territory claimed by today’s rightwing Zionists.

King Faisal clearly intended to rebuild the Middle East with the Jews, without Western supervision. He understood from his talks with Weizmann that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was as disastrous for Zionist aspirations as it was for pan-Arab ambitions. In a letter to Felix Frankfurter, head of the American Zionist delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, Faisal distanced himself from both the Western interference and the Arab hostility then emerging in Palestine:

We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in race (and) have suffered similar oppression at the hands of powers stronger than themselves…. We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement….

We will wish the Jews a hearty welcome home…. People less informed and less responsible than our leaders and yours, ignoring the need for co-operation of the Arabs and Zionists, have been trying to exploit the local difficulties that must necessarily arise in Palestine in the early stage of our movements. 

Map showing the boundaries of the protectorate of Palestine, as outlined in the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement, superimposed on modern boundaries. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Map showing the boundaries of the protectorate of Palestine, as outlined in the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement, superimposed on modern boundaries. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This two-state solution, however, depended on Britain and France repealing Sykes-Picot. To his agreement with Weizmann Faisal appended this proviso: “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, I will carry out what is written in this agreement. If changes are made, I cannot be answerable for failing to carry out this agreement.”

The French and British answered that visionary proposal with their own ‘peace’ plan, assembled at the hastily convened San Remo Conference (1920).

Only months after the French had recognized Faisal’s popular government, San Remo awarded them the right to dethrone him by military force, cancel Syria’s independence and make it a French mandate. The British then invited Faisal to rule the newly minted British mandate of Iraq, and they granted his wish to install Abdullah Hussein in Transjordan, another British mandate created from eastern Palestine. The San Remo reshuffle also collected the splinters of western Palestine into one British mandate and reaffirmed the Balfour Declaration, rekindling Zionist hopes.

But by 1921 the British betrayed their Palestine mandate by appointing the convicted criminal Haj Amin al-Husseini as Jerusalem’s Mufti, changing the election results to appease his violent supporters. Jewish and Arab communities alike suffered from Amin’s terror incitement, which began in 1920 before his appointment, and only increased afterward. He promoted the same fictitious inflammatory accusations heard from today’s Palestinian leaders to ignite strikes and riots. After becoming targets along with the Jews, the British finally gave up negotiating with him and tried to re-arrest him in 1937. Amin then fled to French-controlled Lebanon, and from there to Syria, from where he broadcasted incitement and ordered assassinations, providing a model for global Islamic terrorism. He was linked to the 1951 murder of Transjordan’s King Abdullah, the only Arab ruler to accept the 1947 UN Partition Plan for a Jewish nation. (King Faisal had already died in 1933, from a suspected poisoning.)

Thus the Arab-Jewish peace plan of 1919 was sabotaged by enlightened Europe. Britain persistently backed arch-terrorist Haj Amin under the assumption that leadership would transform him into a “moderate”; when violence erupted instead, the Jews were blamed and Jewish settlement was throttled. Sound familiar? To complete the sense of Déjà Vu, Haj Amin repaid the British for their earlier support by calling for a global jihad against them.

The Western powers never learned from their Middle East mistakes, which is why they are repeating them. Or… perhaps they did learn something, which is why they are staging a Paris redoux. We will explore the evidence in Part 2.