The Impact of the Balfour Declaration and Sykes


The colonial period was not the unitary, but arguably one of the largest influences to the state formation of the modern Middle East, and furthermore the stability within the region. Looking at specifically, the Israel/Palestine conflict, this essay will look at two case studies, the two contradicting promises made by the British, the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and how it resulted in an ongoing border issue. Arab Nationalism and Zionism took a similar course during the nineteenth century in response to European challenges based on the concepts of nationhood, identity, history, culture and religion. Primarily, based on self-determination and emancipation, these nations fought for their recognition to becoming a sovereign state. The Jewish trying to escape Europe and return to sovereignty over the land of their ancestors, and the Palestinians trying to gain international recognition as a sovereign state. The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement ensured the rivalry between them for decades, as one of them promised a Jewish ‘home’ in Palestine, and the other left Palestine to undefined international administration. As neither promise made any specific distinction about borders of the territory, this essay will show how British colonialism started an ongoing battle between the Arabs and Jews for the grounds of Palestine and created decades of wars and instability. The essay will begin by explaining the Balfour Declaration, followed by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and then show how the nature of these promises resulted in instability by analysing the 1936 Arab Revolt, the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and the 1987 Intifada. It would be impossible to contend that these promises were the sole reasons for such a complex conflict, as there were countless contributions to the instability of contemporary Middle East. Therefore, this essay argues that impact of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreements played an instrumental role in conflating border issues between Zionists and Palestinians.


The Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration was a British public pledge declaring its support for the cause of Zionism. In November 1917, against the backdrop of World War I, British Foreign Minister, Sir Arthur James Balfour issued a letter to Zionist supporter, Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild stating; “His Majesty’s Government viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” (MacQueen, 2013, p. 44). The Balfour Declaration directly contradicted a previous promise made by the British, the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, which reassured Arab independence in the Levant and the Western Arab Peninsula in exchange for an Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire (Rogan, 2016, p. 44). The Balfour Declaration made no distinction as to what the borders would be and did not declare the support of a Jewish state. The promise made was that of a ‘national home’ for the Jewish people in Palestine. Furthermore, the Balfour Declaration also stated, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” (MacQueen, 2013, p. 44). This component of the declaration however, was not upheld by the Zionists or the British. The lack of any outlined demarcation of Jewish and non-Jewish territories resulted in decades of conflicts between the Arabs and the Jews, as each nation fought for the land which they believed was rightfully theirs.

One hundred years after the British paved the way for the creation of Israel by the Balfour declaration, political commentators still ask the question of whether the declaration was salvation or betrayal to the Middle East., as well as what the legacy is for Israel, Palestine and beyond. So, should the declaration be celebrated as the first step towards the establishment of Israel and self-determination for the Jewish people, or considered an active betrayal to the British, who had also promised to give the Arabs Palestine? While commenting on whether the declaration should be celebrated or something to be apologized for, Schneer (2011) argued that the declaration was an enormously important short letter that had lasting consequences till today. For Palestinians, it marked the beginning of a process that led to the loss of their homeland, while for the Jews; it marked the beginning of finding a place to call home. Interestingly, these two views are irreconcilable, which is why there are great confusion and disagreement about the significance of the declaration (Regan, 2018). But there is a school of thought who argues that the declaration should neither be celebrated nor lamented upon, especially after understanding what unfolded. For instance, according to Huneidi (2019), the real meaning, short-term and long-term consequences of the declaration represented a milestone, but a lot had to happen between 1917 and 1947 for the Jewish state to come into being. The author goes ahead to remark that different things could have happened if participants of the declaration had other priorities or made other decisions. Hence, in the views of Huneidi (2019), the Balfour declaration was a point of departure but had no inevitability.

Furthermore, according to Varga (2011), the Balfour declaration was circumstantial, and while some people had to make the right decisions, others had to make the wrong decision. However, Cohen (1986) took an extreme view that the Balfour declaration should be lamented upon, claiming that Palestine was the indigenous population, typically the people who paid the price for the Zionist idea. Hence, the extremists claim that without the Balfour declaration, there would be no Israel. The declaration contributed to the loss of home and displacement of Palestinians, who are now trying to reclaim their territory from the Israelis through conflicts and war.

ome existing literature has termed the Balfour declaration as British collusion, while others see it as an outright British making (Varga 2011, Cohen 1986). This triggers the need to evaluate what could have caused the British to be part of that declaration in the first place. With this regard, McMeekin (2015) postulated that the British just wanted to protect their imperialist interest in the Middle East.

Conversely, Salameh (2017) claimed that the declaration was driven by anti-Semitism because some members of the British wanted to get rid of the Jews from England and settle them in Palestine. However, in the views of Shahadeh & Johnson (2015), the momentous decision to establish the Balfour declaration was driven by circumstances surrounding the First World War, including the terrible losses suffered by the British Army in the Black Belt of the Western Front, where they failed to successfully make advances against the Turks, who were fighting with Germany against Britain and France. Thus, Shahadeh & Johnson (2015) claim that the immediate context of the Balfour declaration must always be remembered when analysing its impact on the Middle East.

Based on these circumstances, the Zionists were trying to promote their interests by seeking the backings of the allied countries they hoped and believed were going to win the war. A possible implication of these circumstances is that while many would blame the British for the Balfour declaration and consequently the current instability in the Middle East, the British’s participation in the declaration was originally to protect their interest with regards to winning the war, and not to create a conflict in the Middle East Perse (Varga, 2011). This argument has been supported by several other scholars (e.g., Salameh, 2017) who claim that the world might be lamenting too much over the role of British in the Balfour declaration without considering the circumstances that led to their participation. For instance, Salameh (2017) argues that critics of the Balfour declaration need to be a bit more precise about what the British wanted to achieve. Considering that the archives have been open for some time, it is possible to tell exactly what the British calculations were.

The most significant calculation was the belief that the two premier allies (i.e. the United States and Russia) that were one the brink of leaving the war could be brought back to fight; so that the Jews could believe that at the end of the war there would be recognition of their rights (Varga 2011). The other factor is that as the war progressed, the British feared that the French would rival them over Palestine.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

The second promise made started as a secret negotiation in May 1916 between British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot. This treaty, considered one of the most controversial documents, directly opposed Britain’s promise to Baron Rothschild, and the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. The document’s purpose was, “to divide the Levant into territories of direct control and indirect influence by Britain and France after World War I had ended” (Gerner, 1994, p. 29). France was granted a zone of direct control in what became Syria and Lebanon. Britain had the right to direct control of southern Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq and Jordan, and indirect control from Gaza to Kirkuk. Due to its religious status, and in an effort to avoid conflict among the Triple Entente, Palestine was placed under an undefined international administration (Gerner, 1994, p. 29). This agreement would come to, “largely define the political map of the modern Middle East” (MacQueen, 2013, p. 45) and made it evident that Britain had no intention of fulfilling the promise made to support an independent Arab state at the end of the war. Secondly, the agreement would fuel the conflict for land between the Palestinians and the Jewish people due to its undefined international administration, and the inability of Britain to implement successful policies for the two groups to coexist.

The contradictory nature of these two promises resulted in the Zionist and Arab belief that each had the right to the territory of Palestine. As a mandate, it was Britain’s duty to guide Palestine to becoming a self-governing state, and to terminate control once this outcome was achieved. However, a successful policy, “acceptable to both Arabs and Zionists was never achieved and British policy on the ground was further complicated by often contradictory dictionary positions in world politics” (Schulze, 2008, p. 7). The following paragraphs will outline some of these positions, and how they led to a variety of border issues and conflicts.

Today, while writing history, some scholars claim that approximately 100 years ago, the French and the British participated in establishing the current political boundaries of the Middle East by drawing a straight line across the desert. On the other hand, some critics will claim that the two countries largely contributed to the current political instability in the Middle East by carelessly participating in the creation of the current Middle East states.

But, ideally, according to Berdine (2018), the Frenchman and the Englishman, by creating the boundary line from the Mediterranean to Iraq, ignored the potential ethnic and religious divides that would have arisen out of border conflicts. This way, they participated in carving out the Middle East after the First World War, creating the original background of the current conflicts in the Middle East. But the above claims are just one version of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, whose centenary was celebrated not long ago. This type of critique has been peddled so much that it has been infused into the culture and belief of many political commentators (Sykes, 2017).

However, despite the impassioned condemnation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement could have been mistaken. Maybe, as we will argue in the following paragraphs, the popular version of the Sykes-Picot Agreement does not give a clear account of almost every aspect of the agreement (Thomas, 1971).

One school of through argue that, indeed, 100 years after the agreement, the current political instabilities and bloodsheds cannot be singlehandedly blamed on the agreement, which entails a single line drawn on a map by Picot and Sykes (Connelly, 1978). Furthermore, according to Russell & Cohnl (2012), it was impossible for any borders, regardless of the extent to which they were ingenious, could create homogenous countries from the singularly diverse Middle East Region. This argument has been supported by Sykes & Hull University (2009), who claim that whereas it is true that the borderline crossed through the religious and ethnic communities, it could not have done otherwise. In fact, the current borderline, as it stretches from the Mediterranean to Tigris passes through the Shias and Sunnis, Alawites and Drize, and Kurtz and Arabs.

In the literature by Page (2002), the author acknowledged the preordainment that after the First World War, the new states that would emerge from the Ottoman Empire had to be multi-confessional or multi-ethnic. Hence, while the critics of the Sykes-Picot argue that there could be a solution to the problem of how the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East could be governed, the truth may be that the conflict was inevitable, and perhaps there was no solution (Tucker & Roberts, 2005).

Another reason why some scholars claim that the current political instabilities in the Middle East cannot be solely blamed on the Sykes-Picot agreement is that currently, there is a substantial difference in the region’s map from what was originally envisaged by Sykes and Picot. According to Berdine (2018), various sections of the agreement were hurriedly abandoned, and this even led to the creation of Mosul (Iraq’s second city), which could never have been in Iraq if the agreement was still intact. Originally, according to the agreement, Mosul was meant to be in Syria, thereby excluding Kurds and Sunni Arabs from Iraq – a phenomenon that would have made the country more homogenous (Berdine, 2018). Furthermore, according to Page (2002), making Mosul part of Syria could have made it less onerous to govern Baghdad – than it is today.

The school of thought that is against blaming the Sykes-Picot agreement for Middle East’s today conflicts present yet another argument that Levant and Iraq (Islamic States) engaged in the destruction of their border post in 2014, and, they applauded themselves for destroying the Sykes-Picot boundary. In fact, by the time that the border between Syria and Iraq was fixed in 1919, Sykes had passed on (Sykes, 2017).

However, it is also important to acknowledge a group of critiques which do not blame the Sykes-Picot agreement for having placed the border across a multiplicity of ethnic groups, but instead, criticize the agreement on the basis that the British and French had no business in creating boundaries in the Middle East at all. According to Page (2002), this critique is based on the fact that the agreement between Sykes and Picot was secretly signed and that its terms acted against the earlier agreements between the Arabs and the British. But even this critique may be as lame as one can never imagine. Sykes & Hull University (2009) agree that, yes, the agreement was kept a secret, but only for a year. After the Bolshevik revolution, the Russians disclosed the agreement (Berdine, 2018). Furthermore, accounts by Berdine (2018) indicate that in fact, Picot and Sykes were in Jeddah in May 1977 to meet the leader of the Arab revolt and Mecca’s Sherriff to brief him of the agreement. Surprisingly though, Mecca’s Sherriff raised no objection of the agreement and accounts by his secretary, according to Sykes (2017), indicated that the Sherriff appeared to be quite contented with that agreement.

With regard to the idea that the agreement was against the earlier British’s promises to the Arabs, these promises were clearly stated in the communication between the British Commissioner in Egypt (Sir McMahon) and Sharif Hussein (Tucker & Roberts, 2005).

According to Sykes & Hull University (2009), Elie Hedourie, one of the historians who read the accounts of these communications dating back from 1915, concluded that the agreement’s wording precisely not meant to create conflicts but rather to ensure that the British’s promises could be accomplished (Sykes, 2017).

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In totality, a critical analysis of the two agreements reveal that despite the extremist stance by some commentators that the Balfour declaration and the British are to blame for the current turmoil in the Middle East, the declaration could have been made based on the then prevailing circumstances and not for the ill intentions of destabilizing the Middle East. Furthermore, while some historians have blamed the Sykes-Picot for the current political instabilities in the Middle East, the blame could be more of legendary than a reality. Thus, perhaps, the Middle East should consider other occurrences to blame their troubles.


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Gerner, D. (1994). One Land, Two Peoples: the conlflict over Palestine. 2nd Edition ed. Boulder: Westview Press.

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Shehadeh, R., & Johnson, P. (2015). Shifting sands: The unravelling of the old order in the Middle East. London: Profile Books.

Tucker, S., & Roberts, P. M. (2005). World War I: Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.

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