Israel’s Magna Carta is 100 Years Old

How the road to a Jewish state came to be built through an Italian resort town.

By Julian Zuckerbrot

San Remo is a picturesque spot on the Italian Riviera with a casino, a beach, and plenty of cafes and restaurants: the unlikeliest location for one of the most important events in the history of the modern Middle East. Yet it was in this pleasant resort town that, almost precisely a century ago, the leaders of the most powerful countries in the world – the victors of the First World War – re-drew the maps of the Middle East. They took what, for 400 years, had been the possessions of the Ottoman Empire and, in their place, laid the groundwork for the emergence of Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon – and of Israel.

In the political and legal struggle for a Jewish homeland, what emerged from that Italian town during the month of April 1920 – later endorsed by additional treaties and ratified by the world community – was the greatest development to take place between the first Zionist Congress in 1897 and the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was significant because it expressed Great Britain’s sympathy, support, and its desire to assist in the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine; when the Declaration was included in the resolution that came out of the San Remo Conference, backed by the world community, it gained legal and political force. The San Remo Resolution created legal title to a specific territory that would be a state for the Jews. Nothing that has taken place in the last hundred years has replaced it or lessened its effect.

The San Remo Resolution is “Israel’s Magna Carta,” in the words of Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary who championed it at the conference. “This is the most momentous political event in the whole history of our movement,” Chaim Weizmann, who led the Zionist Organization delegation at San Remo, said not long afterwards. And, added the man who went on to become the first President of Israel “perhaps…in the whole history of our people since the Exile.”

The San Remo Resolution evolved into the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which was ultimately incorporated in the United Nations Charter, and so carries more weight in international law than anything to come out of the UN. It is far more significant, for example, than the much better-known UN Resolution 181 of 1947, which called for the splitting of Palestine into two states. As with all General Assembly resolutions, that one could only be a recommendation, and it was in any case trampled into the dust by the armies that attacked the new nation of Israel.

You wouldn’t likely find out about any of that if you were planning a holiday at San Remo, since tourists aren’t told about the historical significance of the place. Without being aware of it, you might book your stay at the villa where the conference was held. Even if you decided to read up on what happened there a century ago, you might not realize the importance accorded to the Conference at the time, at least by those with a stake in the region.

The years leading up to San Remo had been ones of great and sudden change in the Middle East. For some time the ancient Ottoman Empire had been teetering, but its collapse was precipitated by the decision to join the Central Powers – the doomed German and Austro-Hungarian Empires – in opposition to the Triple Entente – the Allies – in what was to become known as the First World War.

To the victors, in all wars throughout history, go the spoils; the territories of the losers of this war would be divided up by the winners. But it was a time when colonialism was beginning to fall out of favour – whether the world’s empires were aware of it or not – and a time of rising feelings of nationalism. That would affect how the victors would draw the maps of the post-War world; maps of Europe, the Middle East, and places as far from the battlefield trenches as Africa and East Asia.

There had been years of to-ing and fro-ing over who would get what – promises made, secret treaties negotiated – but it was at the San Remo Conference where those flimsy and sometimes contradictory words would, for better and for worse, become facts. The San Remo Resolutions outlined the borders and erected the legal underpinnings for new, independent states to arise out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

San Remo did not exist in isolation, but was rather part of a process. A year earlier there had been the Peace Conference in Paris, where the victors in the Great War established the League of Nations – the predecessor of the United Nations – and dealt with the fates of all the defeated empires. Delegations of supplicants attended in order to put forward their arguments for a share of the post-War order.

Among those delegations was the Zionist Organization, their case for a Jewish national home supported by the widely publicized but aspirational Balfour Declaration. Not only was the Declaration not a binding legal document, it neglected to indicate what was meant by the term “national home,” or what that the borders of that home would be. At Paris, the Zionist Organization’s delegation asked for an “autonomous Commonwealth” that would include territory on both sides of the Jordan River, the Golan Heights, and what is today southern Lebanon; that would assure them a country with sufficient arable land and fresh water.

Another delegation was the Arabs, represented by the Hashemites, hereditary rulers of the Muslim holy cities, who had supported Britain during the War. Their delegation at Paris was headed by the Emir Feisal, one of the sons of Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca. He was assisted by T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia, Feisal’s former comrade in arms from the Arab revolt – who was part of the British delegation.

At Paris – despite what we might assume, considering what has since transpired in the region – the Zionists and the Arabs supported each other’s claims. They had even signed an agreement, albeit a secret one, in which both groups promised “the closest possible collaboration.” In Feisal’s appearance before the conference on February 6, 1919, he both demanded Arab independence and stated that Palestine should be set aside for the “Zionist Jews.”

Feisal’s support for a Jewish state, however, was conditional on his own demands being met. After all, the insurrection against the Turks that the Hashemites had conducted on behalf of the Allies came at a price (aside from large amounts of gold): Britain’s support for Arab independence after the War. The British wanted to deliver on their promise to the Arabs – and to the Zionists – but they had also committed themselves to France having a stake in the region. (“The friendship of France is worth ten Syrias,” Great Britain’s David Lloyd George has been quoted as saying to France’s Georges Clemenceau.)And the prime concern of the British was in securing their own interests, particularly protecting the Suez Canal and having access to oil.

Some principles were established at the Paris portion of what we might today call a “peace process,” which lasted from January to June of 1919, but the many hard decisions were left for later. A resolution was passed stating that “Armenia, Syria, Mesopotamia and Kurdistan, Palestine and Arabia must be completely severed from the Turkish Empire.” (The European drafters of the resolution had turned to their own tradition in employing the terms Mesopotamia – today’s Iraq – and Palestine, which were not official names under the 400 years of Turkish rule.)

As for the dilemma of whether those places would be colonies or independent nations, a solution was proposed at Paris by Jan Smuts, the South African representative, under which conquered territories would be placed under a series of League of Nations “mandates.” They would eventually become independent states, but only after a period of Allied “tutelage,” under the supervision of the League’s Council. The compromise was formally adopted by the Conference as Article Twenty-Two of the League of Nations Covenant.

So it was at Paris that the victors in what they called the “war to end all wars” sketched out the broad strokes of a world they hoped would be a more fair and peaceful one. Negotiations to fill in the details went on among the Great Powers, the “Supreme Council,” even after their representatives had left the city. The impossible task of dividing up the Middle East to the satisfaction of all concerned would be concluded at San Remo the following April. The months between the two events were by no means uneventful.

At the time, most of the Middle East was still occupied by the British, whose forces – including soldiers from its Empire and a sizable Jewish battalion – had, without much help from the other Allies, driven out the Turks. The military administration left in charge consisted of lower-level functionaries drawn from the army and the Anglo-Egyptian civil service.

Unlike cabinet ministers in London, most of whom supported the Zionist cause, Britain’s representatives in Palestine tended to sympathize with the more “exotic” Arabs. There was a great deal of friction between them and the local Zionist leaders who – unlike the diplomatic and worldly Chaim Weizmann – tended to be plain-speaking, no-nonsense types, intent on building their homeland, with very little patience for anything that stood in their way. Communication between the military administration and Zionist leaders in Palestine was practically non-existent when negotiations began in Paris.

The local administration’s attitudes were also shaped by the fact that the Muslims were by far the largest group in Palestine at that time. The Muslim population had grown from some 260,000 in 1882 to more than double that figure by 1919, largely because of immigrants from surrounding countries who were drawn by the prosperity that Jewish settlement had brought. Fear of offending the “Arab street” was as much a consideration then as now. The military administration in Palestine wanted to avoid having to defend the Jews – and themselves – from Arabs angered by London’s pro-Zionist policies.