Alessandro Marinaro (Salerno, 1999) ha seguito studi fra Milano (Bocconi) e Roma (Luiss) con incursioni a Filadelfia, si accinge ora a specializzarsi in Diritto internazionale a Ginevra. La sua attenzione è qui volta al Mandato britannico sulla Palestina (1922) che segue alla Dichiarazione Balfour (1917), il documento considerato fondativo dell’idea dello Stato d’Israele (1948). Uno spaccato della storia del Novecento che ha ripercussioni fino ai giorni nostri. Cosimo Risi

1. Introduction

The role of European imperial powers in the post-Ottoman Middle East was a controversial one: initially intended to achieve stability (at least for purposes of domination), especially with regard to the function of the League of Nations (LoN) as a power broker and mediator between imperial powers after the end of World War I (WWI), it eventually caused long-term regional instability, a problem which remains, still well into the twenty-first century, largely unsolved. With this in mind, the contextualization and analysis of the Palestine Mandate issued by the Council of the League of Nations in 1922 is necessary in order to understand the complex interplay of causes that fuelled long-term instability in the region.

The Mandate (the capital letter will be used when referring back to the document and not to the political entity), notwithstanding its nature of legal document produced by an international organization, sheds lights not only on reasons for the failure of the organization itself (the League of Nations), but also the on the fatal contradictions characterizing the world-system of European imperialism, with both its short term consequences and long-term legacies.

The substantial argument of this analysis will be to demonstrate how the failure of the intentions expressed in the Mandate and in the allegedly transitional purposes of mandatory administration was essentially dependent on the bad faith on whichBritish wartime diplomacy and the very reasons for setting up the mandatory administration themselves were founded (reasoning that can be extended to the entire system of mandates). The concept of bad faith is here understood as opposed to the fundamental International Law principle of good faith in treaties and diplomatic relations, with good faith intended as the principle of treaty law by which “A treaty is based on the consent of the parties to it, is binding, and must be executed in good faith. The concept known by the Latin formula pacta sunt servanda (“agreements must be kept)” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019).

Contrary to the interpretations that perceive the post-war framework of mandates as an element of rupture with pre-war imperialism for its degree of institutionalization, in this paper it will be argued that the mandatory administration, being de facto modelled on the standard blueprint of fin-de-siècle New Imperialism, represented instead an element of continuity, preventing by definition the development of authentic political stability in the region.

The analysis will be divided in three parts. Firstly, a contextualization, necessary to understand both the system of mandates and the reasons why “the Principal Allied Powers have selected His Britannic Majesty as the Mandatory for Palestine”, as the preamble of the resolution states (Yale Law School, 1922). Secondly, the exposure of the contradictions and structural problems determining the failure of the Mandate both as a legal instrument and as a political entity through the analysis of its most relevant passages and of their wording. Naturally, this cannot be done without also referring to other crucial documents and events in WWI and post-WWI diplomatic history. Thirdly, the conclusions that can be drawn from the failure of the Mandate, and a brief excursus on its projection on the decades that followed.

2. The extension of the Great Game: the Mandate in the context of British imperialism

If the different stages of British diplomatic action in relation to the mandate obtained in Palestine are to be investigated, it is crucial, therefore, to have an intuition of what 1917, the year of the military occupation of Palestine, precisely meant to the British Foreign Office. It could be sufficient to consider three, fundamental elements. First one, the double revolution in Russia. The deposition of the Tsarist ally and the subsequent civil war also meant temporary Russian disengagement from what was destined to become evolution of the Great Game in Middle East.

Second element, the Balfour Declaration of November the 2nd (also referred to in the preamble of the Mandate) in which Arthur James Balfour communicated to the president of the World Zionist Organization, Lionel Rothschild (the Rothschild dynasty entertained an almost centennial “special relationship” with the British Crown) that His Majesty’s Government viewed with favour “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” (Yale Law School, 1917).

Third and maybe most controversial element, the vague promise of a unified “Great Arabia” formulated in concert with the French Third Republic (the other great “stakeholder” of the forthcoming League of Nations) to the Arab populations of the Ottoman Middle Eastern provinces.

On December the 11th, “The Bull” Edmund Allenby, commander of the Expeditionary Force, dismounted his horse to walk through the Suleiman walls, writes on the Telegraph Nigel Steel, historian of the Imperial War Museum (London) “not as a conqueror, but as a liberator” (Steel 2013). Allenby’s entrance in Jerusalem on foot (and not on horseback) was underpinned by the same humanitarian-civilizational rhetoric and by the same impression of liberation from tyranny and triumph of civilization that later had to be conveyed in the Mandate itself through the wording of articles such as 15, 16, 20 and 21 (Yale Law School, 1922).

However, under the façade of symbolism and rhetoric, the Empire had never really abandoned the Great Game logic of the past century. British diplomatic doctrine interpreted the whole Middle Eastern war theatre and the fall of the Ottoman Empire (already fragmented by nationalist movements and by the revolution of 1909) as nothing but the geographical extension of the situation which from the mid 1850’s saw the confrontation between Queen Victoria and the Tsars for “informal” imperial influence in the Middle East.

The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 drew a straight border between French Syria and Lebanon and British Trans-Jordan, Mesopotamia and Palestine (Yale Law School, 1916). Again, the natural extension of what had been accomplished throughout the previous decades. The mental and practical approach of statesmen and diplomats to the post-Ottoman Middle Eastern theatre was not dissimilar from the one that had characterised the Scramble for Africa few decades before, and the logic of mandates (including the British one in Palestine) was largely inspired by this tradition.

The Great Game perspective from which Britain observed the situation in the Middle East greatly contributed to shape the “New Imperialist” rationale which underpinned the text of the Palestinian Mandate, a rationale characterised by the lack of good faith present in all of the strategical promises and deals previously made.

The language of the resolution, therefore, mirrors the logic behind this aspect of the British approach to Palestine. It is, in fact, impregnated by three fundamental elements of “New Imperialist” rhetoric: appeals to rationalisation (e.g. articles 11, 19, 20, 22 with regard to natural resources, trade, archaeology and cultural policy), to equanimity in the domain of native affairs (e.g. in articles 9, 15, 16, 23 on the administration of justice and freedom of religion) and to humanitarianism and civilization (largely in the preamble with the reference to article 22 of the Covenant of the LoN and briefly in article 20 on public health).

3. Understanding the “new imperialist” rationale behind the Mandate

The Allied “Occupied Enemy Territory Administration” which was established in 1918 by the Franco-British military command lasted until the drafting and the enforcement of the Mandate. Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which is referred to in the preamble of the Mandate, addressed the issue of sovereignty in territories and colonies formerly under the jurisdiction of enemy powers and inhabited “by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world” (Art. 22) (Yale Law School, 1924). The essence of the mandatory system is probably best conveyed few lines below in the same article: “…the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility…and that this tutelage should be exercised by them as mandatories on behalf of the League.” (Yale Law School, 1924).

The circle of mandatories was formally composed by United Kingdom, the Union of South Africa, France, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Four out of seven were still under the influence of the British Empire as dominions and their prime ministers had, from 1917, formed the Imperial War Cabinet chaired by Lloyd George. The former Arabic-speaking Ottoman provinces were classified, always in article 22 as type A mandates since they could be “…provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory…” until “able to stand alone” (Yale Law School, 1924).

Franco Cardini, in his work “Jerusalem” effectively points out the British necessity to “square the circle” of the Eastern Mediterranean front by simultaneously aiming at mutually exclusive targets (Cardini, 2013). One consisted in stirring up Arab rebellion with the promise of a “Great Arabia”. The other was to give right to the claims of Zionist movements in the attempt of drawing the majority of European Zionists, German and Austro-Hungarian Jews, away from their loyalty to the Central Empires. The project of a Hashemite Pan-Arab kingdom emerged from the ambiguities of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence and the establishment of the Jewish national home mentioned in the Balfour declaration inevitably excluded each other.

It was manifestly impossible to respect mutually exclusive promises in good faith and to respect the pacta sunt servanda principle. In the same year (1920) the Sykes-Picot agreement was incorporated in the Treaty of Sanremo and the Balfour declaration in the Treaty of Sevres. As a consequence, Palestine was “mandated” and rendered subject to British “administrative advice and assistance” (from art. 22, LoN Covenant, referred to as the legal basis of the Mandate in its preamble).

It can already be observed that on the point of “administrative advice”, the Mandate itself is already in open contradiction with its own fundamental legal basis (the LoN Covenant), considering that article 1 of the Mandate provides the British mandatory with “full powers of legislation and of administration, save as they may be limited by the terms of this mandate.” (Yale Law School, 1922).

Furthermore, clauses present in the Mandate such as in articles 15 and 16 devoted to freedom of religion (Yale Law School, 1922) can, therefore, as a consequence of all the previously mentioned factors, be interpreted not as a manifestation of tolerance, but as the consequence of both wartime strategical promises and of British imperialism’s traditional paternalistic condescendence (as opposed to its assimilationist French version) towards all native behaviour not directly challenging British occupation.

It is also clear, in this clause of article 9, “The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that the judicial system established in Palestine shall assure to foreigners, as well as to natives” (Yale Law School, 1922) how the use of the term natives continued to carry the same weight and significance it had in the previous decades. The official use of the word native in the Mandate is revealing of the extent to which the logic of New Imperialism impregnated not only the Mandate, but the system of mandates as a whole.

Notwithstanding more or less credible promises and consequent articles included in the Mandate resolution, the British administration never gave the real impression to credibly foster the objectives included in the Mandate. The clearest examples are local autonomy and the “development of self-governing institutions” (art. 2), “securing the establishment of a Jewish national home”or even in effectively guaranteeing that “nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”(art. 2) (Yale Law School, 1922).

The substantial failure of the Mandatory administration may have been caused, in fact, by its merely administrative nature. More precisely, by resulting in nothing more (while perhaps in something less in terms of resources employed) than an imperial administration. Indeed, part of art.17 is explicitly devoted to conferring the monopoly of the use of force and of military means and infrastructure to the mandatory power. Furthermore, art.11, with the clause “full power to provide for public ownership or control of any of the natural resources of the country or of the public works, services and utilities” (Yale Law School, 1922) is perhaps an even clearer indicator of the element of de facto imperial rule, allowing a certain degree of autonomy only to the Jewish Agency.

In articles 12 and 19 there is further evidence of the imperialist logic behind the façade of legal wording: the domain of Palestinian foreign relations is entirely taken over by the mandatory power. Looking closer to other seemingly neutral articles, it is even possible to find reminiscences of established Western prejudice towards the colonial subject, in this case enhanced by the even more ancient prejudices about the East as an insalubrious and disease-ridden place. This is exemplified by art. 20: “The Mandatory shall co-operate on behalf of the Administration of Palestine, so far as religious, social and other conditions may permit, in the execution of any common policy adopted by the League of Nations for preventing and combating disease, including diseases of plants and animals” (Yale Law School, 1922).

4. Conclusions: the interpretation of a failure and the price of war

Beyond ambiguities and misunderstandings arising from wartime correspondences and instrumental promises devised in an evasive diplomatic language, British prestige emerged from the Middle Eastern affair and from the experience of the League of Nations as irreparably downsized.

It was not just because of a new imperialist mentality that none of the wartime strategic promises had been respected: it was also too expensive to do that. Several of the above mentioned articles, in fact, proved to be, in practice, both politically unenforceable because of imperialist bad faith and materially unenforceable for economic reasons due to the war.

The Empire (which, curiously, reached exactly in 1922 its maximum territorial extension) was irreversibly becoming military, politically and economically unsustainable and also Palestine, from the very first uprisings in Jerusalem (1920) already torn apart by the struggle between Jew colonists and Arabs (both victims of the aforementioned broken promises) proved to be more of a burden than an asset within the imperial balance.

The mandates system eventually failed its allegedly transitional historical function also because of the structural institutional weakness of a League of Nations dependent on the two major imperial powers (not by accident, the protagonists of the Sykes-Picot agreement). The clear objective of its main “stakeholders” was the preservation (and partially, the restoration) of the global equilibrium that characterised the heyday of pre-WWI New Imperialism.

The post-World War II abandonment of mandatory administration did not, indeed, coincide with the fulfilment of the façade objectives listed in the Mandate, such as regional stability, development and fostering of political autonomy, but rather with the political and economic decline of the Empire and the definitive overcoming of pre-WWI elements of New Imperialism reflected by the creation of the United Nations. The differences between the UN trusteeship system and the LoN system of mandates was to be substantial. Full sovereignty was achieved by the last UN trusteeship territory in 1994, with the system of UN trusteeships fulfilling, in contrast with the LoN system of mandates, its exclusively transitional purposes.

di Alessandro Marinaro

Reference List

Cardini, Franco. 2013. Gerusalemme: Una Storia. Bologna: Il Mulino.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019 “International Law”. Accessed November 15, 2019.

Jewish Virtual Library. n.d. “Pre-State Israel: The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence”. Letter 1. Accessed November 6, 2019

Steel, Nigel. 2013. “Battle of Jerusalem: the Holy City is captured.” The Telegraph, November, 2007.

Yale Law School. n.d. “Balfour Declaration 1917”. Accessed November 5, 2019.

Yale Law School. n.d. “The Covenant of the League of Nations”. Accessed November 1, 2019.

Yale Law School. n.d. “The Palestine Mandate”. Accessed October 27, 2019

Yale Law School. n.d. “The Sykes-Picot Agreement: 1916”. Accessed November 3, 2019.