Ambiguous Promises

The Balfour Declaration
The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Jonathan Schneer
Random House, $30, 432 pp.

Jonathan Schneer, professor of British history at Georgia Tech University, has written two books, not one. The first, an account of what has been called the “Arab Awakening,” tells the story of the effort by a few distinguished and brave Arabs during the Great War to create, with British help, an Arab kingdom out of the failing Ottoman Empire. The second describes the simultaneous activity of the new Zionist movement to win support from Britain for a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. To chronicle both stories under the single title “The Balfour Declaration” exaggerates the reach of Lord Balfour’s famous letter.

The experience of lawyers in ordinary commercial affairs teaches that ambiguous promises yield unenforceable or problematic obligations. In international affairs, the phenomenon is writ large. As Britain fought a desperate war against the Central Powers in Europe, it determined to weaken Ottoman hegemony in the Middle East. To that end, ambiguous promises were made to two possible allies. Whether the contradictory vagaries of British assurances to Arabs and Zionists were intentional, negligent, or merely insouciant is a vexing question raised by Schneer’s study, which might have been titled “Lessons in Diplomatic Obfuscation.”

In 1914, Hussein, the grand sharif of Mecca, carefully conspired against the Ottoman government in Constantinople. Although appearing to support Turkish armies in the Great War, Hussein, with British encouragement, worked to...

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About the Author

Joseph D. Becker, a founding partner of Becker, Glynn, Melamed and Muffly, a Manhattan law firm, is author of The American Law of Nations (Judis).