Monday, 15 May 2017

Starting the fire

The BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen has begun a new five-part series on Radio 4 called Our Man in the Middle East

It's been trailed as a "personal" history, and the website blurb backs that up by noting that he's "paid a personal price, coming under fire and losing a colleague in the course of reporting - on the worst day, he says, in his life."

(And, as we know, he blames the Israelis for that).

Looking at the episode previews, two of the five are specifically focused on the Israel-Palestinian conflict (as you'd expect from Jeremy). 

That said though, having listened to the first episode today, it might actually turn out that all of the episodes ultimately hinge on the Israel-Palestinian conflict - especially given that this episode, supposedly focused on the Gulf War of 1991, ended up dwelling on Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration instead.

Here's a transcript of the central portion of the programme. 

It's the sort of history that, I think, will appeal much more to your average Guardian reader than to your average Brit. 

It's the kind of history where Britain is always the guilty party, the bad guy.

Here Britain was the "duplicitous" deceiver of the honest Arabs, having caved in to the Zionist lobby, the country ultimately responsible for most of the past and present woes of the Middle East (via Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration). 

So here we go (and please imagine ominous minor-key music for its accompaniment):

Big powers have intervened in the Middle East to reshape it to their requirements since ancient times. It's strategically placed, connecting Europe with Asia and Africa. It's the home of the world's three great monotheistic religions, and for the last 100 years or so great powers have needed its oil reserves - the biggest in the world. 
Two imperial grandees created and, some say, cursed the modern Middle East when they carved up the Ottoman Empire at the height of the First World War. One was a French diplomat, Charles François Georges-Picot. The other, Sir Mark Sykes, was British. 
The Sykes-Picot agreement was designed to win the peace for Britain and France. It defined zones of influence in the Middle East for the two imperial powers. Borders of new states came later. But to win the war the British had already made promises to the Arabs. The Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali. lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. In return he believed the British had promised him an independent Arab kingdom across much of present day Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Hussein kept his word; The duplicitous British did not. The requirements of empire came first. The promise of Arab self-determination was part of the collateral damage. Within 20 years a Palestinian scholar referred to Sykes-Picot as "a shocking document, the product of greed, stupidity and double-dealing". 
Another vision of the future cut across Hussein's hopes. Zionists lobbied Britain, successfully, to support the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. In November 1917 Britain's foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, declared that Britain would "view with favour" the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. Britain also promised that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine." 
Making promises to both sides built a deadly contradiction into the Balfour Declaration. By the early 1920s Arabs and Jews in Palestine with killing each other. They are responsible for what they've done, but Britain started the fire.
For Palestinians the Balfour Declaration was a milestone on the road to catastrophe. For Israelis it led to statehood. A century on it's still politically resonant - triumphant or toxic, depending on your view of history. 


  1. Can anyone point me in the direction of a good book about the Middle East that isn't revisionist if that's possible. Failing that 2 ones that are the alternate side of the spectrum?

    I instinctively side with Israel but more knowledge is good.

    1. I've read quite a bit about the dispute over the years. Not sure any one book stands out. One lesson of history though is that both sides can be right, and both sides can be wrong. Given the realities in the late 40s the UN peace plan was a good one - two states and Jerusalem an international city. I do believe it was essentially the Arabs who scuppered that plan. I think if they had accepted the plan then the Americans would have ensured Israel accepted it as well. Why did the Arabs not accept it? Islam, not anti-colonialism explains that best I think.

    2. Sue might be able to advise.

      I get my knowledge from blogs. is good as is Daniel Greenfield on frontpage mag. More general is

      These sources often have references to academic sources so you can learn bit by bit if you follow the links.

      I also follow business and tech blogs and learn things the legacy media wouldn't dare tell you (if indeed they know). How many employees does Intel have in Israel? Would you believe 10,000? It will soon be more because Intel has just paid 15.3 billion dollars for Israeli firm Mobileye!

    3. I’d certainly advise you to absorb much as you can take, pro and anti. I think pro-Israel literature is more evidence-based than pro-Palestinian material, so it boils down to a matter of ‘who you gonna trust’.

      If you are interested in the history of Middle East in general, I see there’s a huge amount of material concerning the Arab World.
      If you’re interested to learn more about the history of Israel, an intro to the topic might be, say, The Case For Israel by Alan Dershowitz.
      Or, if you want to tackle a more demanding heavy tome, there’s Sir Martin Gilbert’s Israel: A History. Also, scour he Jewish virtual library: and websites that are full of links and references, such as Elder of Ziyon.

  2. Bowen has been slowly building this narrative for years. Proof that the BBC is not controlled by Zionists or institutionally pro-Israel is that someone who has a personal grudge against Israel is the BBC's top man reporting on it and the region, with the august position of titled editor.

  3. As someone who thinks the best place for The Guardian is the recycling bin, I can't see anything to argue with about Bowen's analysis of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration. Spot on, I would say.

    1. ..or not.