The Suez Canal and the British empire’s need for the Balfour Declaration

Posted by: John Phoenix

For the average British pro-Palestinian human rights activist, the Balfour Declaration, published ninety- five years ago today on the 2nd November 1917, is only mentioned in passing in their publications or agitations. For them, the declaration seems to have drafted in, one autumn day most likely alongside the brown and crimson leaves for then to triumphantly and jubilantly land on Lord Balfour’s, the British foreign secretary, desk. For them, it is more convenient to strongly imply that the Palestinian predicament began when the young United Nations partitioned Palestine on the 29th November 1947 or when the British Empire’s Palestine mandate officially ended on 15th May 1948. For them, the fact that up to 400,000 Palestinians under the Empire’s watch were ethnically cleansed between these latter two dates literally doesn’t warrant a footnote.[1]

This is certainly the impression given by reading the literature of “revolutionary socialists” as well as other supposedly pro-Palestinians. In his book Imperialism and Resistance, John Rees argues that the Israeli state began to take a shape on Palestinian land as a result “of the decline of the Ottoman Empire” and on the basis of this ‘shaping’ the British state “committed” itself to the Balfour Declaration.[2]

Being committed to a proposition does not necessarily mean that the proposition originated with the upholders of the commitment. The notion that the British government may have written and issued the Declaration is quite simply overlooked.

Furthermore, according to Rees, this Balfour Declaration “heralded the increase in Jewish settlers”. In other words it wasn’t the British Empire that dictated the terms of European Jewish immigration to Palestine but the “Balfour Declaration”. Actually, the pattern of immigration proved to be one of the early bones of contention between British Imperialism and right-wing Jewish-Zionism. The Empire wanted an incremental approach to immigration so as not to totally aggravate the indigenous population, while Zionists of the Vladimir Jabotinsky hue wanted mass Jewish immigration as soon as the British Empire officially wrenched itself into Palestine.

What’s galling about Rees’s analysis of the Balfour Declaration and Palestine is that he makes no attempt whatsoever to connect the Balfour Declaration to the perceived economic and political needs of the British Empire. In his hands the declaration is some random document of ethereal provenance which the British state somehow found itself “committed” to one November morning in 1917.[3]

Another “revolutionary socialist”, Richard Seymour in his book the Liberal Defence of Murder, argues that “British colonialists prepared some of the legitimacy for a future Zionist state in its response to” the Palestinian uprising between 1936-1939 “by advocating the partition of Palestine.”[4] This is not true because the Zionist proposition found legitimacy in 1917 otherwise it is unlikely the declaration would have been issued. Lord Balfour was very unequivocal in this. And so were the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George and his Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill. In a meeting they informed the head of Zionist Federation, Chaim Weizmann “that by the Declaration they had always meant an eventual state.”[5]

One of the strategies employed by the British to bring about the “eventual state” was to deny real democracy to Palestine, as Lloyd George instructed Churchill: “You mustn’t give representative government to Palestine.”[6]

Once again the demand for democracy was a factor when the first Palestinian uprising erupted in 1936. The then British Colonial Secretary, William Orsmby-Gore confirmed in parliament that:

“…The Arabs demand a complete stoppage of all Jewish immigration, a complete stoppage of all sales of land, and the transfer of the Government of Palestine…to what they call a National Government responsible to an elected democratic assembly. Those are their three demands, and quite frankly, those demands cannot possibly be conceded.”[7]

As such the British were hell bent on creating their Zionist entity in Palestine by denying democracy to Palestine and military crushing the indigenous population. So for Seymour’s framing of the Zionist state within the context of a ‘legitimate’ British response to the Palestinian uprising is erroneous, simply places the cart before horses and avoids the geo-politics on why the British Empire wanted a Zionist state in Palestine.

However, the geo-politics behind the Empire’s Zionist enterprise in Palestine was not eschewed by respected opinion of the period.

In 1917, C.P. Scott the then editor of the Guardian was in no doubt about why Palestine should be colonised by European Jewry.

After claiming that Palestine is not a country, he insisted “it will be a country; it will be the country of the Jews. That is the meaning of…” the Balfour Declaration. The fact that in 1917 the population of Palestine was 80,000 Jewish and 700,000 Arab Palestinian literally meant nothing to the editor of this great liberal bugle.

Clearly the Guardian’s dictum “comment is free, but facts are sacred…” never quite extended to Palestine. After all, the Arabs of Palestine were “at a low stage of civilisation” and that they contain within “itself none of the elements of progress…” according to the esteemed and progressive editor.

He further stated that the British government’s deliberate policy will be then “to encourage in every way in our power Jewish immigration…with a view to the ultimate establishment of a Jewish State.”

Scott continued to reason that there should be a Zionist state in Palestine because, “Palestine has a special importance for Great Britain because in the hands of a hostile Power, it can be made…a secure base which a land attack on Egypt can be organised…” Therefore, it is in Britain’s interest that “no Power should be seated in Palestine” that “is likely to be hostile” to British Imperialism.[8]

The left-wing New Statesman magazine was far more blunt in legitimising support for the Balfour Declaration and Zionism. It was also more specific on why there should be a Zionist state in Palestine. It informed its readers that the “special interest of the British Empire in Palestine is due to the proximity of the Suez Canal.” The only obvious conclusion is then to imperatively “effect a Zionist restoration under British auspices.”

After all, the New Statesman added, the then position of Jews as “unassimilated sojourners in every land but their own can never become satisfactory…It is far better…to make a nation of them” in the interests of Empire.[9]

The Guardian’s and New Statesman’s reasons legitimising the Zionist entity in Palestine were echoed by a prominent left-wing politician in this period, Colonel Josiah Wedgwood. He argued that Palestine was the “Clapham Junction” of the British Empire. As such a “friendly and efficient population” is required to settle there. And as Egyptians did not want the British occupation of their country, Palestine should be settled with “men on whom we can depend, if only because they depend on us…The Jews depend on us.”[10]

History testifies that the colonial-settler state of Israel essentially came about not as a result of the “decline of the Ottoman Empire” (John Rees) or as a legitimate British response to the first Palestinian uprising in the 1930’s (Richard Seymour) but as a result of the British Empire’s need for security for Egypt and specifically the British owned Suez Canal.

The Empire’s first military governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs had claimed that Egypt was the “jugular vein of the British Empire.”[11]

At the turn of the twentieth century, eighty per cent of the shipping passing through the Suez Canal belonged to the Empire.[12] Therefore, with Palestine in close proximity to the canal it was thought best to colonise it with European Jews so as to pre-empt any challenge to the British presence in Egypt either from the indigenous Arabs or another foreign power.

The newly European Jewish settlers were to be the Praetorian Guard of Egypt and specifically of the Suez Canal. As such, in the words of Winston Churchill, European Jews would then “be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire”[13] rather than “unassimilated sojourners in every land.”


[1] Rosemarie M. Esber, “Under the Cover of War”, (Alexandria V.A.: Aribicus Books and Media, 2009). This is an excellent account of the ethnic cleansing that took place under the British Mandate.

[2] The Balfour Declaration stated that the British government will “…view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object…” quoted in Christopher Sykes, “Cross Roads to Israel”, (London: Collins, 1965), pg. 15

[3] John Rees, “Imperialism and Resistance”, (London: Routledge, 2006), pg.74-76

[4] Richard Seymour, “The Liberal Defence of Murder”, (London: Verso Books, 2008), pg.66

[5] Max Egrenot, “A Life of Arthur James Balfour”, (London: Collins, 1980), pg. 314.

[6] Richard Toye, Lloyd George and Churchill, (London: Macmillan, 2007), pg220

[7] Commons Debates, Fifth Series, Vol. 313, Column 1324, 19th June 1936.

[8] The Guardian, 9th November 1917

[9] New Statesman, 17th November 1917

[10] Josiah Wedgwood, “The Seventh Dominion”, (London: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 1928), pg.3. Clapham Junction is a main a busy termini in central London.

[11] Sir Ronald Storrs, “Orientations”, (London: Readers Union Ltd., 1939), pg.155

[12] Roger Adelson, “London and the invention of the Middle East, 1902-1920”(London: Yale University Press, 1995), pg.32

[13] Winston Churchill, “Zionism vs. Bolshevism”, Illustrated Sunday Herald, (London), 8th February 1920.


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