Memorandum of Conversation, by Mr. J. Rives Childs of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs

Mr. Antonius11 stated that late last summer, when Mohammed Mahmoud Pasha, Egyptian Prime Minister, was in London, he was [Page 697] approached by the British Government following conversations which were then under way with the British authorities and Dr. Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization, and others, looking to a settlement of the Palestine problem, with a view to the use by the Egyptian Prime Minister of his good offices to bring about such a settlement.

The Egyptian Prime Minister was asked to approach the Mufti12 and to sound him out as to whether he would be disposed to take part in a round table conference on Palestine with representatives of the British Government, Dr. Weizmann and with representatives of Arab states neighboring Palestine, including Egypt and Iraq. According to Mr. Antonius this proposal was made after Dr. Weizmann had signified his willingness to take part in such a conference looking to the establishment of a bi-national state in Palestine in which Arabs and Jews would have equal representation and on condition that Jewish immigration would be continued.

Mohammed Mahmoud Pasha returned to Cairo where he is said to have consulted three prominent authorities whose names were not given to me, regarding the wisdom of his acceptance of the role of intermediary as proposed to him. One of these in whom he had the greatest confidence, and whom I believe to have been Sheikh Maraghi, head of Al Azhar University in Cairo, is said to have advised against an approach on the part of the Prime Minister to the Mufti unless certain prior undertakings were given by the British Government. The Prime Minister’s adviser is said to have pointed out that the Mufti had gone on record as being unwilling to discuss a settlement of the Palestine problem on a basis of the continuance of the Balfour Declaration13 or with any Jewish representatives other than Palestinian Jews. The adviser therefore suggested that the Prime Minister inform the British Government that he would only be prepared to accept the role of intermediary provided assurances could be given by the British Government that any conference into which the Mufti would be called would be based on these conditions.

The British Government of course was unable to give such undertakings, and the proposal collapsed.

Dr. Weizmann is then said to have made counter proposals to the British Government suggesting that the Jews would be prepared to support an Arab federation, including the union of Palestine and Transjordan under the rule of the Emir Abdullah,14 with that united state associated with Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq in a federation, provided [Page 698] it was agreed by the Arabs to accept an immigration of Jews into that federation to raise the proportion of Jews to the total population to forty percent. It may be mentioned in this connection that discussions have been under way for almost a year between Nuri Pasha, present Prime Minister of Iraq, and Dr. Magnes, President of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and with others interested, looking to a settlement along these lines.15 The difficulty has been that the Jews, as represented by Dr. Magnes, have only been willing to accept such a prescribed limitation of the Jewish population on a purely temporary basis extending for some ten years, while Nuri Pasha has insisted that the settlement be accepted as a permanent one. More recently such a settlement has been espoused by Lord Samuel, former High Commissioner for Palestine, and by Mr. Winston Churchill.

The present proportion of Jews to the total population of Palestine is approximately thirty percent, while the Jewish proportion of the population of Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq is very small. The advantage of such a proposal to the Jews is that it would greatly extend the possibilities of Jewish immigration. It has been estimated that to bring the population of Jews to forty percent of the total population of Palestine alone in ten years would entail an annual immigration of some 30,000 Jews, while the bringing of Jews in a proportion to the total population of a federated Arab state embracing Palestine, Transjordan (where no Jews at present reside), Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq, would extend very largely the number. The Jews would hope, of course, while accepting a minority status in the federation, to bring the Jewish population of Palestine eventually to a majority.

Following Dr. Weizmann’s suggestion the British Government invited Tewfik as-Suwaidi, Iraqi Foreign Minister, to come to London to discuss the proposal. At this conference, which took place in early October, Nuri Pasha, who had not yet become Iraqi Prime Minister, was present. They had already been acquainted with the Egyptian Prime Minister’s attitude as well as with that of the Mufti, and they are said to have expressed to the British authorities their approval in principle of formal discussions looking to the settlement of the Palestine problem on a basis of federation. They are said, moreover, to have repeated the conditions of the Egyptian Prime Minister that such formal discussions could be undertaken with the Jews only with the understanding that the Balfour Declaration would be discarded and provided discussions were limited to Jewish representatives from Palestine. In a discussion between the Iraqi Foreign Minister and Mr. MacDonald, the British Colonial Secretary, concerning the question [Page 699] of Palestine, the Iraqi Foreign Minister stated that it was to be clearly understood that no conference could hope to obtain an agreement on the part of the Arabs to any large-scale Jewish immigration at the present time into either Palestine or into the proposed Arab federation. Mr. MacDonald inquired whether the Arabs would be prepared to agree to a “token” Jewish immigration. When the word was explained to him he agreed and stated that this was quite in accordance with Arab ideas on the subject. Mr. Antonius was present in London while the negotiations were in progress and was in frequent touch with the Iraqi Foreign Minister and, accordingly, the information he gives was obtained by him at first-hand.

Confirmation in part of this interpretation of events is found in an editorial in the New Palestine, organ of the American Zionist Organization, for October 14, 1938, reading as follows:

“The fact that in London, immediately after Munich, the Zionist leadership had been asked by the Colonial Office to confer with the Iraqi Foreign Minister, without comment on the amazing disregard, in the proposals the Foreign Minister submitted, on a new covenant with the Jewish people or responsibility to the Jewish people; in fact, calling for the nullification of the Balfour Declaration; caused the greatest disturbance in all corners of the Jewish world, especially here in the United States. It seemed to be the intention of His Majesty’s Government to liquidate the Palestine enterprise by abandoning without reserve, at the expense of the Jewish people, the implications of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate.”

According to our own information Dr. Weizmann, upon learning from the British Colonial Secretary that the British Government was seriously considering the Arab proposals, immediately got in touch with American Zionists with a view to organizing a protest. There followed the organization of an Emergency Committee on October 7, 1938, in New York, under the Chairmanship of Dr. Goldman, President of the American Zionist Organization, which took the initiative in inspiring the unprecedented mass appeals which flooded the White House and the State Department thereafter for a period of several weeks, protesting against the reported British plan to abandon the Balfour Declaration and appealing for the intervention of this Government with the British Government for the continued maintenance of that Declaration as well as for the continuance of Jewish immigration into Palestine.

There followed on November 9 the publication of the Palestine Partition Commission’s report16 and the announcement of the British Government’s intention to call a conference in London of representatives [Page 700] of the Jewish Agency on the one hand and of representatives of Palestinian Arabs and of Arabs of neighboring states on the other, with a view to reaching a Palestine settlement. It was announced at the same time that if the London discussions should not produce an agreement within a reasonable period of time the British Government would take its own decision in the light of its examination of the problem and of the discussions in London and announce the policy it proposed to pursue.

Mr. Antonius is very pessimistic of the possibility of the reaching of an agreement between Arabs and Jews in London. He is of the opinion that the Arabs will insist upon recognition of Palestine and Transjordan as an independent Arab state bound to Great Britain by a Treaty of Alliance similar to the Treaty of Alliance concluded between Great Britain and Iraq of June 30, 1930.17 He is further of the opinion that so far as immigration is concerned, the Arabs will insist that this is a domestic matter for the determination of the Arab state.

  1. George Antonius, Near Eastern authority, and author of The Arab Awakening.
  2. Haj Mohammid Amin Effendi el Husseini, in exile from Palestine, with headquarters at Beirut.
  3. November 2, 1917; for text, see Foreign Relations, 1917, supp. 2, vol. i, p. 317, footnote 1.
  4. Ruler of Transjordan.
  5. For a summary of these discussions, see letter dated March 3, 1938, from the Minister Resident in Iraq, Foreign Relations, 1938, vol. ii, p. 903.
  6. British Cmd. 5854: Palestine Partition Commission Report, October, 1938 [Woodhead Report].
  7. League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. cxxxii, p. 363.