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The San Remo Conference, a century on

One hundred years after the conference that created the modern Middle East, it is the boldest of the ideas it envisaged—a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel—that has measured up to historical expectations.

Delegates to the San Remo Conference in Italy on April 25, 1920. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Delegates to the San Remo Conference in Italy on April 25, 1920. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Zvi Hauser
Zvi Hauser

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the San Remo Conference. The international meeting was held by the Allied Supreme Council in the Italian Riviera in the aftermath of World War I, and determined the fate of the Middle East regions held under the control of the Ottoman Empire during the previous four centuries. Following the principles laid down by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the representatives of the Allied powers concluded that occupied territories were to be administered in the form of “Mandates.” By this new legal instrument sovereign control was transferred temporarily to an Allied power, in order to support the forthcoming independence of those territories.

Most of the territories in the Middle East were proposed for the independence of Arab populations. Thus a “Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon” was assigned to France, and Mandatory power was entrusted to the United Kingdom for the emancipation of the people of Iraq. Nonetheless a small territory in the Middle East was assigned to the United Kingdom as part of a third Mandate, which proved to be the most challenging: the Mandate over “Eretz Israel.”

The Allied powers adopted a courageous resolution with far-reaching implications, overturning a condition that was nearly 2,000 years old. They determined that the Land of Israel would be temporarily entrusted to a British administration for a specific purpose—the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, and especially for the millions of Jews dispersed in the Diaspora. For the first time, there was international recognition for Jewish self-determination in the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland.

The prime ministers of the United Kingdom, France and Italy, together with representatives of Japan, Greece, Belgium and American observers, adopted the declaration of the British foreign secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, which had been given 30 months prior to the San Remo Conference. Until that point the Balfour Declaration was formally only a statement of intent by the British Empire, ruling the Land of Israel.

The San Remo Resolution was immediately ratified by the 51 member states of the League of Nations, and later on the British Mandate with its concrete goal of establishing a national home for the Jewish people was integrated into the foundational treaty of the United Nations, the intergovernmental organization that replaced the League of Nations at the end of World War II. Jewish independence in the Land of Israel had become international law.

While the conference did not determine the territorial boundaries of the land promised to the Jewish people, the United Kingdom and France concluded that the starting point for such a discussion would be the depiction of “Eretz Israel” in the Bible—in accordance with its ancient boundaries of “Dan to Beersheva.” This shows how significant the historical-cultural context of this territory was to the British and the French, in their regard for the land as the historical homeland of the Jewish people. This was a political reference point which served as the basis for all future discussions on the matter.

The San Remo Conference recognized, in a way unprecedented in modern times, the idea of a connection between the Land of Israel and the Jewish people, and certified it as part of the Mandate charter. This documentation contradicts later invidious claims that try to break the umbilical cord connecting the Jewish people to their historic homeland, and declaring Jewish settlements in the mandated territories to be a violation of international law or even a “war crime.” Even George Orwell could not have articulated better such artfully groundless accusations.

A century after the San Remo Conference, the Middle East is in the midst of substantial changes. Examining the Allied resolutions regarding the three Mandates in the Middle East from a contemporary perspective, it seems evident that the Mandates over Syria, Lebanon and Iraq did not bring about the expected peace and prosperity, even after a century. Only violence, poverty and continuing violations of fundamental human rights have governed these territories for the past 100 years, against the intentions of the Allies in San Remo. The future of the nation-states in these territories is as yet unclear, given the geopolitical turmoil erupting before our very eyes in the past decade, better known as the “Arab Spring.”

However, one case was different. The Jewish people established their nation-state in the Middle East 28 years after the San Remo Conference. This month also marks the 72nd anniversary of Israeli independence. The vision depicted by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, his French counterpart Alexandre Millerand, Italian Prime Minister Francesco Saverio Nitti and the other delegates in the conference coincided with the two-millennia old yearning of the Jewish people for a return to their land, resulting in a state worthy of its name.

The boldest of ideas envisaged in San Remo, to establish a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, was the one which measured up to the historical expectations and proved to be a success. Indeed, of all the many resolutions by the international community pertaining to the Middle East during the past century, establishing the Jewish state has been by far the most successful, corresponding exactly to the vision and the hopes of the allied leaders gathered in San Remo.

Zvi Hauser is the chairman of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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