Committee Report on the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence
Annex E

(March 1939)


(See paragraph 9.)


1. At the third meeting of the Committee, the Lord Chancellor listened to two able Statements, the first by Sir Michael McDonnell upon certain purely legal issues, and the second by Mr. George Antonius upon the "surrounding circumstances" of the Correspondence.

2. In this Statement the Lord Chancellor will endeavour to deal with the main points on which the Arab representatives rely in contesting the claim that Palestine was excluded by the Correspondence from the area of Arab independence.

3. The Lord Chancellor has been impressed by some of the arguments brought forward in regard to the exclusion of Palestine under the phrase "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo". He considers that the Arab point of view as regards this aspect of the question has been shown to have greater force than has appeared hitherto, although he does not agree that it is impossible to regard Palestine as covered by the phrase "portions of Syria, etc.".

4. On the other hand, the Lord Chancellor does not consider that the force of the reservation in respect of French interests has been diminished by the counterarguments.

5. In particular, he wholly disagrees with the contention that the Correspondence was a first step in a deliberate scheme whereby His Majesty's Government set out to exclude what is now called Palestine from the area of French influence and eventually succeeded in doing so. The supposition that His Majesty's Government conducted the Correspondence with this end in view appears to him to be unsupported by any evidence. He does not deny that in the autumn of 1915 His Majesty's Government wished to restrict the claims of their ally to Palestine if they could do so in the only way open to them, i.e., by an understanding with that ally. But they cannot have thought that they would make their position stronger in any eventual negotiations by entering in advance into commitments on the subject to a third party. The French Government would not have regarded these commitments as having any validity where they themselves were concerned, and the result of any such action on the part of His Majesty's Government would have been far more likely to render the attainment of their object more difficult than ever.

6. The Lord Chancellor maintains, therefore, that the reservation in respect of French interests applied, and was meant to apply, to all territory, including what is now called Palestine, to which the claims of France extended at the time.

7. But it was" not only because of the claims of France that Great Britain was not free to make promises about Palestine in the autumn of 1915. The interest in Palestine of almost all the countries in the world had to be taken into account, and in this connexion the Lord Chancellor would like to say that although he does not wish to differ from any of the authorities quoted by Sir Michael McDonnell, he thinks there may have been some misunderstanding of his argument.

8. He did not mean to convey the impression that his argument, or at any rate one of his arguments, was that Palestine was excluded from the area of Arab independence merely because it was not mentioned. So far as he is aware this argument has never been put forward, either before the Royal Commission or anywhere else. His argument is that on a fair construction of the Correspondence which takes into account the circumstances in which its language was used Palestine was in fact excluded, even though it was not mentioned.

9. In other words, he holds that the Correspondence as a whole and particularly the reservation in respect of French interests in Sir Henry McMahon's letter of the 24th October, 1915, not only did exclude Palestine, but should have been understood to do so, having in view the unique position of Palestine.

10. This view is forcibly stated in a speech of Lord Milner in the House of Lords on the 27th June, 1923, when he said: —

"I am a strong supporter of pro-Arab policy. ... I believe in the independence of the Arab countries. ... I look forward to an. Arab Federation. ..., But Palestine can never be regarded as a country on the? same footing as the other Arab countries. You cannot ignore all history and tradition in the matter. You cannot ignore the fact that this is the cradle of two of the great religions of the world. It is a sacred land to the Arabs, but it is also a sacred land to the Jew and the Christian? and the future of Palestine cannot possibly be left to be determined by the temporary impressions and feelings of the Arab majority in the country of the present day."

11. As regards the individual factors which go to make up the surrounding circumstances, the Lord Chancellor has noted the contentions based upon the Treaty of Berlin, and the proposals for Anglo-Arab co-operation which run through the Correspondence. It may be observed that by Article LXII of the Treaty the rights of France were expressly reserved.

12. Article LXII seems to him to enforce his contention that in regard to Palestine Great Britain had to think not only of herself, but of almost the whole world. If she had indeed been purporting to recognise and support Arab independence in Palestine, she would not and could not have done so without giving a clear indication of the rights to be reserved not only for herself but for all other interested parties.

13. The point about the Holy Places is different. The Lord Chancellor is of opinion that the phrase "Holy Places" as used in the Correspondence meant and was taken to mean the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina. But assuming that the phrase covered Jerusalem and the other Holy Places of Palestine, the fact that Great Britain might have been willing to protect the Holy Places of Palestine against external aggression did not mean or contain an implication that she or other Christian peoples thereby acquired any rights in regard to those Holy Places. It is exceedingly improbable, to say the least, that Great Britain would have accepted this liability without a clear understanding as to these rights.

14. The Lord Chancellor does not wish to pursue the argument about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, although he must make all reserves on this subject, but as he has been especially invited to modify his former remarks about what was said by Viscount Grey of Fallodon in 1923 he will deal with this point.

15. On this point he wishes to say that he sees no reason to modify his remarks. The words of Lord Grey were used in the course of debate, when, as he said, he had not the terms of the Declaration before him. In any case the Lord Chancellor's opinion was based on a clear view of what the words of the Balfour Declaration meant when it was made in 1917 and this view is not affected by the fact that at later dates interpretations, which he thinks were mistaken ones, may have been placed upon these words by persons of eminence, particularly since these interpretations have not been accepted by other persons at least as likely to form a correct view.

House of Lords,

March 16th, 1939.