In 1913, the Zionist leadership recognized the desirability of reaching an agreement with the Arabs. Sami Hochberg, owner of the newspaper, Le-Jeune-Turc, informally represented the Zionists in a meeting with the Cairo-based Decentralization Party and the anti-Ottoman Beirut Reform Society and was able to reach an agreement. This “entente verbale” led to the adoption of a resolution assuring Jews equal rights under a decentralized government. Hochberg also secured an invitation to the First Arab Congress held in Paris in June 1913.
The Arab Congress proved to be surprisingly receptive to Zionist aspirations. Hochberg was encouraged by the Congress’s favorable response to the entente verbale. Abd-ul-Hamid Yahrawi, the President of the Congress, summed up the attitude of the delegates:
All of us, both Muslims and Christians, have the best of feelings toward the Jews. When we spoke in our resolutions about the rights and obligations of the Syrians, this covered the Jews as well. Because they are our brothers in race and we regard them as Syrians who were forced to leave the country at one time but whose hearts always beat together with ours, we are certain that our Jewish brothers the world over will know how to help us so that our common interests may succeed and our common country will develop both materially and morally (author’s emphasis).1
The entente verbale Hochberg negotiated was rendered ineffectual by wartime developments. The outspoken Arab opposition to the Balfour Declaration convinced the Zionist leadership of the need to make a more concerted effort to reach an understanding with the Arabs.
Chaim Weizmann considered the task important enough to lead a Zionist Commission to Palestine to explain the movement’s aims to the Arabs. Weizmann went first to Cairo in March 1918 and met with Said Shukeir, Dr. Faris Nimr and Suleiman Bey Nassif (Syrian Arab nationalists who had been chosen by the British as representatives). He stressed the desire to live in harmony with the Arabs in a British Palestine.
Weizmann’s diplomacy was successful. Nassif said “there was room in Palestine for another million inhabitants without affecting the position of those already there.”2 Dr. Nimr disseminated information through his Cairo newspaper to dispel the Arab public’s misconceptions about Zionist aims.3
In 1921, Winston Churchill tried to arrange a meeting between Palestinians and Zionists. On November 29, 1921, the two sides met with the Arabs insisting that the Balfour Declaration be abrogated.4
Weizmann led a group of Zionists that met with Syrian nationalist Riad al-Sulh in 1921. The Zionists agreed to support Arab nationalist aspirations and Sulh said he was willing to recognize the Jewish National Home. The talks resumed a year later and raised hopes for an agreement; in May 1923, however, Sulh’s efforts to convince Palestinian Arab leaders that Zionism was an accomplished fact were rejected.5
Over the next 25 years, Zionist leaders inside and outside Palestine would try repeatedly to negotiate with the Arabs. Similarly, Israeli leaders since 1948 have sought peace treaties with the Arab states, but Egypt and Jordan are the only nations that have signed them.
Notes1Aharon Cohen, Israel and the Arab World, (NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1970), p. 97.
2Jon Kimche, There Could Have Been Peace: The Untold Story of Why We Failed With Palestine and Again With Israel, (England: Dial Press, 1973), pp. 136-137.
3Aharon Cohen, Israel and the Arab World, (NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1970), p. 71-73.
4Yehoshua Porath, The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918-1929, (London: Frank Cass, 1974), pp. 65-67.
5Yehoshua Porath, The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918-1929, (London: Frank Cass, 1974), pp. 112-114.