Basil Zaharoff
Basil Zaharoff
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On November 2, 1917, Great Britain declared its support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. That was the underlying significance of the famous Balfour Declaration - 68 words, included in a letter sent by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to the Zionist Federation, via Baron Walter Rothschild. Over the next 30 years, the British allowed the Zionist movement to settle hundreds of thousands of Jews in Palestine, establish hundreds of settled communities, including several cities, and to lay the political, economic, military and cultural foundations of the State of Israel.

It can thus be said that Israel owes its existence to the British, despite the tensions that characterized the last decade of the Mandate, in particular. The Balfour Declaration has prompted many books, but it turns out that the subject still stimulates new findings. A volume written by an American historian, Jonathan Schneer - "The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict" - due to be published next week by Random House, reveals a fascinating discovery: Less than a month after Britain pledged publicly to support the realization of the Zionist dream, it was inclined to disavow the declaration, and leave control over Palestine to the Turks.

Stirring the imagination, this twist features the schemes and machinations of a colorful arms merchant of Turkish-Greek ancestry, named Basil Zaharoff. Like many other characters during this period, he meddled in international relations as a private individual.

As World War I neared its end, Zaharoff proposed a dramatic turnabout to Britain's Foreign Office: Turkey would betray Germany, and sign a separate peace with Britain. Pursuing this idea, Zaharoff met in Switzerland with two Turkish politicians; he wagered that they could be recruited to the idea in exchange for a $2 million bribe. Some decision-makers in London could not resist the scoundrel charms of Zaharoff's corrupt, arrogant and eccentric ways. When he graciously allowed them to deposit the bribe funds in his own bank account they were grateful, and subsequently conferred to Zaharoff the honorary title of "Sir Basil."

The British war cabinet devoted a few discussions to this plan, and was disposed to agree to Turkey's continued control of its assets in the Middle East. Naturally, the question of Palestine's disposition arose in these discussions. So as to maintain at least the appearance of loyalty to the Balfour Declaration, the following solution materialized: The Turks would be allowed to wave their flag in Palestine, including Jerusalem, but the Jews would be entitled to a certain measure of self-rule. In the end, Zaharoff's house of cards collapsed, because his Turkish confidantes demanded that the bribe be sweetened to a total of $25 million.

This is a story that imposes an intriguing, counter-factual "what if" upon the history of the Land of Israel: Had the Turks been left in control of Palestine, it is very likely that they would not have given the Zionists the same free hand that the British sanctioned, and so it is unlikely that the State of Israel would have come into being.

They all wrote them

Sixty years after the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, an engrossing dispute is rising anew: Who wrote the scrolls, and where were they written? Like virtually everything else in archaeology, this is clearly a political dispute: If it is true that they were written by the Essene sect at Qumran, where the scrolls were found, then they express a schismatic variant of Judaism. But some scholars argue that the scrolls were written at the Temple in Jerusalem, and were removed for safe-keeping to Qumran, to protect them before, or immediately after, the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. If this is the case, then the scrolls reflect mainstream Judaism of the time, and the Pharisee form of Judaism, which remains standard to the present day, would actually have been the deviant sect.

This argument reignited this week, thanks to a film broadcast on the National Geographic Channel. American archaeologist Robert Cargill, who has worked in Israel, proposed in the film a compromise theory: At least some portion of the scrolls were written in Jerusalem, and smuggled to Qumran; possibly some of the figures mistakenly identified as members of the Essenes actually belonged to the priestly Kohanim at the Temple. In other words, this theory holds that the scrolls were written in various places by persons who represented different approaches to Judaism.

The claim is based on some new findings, including a radiocarbon test showing that only half of the clay jars that stored the scrolls were created in Qumran, and also the recent discovery in Jerusalem of tunnels that served as escape routes to the desert. Not surprisingly, Cargill's compromise theory immediately stirred vociferous objections among other researchers; this never-ending dispute features very little consideration or clear thought.