On January 3, 1919, Chaim Weizmann, head of the British Zionist Federation, and the Emir Faisal ibn Hussein, head of the Arab delegation to the Versailles peace conference, signed an agreement of cooperation between their two peoples. In it, Faisal, representing the Arab nation as a whole, accepted the terms of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British government committed itself to “establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people.” Weizmann, on behalf of the Zionist movement, expressed its support of an independent “Arab state,” and the two agreed that both entities would work peacefully toward realization of their respective aspirations and mutual cooperation.
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The meetings that led up to the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement came in the context of the end of World War I, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the convening of the Versailles conference to decide the future of the lands over which the war had been fought. Weizmann (1874-1952), the Russian-born chemist who had been living in the United Kingdom since 1904 and was a key member of the political Zionist movement from its beginnings, had been essential in eliciting the Balfour Declaration (named for the British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, who signed it) from the British government in November 1917.
Faisal ibn Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi (1885-1933) was an Arabian-born descendant of the Prophet, a member of the Hashemite family, which oversaw the Muslim shrines of Mecca. After meeting British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”), in 1916, and with his assistance, Faisal organized the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman sultan, which helped Allied forces to conquer the Arabian Peninsula and Greater Syria. His goal was a single, independent, pan-Arab monarchy, and like Weizmann, he believed the British could help him achieve it.
Faisal and Weizmann first met in June 1918, five months before the armistice, and they began discussing cooperation. Whereas Weizmann had the standing to speak in the name of the Zionist movement, Faisal was the self-appointed representative of a people that were only beginning to think of themselves in national terms. And though he expressed his approval of the Zionist aspirations for a home – the Zionists were careful not to speak about a state at that stage – he did not necessarily have the authority to speak on behalf of the Arab residents of Palestine. In fact, after their first meeting Weizmann recorded in his diary that Faisal was “contemptuous of the Palestinian Arabs whom he doesn’t even regard as Arabs.”
The two men met again later in 1918, and then on January 3, 1919, in Aqaba, to sign their memorandum. In it, they agreed to work together with “the most cordial goodwill” to effect Jewish immigration to Palestine and to protect the religious and property rights of Palestine’s Muslims, as well as control over the Holy Places. They subjected their peoples to the terms of the Balfour Declaration and agreed that the peace conference would determine the precise boundaries of their respective territories, with disputes to be resolved by the British government.
Both men went to lengths, in the agreement and in other statements, to express their mutual goodwill, and to make it clear that they agreed that the Jewish immigrants to Palestine would assist the Arabs “in forwarding their economic development.” They also defined, in other correspondence, the boundaries of Palestine, which are similar to what we think of as the Greater Land of Israel, including most of the Golan, but extending on the north and on the east into what are today Lebanon and Jordan.
Faisal also appended a crucial reservation to the agreement, which declared that the entire plan was contingent on the Arabs receiving independence, in accordance with a plan outlined elsewhere by the emir. He stipulated that if that plan were to be altered with the “slightest modification or departure,” he would not be bound “by a single word of the present Agreement.”
The peace conference, however, did not grant the Arabs their state, and Faisal ended up becoming the monarch of Iraq alone. Weizmann remained convinced that their agreement was valid, but neither Faisal nor the Arab world in general saw things that way.