On May 16, 1916, in London, at the height of World War I, Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, signed a secret deal with his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, about the division of the Middle East between Britain and France, once the Ottoman Empire, the ruler of the region for four centuries, would be defeated.
By annexation or through spheres of influence, Britain would be given southern Iraq, Transjordan, Palestine and parts of the Arab Peninsula. France would have Lebanon, Syria and southeastern Anatolia (in today’s Turkey).
The Sykes-Picot Agreement, later endorsed in 1920 by the San Remo Conference that divided the spoils of that bloody war among the victors, not only demarcated the Middle East as we know it today, but also planted the seeds of its century-long unrest.
First of all, in drawing the map, Sykes and Picot paid little attention to ethnic, religious or tribal differences. When asked by the British government how he would actually divide the region, Sykes answered, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.”
This colonialist arrogance prompted not only revolts against the new Western rulers of the region, but also internal feuds among polarized groups squeezed together in nation-states alien to their culture and to their aspirations.
Second, the Sykes-Picot Agreement violated the promise of Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, to Sheriff Husein of Mecca (1915), and other British promises made to the Arabs by Colonel T. E. Lawrence for a national Arab homeland in the area of Greater Syria, in exchange for their siding with British forces against the Ottoman Empire.
No wonder that the Arabs felt betrayed.
Another blow to the dream of having one all-Arab empire was the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917), by which the British government opened the door to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
During the hundred years since Sykes-Picot, the Arabs in the Middle East fought to kick out their Western rulers, aspiring to establish the great Arab empire that they had dreamed would replace the Ottoman one. They were so anxious to do so that during World War II some of their leaders, like the Great Mufti of Jerusalem and Rashid Aali al-Gaylani, prime minister of Iraq (1940-41), collaborated with the Nazis.
Eventually, the British and the French left, but the great Arab empire never materialized. Instead, the states created by the European powers remained, only to be taken over by autocratic or dictatorial Arab rulers, who kept their mixed and schismatic populations together with an iron fist, while allowing relative safety to their minorities.
The Zionist enterprise in Palestine, followed by the establishment of Israel, was a thorn in the flesh of the Arabs leaders, and they repeatedly tried — and failed — to destroy it. However, more than fighting for the rights of the Palestinians, they were concerned about their own survival, and venting the rage and the frustration of their peoples against Israel was a sure way to serve that purpose.
In 2014, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared that the Sykes-Picot order was null and void, to be replaced — with a delay of a century — by the Arab Caliphate.
Actually, the breakdown of the old Middle East started earlier, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which left that country divided between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Arab Spring of 2010 sent another shock wave in the region and Syria was next in line, with rebels within and spillover of ISIS from Iraq.
However, all those who were quick to prophesy the downfall of Bashar al-Assad, just don’t understand the Middle East: The old regimes — unless toppled by mightier external powers, like in the case of Iraq — will fight ruthlessly to stay in power. In other words, the reports about the death of Sykes-Picot were greatly exaggerated.
As Israelis look at the Middle East today, they can clearly see the threats, but also the opportunities. Having peace with Egypt and Jordan, and with under-the-radar good relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Israel finds itself in a peculiarly promising strategic position. These regimes, which worry about their survival, cling to Israel, which seems like a rock in the shifting sands of the Middle East. Perhaps this doesn’t make Israel the darling of the Arab masses who hate these regimes, but Israel has to prudently play with the cards it is dealt.
However, there is a way for Israel to show that it is not only led by calculations of realpolitik. Emboldened by its current geo-strategic advantage, Israel should feel confident enough to settle its conflict with the Palestinians.
It will not only guarantee that Israel, by not ruling millions of Arabs, will remain both Jewish and democratic; it will also show the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular that Israel is not indifferent to their historical grievances. In the Middle East, magnanimity that comes out of strength does not go unappreciated.