Lawrence believed that only with a sovereign Jewish entity in the area would the Arabs "ever make anything of themselves," according to Gilbert.
T.E. Lawrence, immortalized on film by Peter O'Toole, fought with Arab irregulars against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, wore Arabian clothes and adopted many Arab customs. He is widely perceived, Gilbert told The Jerusalem Post this week, as "the great Arabist, right? The man who supported the Arabs, and who pushed for Arab nationhood in the 1920s. He's always pictured wearing Arab robes."
The "astonishing" truth, however, Gilbert went on, is that Lawrence was "a serious Zionist. He believed that the only hope for the Arabs of Palestine and the rest of the region was Jewish statehood - that if the Jews had a state here, they would provide the modernity, the 'leaven,' as he put it, with which to enable the Arabs to move into the 20th century."
Gilbert, who said he had written about this issue in his forthcoming book, Churchill and the Jews, went so far as to say that Lawrence "had a sort of contempt for the Arabs, actually."
"He felt that only with a Jewish presence and state would the Arabs ever make anything of themselves. And, by a Jewish state, he meant a Jewish state from the Mediterranean shore to the River Jordan," said Gilbert, adding his own comment that this "will never come to pass."
Gilbert, in Israel for the International Book Fair, described his discovery of Lawrence's Zionist orientation as the most surprising archival revelation he had come across from an Israeli perspective.
But he stressed that archival sources consistently showed major discrepancies between what is really going on in world affairs and the inaccurate way in which events and personalities are perceived at the time.
"As a historian, I'm very cautious about anyone's claiming to know what any government is doing at the present time," he said. "I study archives as soon as they are open - normally 30 years after an event; sometimes a bit less. What you see when you do this is that the people you imagined had been strong were weak; the people you thought weak were strong; and things you thought couldn't possibly be taking place were taking place."
(The full interview with Sir Martin Gilbert appears in Friday's UpFront magazine.)