Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Britain and Balfour: No apology but lots of guilt

Despite the red carpet and festive dinner at an exclusive event to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the sense of guilt is felt in the UK over its role in igniting one of the longest conflicts in the world, writes Manal Lotfi


Theresa May
Theresa May

Not only did some politicians and religious leaders decline invitations to attend the commemorative dinner with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s call to celebrate the Balfour centenary with “pride” evoked a more reflective mood and raised many questions about British political and moral responsibility for the historic injustice against the Palestinian people.

The shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, called on the UK to mark the centenary with a formal British recognition of the state of Palestine.

“The British government have said they will do, it’s just a question of when the time is right, and it seems to me this is the time,” said Thornberry.

Her call echoed the position of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn who snubbed the ceremonial dinner with Netanyahu and May in an act of protest against the Israeli occupation.

His stand underlined the heated debate in the UK over how the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration should be marked.

“I don’t think we should celebrate the Balfour Declaration… but I think we have to mark it because it was a turning point in the history of that area and the most important way of marking it is to recognise Palestine,” said Thornberry.

Questioning Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution, Thornberry expressed concern that Israel had “lost its way” and was heading for a “one-state reality”, suggesting that the emergence of single binational state with fewer rights for Palestinian sposes a risk to Israel’s democracy.

Britain does not classify Palestine as a state but says it could do so at any time if it believed it would help peace efforts between the Palestinians and Israel.

Another Labour MP, Naz Shah said: “What is clear that the vision laid out in the (Balfour) letter was always certain to fail.”

“Some five million Palestinians of varying descent live as displaced refugees, living by and large in poverty across the Middle East. Two and a half million live in tortuous conditions within the occupied West Bank and 1.7m people live in the largest open prison camp on the planet, in Gaza, with no basic rights, no citizenship and no hope of a lasting future.”

Britain has long found it difficult to reconcile the Balfour Declaration and its support for Israel with its commitment to Palestinians rights, and to basic human rights.

In the final years of the mandate Britain tried to mitigate the consequences of the Balfour Declaration. One effort was the white paper of 1939 which rejected the idea of partitioning Palestine, calling for one state for both Palestinians and Jews.  It also limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 for five years and ruled that further immigration should be determined by the Arab majority.

It is worth remembering that November brings not only the centenary of the Balfour Declaration but also, on the 29th, the 70th anniversary of the UN resolution to partition Palestine which legitimised the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Both the US and the USSR voted for partition while Britain chose to abstain. Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, saw the proposed partition as unjust to the Palestinians and refused to enforce it.

Theresa May, speaking in the House of Commons last week, said: “We are proud of the role that we played in the creation of state of Israel and we will certainly mark the centenary with pride. I am also pleased that good trade relations and other relations that we have with Israel we are building on and enhancing.”

She then added: “We must also be conscious of the sensitivities that some people do have about the Balfour Declaration and we recognise that there is more work to be done. We remain committed to the two-state solution in relation to Israel and the Palestinians.”

Her statement linking friendship with trade says it all. Britain needs close trade partners after Brexit.  Earlier this year, May met Netanyahu in London to talk about boosting trade after leaving the EU.

But Britain cannot escape moral and political responsibility for what has happened to the Palestinians. Even the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a close ally of Israel, said that a key proviso of a 100-year old British declaration which laid the foundations for Israel had not been fully met.

In an article written for the Daily Telegraph Johnson stated: “The vital caveat in the Balfour Declaration - intended to safeguard other communities - has not been fully realised,” referring to the clause in the document which said nothing should prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.

Johnson also made reference to the settlement issue in his article, saying that a two-state solution must include a viable and contiguous Palestinian state alongside a “secure Israel”, and proposed seeking a peace agreement based on 1967 borders with mutual territorial swaps.

The call for Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration and its role in igniting the conflict made by MPs, politicians, religious leaders and human rights activists, was met with silence. Earlier this year Britain said there would be no apology for the declaration, adding it will continue to work for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Clearly, there will be no British apology. Equally clearly there is guilt.

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