‘From Bal­four to Brexit’ draws huge crowds

Con­fer­ence mark­ing cen­ten­nial of dec­la­ra­tion fea­tures for­mer UK PM Blair, cur­rent Lord Bal­four

The Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - • By GREER FAY CASH­MAN

The Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion of Novem­ber 2, 1917, af­fects the lives of every­one liv­ing in Is­rael and the ter­ri­to­ries. The dec­la­ra­tion gave le­git­i­macy and im­pe­tus to the Zion­ist dream, which 30 years later, on Novem­ber 29, 1947, got an­other boost from the United Na­tions.

Per­haps there would have been a state with­out the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, but it likely would have taken a lot longer to hap­pen.

A con­fer­ence about the dec­la­ra­tion held last week at the Kon­rad Ade­nauer Cen­ter in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim neigh­bor­hood at­tracted over­flow au­di­ences to all of its ses­sions. While open­ing con­fer­ence ses­sions of­ten draw full at­ten­dance, seats usu­ally start to empty soon af­ter. But for “From Bal­four to Brexit,” the op­po­site was true. Peo­ple lit­er­ally begged to get in, es­pe­cially to the ses­sion fea­tur­ing for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Tony Blair. Af­ter one ses­sion would end and seats were va­cated, they quickly filled with peo­ple wait­ing in the lobby.

The con­fer­ence was il­lu­mi­nat­ing, en­ter­tain­ing, in some re­spects shock­ing, and lin­guis­ti­cally in­spir­ing. Lis­ten­ing to the English of highly ed­u­cated Brits is pure joy.

As might be ex­pected, the bulk of at­ten­dees were Bri­tish ex­pa­tri­ates. Some of them bris­tled in anger when the likes of prize-win­ning novelist and play­wright A.B. Ye­hoshua and for­mer for­eign min­is­ter MK Tzipi Livni blamed Bri­tain – specif­i­cally the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion – for creat­ing the con­flict be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans and then not know­ing how to fix its mis­take.

Livni even told this to Blair per­son­ally at their first meet­ing. She was pleased that he was still in­volved long af­ter leav­ing of­fice and com­plet­ing his ten­ure as Middle East en­voy of the Quar­tet.

But the ma­jor­ity of speak­ers – in­clud­ing Rod­er­ick Lord Bal­four, 5th Earl of Bal­four – were quite gung-ho about the dec­la­ra­tion, and were un­re­servedly happy that it had been made.

Although Jews, in­clud­ing non-Is­raelis, tend to set great stock by the dec­la­ra­tion, not many peo­ple in Eng­land were giv­ing it much thought lately, un­til word leaked out about prepa­ra­tions for its 100th an­niver­sary prompted Pales­tinian Author­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas to de­mand that Bri­tain apol­o­gize for its is­sue and can­cel the cel­e­bra­tions of its cen­te­nary.

Bri­tain re­fused to apol­o­gize. More­over, Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May said she was proud of Bri­tain’s role in the doc­u­ment and wanted the Bri­tish peo­ple to take pride in their coun­try’s con­tri­bu­tion to Is­rael’s state­hood. She even in­vited Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu to come to Eng­land to join the cel­e­bra­tions. The Pales­tini­ans, mean­while, have threat­ened to sue Bri­tain for is­su­ing the dec­la­ra­tion a cen­tury ago.

For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son wrote two years ago that the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion was “bizarre,” a “trag­i­cally in­co­her­ent doc­u­ment” and “an ex­quis­ite piece of For­eign Of­fice fudgerama.” Of course, that was be­fore he was ap­pointed to his cur­rent po­si­tion. That point was raised sev­eral times at the con­fer­ence. One speaker – af­ter quot­ing John­son – said John­son had now be­come a piece of For­eign Of­fice fudgerama him­self.

The con­fer­ence opened with an en­ter­tain­ing talk by his­tory lec­turer Kobi Hubara on what led up to the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion. In­stead of of­fer­ing up a dry his­tor­i­cal syn­op­sis, with which most of the au­di­ence were fa­mil­iar, Hubara in­tro­duced the char­ac­ters in the drama and their re­la­tion­ship with each other, nearly play­ing their parts while em­ploy­ing nim­ble body lan­guage.

Am­bas­sador to Bri­tain Mark Regev ar­rived on the sec­ond day of the con­fer­ence. He had been among the in­vi­tees the pre­vi­ous even­ing for a pre-Rosh Hashana re­cep­tion at 10 Down­ing Street hosted by May.

It’s rou­tine for Bri­tish prime min­is­ters to send Rosh Hashana greet­ings to the Jewish com­mu­nity, but this was the first time one of them hosted such a re­cep­tion at their of­fi­cial res­i­dence.

Out­side of his fam­ily, Lord Bal­four had never heard Bri­tish peo­ple talk­ing about the fa­mous doc­u­ment that bears his fam­ily name. Strangely enough, there seemed to be a lot of peo­ple who knew about it in France. For that mat­ter, the Bri­tish public might care far less about the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict than peo­ple liv­ing in Is­rael and the Pales­tinian Author­ity pre­sume.

Nonethe­less, CEO of the Bri­tain-Is­rael Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Re­search Cen­ter James Sorene said the For­eign Min­istry re­ceives thou­sands of let­ters each year from the Bri­tish public on the is­sue.

Am­bas­sador Regev re­sponded by say­ing one has to be very care­ful when us­ing the ex­pres­sion “Bri­tish public,” be­cause or­di­nary peo­ple are not writ­ing to the For­eign Of­fice and all those let­ters about the con­flict are writ­ten by ac­tivists.

Se­nior for­eign pol­icy an­a­lyst Tim Mar­shall dis­agreed with Sorene, as­sert­ing that the Bri­tish public doesn’t care about the Is­rael-Pales­tine si­t­u­a­tion and “has much more to care about than this tiny piece of land.”

When Sorene gave sur­vey find­ings on how the Bri­tish feel about Is­rael or the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, in­di­cat­ing they do care, Mar­shall con­tended, “That’s only be­cause you asked them.”

The cur­rent Lord Bal­four noted ear­lier at the con­fer­ence, “The Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion is never men­tioned in the United King­dom.”

Bal­four’s per­sonal in­volve­ment with com­mem­o­ra­tions of the fa­mously named dec­la­ra­tion be­gan 25 years ago, when he re­al­ized not a sin­gle mem­ber of the Bal­four fam­ily had been in­vited to par­tic­i­pate in its 75th an­niver­sary gala din­ner cel­e­bra­tion. He con­tacted the An­glo-Is­rael As­so­ci­a­tion and has been in­volved ever since.

Blair, like Shi­mon Peres, whom he eu­lo­gized at a grave­side cer­e­mony last Thurs­day, re­mains for­ever op­ti­mistic about the pos­si­bil­ity of peace in the Middle East, and said that he comes to the re­gion be­cause he finds com­fort in op­ti­mism.

Blair said that with changes tak­ing place in the re­gion, he saw more cause for op­ti­mism than in the past.

“Changes in the re­gion are creat­ing new al­liances and new op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he said. “There is an Arab lead­er­ship start­ing to for­mu­late a view of their his­tory which does not in­volve a de­mo­niza­tion of Is­rael.”

Blair added, “For any gov­ern­ment in Is­rael to make a deal with the Pales­tini­ans is tough un­less there are re­gional un­der­pin­nings. Many in the re­gion can be part­ners to help solve the si­t­u­a­tion and not just point the fin­ger.”

He also em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of try­ing to un­der­stand the Saudi point of view.

When asked about the pos­si­bil­ity of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump achiev­ing suc­cess break­ing the im­passe in the peace process where oth­ers have failed, Blair was diplo­matic and took a wait-and-see at­ti­tude. He said the prob­lem with re­viv­ing the peace process was a mat­ter of con­text. “Change the con­text and you can have ne­go­ti­a­tions,” he said.

Con­fer­ence speak­ers ex­pressed a gen­eral feel­ing that – be­cause of its other prob­lems such as refugees and fight­ing terrorism – Europe has be­come far less rel­e­vant to the peace process than it once was. In­ter­est­ingly though, since the Brexit ref­er­en­dum, re­la­tions have been im­prov­ing be­tween Is­rael and the UK – po­lit­i­cally, eco­nom­i­cally and in mat­ters of se­cu­rity.

As for Bri­tish for­eign pol­icy vis-a-vis Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans, Deputy Bri­tish Am­bas­sador to Is­rael Tony Kay con­firmed that it has not changed.

Livni said that there is no need for Bri­tain to be pro-Is­rael or pro-Pales­tinian. “It can be pro-peace” she said.

(Erez Har­odi)

FOR­MER BRI­TISH prime min­is­ter Tony Blair speaks as Is­raeli di­plo­mat Daniel Shek lis­tens at the Kon­rad Ade­nauer Cen­ter in Jerusalem on Thurs­day.

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