A chance to make good on Bri­tain’s bro­ken prom­ise Don­ald Mac­in­tyre

A cen­tury af­ter the Bal­four dec­la­ra­tion, the UK should ac­knowl­edge its role in Pales­tinian suf­fer­ing

The Guardian - - OPINION - Don­ald Mac­in­tyre is the au­thor of Gaza, Pre­par­ing for Dawn

He has not yet con­firmed that he is com­ing. But hav­ing warmly de­scribed Theresa May’s in­vi­ta­tion to visit Bri­tain to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the Bal­four dec­la­ra­tion as “speak­ing vol­umes” about the UK-Is­rael re­la­tion­ship, the Is­raeli prime min­is­ter, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, is un­likely to pass up the op­por­tu­nity.

The an­niver­sary of Arthur Bal­four’s let­ter to Lord Roth­schild an­nounc­ing that “His Majesty’s gov­ern­ment view with favour the es­tab­lish­ment in Pales­tine of a na­tional home for the Jewish peo­ple” will be seen in very dif­fer­ent ways. For many Is­raelis it is a cause of pa­tri­otic cel­e­bra­tion that the Bri­tish Zion­ists were able to per­suade the UK gov­ern­ment, on the brink of wrest­ing Pales­tine from Ot­toman con­trol, to set them on a path to a Jewish state. Equally ev­ery Bri­ton who has spent any time in the oc­cu­pied Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries will have been told re­peat­edly that Bri­tain – and its prom­ise of a Jewish na­tional home in a land with a then over­whelm­ing Arab ma­jor­ity – was the source of all their suf­fer­ing over the next cen­tury.

May has put her­self firmly on the cel­e­bra­tory side of that di­vide. Last De­cem­ber, while re­peat­ing the fa­mil­iar mantra in favour of a two-state so­lu­tion, she de­scribed the an­niver­sary as one “we will be mark­ing with pride”. In the same month she chose to de­nounce a speech by the out­go­ing US sec­re­tary of state John Kerry, which warned that Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment was un­der­min­ing prospects of that very two-state so­lu­tion; a speech that did not de­vi­ate one inch from the stated poli­cies of all Euro­pean gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing Bri­tain’s. And she can­celled min­is­te­rial par­tic­i­pa­tion in the in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence on the con­flict con­vened, to Ne­tanyahu’s cha­grin, by France. Maybe it was just a crude at­tempt to in­gra­ti­ate her­self with Don­ald Trump. But it sug­gests a strong de­sire not to alien­ate Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment, the most right wing ever, let alone bring any fresh think­ing to bear on a con­flict in which Bri­tain’s his­toric role has been so im­por­tant.

Which is deeply de­press­ing, be­cause the cen­te­nary is an op­por­tu­nity to do just that. The Bal­four dec­la­ra­tion was messier than May has ad­mit­ted. It is not just that in 1917 the only Jewish cab­i­net mem­ber, Ed­win Mon­tagu, was the lead­ing dis­senter, be­liev­ing that the “an­ti­semitic” doc­u­ment would pro­vide the ex­cuse for Euro­pean coun­tries to pack their Jewish ci­ti­zens off to Pales­tine. Mon­tagu could not pre­dict how the Holo­caust would im­mea­sur­ably strengthen the case for the state of Is­rael. But his pre­dic­tion that “you will find a pop­u­la­tion in Pales­tine driv­ing out its present in­hab­i­tants” came trag­i­cally true for more than 700,000 Arabs who lost their homes in the war 30 years later.

But there were also the strate­gic needs of the first world war gov­ern­ment. While Bal­four was in­deed a re­sponse to the long-stand­ing Zion­ist urg­ings for a na­tional home in Pales­tine af­ter cen­turies of an­ti­semitism and per­se­cu­tion in Europe and Rus­sia, Bri­tain was partly us­ing the Zion­ist move­ment to es­tab­lish its own fu­ture con­trol of Pales­tine.

But that is his­tory. What isn’t is Ne­tanyahu’s prom­ise not to up­root any more set­tle­ments, his ef­forts to weaken Is­raeli hu­man rights groups, his kow­tow­ing to his coali­tion’s most ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist el­e­ments. And here the full Bal­four dec­la­ra­tion has a strong con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance. For it held that a na­tional Jewish home should not prej­u­dice the rights of “ex­ist­ing non-Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in Pales­tine”.

That out­stand­ing bro­ken prom­ise is a theme of one of the most in­ter­est­ing forth­com­ing pub­lic meet­ings on Bal­four on 31 Oc­to­ber, which will “ac­knowl­edge Bri­tain’s his­toric re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in the Mid­dle East” and com­mit to “sup­port Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis in build­ing a peace­ful fu­ture based on equal rights for all”.

It’s a safe bet that Ne­tanyahu will not be at­tend­ing. But if he comes to Lon­don, May will have an ideal op­por­tu­nity not only to re­mind the Is­raeli prime min­is­ter of the bro­ken prom­ise but to in­di­cate that in­ter­na­tional – and Bri­tish – pa­tience is run­ning out. One of the many rea­sons that this won’t hap­pen is a be­lief that this is not the way Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ments be­have to­wards Is­rael. And yet a fas­ci­nat­ing re­cent book by Azriel Ber­mant shows that, par­tic­u­larly at the end of her pre­mier­ship, Mar­garet Thatcher’s frus­tra­tion with Yitzhak Shamir’s gov­ern­ment reached a high pitch. She was deeply dis­mayed by the num­ber of Jewish set­tlers in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, which was far smaller than it is now. Is it too much to think she would have given a piece of her mind to Ne­tanyahu?

It’s too early to say whether the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion an­nounced yes­ter­day be­tween Fatah and Ha­mas will re­ally end their dis­as­trous decade-long split. But if it does, it will re­move one ex­cuse for not mak­ing peace – that the Pales­tinian pres­i­dent, Mah­moud Ab­bas, does not rep­re­sent all his peo­ple. Ei­ther way, Bri­tain would ide­ally use the new eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship it will have to strike with Is­rael post-Brexit to ex­er­cise lever­age on it by de­cid­ing on a clear boy­cott, not of Is­rael proper, but of trade with and goods com­ing from the set­tle­ments. That is doubt­less a fan­tasy. The Bal­four an­niver­sary is nev­er­the­less a chance to re­think Bri­tish at­ti­tudes to a con­flict that has left the Pales­tini­ans state­less and with­out the rights ev­ery­one in Bri­tain and Is­rael takes for granted.

The prime min­is­ter’s con­duct shows a de­sire not to alien­ate Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment – the most right wing ever


Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu dur­ing a cer­e­mony in the West Bank Tsafrir Abayov

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