Israel concern that centenary is being downplayed by UK
ISRAEL BELIEVES Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office is deliberately downplaying the centenaries of both the Balfour Declaration and a key First World War battle by sending only junior representatives to anniversary events.
Senior officials believe members of the British diplomatic corps are acting out of concern over Palestinian and Arab protests, despite Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge to commemorate Balfour “with pride and respect”.
The Israeli officials point to the minimal level of UK government representation for Balfour commemorations in Israel and at an event to mark 100 years since the Battle of Beersheba.
Earlier this year there had been expectations that Britain would take a more prominent role in both centenaries, raising hopes that a member of the Royal Family would make an official visit for the first time since Israeli independence in 1948.
Israel had been encouraged by Mrs May’s warm remarks on Balfour and the fact that so many senior ministers and royals have attended centenary commemorations of other First World War battles since 2014.
The Battle of Beersheba on October 31 1917 marked the moment Allied forces under General Edmund Allenby broke the Ottoman army’s resistance in the Negev desert and began a push through to Jerusalem, Amman and eventually Damascus.
But no UK official representatives other than the ambassador to Israel were expected to attend an event in Beersheba this week or the forthcoming event to mark Balfour in the Knesset.
Meanwhile this week’s Balfour centenary dinner in London, due to be attended by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Mrs May, is being described as a “private” event.
The full extent of the FCO’s official commemoration of Balfour overseas was a low-key reception last Wednesday at the British ambassador’s residence near Tel Aviv, with no major names in attendance.
A senior diplomat in Jerusalem said last week that, with distractions over Brexit negotiations, it was “hardly surprising” that Ms May did not have the time to push through a more high-profile programme of events. From left:
EMILY THORNBERRY, the shadow foreign secretary, has been criticised by a leading academic for arguing that the Balfour Declaration should be “marked” rather than celebrated, with her comments deemed to show “a lack of socialist morality”.
Speaking on a panel as part of the official Balfour centenary events, Colin Shindler, emeritus professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), said: “If Emily Thornberry is going to be in charge of the diplomatic service, she has proved herself already to be no diplomat.”
Prof Shindler was reacting to an interview given by Ms Thornberry to Middle East Eye, in which she said: “I don’t think we celebrate the Balfour Declaration but I think we have to mark it because I think it was a turning point in the history of that area.”
She added: “The most important way of marking it is to recognise Palestine.”
Prof Shindler said that Ms Thornberry reflected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s view that the party “has no place as a mediator” in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Corbyn over the last 30 years has been but a propagandist for one side and one side only. This goes against all the talk about peace and reconciliation — it doesn’t make any sense at all,” he said.
The academic added: “She could have said: ‘the Zionists and their supporters will certainly celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. I quite understand that the Palestinians and their supporters will see it as a landmark in the history of their problems. The past can’t be changed, but the future can be; and therefore our role in the Labour party is to act as mediators between the two parties – and we’re very happy to do that.’
“That never happened, and I think it’s a lack of socialist morality on her part”.
Prof Shindler was discussing the impact of the Balfour Declaration with Tim Marshall, the former foreign and diplomatic editor of Sky News, and Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeri-
Officials expected Britain to take more prominent role’
Professor Shindler, Professor Freedman, JC editor Stephen Pollard who chaired the panel and Tim Marshall