One hundred years on from the Balfour Declaration, the UK is still divided on the Palestinian Question


The 2nd November 2017 marked one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration, and Theresa May welcomed Benjamin Netanyahu to London to celebrate the occasion.

It was 100 years ago, on the 2nd November 1917, that Lord Balfour published a letter announcing his government’s support for the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The sole intention of the British in writing this open letter was to reassure the American Jews, who were more inclined to support the Central Powers than an alliance including Russia, a country with an anti-Semitic past. The Balfour Declaration was intended to rally Jewish communities by offering them vague promises of a “national home for the Jewish people” (as opposed to a sovereign state) in Palestine. On 9th December 1917, the British general Robert Allenby entered Jerusalem; his army, which had come from Egypt, consisted of three Jewish battalions. This put an end to eleven centuries of Muslim domination over the Holy City, by both the Arabs and Turks (aside from the time of the Crusaders). For many today, this document legitimised the creation of the state of Israel thirty years later, on the 14th May 1948.

 “We have nothing to apologise for”

To mark this occasion, the British Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed her Israeli counterpart to a gala dinner. Mrs May spoke of her “pride in the role played by Great Britain in the creation of the state of Israel”. She added that “when some people suggest we should apologise for this letter, I say absolutely not.” Mrs May stressed that, “criticism of Mr Netanyahu’s government […] cannot be used as an excuse for expressing hatred towards Jewish people.”

Furthermore, Mrs May expressed her regret that peaceful coexistence and equality between Palestine and Israel is still yet to be realised. The situation seems unlikely to improve after Donald Trump announced plans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Support from the Labour Party for the recognition of Palestine

As for Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party declined his invitation to the dinner, claiming that he was not free for the occasion. Some see his absence as a protest against Mr Netanyahu’s policies. This theory seems likely, given that Mr Corbyn has always been one of the most committed pro-Palestine politicians in Britain. His last-minute replacement at the event was Emily Thornberry, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Mr Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, and an important figure in the Palestinian debate. Several days before the centenary, Mrs Thornberry demanded in Parliament that Boris Johnson – Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs – recognise the Palestinian state. She cited the Balfour Declaration, which stipulated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” For Mrs Thornberry, this commitment has been, and still is, flagrantly disregarded. “A hundred years later, this promise remains unfulfilled,” she claimed, adding that “to mark this centenary, nothing would be more symbolic than the UK recognising the State of Palestine.” The government took a step towards this in 2014, when the House of Commons approved a bill by 274 votes to 12 which stated that “the government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel as a step towards negotiating a two-state solution.”

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