Balfour: Britain’s original sin

Britain must atone for the original sin of the Balfour Declaration by helping to end the occupation

Lord Balfour in Jerusalem in 1925 [Getty Images]

November 2 marked the 97th anniversary of the infamous Balfour Declaration, a letter written in 1917 by Britain’s then-Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the Zionist movement. In the letter, Balfour said the government viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, and would use its “best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”.

The effect of this declaration was best summed up by the late British author and journalist Arthur Koestler: “One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”

It had no moral or legal right to do so.

The declaration contradicted Britain’s previous promise of “complete and final liberation” for the Arabs if they rose up against their Ottoman rulers. Their subsequent revolt was pivotal to the weakening of the Ottoman empire, and thereby the outcome of World War I.

Balfour reneged on his own pledge in his letter to Rothschild that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Balfour visiting Jewish colonies in 1925 [Getty Images]

In 1919, he wrote in a memorandum: “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… Zionism be it right or wrong is more important than the wishes of 700,000 Arabs,” who constituted some 94 percent of the population of Palestine at the time.

Israel’s creation

The Balfour Declaration, and its implementation by the British mandate in Palestine from 1920, culminated in Israel’s creation in 1948, and the wholesale dispossession of the Palestinian people. As such, every anniversary of the declaration should be used to highlight Britain’s central responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight, and its continued refusal to right a monumental wrong.

Labour MP Grahame Morris, who sponsored the recent legislation urging the government to recognise Palestine as a state, reminded MPs of this responsibility during the parliamentary debate. “A sacred trust … to guide Palestinians to statehood and independence … has been neglected for far too long,” he said.

MPs overwhelmingly agreed, with 274 supporting the motion and only 12 opposing it. Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to this non-binding resolution was shameful, with his spokesman insisting that the government’s position “won’t be changing“.

Cameron is not just defying the clear will of parliament, but also the British public. Opinion polls over the years have shown that far more Brits sympathise with the Palestinians than with Israel – two and half times as many, according to a YouGov poll in August. Sympathy for the Palestinians “can be seen across party lines”, said YouGov. In July, a poll on behalf of the Sunday Times showed twice as many Brits siding with the Palestinians than with Israel.

London’s belligerence is also increasingly out of step with world opinion. It abstained during the UN General Assembly vote that chose overwhelmingly (138-9) to upgrade Palestine’s status from “observer entity” to “non-member observer state”. Almost three-quarters of UN member states voted in favour, including most of the European Union.

The upgraded status allows the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court. This is vehemently opposed by Britain despite being one of the founding members of the ICC, and despite its stated commitment to increasing the Court’s membership to eventual universal jurisdiction. A Foreign Office strategy paper last year said this “will increase accountability and help challenge impunity“, which is “a fundamental element of our foreign policy”.

Learnt from history?

Before rejecting Palestinian accession to the ICC, Foreign Secretary William Hague had said just a few months prior: “We have learnt from history that you cannot have lasting peace without justice, accountability and reconciliation,” and that “institutions of international justice are not foreign policy tools to be switched on and off at will”.

Killing the Count – Mediation and Assassination

This is a blatant double standard that has global implications. “Such clear inconsistency from one of the ICC’s strongest supporters is a gift to enemies of the court and of international justice around the world,” wrote Clive Baldwin, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch.

British governments cannot indefinitely swim against the domestic and international tides. Of the three main political parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats support recognition of a Palestinian state. Labour leader Ed Miliband, who said he wants to be Britain’s first Jewish prime minister, supported the parliamentary motion and urged his party’s MPs to do the same.

There is growing dissent even among the traditionally pro-Israel Conservative party. Dozens of its MPs voted in favour of recognising Palestine, and a growing number of important party figures are speaking out against Israel’s policies.

They include former International Development Secretary Alan Duncan, Richard Ottaway (chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs Select Committee), and former Defence Secretary Nicholas Soames. Baroness Warsi resigned as Foreign Office minister in August over the government’s “morally indefensible” stance vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All this suggests that a future British government could recognise Palestine, and with elections due next year, that possibility might not be far off.

Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood is right to state that “only an end to the occupation will ensure that Palestinian statehood becomes a reality on the ground”. It is high time that Britain atone for the original sin of the Balfour Declaration by contributing seriously to ending that occupation, rather than aiding and abetting the occupier militarily, politically, and economically.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.