Netanyahu Visits Downing Street Ahead of Balfour Declaration's Centenary
British Prime Minister Theresa May hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in London this week to commemorate the Balfour Declaration’s one-hundredth anniversary. Despite widespread protests throughout the West Bank, and criticism from Labour Party MPs, May heaped praise on the controversial document—a major watershed that lent credence to the Zionist movement in Mandatory Palestine—and characterized critiques of Israel as veiled, “abhorrent” acts of anti-Semitism.
The declaration, penned by Sir Arthur James Balfour in 1917, expressed British advocacy for a “national home for the Jewish people” on the condition that “nothing [would] be done that [could potentially] prejudice the civil or religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Balfour’s first promise came to fruition following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, but his pledge to protect indigenous, non-Jewish Palestinians has proved largely empty in the ensuing century.
While the Balfour Declaration seemed, in theory, to accommodate native Palestinians in its conception of a Jewish homeland, it contradicted Britain’s pre-existing support for a pan-Arab state, a prelusive requirement for Arab insurrection against the Ottoman Empire.
Admittedly, Sir Henry McMahon’s correspondence with Mecca’s Sharif Hussein did not produce precisely delineated borders. However, Britain’s willingness to strike incompatible bilateral deals—the Sykes-Picot Agreement notwithstanding—has been deemed “the original sin” that precluded the possibility of a Palestinian nation-state, incubated a scenario in which, from its inception, Israel existed at-odds with its adjacent Arab neighbors, and ultimately set a precedent of Western duplicity and Middle Eastern distrust of imperialist intrigue.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote an op-ed in Monday’s Daily Telegraph addressing the Balfour Declaration’s complicated place in his country's colonial history and advocated, like Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas, a two-state solution to the intractable conflict.
“I see no contradiction in being a friend of Israel—and a believer in that country’s destiny— while also being deeply moved by the suffering of those affected and dislodged by its birth,” Johnson argued. “The vital caveat in the Balfour Declaration—intended to safeguard other communities—has not been fully realized.”
Israel’s eight wars against Arab entities (including the Palestinian Intifadas and the Gaza conflicts) have cultivated a culture of mistrust between the Jewish state and its Palestinian peers—an unfortunate phenomenon that has galvanized the Likud Party’s right-wing base and has rallied widespread support for Netanyahu’s obstinate security policies (even when they backfire).
Over a ten-month period in 2016, Israeli security forces killed and injured an estimated 94 and 3,200 Palestinians, respectively, within the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and pre-1967 Israeli borders, according to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report. The list of victims includes “suspected assailants, protesters, and bystanders.” During the same period, Palestinians killed and wounded 11 and 131 Israelis, respectively.
Furthermore, despite Netanyahu’s well-documented objections, even May could not deny that Israeli settlement activity, which UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemned and deemed illegal in the context of international law, constitutes a clear impediment to Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Israeli Prime Minister has consistently rebuffed these claims and has exhibited a willingness to pull out of multilateral organizations such as UNESCO in protest.
After his meeting with May at 10 Downing Street, Netanyahu thanked the British Prime Minister for her support, and implored Palestinians to “accept a Jewish national home and [to] finally accept a Jewish state” before he would consider any additional dialogue with Abbas.
In light of the burgeoning reconciliation accords between Fatah and Hamas, which recently resulted in a peaceful transfer of five Gaza border crossings to the Palestinian Authority, it will be interesting to observe whether Netanyahu stays true to his word. Fatah and Hamas remain divided on two issues: Israel’s legitimacy and the question of armed resistance. Fatah accepts the former and condemns the latter, opting for bilateral negotiations, while Hamas refutes the former and embraces the latter.
If Fatah manages to successfully absorb Hamas and convinces its leadership to recognize Israel and to thereby disavow militarism, then it will satisfy Netanyahu’s criteria for rekindling a discourse on peace. Should the time come, then May and Johnson would gain an opportunity that they have alluded to throughout the week: a chance to atone for Britain’s “original sin” by serving as a key mediator between their former subjects in mandatory Palestine.