The Battle Over the Balfour Declaration, 100 Years Later

At stake, as per usual, is the question of who was promised what, when, by whom and why - and, to the main point at hand - what is Britain going to do about it now.

The Balfour Declaration, written by British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, on November 2, 1917.

A new Palestinian-Israeli rumble is underway, with this round taking place in and around the hallowed corridors of the Palace of Westminster, on the banks of the Thames.

In one wood paneled, plush-carpeted, elegant chandelier-decorated House of Lords committee room corner are Palestinian activists, led by the Palestinian Return Center, a London-based body dedicated to Palestinian refugee issues that, according to Israeli officials, is closely tied to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the other corner – up the grey granite steps of the Royal staircase, through the gold gilded ceiling hall and past the sword-wielding troopers – in an equally ornate House of Commons committee room, are the Israelis, as represented by Dore Gold, former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Mark Regev, the country’s ambassador to Britain, and a panel of legal and historical experts.

At stake, as per usual, is the question of who was promised what, when, by whom and why – and, to the main point at hand – what is Britain going to do about it now.

More specifically though, this new battle shaping up is about the Balfour Declaration – and the coveted trophy is the right to label that 1917 document either a “historical breach” – as one side would have it, or “one of the finest and highest points of the British Empire” – as the other side prefers.

The battle lines were drawn a month ago, when the PRC was invited into the House of Lords by outspoken pro-Palestinian Baroness Jenny Tonge, who hosted and chaired their rowdy symposium (and who was accused of failing to condemn members of the audience who compared Israel to ISIS and claimed Jews "provoked" their own genocide. She was subsequently suspended from the Liberal Democratic Party).

It was at that meeting that Tonge, along with PRC president Majed Al-Zeer and other Palestinian activists, launched the Balfour Apology Campaign: calling on the British government to apologize for the famous letter from then-Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, which paved the way for the Jewish state.

“We are not addressing Israel or challenging their right to exist,” clarifies Sameh Habeeb, head of communication for PRC. “We are just addressing the U.K., and we are asking them to apologize for the direct and indirect damage they did by playing a central role in arming and encouraging Jewish militias.”

The October gathering came on the heels of a call made by Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, who was speaking on behalf of President Mahmoud Abbas at an Arab League summit in Mauritania, to sue the British government for issuing the declaration. And it was all timed to coincide with the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration next year, for which planning is already underway.

“Is the forced migration of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians something to be celebrated?” asks Habeeb, adding that PRC has “many activities,” relating to the centennial planned itself, but declined to elaborate on what they were. He would say that, in coordination with the Palestinian diplomatic representative office in London, the PRC was collecting signatures on a petition calling on the British parliament to debate the apology. Such an apology, stressed Habeeb, would also have “practical” ramifications for Britain, involving “reparations” and “compensation.”

“We are focused on bringing Palestinians and their descendants back to their land. An apology will help that process,” he said.

The British government was quick to squash any such expectations – putting out its own statement saying no apology for that “part of our history,” would be forthcoming. While acknowledging that the Balfour Declaration was a “product of its age” and that it “had its flaws,” Tobias Ellwood, the minister for Africa and the Middle East also made it clear that “the U.K. is a diverse country in which the historical show of support for the world's Jewish community means a great deal to many people.”

“We continue to support the principle of a Jewish homeland and the modern state of Israel, just as we support the critical objective of a Palestinian homeland,” he said.

Despite this official response, which for all intents and purposes seems to have ended the debate, the Israeli side was not going to let the PRC’s October gathering go unanswered – and so they called their own meeting, this one hosted and chaired by Conservative Member of Parliament Michael Gove, Britain’s former justice minister.

Outspokenly pro-Israel, Gove attacked what he described as “the anti-Semitic,” masquerading as “anti-Zionist,” premises of the challenge to the Balfour Declaration, and went on to say that his “wish for Hanukkah and Christmas” was that, to mark the 100 anniversary of the declaration, Britain would both move its embassy to Jerusalem and make sure Queen Elizabeth II finally made a visit.

Regev reiterated Israel’s “firm belief” that Britain should be proud of the declaration and that it had put Britain on the “right side of history,” by “correcting historical wrongs,” and “doing the right thing,” for a “people who had suffered like no other people.”

Gold, who today heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, focused less on the Balfour Declaration itself and, like Gove, more on the group denouncing it. The PRC, Gold claimed, despite having recently been granted a consultative status at the United Nations' Economic and Social Council, is a terror organization “intimately tied to Hamas.” “This is not who you want to invite into your British legislative body,” he suggested.

He went on to charge that it took real audacity, for an organization that “calls for the killing of Jews,” to “come to the greatest parliamentary democracy in the world and challenge Israel’s legitimacy.” 

“Asking for an official apology fits into the zeitgeist of the West these days, that feels guilt about everything that happened in the last hundred years. That’s what they are trying to tap into it. But Israel is no colonialist entity. Israel is a state restored,” Gold argued.

Quoting from a report by The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center – an Israeli-based research group associated with the IDF – Gold claimed that some of the PRC’s senior figures are Hamas activists who found refuge in Britain. Gold also pointed out that in December 2010, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak outlawed the PRC as an "unlawful association because it is part of the Hamas movement."

The PRC’s Sameh rejected this categorization, responding that all such claims were propaganda and a way of smearing his organization and their legitimate demands. While the PRC believed in “speaking and listening to all Palestinian sides,” including Hamas – it was not, Sameh said, affiliated with it. He furthermore distanced the PRC from the anti-Semitic statements made by some members of the audience at the meeting last month.

“At the end of the day, despite all these smears, what we find interesting and encouraging, is how fast the pro-Israeli lobby and press got worried about our campaign,” he said. “This is a good sign for us.”