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100 Years of Balfour: Netanyahu Arrives in London at the Worst Time for Theresa May

Downing Street may not be an enthusiastic participant at the celebration in London this week, but Theresa May has enough of her own problems to consider ruining her Israeli counterpart's show

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Theresa May at Downing Street in London, February 6, 2017.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Theresa May at Downing Street in London, February 6, 2017. Credit: Peter Nicholls / AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON - There will be a clear dissonance at the heart of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Britain this week. For the Israeli side, it’s a festive visit that’s all about commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and Britain’s promise to support the building of a “national home” for the Jews. The other issues are secondary. Meanwhile, the Brits, who are still rather embarrassed by Balfour despite Prime Minister Theresa May’s comment that they’re marking the centenary “with pride,” are trying to give the event a more routine working-visit atmosphere.

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In recent days, British officials have briefed the media on their government’s intentions to discuss with Netanyahu the Iranian nuclear deal, which the British, who were signatories of the 2015 agreement along with the United States, Russia, Germany, China and France, are anxious to keep afloat despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s decertification of the deal last month. In the meetings in London, Netanyahu will be urged to focus on other ways of curbing Iran’s influence in the region, and the British will promise support for them. And of course, there will be the routine talk of trying to get the moribund diplomatic process with the Palestinians back on track despite the obstacle new West Bank settlements being mooted by Israel pose.

Netanyahu of course is always interested in talking about the Iranian issue, but he’s not looking at this stage for other partners in the conversation when he believes he has the Trump administration on the same page with his “fix it or nix it” attitude on the nuclear deal. And besides, Britain currently has very little international influence; it’s bogged down in the intractable Brexit negotiations. At most, it can play a very minor side role in Middle East issues. The only non-American leader who has any major sway on the Iranian issue, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s visiting Tehran on Wednesday.

The timing is particularly dismal for May, who has colleagues in the highest levels of British politics facing sexual harassment revelations that could potentially implicate some of her closest allies in the cabinet. So the coast is clear for Netanyahu to have his Balfour party – the British government may not be an enthusiastic participant, but it’s in no position to ruin his show.

Arriving in London Wednesday night, Netanyahu will be meeting with May twice Thursday – at noon for a working meeting at 10 Downing Street and in the evening for a private dinner at Lancaster House hosted by Lords Rothschild and Balfour, commemorating the Balfour Declaration. According to Israeli officials, the British government insisted that the event be classified as “private” and closed to the media. Netanyahu will also be meeting with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

Besides the Balfour event, the visit’s other highlights are scheduled for Friday, when Netanyahu will be lecturing at Chatham House and answering questions from members of the prestigious think tank. In recent years, Netanyahu has only given interviews to friendly news organizations and has held very few real press conferences, so it will be a rare occasion in which he’ll face questions from what can expected to be a critical audience.

But after Chatham House and a brief visit to the London Stock Exchange, it will be a long and luxurious Shabbat weekend at the Savoy Hotel where Netanyahu will celebrate his wife Sara’s birthday – at the Israeli taxpayer’s expense. He’ll be there with the sole minister to be invited to join the trip, Culture Minister Miri Regev, the current favorite of the Netanyahu family for her attacks on their critics, including most recently President Reuven Rivlin.

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