Netanyahu: Real Tragedy of Balfour Is That It Didn't Save Jews From Holocaust

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Balfour declaration 'put Britain on the right side of history' despite 'later painful retreats' from commitment to implementation

British Prime Minister Theresa May and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in London, Nov. 2, 2017.
Joe Giddens/AP

LONDON - At the centennial event for the Balfour Declaration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized British implementation of the 100-year-old deal, in his response to British Prime Minister Theresa May's remarks in London on Thursday.

May described at the private dinner held in Lancaster House that the declaration was “a letter which gave birth to a most extraordinary country. And a letter which finally opened the door to helping make a Jewish homeland a reality.”

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May however also stressed that it “was a letter that remains very sensitive for many people today,” referring to the objections of the Palestinians and their demand that Britain apologize for and revoke the Balfour Declaration. “When some people suggest we should apologize for this letter,” said May. “I say absolutely not. We are proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the State of Israel.” But she added that “we must recognize how difficult at times this journey has been – from the Jews forced out of their homes in Arab countries in 1948 to the suffering of Palestinians affected and dislodged by Israel’s birth.”

She said that “Balfour remains unfinished business” and that to fully fulfill it, there would be needed “compromises from each side if we are to have a realistic chance of achieving this goal – including an end to the building of new settlements and an end to Palestinian incitement too.”

May also described “a new and pernicious form of anti-Semitism which uses criticism of the actions of the Israeli government as a despicable justification for questioning the very right of Israel to exist.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded in his speech saying that “Britain is intertwined with the birth of Zionism." In an earlier briefing to Israeli media, Netanyahu had said that “I don’t forget for a second that the British backtracked from (the Balfour Declaration)” but in his speech he described himself as being “careful,” and referred only to Britain’s failure to implement the Balfour commitment as “later painful retreats on the path to nationhood.”

Netanyahu stressed that “without decades of immigration and hard work and without the courage and sacrifice that was needed to defend our life and liberty, the state of Israel would not have come in to being. But it was the Balfour declaration that galvanized international support for Zionism like never before and paved the path for Zionism's entry.”

Addressing the criticism that still exists of the declaration, Netanyahu said that “the Balfour declaration put Britain on the right side of history - in marking that declaration you are keeping Britain on the right side of history.” In response to the Palestinian claim that the declaration caused a tragedy, he said that “the real tragedy of the Balfour declaration is that it took three decades to fulfill its promise - too late for one third of the Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust.”

There were other memories to the controversy still surrounding Balfour by the absence of the pro-Palestinian Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had turned down an invitation to the event, though Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, attended. Outside Lancaster House there were small demonstrations of pro-Palestinian activists calling for an apology from Britain and a counter-demonstration by Israel’s supporters.

The British government, despite May’s repeated statements that Britain was marking the Balfour Declaration “with pride,” has sought to lower the profile of the commemoration events. On British insistence, there were no media present at last night’s event. Netanyahu, asked about this, said he was not aware of the demand and was in favor of the media being there.