How the Balfour Declaration Continues to Haunt Britain

This week the Palestinian leadership threatened to sue the U.K .for the Balfour Declaration, ahead of its centenary. The threat was later commuted to a request for an apology. It’s a symbolic move - but also a cry of despair.

A copy of the original Balfour Declaration at the Israel Museum.
Uriel Cohen

This week, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki, representing President Mahmoud Abbas, addressed the Arab League Summit in Mauritania and asked them to join in preparing to sue the British government. The cause: The 100-year-old letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild regarding the British cabinet’s support for the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

Malki explained: "Almost a century has passed since 1917 We are working to open up an international criminal case for the crime which they committed against our nation – from the days of the British Mandate all the way to the massacre which was carried out against us from 1948 onwards.” Later on in the week, the demand was scaled down to the request for a formal U.K. apology to the Palestinians.

In fact, there is nothing new in the demand for a British apology for the Balfour Declaration. Hamas made a similar call last year and the London-based Palestinian Return Centre did so back in 2013.   

It is certainly true that British policymakers have long been haunted by the shadow of the Balfour Declaration. Back in the late 1940s the Labour government of Clement Attlee, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin achieved notoriety for his opposition to the establishment of an independent Jewish State in Palestine. Bevin believed that his stance would help to deflect Arab hostility away from Britain. He was also concerned that the creation of Israel would stimulate anti-Western feeling among Muslims. Bevin’s spirit is very much alive in today’s British Labour party.

In the decades following Israel’s establishment, British policymakers were alarmed over the prospect of Arab retribution against Britain as a result of its role in Israel’s creation. Evelyn Shuckburgh, Britain’s Under-Secretary for Middle East Affairs in the Foreign Office during the 1950s, would write in his diary, “How the Arabs hate us really They will never forgive us [for] Israel.”

In the following decades, officials in London were worried that Britain’s strategic and commercial interests in the Arab world would be damaged as a result of the Balfour Declaration.

During the October 1973 war, Prime Minister Edward Heath controversially refused to supply spare parts for Israel’s Centurion tanks or provide landing rights to U.S. military supply planes en route for Israel. Britain did not want to be identified as a supporter of Israel at a time when European governments were dependent on Middle East oil. It had to go the extra mile to pacify Arab resentment over its responsibility for the establishment of the Jewish state. One can certainly imagine the Heath government apologizing for the Balfour Declaration had it faced sufficient pressure to do so.

To a large degree, this explains why Britain took the lead in the unveiling of the landmark EEC Venice Declaration of June 1980 which recognized the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and called for the PLO to be associated with peace negotiations, to the anger and dismay of the Begin government. In August 1981, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov, was appalled when he met with official John Graham and was told that the Balfour Declaration had been “a mistake.”

However, the world has moved on since then. In the Arab world, the Palestinian question is way down the list of priorities. For many Arab countries, the rise of Iran and the threat of Islamic State are more immediate concerns. Britain has less reason to worry about being singled out over its role in Israel’s creation. Post-Brexit, Britain has more than enough troubles of its own and it is hard to see it playing an active role in attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is now France’s responsibility.

The Palestinian gambit is clearly a symbolic PR move calculated to remind the world of the plight of the Palestinians. But it is also a cry of despair. It is no surprise that Abbas made his move at the Arab League Summit. The Palestinians are clearly worried about an apparent warming of ties between the moderate Arab states and Israel, and they do not want to be abandoned. Malki called on the Arab states not to normalize relations with Israel before the establishment of a Palestinian State.

Tobias Ellwood, the Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East, stated this June that he would prefer to use the word “mark” rather than “celebrate” in relation to the Balfour Declaration’s centenary – reflecting the continuing sensitivity of the issue in the wider Middle East.

A year ahead of the Balfour Declaration’s centenary, November 2016 will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Suez crisis. For Britain, the Suez debacle was a harbinger of its decline as a great power while also serving as a painful reminder of Britain’s colonial past.   

It is hard to imagine Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, and her foreign secretary Boris Johnson, both strong friends of Israel, apologizing for the Balfour Declaration. However, with a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between now and November 2017 being a distant prospect, and with June 2017 marking the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, there is a danger that Palestinian frustrations may boil over once more, forcing the Arab world to refocus on the Palestinian question.

In such a scenario, the Palestinian threats against London may once again become a source of great discomfort for British policymakers, as well as a potential hook for more involvement by the international community.  

Dr. Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University. His book, Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East will be published by Cambridge University Press in August 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @azrielb