Analysis

Britain Downgrades the Balfour Declaration Centennial

For many past and present members of the Foreign Office, Britain's commitment to the document hasn’t been a source of pride but of embarrassment

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara look at the original Balfour Declaration at the British Library in London, September 10, 2015.
Avi Ohayon/GPO

On Wednesday evening, the British Embassy held a reception at the ambassador’s residence in Ramat Gan to commemorating a hundred years since the Balfour Declaration. It was a relatively low-key affair, attended mainly by members of the small Anglo-Israeli community. Ambassador David Quarrey made a short speech, which focused more on the contribution of British immigrants to Israeli society than the letter written a hundred years ago by Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour.

Beyond the ambassador, there were no senior representatives of the British government in attendance, and beyond a handful of Labor Party lawmakers, neither were any senior Israeli officials. At least two of those invited for a couple of hours of mingling over wine and smoked salmon canapés left with the feeling of “why did they even bother?” What they didn’t realize was that the quiet reception in the ambassador’s back yard garden was the only official event organized by the British government to mark the Balfour centennial.

Earlier this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May said in Parliament, “We are proud of the role that we played in the creation of the State of Israel, and we will certainly mark the centenary with pride.” Ever since, British diplomats have been sticking to this line, repeating with a cynical half-smile that Britain’s policy is to mark the declaration “with pride.” For many past and present members of the Foreign Office, it has been less pride and a good deal more embarrassment.

It's not embarrassment over the fact that Britain actually did very little to fulfill Balfour’s commitment to use its “best endeavours” to establishing “a national home for the Jewish people,” and tried very hard to sabotage it in the decade before Israel’s establishment. As a former British ambassador to Israel once acknowledged, “Of all the great powers, we were probably the most hostile and did our utmost over a considerable period of time to prevent the emergence of the State of Israel.”

No, the embarrassment is due to claims of the Palestinians and their supporters that Britain did give the Jews a state in Palestine. For so many years, Balfour has been a cross they have been forced to bear when engaging with their Arab counterparts. The level of frustration some British diplomats still feel, a hundred years later, was clear from a rather bizarre tweet last week from Jonathan Allen, U.K.’s deputy permanent representative at the United Nations: “Let us remember, there are 2 halves of #Balfour, 2nd of which has not been fulfilled. There is unfinished business.” Needless to say, there are no two halves of the Balfour Declaration, fulfilled or unfulfilled.

Which is why, despite what May said (and most likely believes), the Foreign Office has not gone out of its way to organize events exhibiting Britain’s “pride” in the declaration. Quite the opposite: The main commemoration event next Thursday night in London, which will be attended by May and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will be a private dinner hosted by the current Lords Balfour and Rothschild (to whose great-uncle the Balfour Declaration was addressed), not an official or even a public event. Just 150 VIPs and no media.

The following Tuesday, a much larger Balfour event will be held at the Knesset in Jerusalem. But this is being organized by the Israeli government, and once again, besides Ambassador Quarrey, no other senior British official will be present.

Behind the scenes at Israel’s foreign ministry, there are two opinions on how the centennial is being commemorated. There are those who see the fact that the British government is taking part in the events, even at a very low level, as a victory for Israel. Despite the Palestinian campaign demanding Britain revoke or at the very least apologize for Balfour, no one of any consequence in London is talking about disowning the declaration in any form. And after all, May herself will be at the main event, so it’s a win. Other diplomats feel that Israel has been snubbed by the nonofficial and muted government participation and that Netanyahu, the acting foreign minister, should have demanded a more high-level and official commemoration. Not that they are surprised. After all, it’s not just the Balfour Declaration commemoration that Britain has downgraded.

Next week is also the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Be’er Sheva. The crucial stage in the campaign of the XX Corps, led by a British general, broke the resistance of the Turkish Army and led to an Allied victory in the Middle East theater of World War I. For the last three years, Britain has embarked on an impressive series of commemorations of that terrible war, marking centennials of the major battles with remembrance events attended by government ministers and members of the royal family. Over the last year, there have been rumors that finally, after 69 years, the royal family would break its taboo against official visits to Israel (Prince Charles’ attendance of the state funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres was classified as “private”) and one of its members would arrive to commemorate both the Balfour and Be’er Sheva anniversaries. But that’s not happening, and instead of a royal prince or even a government minister, Israel will have to settle for Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who will pay his respects to the memory of thousands of Australian troops who fought in the battle under British command.

One Israeli diplomat said that May can’t be blamed. Her embattled government is up to its neck dealing with the increasingly complex disaster of the Brexit and she can’t be expected to fight the Foreign Office’s long-held opposition to sending a royal to Israel at this time. If Israel’s acting foreign minister, Netanyahu, had tried harder and insisted, perhaps May or her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson could have been prevailed upon to upgrade Britain’s Balfour Declaration participation, but the prime minister also has other things on his plate right now. For him the trip to London isn’t about Balfour either. It’s a welcome respite for him and his wife Sara from the police investigations back home. No wonder he has extended his stay in Britain to include an unnecessary weekend at the public’s expense and will be coming back only the following Sunday.