Britain and Palestine: From Balfour to Boris

In this article Prof Avi Shlaim argues that Boris Johnson has a perfect opportunity to redress the monumental injustice of the Balfour Declaration.

In so doing, he will not be harming Israel but, on the contrary, helping save Israel from itself.

A version of the article below was published in the Guardian on 22nd June under the title “By recognising Palestine, Britain can help right the wrongs of the Balfour declaration”.

It was edited down by about a third and in the process lost, in particular, the third para below on Winston Churchill and one, towards the end, on the critical views of the Israeli  Policy Working Group.

We are pleased to publish it in full below.

The Balfour Declaration

The wave of anti-racist protest sweeping through the country has prompted a re-examination of colonial legacies and responsibilities. Britain’s theft of Palestine from the Palestinians is one such legacy. On 2 November 1917, Secretary of State Arthur James Balfour issued his famous declaration in support of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. In 1917, Jews constituted 10 percent of the population, the rest were Arabs. Yet Britain recognised the national rights of a tiny minority and denied it to the majority. This was a classic colonial document which totally disregarded the rights and aspirations of the indigenous population. In the words of Jewish writer Arthur Koestler: “One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”

In his 2014 book on Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson described the Balfour Declaration as “bizarre,” “tragically incoherent” and “an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama” — a rare example of sound judgement and historical accuracy from the pen of Mr Johnson.

Churchill, Johnson’s hero and role model, personified the racism of the British ruling class of that era. This is what Churchill told the Peel Commission inquiry into the Arab Revolt in Palestine in 1937: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race… has come in and taken their place”. This statement is shocking but not surprising: racism goes hand in hand with colonialism. A “Black Lives Matter” activist recently wrote on the plinth of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square that he was a racist. The activist had a point.

The Balfour Declaration enabled the Zionist settler-colonial movement to embark on the systematic takeover of Palestine, a process which is still continuing. In 1917 the Jews owned only two per cent of Palestine. In 1947 the UN proposed to partition the territory of the British Mandate in Palestine into two states, one Arab one Jewish. Under this plan the Jews were allocated 55 per cent of the land although they still owned only seven per cent. In the course of the 1948 war, the newly established State of Israel extended the territory under its control to 78 per cent of Mandatory Palestine. This post-war status quo was confirmed in the 1949 armistice agreements concluded by Israel with its Arab neighbours, the only internationally-recognized borders it has ever had.

In the June 1967 war Israel completed the conquest of Palestine by occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. By signing the Oslo Accord with Israel in 1993, the PLO gave up its claim to 78 per cent of Palestine. In return it hoped to achieve an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with a capital city in East Jerusalem. It was not to be.

There were many reasons for the breakdown of the Oslo peace process but the most fundamental was the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land in flagrant violation of international law. Settlements consolidate the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line, the pre-1967 border. By expanding these settlements, all Israeli governments since Oslo, Labour as well as Likud, have demonstrated that they are more interested in land than in peace.

Having formed a new coalition government following a third inconclusive election in one year, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, announced his plan to formally annex around 30 per cent of the West Bank, including the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. He made it crystal-clear that the Palestinians within the annexed territory will not be granted Israeli citizenship. This will make Israel officially an apartheid state. Yet there is a majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, for annexation. If annexation takes place, it would leave the Palestinians with roughly 15 per cent of historic Palestine. It will also hammer the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution to which the international community still clings.

Support for annexation comes from Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s friend and close political ally. Last January, Trump unveiled his much-vaunted “Deal of the Century”. This is not a peace plan but an American endorsement of every item on Netanyahu’s wish list. Unsurprisingly, it was hailed by Netanyahu and his right-wing cronies as a second Balfour Declaration. It gives Israel a free pass to annex roughly a third of the West Bank without having to negotiate with the Palestinians, let alone make any concessions.

To the Palestinians, Trump’s plan offers a paltry reward of $50 billion over five years if they acquiesce in a “state” consisting of a collection of enclaves surrounded by Israeli settlements and military bases, with no territorial contiguity, no capital in East Jerusalem, no army, no borders with the outside world, and no control over its air space or natural resources. Palestinians will only be allowed to call this a state if they meet a list of conditions to Israel’s satisfaction. By any standard, this is a grotesquely unfair and insulting proposal but then humiliating the colonised is woven into the very fabric of colonialism.

Netanyahu is inundated with protests against annexation from left-wing Israeli political parties, from Diaspora Jewish organisations, and from a group of 220 former Israeli generals and heads of security services who call themselves “Commanders for Israel’s Security”. The main arguments advanced by these diverse groups are that annexation will be detrimental to Israel’s security, that it will be difficult and costly to police the extended borders, that it risks igniting a third Palestinian uprising, poses a threat to the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and undermines normalisation with the rest of the Arab world. Significantly, all these arguments are more concerned with Israel’s welfare and reputation than with Palestinian rights.

The same can be said of the group of prominent British Jews describing themselves as “committed Zionists and passionately outspoken friends of Israel”. In a letter to Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador to London, they warn that unilateral annexation “would pose an existential threat to the traditions of Zionism in Britain, and to Israel as we know it”. Concern for the well-being of the oppressor rather than the oppressed is another well-worn trope of colonial discourse.

The British government joined another ten European Union countries to warn Israel against annexation while 130 MPs signed an open letter urging Boris Johnson to impose economic sanctions on Israel if it went ahead with the move. The MPs are right that action is needed; tepid expressions of disapproval have never deterred the Israeli government. Recognising Palestine as a state within the 1967 borders is another way for Britain to right the wrongs of Balfour and end up on the right side of history.

More than a dozen European parliaments have recognised Palestine but only one government — Sweden. In 2017, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson rejected Labour’s call for the UK to mark the Balfour Declaration’s centenary by officially recognising the state of Palestine, declaring that “the moment is not yet right to play that card”. Surely today the moment has come.

Last month Mr Johnson received a letter from The Policy Working Group, a voluntary team of senior Israeli academics, former diplomats, media experts, and human rights defenders who campaign to end Israel’s 53 year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories. The signatories call upon the British government to recognize the State of Palestine in line with the resolution passed by the British Parliament in October 2014, a resolution ignored by David Cameron’s government.

Today Boris Johnson has a perfect opportunity to redress the monumental injustice wrought by that “tragically incoherent document”. Of all the issues on which “global” Britain ought to take the lead, the most urgent is to hold Israel’s racist, colonising government to account. If Mr Johnson rises up to the occasion, he will not be harming Israel but, on the contrary, he will help to save Israel from itself.

Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.

15 June 2020

Comments (1)

  • sandra yvonne yehya says:

    I found this extended article important right now during this time of re-examination of our colonial past and its legacies. It is especially so at a dangerous time of sentimentalising our past and the seemingly overwhelming desire to put our national heroes above reproach. Mr. Shlaim brings us down to earth with some clear and succinct dates, events and quotations.

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