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Britain’s Parliament Debates the Balfour Declaration, Revealing Divides Over Israel in Contemporary Politics

A discussion of the past serves as a proxy for political differences in the present

Eylon Aslan-Levy
November 16, 2016
Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
A tug boat passes the Houses of Parliament as it sails along the River Thames in central London on November 7, 2016. Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
A tug boat passes the Houses of Parliament as it sails along the River Thames in central London on November 7, 2016. Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The British Government will neither celebrate the Balfour Declaration nor apologize for it. So responded the UK’s Minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, at the close of a special debate on the Balfour Declaration at the British Parliament this morning, criticizing the Balfour Declaration for failing to include a parallel commitment to Palestinian Arab statehood in 1917. “It is fifty years since the Occupation began,” noted the British minister with frustration, arguing that “it is for historians to assess the Declaration” and for “ministers to deal with the today.” “The Occupation of the Palestinian Territories,” he stressed, “is unacceptable and unsustainable.”

The debate was heavily dominated by concern for the “unfinished business” of the two-state solution and punctuated by repeated criticism of Israel’s settlement policies, but nevertheless included numerous supportive interjections by MPs friendly to Israel.

Labour MP Ivan Lewis stressed the importance of the debate in the context of resurgent anti-Semitism—within his own party and across Europe—which “more often than not is linked to hostility to the State of Israel.” He further blasted the “delegitimization of Israel through the rewriting of history, which seeks to deny the legal and moral basis” of Jewish self-determination. His colleague Luciana Berger spoke up for the Labour Party’s historical support for the creation of a Jewish state. A Northern Irish MP recalled following the Six Day War on the radio, admiring Israel as the underdog. And Conservative MP Jonathan Djanogly paid tribute to Theodor Herzl for persuading the international community to put an end to “Jewish homelessness.”

Numerous pro-Israel MPs made friendly interruptions to Conservative MP Caroline Ansell’s opening speech. The key to sustainable peace is that all parties should recognize Israel, said one. There would have been a two-state solution seventy years ago if “the armies of five Arab states had not invaded Israel in 1948,” added another. One MP criticized the destruction of the greenhouses in the Gaza Strip after the 2005 Disengagement. Another stressed the difficulty of conducting negotiations when “one side” refuses to come to the table, and yet another expressed disappointment at how the Palestinians have been “let down by their own leadership.”

The “unfinished business” of the Balfour Declaration loomed large, however, with several MPs repeatedly stressing that the letter’s pledge to defend the “‎civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in ‎Palestine” had not been honored. MPs repeatedly raised the claim that Britain has a special responsibility to advance Palestinian statehood, in light of its involvement in Israel’s creation.

The Liberal Democrats’ Foreign Affairs spokesman, Tom Brake MP said he would “grieve and lament” with the Palestinians over the Balfour Declaration, while simultaneously celebrating it with the Jews. The best way to mark the occasion, he argued, was to support opportunities for a two-state solution before time runs out, stressing that the peace initiative proposed by the French is “the only game in town.” The member for East Lothian (Arthur Balfour’s old seat) said that the occasion should be “marked” through progress towards Palestinian statehood, urging Israel to use its “security window” opened by the collapse of neighboring Arab states.

The debate came as anti-Israel groups in the UK are trying to capitalize on the Balfour Centenary to advance the Palestinian cause. Last month, in an event hosted by Baroness Jenny Tonge, the Palestinian Return Centre held an event in Parliament to launch a campaign to call on the UK Government to “officially apologize for its past colonial crimes in Palestine.” The Jewish community is hoping to push back with its own series of celebrations, including a commemorative lecture by historian Simon Schama and a special “Balfour Shabbat.”

Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.