He has not yet confirmed that he is coming. But having warmly described Theresa May’s invitation to visit Britain to commemorate the centenary of the Balfour declaration as “speaking volumes” about the UK-Israel relationship, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is unlikely to pass up the opportunity.
The anniversary of Arthur Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild announcing that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” will be seen in very different ways. For many Israelis it is a cause of patriotic celebration that the British Zionists led by Chaim Weizmann were able to persuade the UK government, on the brink of wresting Palestine from Ottoman control, to set them on a path to a Jewish state. Equally every Briton who has spent any time in the occupied Palestinian territories will have been told repeatedly that Britain – and its promise of a Jewish national home in a land with a then overwhelming Arab majority – was the source of all their suffering over the next century.
May has put herself firmly on the celebratory side of that divide. Last December, while repeating the familiar mantra in favour of a two-state solution, she described the anniversary as one “we will be marking with pride”. In the same month she chose to denounce a speech by the outgoing US secretary of state John Kerry, which warned that Israel’s government was undermining prospects of that very two-state solution; a speech that did not deviate one inch from the stated policies of all European governments, including Britain’s. And she cancelled ministerial participation in the international conference on the conflict convened, to Netanyahu’s chagrin, by France. Maybe it was just a crude attempt to ingratiate herself with Donald Trump. But it suggests a strong desire not to alienate Israel’s government, the most right wing ever, let alone bring any fresh thinking to bear on a conflict in which Britain’s historic role has been so important.
Which is deeply depressing, because the centenary is an opportunity to do just that. The Balfour declaration was messier than May has admitted. It is not just that in 1917 the only Jewish cabinet member, Edwin Montagu, was the leading dissenter, believing that the “antisemitic” document would provide the excuse for European countries, including Britain, to pack their Jewish citizens off to Palestine. Montagu could not predict how the Holocaust would immeasurably strengthen the case for the state of Israel. But his prediction that “you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants” came tragically true for more than 700,000 Arabs who lost their homes in the war 30 years later.
But there were also the strategic needs of the first world war government. While Balfour was indeed a response to the long-standing Zionist urgings for a national home in Palestine after centuries of antisemitism and persecution in Europe and Russia, Britain was partly using the Zionist movement to establish its own future control of Palestine.
But that is history. What isn’t is Netanyahu’s promise not to uproot any more settlements, his efforts to weaken Israeli human rights groups, his kowtowing to his coalition’s most ultranationalist elements. And here the full Balfour declaration has a strong contemporary relevance. For it held that a national Jewish home should not prejudice the rights of “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
That outstanding broken promise is a theme of one of the most interesting forthcoming public meetings on Balfour on 31 October, which will “acknowledge Britain’s historic responsibilities in the Middle East” and commit to “support Palestinians and Israelis in building a peaceful future based on equal rights for all”.
It’s a safe bet that Netanyahu will not be attending. But if he comes to London, May will have an ideal opportunity not only to remind the Israeli prime minister of the broken promise but to indicate that international – and British – patience is running out. One of the many reasons that this won’t happen is a belief that this is not the way Conservative governments behave towards Israel. And yet a fascinating recent book by Azriel Bermant shows that, particularly at the end of her premiership, and for all her genuine admiration for Israel, Margaret Thatcher’s robustly expressed frustration with Yitzhak Shamir’s government – probably the closest ideologically to Netanyahu’s – reached a high pitch, along with her determination to play—in the end vainly– a role in settling the conflict. She was deeply dismayed by the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, which was far smaller than it is now. Is it too much to think she would have given a piece of her mind to Netanyahu?
It’s too early to say whether the reconciliation announced today between Fatah and Hamas will really end their disastrous decade-long split. But if it does, it will remove one excuse for not making peace – that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, does not represent all his people. Either way, Britain would ideally use the new economic relationship it will have to strike with Israel post-Brexit to exercise leverage on it by deciding on a clear boycott, not of Israel proper, but of trade with and goods coming from the settlements. That is doubtless a fantasy. The Balfour anniversary is nevertheless a chance to rethink British attitudes to a conflict that has left the Palestinians stateless and without the rights everyone in Britain and Israel takes for granted.
• Donald Macintyre is the author of Gaza, Preparing for Dawn