The Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, affects the lives of everyone living in Israel and the territories. The declaration gave legitimacy and impetus to the Zionist dream, which 30 years later, on November 29, 1947, got another boost from the United Nations.
Perhaps there would have been a state without the Balfour Declaration, but it likely would have taken a lot longer to happen.
A conference about the declaration held last week at the Konrad Adenauer Center in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood attracted overflow audiences to all of its sessions. While opening conference sessions often draw full attendance, seats usually start to empty soon after. But for “From Balfour to Brexit,” the opposite was true. People literally begged to get in, especially to the session featuring former British prime minister Tony Blair. After one session would end and seats were vacated, they quickly filled with people waiting in the lobby.
The conference was illuminating, entertaining, in some respects shocking, and linguistically inspiring. Listening to the English of highly educated Brits is pure joy.
As might be expected, the bulk of attendees were British expatriates. Some of them bristled in anger when the likes of prize-winning novelist and playwright A.B. Yehoshua and former foreign minister MK Tzipi Livni blamed Britain – specifically the Balfour Declaration – for creating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and then not knowing how to fix its mistake.
Livni even told this to Blair personally at their first meeting. She was pleased that he was still involved long after leaving office and completing his tenure as Middle East envoy of the Quartet.
But the majority of speakers – including Roderick Lord Balfour, 5th Earl of Balfour – were quite gung-ho about the declaration, and were unreservedly happy that it had been made.
Although Jews, including non-Israelis, tend to set great stock by the declaration, not many people in England were giving it much thought lately, until word leaked out about preparations for its 100th anniversary prompted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to demand that Britain apologize for its issue and cancel the celebrations of its centenary.
Britain refused to apologize. Moreover, Prime Minister Theresa May said she was proud of Britain’s role in the document and wanted the British people to take pride in their country’s contribution to Israel’s statehood. She even invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come to England to join the celebrations. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have threatened to sue Britain for issuing the declaration a century ago.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote two years ago that the Balfour Declaration was “bizarre,” a “tragically incoherent document” and “an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama.” Of course, that was before he was appointed to his current position. That point was raised several times at the conference. One speaker – after quoting Johnson – said Johnson had now become a piece of Foreign Office fudgerama himself.
The conference opened with an entertaining talk by history lecturer Kobi Hubara on what led up to the Balfour Declaration. Instead of offering up a dry historical synopsis, with which most of the audience were familiar, Hubara introduced the characters in the drama and their relationship with each other, nearly playing their parts while employing nimble body language.
Ambassador to Britain Mark Regev arrived on the second day of the conference. He had been among the invitees the previous evening for a pre-Rosh Hashana reception at 10 Downing Street hosted by May.
It’s routine for British prime ministers to send Rosh Hashana greetings to the Jewish community, but this was the first time one of them hosted such a reception at their official residence.
Outside of his family, Lord Balfour had never heard British people talking about the famous document that bears his family name. Strangely enough, there seemed to be a lot of people who knew about it in France. For that matter, the British public might care far less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than people living in Israel and the Palestinian Authority presume.
Nonetheless, CEO of the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Center James Sorene said the Foreign Ministry receives thousands of letters each year from the British public on the issue.
Ambassador Regev responded by saying one has to be very careful when using the expression “British public,” because ordinary people are not writing to the Foreign Office and all those letters about the conflict are written by activists.
Senior foreign policy analyst Tim Marshall disagreed with Sorene, asserting that the British public doesn’t care about the Israel-Palestine situation and “has much more to care about than this tiny piece of land.”
When Sorene gave survey findings on how the British feel about Israel or the Balfour Declaration, indicating they do care, Marshall contended, “That’s only because you asked them.”
The current Lord Balfour noted earlier at the conference, “The Balfour Declaration is never mentioned in the United Kingdom.”
Balfour’s personal involvement with commemorations of the famously named declaration began 25 years ago, when he realized not a single member of the Balfour family had been invited to participate in its 75th anniversary gala dinner celebration. He contacted the Anglo-Israel Association and has been involved ever since.
Blair, like Shimon Peres, whom he eulogized at a graveside ceremony last Thursday, remains forever optimistic about the possibility of peace in the Middle East, and said that he comes to the region because he finds comfort in optimism.
Blair said that with changes taking place in the region, he saw more cause for optimism than in the past.
“Changes in the region are creating new alliances and new opportunities,” he said. “There is an Arab leadership starting to formulate a view of their history which does not involve a demonization of Israel.”
Blair added, “For any government in Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians is tough unless there are regional underpinnings. Many in the region can be partners to help solve the situation and not just point the finger.”
He also emphasized the importance of trying to understand the Saudi point of view.
When asked about the possibility of US President Donald Trump achieving success breaking the impasse in the peace process where others have failed, Blair was diplomatic and took a wait-and-see attitude. He said the problem with reviving the peace process was a matter of context. “Change the context and you can have negotiations,” he said.
Conference speakers expressed a general feeling that – because of its other problems such as refugees and fighting terrorism – Europe has become far less relevant to the peace process than it once was. Interestingly though, since the Brexit referendum, relations have been improving between Israel and the UK – politically, economically and in matters of security.
As for British foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians, Deputy British Ambassador to Israel Tony Kay confirmed that it has not changed.
Livni said that there is no need for Britain to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. “It can be pro-peace” she said.