NO one who follows the Palestinian issue will be very surprised to hear of the call by Mahmoud Abbas to sue the British government over the Balfour declaration of November 1917. That was the famous letter, which pledged to support the establishment of a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine, and is seen as a key milestone for the Zionist movement. The promise by Arthur Balfour, then foreign secretary, led to the British mandate, mass Jewish immigration and eventually to the creation of Israel in the wake of the second world war and the Holocaust, and to the Palestinian “Nakba” (catastrophe).
Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the PLO, raised the prospect of legal action against Britain at an Arab League summit in Mauritania via his foreign minister, Riyad al-Malki, last week. Balfour, said Malki, “gave people who don’t belong there something that wasn’t theirs”. Israeli spokesmen quickly attacked Abbas for trying to “de-legitimise” the Jewish state. “Don’t be surprised if the next phase will be an expansion of the Palestinian claim against Britain, and France as well since they were also partners in the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided control in our region,” said public security minister Gilad Erdan. “Everything is kosher in Abu Mazen’s [Abbas’] path of lies and incitement.”
Threatening legal action over a 99-year-old document is certainly a stretch, and it attracted more ridicule than serious analysis. It has in any case long been superseded by other decisions including UN resolutions. Still, the statement may be seen as a symptom of desperation about the Palestinian cause at a time when the peace process is non-existent and hopes for an end to occupation and a two-state solution to the conflict appear moribund.
“I regard what Abbas said as a cry of anger and despair rather than a statement of intent,” said Sir Vincent Fean, former British consul-general in Jerusalem and effectively ambassador to the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. “I don’t see how he can do what he has undertaken to do. But the problem is that the two-state solution that he has advocated and argued for so long is rapidly drifting away.”
The story has re-awakened interest in how the Balfour declaration will be remembered on its centenary in 2017. Last year, the Foreign Office held a brainstorming session about how to handle the legacy of still politically sensitive first world war agreements, including Sykes-Picot and Balfour, at a time of unprecedented turmoil in the Middle East. But it is unclear if plans have been finalised. Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador in London, has spoken of a “public celebration together with the British government”. But Tobias Ellwood, FCO minister for the Middle East, said in June that he would use the word “mark” rather than “celebrate” what he admitted was still “a live issue” in the region.
Balfour promised to support a national home for the Jews in Palestine as long as the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” were respected – crucially, those communities then constituted some 90% of the population of the Ottoman province. Fean and other supporters of the Balfour Project are working to promote understanding of the declaration’s continuing consequences in the coming months. “I think that there is a moral responsibility on our government to complete the work that it started when Britain was the world power,” argues the now retired diplomat. “It should work to deliver an outcome which respects the rights both of Israelis and Palestinians. That is two states – and on the basis of the 1967 borders. And it’s got be soon because if we stand idly by that equitable outcome will disappear.”
Controversy surrounding the anniversary is unlikely to disappear even if the British government, struggling with the implications of Brexit, now has far more pressing problems to deal with. “If Boris Johnson lasts as foreign secretary until next November, he’ll be the one commemorating the Balfour declaration centenary,” tweeted the Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer. “Can’t wait.”
— Courtesy: The Guardian