image of jerusalem 2017

The Balfour Declaration: A Centenary of Woes!
2 November 2017 marks 100 years since the “Balfour Declaration” was made in a letter to the British Jewish community. In a show of imperial diplomacy, the letter included the famous words, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object …” The 68-word text unleashed a chain of long-lasting repercussions that led to the eventual creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

30 October   |   2017   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Let me put aside the McMahon/Hussein correspondence (1915) that sought to win the allegiance of the Sharif of Mecca and his clan with offers of territory and power, or the Sykes-Picot agreement (1917) that carved up part of the Ottoman empire between Britain and France. The 1917 Balfour Declaration (in Arabic, it is referred to as a ‘promise’) sought to create a pro-British bloc in Palestine but ended up being viewed by most Arabs as a calamity visited upon them. A persistent gripe remains that whilst the declaration promised a “Jewish national home”, it patently overlooked the fact that Palestine’s “existing non-Jewish communities” - who incidentally were unnamed in the letter as the words Arab, Christian or Muslim were never penned down - made up some 90% of the 700,000-strong population.

Hence, on the centenary of this declaration, the Balfour Project (UK) which includes clergy and laity alike has been lobbying for a British formal apology to this historical misstep. The Declaration pledged Britain’s support for a ‘national home’ for the Jewish people in Palestine on the understanding that the rights of ‘existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ would not be prejudiced either. The failure to uphold this second clause, for which Britain bore responsibility at the time, has fomented conflict between Palestinians and Israelis ever since.

In order to commemorate this event, we in the UK - and across much of the world - will witness a myriad conferences and talks that push for one narrative or another as a consequence of this letter. Not only that, but a “festive” centennial dinner attended by Prime Ministers Theresa May and Benyamin Netanyahu is on the menu too. I for one happen to believe that an unfortunate historical wrong was committed against Arabs in Palestine. It was motivated by Zionist motivations as much as by fundamentalist Christian ideologies and political intrigues. However, I do not support the campaign for a British “apology”. For one, I do not believe HM Government will be forthcoming with such an apology that admits an historical impropriety. Perhaps coloured by my Armenian identity, I simply question whether the British Government would offer such an apology that rows back on its previous statements any more than the Turkish government would do so for Armenian genocide of 1915? Besides, I do not think it is politically expedient.


For well over three decades, I have argued strongly for Palestinian self-determination. Both before the now infamous Oslo process had inhaled its first breath and long after it had exhaled its last, I maintained that Palestinians are owed their own sovereign, contiguous and secure state side-by-side with Israel. I also insisted that the West - and by that I do not mean only the USA but also the EU that have to date been bankers rather than politicians - owe it to Palestinians in both historical and ethical terms to help drag the parties toward a just and comprehensive resolution of the conflict.

However, I have also become aware that the political winds have shifted noticeably over the past decade. The hopeful Arab Spring as much as the brutal counter-revolutionary reflexes in many countries, have moved global attention away from the remorseless woes of Palestine. The realignment of strategic alliances also means that Israel is no longer the pariah for those Arab countries whose support is key to focusing global minds on Palestine.

Palestinians must instead request from the British Government a recognition of Palestine at the UN and across the international fora. The UK should push forward the long-overdue quest for Palestinian self-determination despite the irascible stonewalling of Israeli peace-unfriendly and colonial-friendly governments. Such recognition involves a firm commitment to peace with justice based on international legitimacy as well as equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians. It entails upholding International law, including the Geneva Conventions, without fear, favour or duplicity.

Much as this is a mammoth task and long-term challenge, I would suggest that it is a more pragmatic approach to the Palestinian stalemate and ultimately a more tangible output for Palestinians too. But no British Government will necessarily undertake such recognition unless its citizens and politicians urge it to do so. Hence, a concerted lobbying effort is required by Palestinians and their British friends or allies. If Britain provides a lead, others will arguably follow suit. Palestinians in 2017 are caught up in a Sisyphus-like scenario where they are patiently trying to push the boulder of apology up a steep mountain. But this is at best a frustrating and agonising exercise! Perhaps it is worth considering recognition as another option that draws them nearer to the fulfilment of the future - not only of the past.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2017   |   30 October


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