The political turmoil in the United Kingdom following Prime Minister Theresa May’s re-election with a reduced, precarious majority and the implications for the UK’s negotiations to leave the European Union have overshadowed Britain’s other foreign policy concerns. Among other repercussions, it casts doubt on the way in which the UK will mark the centennial of the Balfour Declaration later this year. As is well known, the fateful letter, signed by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour on November 2, 1917, promised British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, completely disregarding the sovereign rights of the Palestinian people who lived there.
Prior to the elections May had described the declaration as “one of the most important letters in history” during a speech to a Conservative Friends of Israel meeting, and said it was “an anniversary we will be marking with pride.” May’s comments suggested that the British Embassy in Tel Aviv would host a large celebration to honor the occasion. In addition, President Reuven Rivlin invited the royal family for an official state visit to coincide with the anniversary. Though the Queen is unlikely to travel, Prince Charles may attend.
“Despite claims of a commitment to peace, Britain has shown that it is Israel’s ally.”
Now it is an open question as to whether May – or indeed the Conservative Party – can stay in power. This provides the Palestinians with an opportune moment to regroup in their efforts, hitherto unsuccessful, to use the Balfour centennial to begin to address Britain’s century of ill-treatment toward the Palestinians.
This commentary traces Britain’s treatment of Palestine and the Palestinians since the time of Balfour’s letter, demonstrating a largely consistent pro-Israel stance over the decades. It then considers the consequences that Brexit and the recent elections may have for the Palestinian cause, and concludes with recommendations regarding the kind of apology Palestinians should demand of Britain in light of these past and current events.
One Hundred Years of Bias
Theresa May’s fawning to the Conservative Friends of Israel came as no surprise. Britain’s involvement in Israel and Palestine has consisted of an almost unwavering support for the Zionist project since its colonial inception. Despite claims of a commitment to peace, Britain has shown that it is Israel’s ally first and foremost. This can be seen in its continued arms trade with Israel, despite resultant complicity in Israeli war crimes. Britain has also failed to sanction Israel for its continued settlement building in the West Bank, which has doubled since the Oslo Accords, with over half a million settlers in areas that would constitute a Palestinian state. Moreover, the British government continues to demonize the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), the global nonviolent grassroots campaign for Palestinian rights.
A century ago, Christian Zionist ideology, which sought to facilitate the return of Jews to the Holy Land to fulfil a biblical prophesy, guided Britain’s political elite. This cadre included the prime minister, Lloyd George, who led the coalition government. Just over a month after the Balfour Declaration, General Edmund Allenby took Jerusalem from the Ottoman forces, marking the beginning of British colonial rule in Palestine. Though this rule ended at the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948 and the forcible displacement of and denial of return to the majority of the Palestinian population, British interference in Palestine would continue thanks to Britain’s unwavering commitment to Zionism.
“Calls from activists demanding that the UK cease its arms trade with Israel have come to naught.”
Zionism found support in the British Labour Party, which was sympathetic to a movement it saw as a socialist Jewish liberation project. It is thus unsurprising that the party publicly supported the Balfour Declaration. However, after the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights, more critical voices began to emerge. This coincided with international recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel’s shift to the right.
Under Tony Blair’s rebranded “New Labour,” the party renewed its support for Israel. In fact, Israel’s most ardent supporter in recent British politics is Blair, who from the very beginning of his political career in the early 1980s, was a member of the pro-Israel lobby group Labour Friends of Israel (LFI). During his premiership he visited Israel several times, and counted Lord Michael Levy, a staunch Zionist6 among his closest advisors and biggest fundraisers.
Under Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, human rights activists brought attention to Britain’s relations and particularly its military trade with Israel during Israel’s 2008-2009 Cast Lead offensive in Gaza. A 2014 parliamentary report confirmed that the Israeli army used weapons from the UK in its attacks, which killed over 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians.8 Yet calls from activists demanding that the UK cease its arms trade with Israel have come to naught, and relations between Britain and Israel continue unabated.
The current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has a different stance on Palestine. He has been hounded for his decades of support for the Palestinian cause, particularly for his affiliation with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Critics dubbed him a Hamas supporter and an anti-Semite. After his election, the party endured an anti-Semitism scandal that saw the suspension of several party members, including the Jewish activist Jackie Walker, who in a Facebook post referred to the African slave trade as a holocaust. Corbyn subsequently launched an inquiry10 headed by the barrister and human rights advocate Shami Chakrabarti. The inquiry published its report in June of 2016 and confirmed that despite these claims, Labour is not overrun by anti-Semitism. Many saw the scandal as part of an ongoing attempt by pro-Israel and pro-Blair figures to weaken and undermine Corbyn. Overall, it demonstrates how serious it is for a leading British political figure to take a pro-Palestine stance. The Conservative Party particularly encouraged the attacks on Corbyn.
British Foreign Policy on Palestine: What’s Next?
In the wake of May’s failed attempt to expand her majority, it is now unclear what form Brexit will take. But if Britain leaves the European Union as planned in 2019, some argue that Palestinians may benefit. Ilan Pappe, for example, suggests that Brexit could be an “opportune moment to advance Palestinian freedom” in that Israel would lose its advocate in the EU. As such, EU countries could put forward more initiatives to back Palestinian rights without being blocked by a staunchly pro-Israel Britain. Two months before the Brexit referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron used this argument to support his anti-Brexit stance while addressing a Jewish charity: “When Europe is discussing its attitude toward Israel, do you want Britain – Israel’s greatest friend – in there opposing boycotts, opposing the campaign for divestment and sanctions, or do you want us outside the room, powerless to affect the discussion that takes place?”
“When the past infiltrates the present, the demand to forget is impossible.”
By promising to fight against BDS within the EU, Cameron catered to pro-Israel groups whose fears of Palestinian activism increased in 2015 after the European Commission issued its interpretive notice that products made in Israeli settlements bound for the EU be labeled as such. The UK’s stance against BDS stands in contrast to European countries such as Sweden, Ireland, and Holland, which have affirmed BDS as a legal example of free political expression.