Britain’s unease about the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, our imperial pronouncement that we ‘view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use [our] best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’, is not hard to spot. Boris Johnson lauds Balfour as ‘indispensable to the creation of a great nation’ before rueing that its ‘vital caveat…to safeguard other communities – has not been fully realised’. His shadow number, Emily Thornberry, said: ‘I don’t think we celebrate the Balfour declaration. But I think we have to mark it because it was a turning point in the history of that area and the most important way of marking it is to recognise Palestine.’ Jeremy Corbyn has been sharply rebuked for snubbing a Balfour centennial dinner, as if this reluctance to break bread was the first sign that he might have a problem with Jews.
Something is wrong in all of this. One hundred years on and Britain still thinks of Israel as a filial disappointment, the prodigal son who never came home. Whether we rejoice in the Balfour Declaration or decry it, we are likewise fixated by our role as state-maker, carving up the map for good or for ill. We lost the Empire but kept the guilt and so the sins of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians are on us.
If we cannot celebrate Balfour, we certainly shouldn’t deplore it, because it was not our land to begin with and not our declaration to give. In realist terms, of course, it was the catalyst for the Zionist provisions in the San Remo Conference resolution and the Sèvres Treaty. Building on this, the Palestine Mandate of 1922 recognised ‘the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and…the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country’ and provided for ‘close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes’.
‘Reconstituting’, because Jewish sovereignty was not a new idea but an old one, rooted in a much earlier covenant. Despite expulsion and exile, the Jewish people’s attachment to the Land of Israel was never broken and they remained its true custodians. It is in Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s poem, ‘The East Bank of the Jordan’, that we find one of simplest and most striking articulations of that bond: ‘Though my country may be poor and small/ It is mine from head to foot.’
The Jewish people belong in the Land of Israel and the Land of Israel, all of it, belongs to the Jewish people — biblically, historically, morally, emotionally, and, yes, legally. That is not the position of the UK Government, which is not really ‘pro-Israel’ but pro the ‘two-state solution’, that great MacGuffin of international affairs. Whenever a minister speaks about Israel’s right to self-defence or even its right to exist, there is inevitably a caveat about ‘a sovereign and viable Palestinian state’. What other allies do we talk about in such terms? Do we view the existence of Germany as a matter for debate or issue rote bromides about China’s entitlement to be on the face of the Earth? When we condemn terror attacks in the United States or France, do we add a coda about the Navajo or the Algerians?
Our prideful guilt over Balfour causes us to view Israel not as an ally but as a foreign policy problem. There is a dispute with competing claims and an intolerable measure of misery and wasted human potential. However, there is not one thread binding Israel’s right to exist to the formation of another Arab state on its borders. A Palestinian state is a fine idea and maybe one day the Palestinians will agree but it is a matter for Jerusalem and Ramallah to resolve. Just as we were not primarily responsible for the (re)establishment of Israel, we are not the determiners of the Palestinians’ future.
The lesson of Balfour is not the folly of choosing sides but the failure to do so. Our choice should always be Israel, not only for the justice of its cause but because of our common interests and values. Our prevarications over the years make our celebrations of Balfour misplaced. Instead of lauding a rare moment when we did the right thing by the Jewish people, we should be honouring their achievement in realising a two-thousand-year-old hope to be a free nation in their land. We should not be seeking to redraw their borders yet again.