Bibi, May commemorate Balfour centenary

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Lords Balfour and Rothschild view the original Balfour Declaration. Photo: Kobi Gideon, GPO

ISRAELI officials are delighted by the embrace they got in London for the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – breathing a sigh of relief that what could have been a nightmare occasion went off so smoothly.

It was “a letter which gave birth to a most extraordinary country,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said at a celebratory dinner.

The men who carry the legacies of both the key figures of the Declaration – the sender and the recipient – were at the dinner.

It was sent to Lord Rothschild, and the current Lord Rothschild hosted the event, which included Lord Balfour, inheritor of the title of Arthur Balfour, who wrote the letter.

“It’s unbelievable to have these two names associated here, Lord Balfour, great-grandson of Arthur Balfour’s brother,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referring to them in his speech.

There were protests across the West Bank decrying the Balfour Declaration for the anniversary, and Palestinian leaders had been calling for Britain to apologise for issuing the Declaration.

While this never looked likely, it was possible that the London establishment would burst the Jewish community’s bubble, and react coolly to the anniversary.

In the run-up to the occasion, it seemed possible Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a vociferous critic of Israel, could have won the June election and been leading Britain.

And there are mixed feelings about the Declaration in the British Foreign Office, where some diplomats would rather have played down the anniversary.

But in the end, the Conservative leader May won the election, and decided to give the anniversary a full embrace – while Corbyn stayed away from the anniversary dinner.

The PM used her speech to say, “When some people suggest we should apologise for this letter, I say absolutely not.”

She elaborated: “We are proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the State of Israel. We are proud to stand here today together with Prime Minister Netanyahu and declare our support for Israel. And we are proud of the relationship we have built with Israel.

“And as we mark 100 years since Balfour, we look forward to taking that relationship even further.”

Netanyahu lauded the impact of the 100-year-old letter, saying, “It was the Balfour Declaration that galvanised international support for Zionism as never before and paved the path for Zionism’s entry on the world stage.”

As a result, a “once stateless and powerless people has found its rightful place among the nations”. Balfour, he told May, “put Britain on the right side of history. In marking that declaration today you are keeping Britain on the right side of history.”

During a meeting with his British counterpart, Netanyahu said the Declaration foreshadowed today’s strong Britain-Israel ties.

He said, “A hundred years ago, the Balfour Declaration helped pave the way for the reestablishment of an independent state for the Jewish people in our ancestral homeland. A hundred years later, our two countries, our two democracies – Israel and Britain – are strong allies and partners.”

The Israelis were particularly pleased that May hit out against “a new and pernicious form of anti-Semitism which uses criticism of the actions of the Israeli government as a despicable justification for questioning the very right of Israel to exist.”

She said that criticising Israeli actions ” is never – and can never be – an excuse for questioning Israel’s right to exist, any more than criticising the actions of Britain could be an excuse for questioning our right to exist.”

Netanyahu praised her for these comments. But the diplomatic side of the anniversary was not all smiles. May used the visit to tell Netanyahu about Britain’s frustration over settlements, and said publicly that she planned to use meetings to discuss “what we see as some of the barriers and some of the difficulties like the illegal settlements in relation to that peace process.”

Iran also divided the leaders. May is a strong supporter of the West’s deal with Iran, while Netanyahu has spent months trouncing it.

Netanyahu now wants changes to the deal to make it far stricter on Iran – and it is unclear how May responded. Netanyahu said, “The threat we all see is a resurgent Iran that is bent not only on dominating the region, but bent on developing nuclear weapons.

“The goal that I have in mind is not keeping or eliminating the deal; it’s improving the deal and correcting its main flaws. And I think those who want to keep the deal should cooperate in correcting the deal.”

There was also an awkwardness around the Balfour Declaration, which was mostly swept under the carpet but did get a couple of mentions. Jewish statehood came 31 years after the Balfour Declaration, and after Britain limited Jewish immigration to Palestine during the Holocaust when the Jewish world was in need of a refuge.

Netanyahu told Israeli media: “I don’t forget for a second that the British backtracked” from the Balfour Declaration. In his speech he promised Britain’s Foreign Secretary that he would speak as “a diplomat” and referred to Britain’s “painful retreats on the path to national rebirth”.

But later in the speech, he suggested that British reticence cost lives. “Some people mistakenly believe that there is an Israel because of the Holocaust,” he said. “In fact it’s only because there was no Israel that the Holocaust could occur, because there was no sovereign Jewish power to protect the Jewish People.”

Israelis who travelled to London for the anniversary included Arsen Ostrovsky, originally from Sydney, who attended an event at parliament with Lord Rothschild and Lord Balfour.

“It was a great privilege, indeed, almost a surreal experience to be in the company of these lords, as well as the UK Jewish community in London, for this historic celebration,” he told The AJN.

Ostrovsky, executive director of The Israeli-Jewish Congress, added: “Being in the British Parliament on the anniversary of the centenary, as well as participating in other communal events, was not only a fitting opportunity to celebrate this historic occasion, but to reinforce and strengthen even further the special bond between the State of Israel and the United Kingdom, especially in this post-Brexit era.

NATHAN JEFFAY