Benjamin Netanyahu says invite to Balfour Declaration centenary 'speaks volumes' about UK-Israel relations

Visiting Israeli prime minister contrasts close British ties with Palestinian decision to sue UK government over 1917 letter that pledged support for creation of Jewish homeland in Palestine

Tuesday 07 February 2017 16:57
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Boris Johnson (then foreign secretary) greets Benjamin Netanyahu at the Foreign Office in February 2017
Boris Johnson (then foreign secretary) greets Benjamin Netanyahu at the Foreign Office in February 2017

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s invitation for the Israeli premier to the centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration later this year “speaks volumes” about the closeness of the two countries.

Ms May extended an invite to Mr Netanyahu during an official visit to London which concluded on Monday.

“While the Palestinians want to sue Britain for the Balfour Declaration, the British prime minister is inviting the Israeli prime minister to an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the declaration. That speaks volumes,” Netanyahu said.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu meets Theresa May

The Balfour Declaration, as it is known, was a 1917 letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, head of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, promising support for the idea of a Jewish homeland in historical Palestine as long as the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities were not “prejudiced.”

Britain ended up governing Palestine shortly afterward under mandate rule after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI.

Mr Netanyahu’s remarks came as he wrapped up a two-day trip to Downing Street on Monday. During talks Ms May reiterated the UK’s desire for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While the visit itself was described as warm, on Tuesday, the UK was the Jewish state’s first major ally to condemn the passage of a controversial bill retroactively legalising 4,000 ‘wildcat’ Jewish homes built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank which cleared the Knesset very late the night before.

A spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the new law was “unacceptable” if Israel was sincere in its commitment to a two-state solution.

Last year Wafa, the Palestinian news agency, announced a year’s worth of action and protest in the run up to the Balfour Declaration’s centenary in November 2017, including a lawsuit and demands for a formal apology from the UK for its role the creation of the Jewish state.

During a speech at the United Nations in New York last October, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that it was time the UK accepted its “moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration.”

“We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, misery and injustice this declaration created and to act to rectify these disasters and remedy its consequences, including by the recognition of the state of Palestine,” Mr Abbas said. “This is the least Great Britain can do.”

Also speaking at the UN, Mr Netanyahu criticised the PA’s stance on the centenary, citing it as “another example” of the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist.

“That’s almost 100 years ago… Talk about being stuck in the past. The Palestinians might as well file a class action suit against Abraham, for buying land in Hebron,” he said, referencing the Torah figure.

At the time, a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson that the government would not apologise for a “historic statement” but recognised that for many, it is a sensitive subject.

“The Balfour Declaration was a historic statement and one that the UK Government will not be apologising for… We are focused on encouraging the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps which bring them closer to peace,” they said, adding that the government supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“However, we do recognise the sensitivities many people have about the Balfour Declaration and will mark the anniversary accordingly.”

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