The Balfour declaration and other milestones in our imperial history show how hard we tried to do the right thing
Boris Johnson is more a historian than a diplomat. Indeed there are few politicians less diplomatic, and few more inclined to reach for a historical reference. The new foreign secretary has written books on Churchill and London, and presented television programmes on the history of Rome and early Islam. He is undoubtedly comfortable in the past.
This is just as well because one of the first challenges in his new post will be to negotiate his way through exceptionally controversial anniversaries of events in Britain’s history that have a continuing impact on the present: the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, falls in November next year; 100 years ago this year British and French diplomats signed the Sykes-Picot agreement which secretly divided up the Middle East between them; October sees the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis, the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in collusion with Israel. These events may have lost much of their relevance in western memory but in the Middle East they remain freighted with significance, resentment and pain.
The centenary of the First World War has been comparatively plain sailing in commemorative terms but Britain’s Middle East diplomacy surrounding that conflict, which paved the way for the foundation of Israel and Arab nation states, is a diplomatic minefield. The letter written by the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour in November 1917 pledged British support for a “national home” for the Jewish people, leading to the Mandate, mass Jewish immigration and the creation of Israel after the Second World War.
This week Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, raised the prospect of legal action against Britain over the declaration. His spokesman insisted that as a result of Britain’s “ill-omened promise, hundreds of thousands of Jews were moved from Europe and elsewhere to Palestine at the expense of our Palestinian people whose parents and grandparents had lived for thousands of years on the soil of their homeland”.
Although Israel is gearing up for a Balfour party, the Foreign Office has spoken merely of “marking” the centenary, rather than lauding it, a cautious position that will displease both sides. Between the Palestinian lawsuit (which will not happen since there is no legal case to answer) and the Israel celebration, Britain is left dangling, embarrassed, uncertain how to approach and remember her own history.
In the Blair years there was a flurry of apologies for the past, as if history could be reduced to a moral profit-and-loss account. At the same time there has been an opposite tendency to blank the past, to argue that raking over history in search of fault and recompense is irrelevant.
Over Israel Britain is left dangling, embarrassed, uncertain how to approach and remember her own history
There is a middle way between contrite hand-wringing and stiff-necked denial, and that is to get the politicians, diplomats and lawyers out of history and get the historians back in. William Hague showed how to do this: when the demand for reparations over the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion erupted on his watch, instead of either sweeping the controversy under the carpet or apologising, he opened up the Foreign Office archives to establish what really happened and so acknowledge Britain’s role in post-war Kenya — nuanced and contradictory as that was.
This is how Britain should approach the centenary of the Balfour declaration, as an occasion to be neither eulogised nor bemoaned but dispassionately explored, analysed and understood, a fraught moment in history whose consequences could not have been foreseen at the time.
The declaration was prompted by various factors including a genuine desire on the part of the British government to create a Jewish homeland as well as geopolitical interests. Britain was locked in a desperate war with no certainty of victory, Jews had been prominent in the Bolshevik Revolution and it was hoped that the statement might encourage Russia to maintain the battle on the Eastern Front. Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland might undermine German-Jewish support for the war, it was thought, while encouraging increased financial contributions to the war effort from the American-Jewish community.
At a war cabinet meeting in October 1917, Balfour bluntly observed that a statement supporting Zionism would be “extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America”. Crucially the declaration also states that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” — which then made up 90 per cent of the population.
Any “marking” of the centenary needs to acknowledge that while the Jewish homeland envisaged in 1917 has been realised, the promise to protect the rights of the Palestinian people has not yet been honoured.
The Balfour declaration set the scene for a century of conflict but it also contains within it the germ of a two-state solution. Britain should use the centenary as an opportunity to help establish an equitable settlement respecting the rights both of Israelis and Palestinians in two states.
If the centenary is used as an excuse for political grandstanding, it will only inflame the situation in the Middle East. But seen as the complex, unpredictable moment that it was, it might promote greater understanding of how the Arab-Israeli conflict ignited and conceivably how it might eventually be defused.