If only Boris Johnson would write an ‘alternative’ article on the Balfour Declaration centenary

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 31/10/2017

UK British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson [Financial Times/Flickr]

When it came to BREXIT, the now Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote one article for, and another against, leaving the EU, to help him make up his mind. When this emerged, he explainedit like this: “Everybody was trying to make up their minds about whether or not to leave the European Union and it is perfectly true that back in February I was wrestling with it, like I think a lot of people in this country, and I wrote a long piece which came down overwhelmingly in favour of leaving.

“I then thought I better see if I can make the alternative case for myself so I then wrote a sort of semi-parodic article in the opposite sense.” He added, “But I set them side by side and it was blindingly obvious what the right thing to do was.”

As the British government prepares to “mark with pride” what the Palestinians describe as the notorious Balfour Declaration, Johnson penned an article celebrating Israel’s creation but did not include an apology to the Palestinian people. Why didn’t he make the alternative case for an apology for the impact that Britain’s promise in 1917 had, and continues to have, on them?

What might a Johnson article making the case for an apology to the Palestinian people look like? Something like this, perhaps:

It was here in this room, beneath this same gilded ceiling, that one chapter of the story began. On 2 November 1917 my predecessor Lord Arthur Balfour sat in the Foreign Secretary’s office, where I am writing now, and composed a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, the leader of the Zionist movement. The essence of what is now known as the Balfour Declaration consists of one sentence of 67 words; those were the carefully calibrated syllables that laid the foundations of the State of Israel.

On 2 November 2017, Britain has a choice. It can either celebrate the Balfour Declaration and the creation of Israel; apologise to the Palestinian people as they have asked repeatedly; or produce a 2017 fudgerama.

While Mayor of London, I had reason to consider the Balfour letter carefully and concluded that it was “bizarre,” a “tragicomically incoherent document” and “an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama.”

On the centenary of its issue, I will say what I really believe: the Balfour Declaration was not only wrong, but also Britain should have never implemented it when it realised its potential and undoubted impact. Had it still been implemented, the British government should have ensured that the Palestinians attained their rights decades ago.

While it may have been well-intended at the time, it is difficult to understand why the indigenous Palestinian Arabs who made up 90 per cent of the population were not even mentioned; more bizarrely, why they were referred to by what they were not: “existing non-Jewish communities”. Why were their political rights excluded when Balfour said, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”? I can find no morally strong answer to such questions.

In hindsight, the Palestinians should have been consulted, even though I expect they would have objected to the idea, and the whole issue would have been shelved or an alternative location for a Jewish homeland would have been found. I understand that an uninhabited part of Uganda was one of the locations considered earlier; had that or any other option been pursued then a different outcome would have resulted.

Sitting at the desk in the Foreign Office that Balfour used to draft his declaration, I can see now what he could not have foreseen, despite any possible prejudices towards the Palestinian Arabs. It is possible to say with certainty that had a Jewish homeland been located elsewhere, an independent state of Palestine providing a homeland for all of its citizens — Jews, Christians and Muslims alike — would have emerged at the end of the British Mandate period, as happened in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. I can also conclude that Jewish Arabs would have remained in their countries of origin in the Middle East, where they were far safer and more integrated than they were elsewhere, including Europe. On reflection, I can see now how the creation of Israel was the trigger for their mass departure from their homelands.

When it came to BREXIT, the now Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote one article for, and another against, leaving the EU, to help him make up his mind. When this emerged, he explainedit like this: “Everybody was trying to make up their minds about whether or not to leave the European Union and it is perfectly true that back in February I was wrestling with it, like I think a lot of people in this country, and I wrote a long piece which came down overwhelmingly in favour of leaving.

“I then thought I better see if I can make the alternative case for myself so I then wrote a sort of semi-parodic article in the opposite sense.” He added, “But I set them side by side and it was blindingly obvious what the right thing to do was.”

As the British government prepares to “mark with pride” what the Palestinians describe as the notorious Balfour Declaration, Johnson penned an article celebrating Israel’s creation but did not include an apology to the Palestinian people. Why didn’t he make the alternative case for an apology for the impact that Britain’s promise in 1917 had, and continues to have, on them?

What might a Johnson article making the case for an apology to the Palestinian people look like? Something like this, perhaps:

It was here in this room, beneath this same gilded ceiling, that one chapter of the story began. On 2 November 1917 my predecessor Lord Arthur Balfour sat in the Foreign Secretary’s office, where I am writing now, and composed a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, the leader of the Zionist movement. The essence of what is now known as the Balfour Declaration consists of one sentence of 67 words; those were the carefully calibrated syllables that laid the foundations of the State of Israel.

On 2 November 2017, Britain has a choice. It can either celebrate the Balfour Declaration and the creation of Israel; apologise to the Palestinian people as they have asked repeatedly; or produce a 2017 fudgerama.

While Mayor of London, I had reason to consider the Balfour letter carefully and concluded that it was “bizarre,” a “tragicomically incoherent document” and “an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama.”

On the centenary of its issue, I will say what I really believe: the Balfour Declaration was not only wrong, but also Britain should have never implemented it when it realised its potential and undoubted impact. Had it still been implemented, the British government should have ensured that the Palestinians attained their rights decades ago.

While it may have been well-intended at the time, it is difficult to understand why the indigenous Palestinian Arabs who made up 90 per cent of the population were not even mentioned; more bizarrely, why they were referred to by what they were not: “existing non-Jewish communities”. Why were their political rights excluded when Balfour said, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”? I can find no morally strong answer to such questions.

In hindsight, the Palestinians should have been consulted, even though I expect they would have objected to the idea, and the whole issue would have been shelved or an alternative location for a Jewish homeland would have been found. I understand that an uninhabited part of Uganda was one of the locations considered earlier; had that or any other option been pursued then a different outcome would have resulted.

Sitting at the desk in the Foreign Office that Balfour used to draft his declaration, I can see now what he could not have foreseen, despite any possible prejudices towards the Palestinian Arabs. It is possible to say with certainty that had a Jewish homeland been located elsewhere, an independent state of Palestine providing a homeland for all of its citizens — Jews, Christians and Muslims alike — would have emerged at the end of the British Mandate period, as happened in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. I can also conclude that Jewish Arabs would have remained in their countries of origin in the Middle East, where they were far safer and more integrated than they were elsewhere, including Europe. On reflection, I can see now how the creation of Israel was the trigger for their mass departure from their homelands.

It is also clear now that Britain’s mandate over Palestine was catastrophic for the Palestinians, as mass immigration of non-indigenous people, who happened to be Jews, happened under our watch and against the Palestinians’ will. While the suffering of the Jews in Europe and Russia is undisputed, to have encouraged them to establish their homeland on another people’s land was wrong They were not simply seeking refuge from persecution but were encouraged by a Zionist leadership to take over the land completely and ensure a Jewish majority.

The partitioning of Palestine in 1947 giving Jews more than half the land when they were neither half the population nor owned more than a small percentage, just does not make sense to me now. Would I as an Englishman ever agree to the division of my country to allow a state for another people to be established? In all honesty, no.

As Britain abandoned Palestine in May 1948, it left the Palestinians at the mercy of Zionist militias whose violence resulted in the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 people to neighbouring countries and beyond. It is distressing for me today to note that Britain did little to stop this. At the very least, the British government should have insisted that before recognising Israel, all Palestinians who wanted to return were able to do so. Britain did not do this and now the 700,000 have grown to 6 million scattered all over the world through no fault of their own. I know, though, that their connection to Palestine is unbreakable.

In assessing the situation now, I see that Israel is a fully recognised state, despite its refusal to declare its borders, while Britain continues to delay recognition of Palestine. I see that Israel continues to build settlements which I and my predecessors in the Foreign Office have repeatedly and vigorously insisted are illegal, as international laws and conventions make clear. I cannot justify supporting the building of homes for residents of one ethnicity exclusively. How can I support the building of illegal settlements for Jews-only on illegally occupied land? And while I have not experienced a military occupation myself, I have seen enough hard evidence for me to understand how brutal Israel’s occupation is.

I have also looked carefully at Israel’s claim that it is a democracy and that it treats it citizens equally. On close examination, I learnt that those Palestinians who remained inside what became the Green (Armistice) Line in 1948 and their descendants face discrimination through more than 60 laws passed by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. I hear that Bedouin citizens of Israel live in villages that the state refuses to recognise and that it plans to move them all into Bedouin reservations. That it plans to replace their villages with settlements only for Jews is hard to swallow.

I know that as a government we have skated around the issue of Gaza, where Israel’s 10-year siege of 2 million people is maintained in the name of security. The severest restrictions on exit and entry and only 3 hours of electricity a day? How can that be acceptable to Britain?

I had initially rejected the charge of Apartheid against Israel until I read a report by ESCWA which was pulled at Israel’s and America’s behest. It set out the case and concluded that Israel exercised Apartheid against the Palestinian people as a whole. We must learn the lessons from South African history. Hand on heart, I could not disagree with the analysis and therefore the conclusion of the report.

I have campaigned vigorously against exerting any pressure on Israel to change its course and even argued against the entirely peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, despite knowing how successful sanctions were in ending White rule in South Africa. Moreover, even in the days leading to the Balfour centenary, rather than embarking on a genuine peace process, the talk is of Israeli annexation and a refusal to see the Palestinians free in their own state.

Image of a BDS march on 16 August 2014 [Alex Chis/Flickr]

The Balfour centenary is thus an opportunity to take stock. I have done so, and have concluded that Britain must issue an apology to the Palestinian people for its less than honourable role in their continuing catastrophe. It must also recognise the state of Palestine as a first step. It would be fitting for this to be issued on 2 November.

In order to make amends, though, I believe that Britain should now go further and call for a political settlement that would deliver equal rights for all in the holy land; a deal which ensures that those Palestinian refugees who wish to return are able to do so at the earliest opportunity.

I call on Her Majesty’s Government, including myself, to use its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object ensuring that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil, religious and political rights of everyone in historic Palestine.

Putting the two articles side by side, it is blindingly obvious that the alternative position I set out here is the moral high ground to adopt on Thursday.

That is the article that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson should have written, but didn’t, to his eternal shame. The facts of the matter are very clear. How can the British government be proud of Balfour and its role in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from their land so that the state of Israel could be established?

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