THE history of Britain’s relationship with the Palestinians is a “sad story of double standards, broken promises, and betrayals”, an audience at St James’s, Piccadilly, heard late last month, at a lecture that marked the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
Delivering the annual Embrace the Middle East lecture, Dr Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford, called on Britain to recognise Palestine as a sovereign state, as one way to “face up to its historic responsibility and to partially expiate its original sin”.
During a heated question-and-answer session after his lecture, he described Israeli settlements as “the most fundamental reason for the continuation of this conflict”, and argued that Israel had chosen land over peace.
Born into a Jewish family who left Iraq for Israel in 1951, Professor Shlaim served in the Israeli Defence Force before studying at the University of Cambridge. He is one of the New Historians: a group of Israeli scholars who have challenged traditional accounts of Israeli history.
In his lecture “Britain and Palestine: From Balfour to May”, he described how the Palestinians had suffered under British foreign policy, in which racism had played a part.
“The Palestinians had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of British imperialism and Zionist settler colonialism,” he said. “They are the real victims of this conflict. . . The hallmarks of British policy towards Palestine are deviousness, duplicity, and double standards.”
The Balfour Declaration refers to a paragraph in a letter, dated 2 November 1917, from the then Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, which was intended for the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It said that the British Government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”.
This was a “colossal strategic blunder”, Professor Shlaim said, which had produced “a huge amount of ill-will of Arabs and Muslims everywhere”.
Turning to recent British governments, he described the former Prime Minister Tony Blair as a “Christian Zionist”, and accused the current Prime Minister of living in “Wonderland”. He quoted several excepts from Theresa May’s recent address to the Conservative Friends of Israel, in which she described the Balfour Declaration centenary as “an anniversary we will be marking with pride”, and said that the Government would have “no truck” with those who subscribed to the boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions movement.
The Government confirmed in April that it had no intention of apologising for the Balfour Declaration, despite a request by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, at the UN General Assembly last year, and a petition signed by 13,500 people in the UK.
A spokesman said that, in the context of 1917, “establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution,” but added that it “should have called for the protection of political rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination”.
Professor Shlaim, who received a standing ovation at the end of his lecture, called for better education in the UK with regard to the conflict, and Britain’s part in it. A representative of the Balfour Project, which is touring the UK, said that she had encountered “immense ignorance”.