By Talia Jessener
On Tuesday 29th November the Henry Jackson Society were delighted to welcome an esteemed panel of speakers to discuss how best to defend the Balfour Declaration to detractors and apologists. The significance of this document could not have been timelier; indeed, as Mark Regev, the ambassador of Israel, reminded us in his opening lines, the upcoming year will be one of anniversaries. 2017 will mark 120 years since the First Zionist Congress and 50 years since the Six Day War and subsequent re-unification of Jerusalem. It will also mark 100 years since the proclamation of the Balfour Declaration on 2nd November 2017, and with it, one of the founding sources of legitimacy for the State of Israel.
Ambassador Regev continued by claiming that, rather than feeling the need to apologise, Britain should be proud of the Balfour Declaration. In recognising the Jewish right to a state, Britain was correcting a historic wrong and helping to be on the right side of history, while ensuring the upholding of civil rights for all Israeli citizens. That Israel is often referred to as the only democracy in the Middle East is nothing but a credit to the British commitment that began in 1917.
Ambassador Dore Gold then explained the history of those seeking apologies for the Balfour Declaration. The argument for retraction was founded in 1996 by the Palestinian Return Centre, an organisation now outlawed in Israel for its intermittent links to Hamas, when they were given the opportunity to air their grievances in a House of Lords committee session chaired by Baroness Tounge. He severely criticised the organisation, but criticised Tounge even more for giving air time to a group whose ideology encourages ‘military resistance’ and whose sole purpose is the de-legitimisation of a Nation-State. He believed that, while politicians cannot shut down those who disagree, they must supress those who challenge Israel’s very right to exist.
Ambassador Alan Baker examined the legal context of the document, arguing that there is actually no basis for an apology. This was because the Balfour Declaration was not a spur of the moment decision used as a domestic distraction but a deliberate and tactical promise given to secure Jewish backing against the Ottomans during World War I. As it was recognised and adopted by the international community into the post-war world, it is not something that can simply be ‘undone,’ suggesting the very basis of a retraction is unthinkable. His argument is strengthened by the fact that the premise of the declaration was repeated and re-recognised during the Oslo Accords, showing a fundamental acknowledgement of political and religious rights of Jews to Israel by Palestinians once and for all.
Yair Hirschfeld, who has been involved in peace negotiations since 1979, began by declaring that anyone who apologises for the Balfour Declaration rolls back Arab-Israeli history to its violent conception. He then spoke about the prospect of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Optimistically, he believed there was still hope when it came to a two-state solution. This was because support has been given to the idea by Abbas, Netanyahu and over 80 Knesset members. He claimed that the wider community has also learnt from its past mistakes that a solution cannot be ‘imposed’ from outside and must alleviate both Israel’s security concerns and the question of Palestinian borders.
Professor Andrew Roberts then looked at the Balfour Declaration from an academic perspective. He highlighted how Israel never acted in the colonial manner that it stands accused of, and also spoke about the importance of both the Balfour Declaration and the Holocaust in creating the State of Israel.
In his concluding words, Ambassador Regev reminded us, importantly, that the Balfour declaration did not create the right to Jewish self-determination, with Zionism predating the document by twenty years. Nonetheless, that this right was recognised by a world power for the first time suggests that the declaration cannot be seen as anything except a crucial milestone on the path to Jewish independence. In apologising for this commitment, Britain would not only be violating its agreement to Israel but also to the international community who acted as its witnesses. Moreover, the document has no basis for retraction: it is not something that should be apologised for. It is instead a cause for celebration, and ultimately, on its centenary in November 2017, should be acknowledged as such.
For a full transcript of this event click here