How pre-war Britain turned against Balfour and embraced the 'one-state solution'

How pre-war Britain turned against Balfour and embraced the 'one-state solution'
5 min read
01 Nov, 2017
'Let me be clear' and 'strong and stable' have been joined in the Theresa 'Maybot' boot sequence by 'pride in the Balfour Declaration'.
Chamberlain had a controversial legacy, but later historians have praised some of his policies [Getty]
"Let me be clear" and "strong and stable" may well define the Theresa Maybot's boot sequence, but another phrase has entered its lexicon: "Pride in the Balfour Declaration".

Speaking in the Commons last Wednesday, Prime Minister May again used the boastful tone, saying: "We are proud of the role that we played in the creation of state of Israel and we will certainly mark the centenary with pride."

That's two "prouds", and too proud of what is arguably the root of all injustice in Palestine today. 

The foreign minister of Palestine quickly condemned May, calling again on Britain to apologise for Balfour. "This document, which the British prime minister is so eager to celebrate with pride, is a testament to the colonial, racist mentality that exacted injustice and suffering on peoples around the world," said Riad al-Maliki on Thursday.

The British prime minister omits two things with her stance.

One, that even though the Balfour Declaration's "constructive ambiguity" gave the Zionist movement everything it needed to usurp Palestinians' claim to Palestine, it states:

"His Majesty's 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….it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…"

Is Theresa May proud of that failed promise? Is the UK government's track record since Suez little more than a full endorsement of the Israeli government's position, and a total failure of atonement for its legacy of empire in Palestine?

Second, she forgets Her Majesty's Government had once itself washed the empire's hands clean of the ill-conceived promise to give a land conquered by London to a people with no coherent claim to Palestine. (A sidenote: Arabs are taught in school the words "Those who don't own to those who don't deserve" when mourning the calamitous declaration).

In-depth: What was wrong with the Balfour Declaration?

In 1939, the UK government under Neville Chamberlain came closer to some form of "atonement", or at least fairness, in Palestine, with the so-called White Paper, issued in response to the Arab Revolt against unchecked Zionist immigration to Palestine.

The official paper outlined the policy of the government in British-controlled Palestine in response to the Arab Revolt in Palestine.

Although an earlier version was rejected by Zionists and Arab representatives, who were invited to London in 1938 to discuss a settlement, the paper was no doubt "revolutionary" in terms of how it rectified the injustices triggered by the Balfour Declaration.

The policy paper, approved by the House of Commons on 23 May 1939 called for the establishment of a Jewish national home inside an independent "one" Palestinian state within ten years - rejecting the idea of the creation of a Jewish state and the idea of partitioning Palestine.

It also limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 for five years, and ruled that further immigration was to be determined by the Arab majority.

Restrictions were put on the rights of Jews to buy land from Arabs. Further, it promised that only with Palestinian support would Britain allow a Jewish state.

The logic behind this is explicitly stated in the paper:

"His Majesty's Government believe that the framers of the Mandate in which the Balfour Declaration was embodied could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish State against the will of the Arab population of the country."

Yet this is exactly what ultimately happened. The Zionists were not pleased - and, to be fair, neither were the Arabs, who had bigger demands. Israel's founding leader David Ben-Gurion said it was "the greatest betrayal perpetrated by the government of a civilised people in our generation". 

Shortly thereafter, "Jewish terrorists", to use the terminology of the British press at the time, were mounting attacks both on Arab and British targets - until the UK disengaged from Palestine and paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel and the Nakba - the "catastrophe" of mass Palestinian displacement.

The idea of a single Arab-Jewish state disappeared after the Second World War and the Nazi Holocaust of six million Jews. Chamberlain's legacy became largely associated with the "appeasement" of Hitler, and the white paper was eventually abandoned. 

The chutzpah of today's Zionist movement is such that some of its proponents are not only demanding Britain apologise for the 1939 White Paper, but are also claiming Lebanon and Jordan too were promised to them by Balfour -as though that somehow carries automatic legitimacy in the modern age.

Practically speaking, the 1939 white paper is impossible to implement today, as decades of Israeli colonialism completely altered the facts on the ground in Palestine.

However, instead of pandering to the Conservative Friends of Israel, Theresa May should heed the spirit of that paper as it sought a fair settlement, and she should listen to British voters.

Balfour is divisive in Britain, and by no means is there agreement that the UK should be proud of that legacy.

More importantly, a majority of British citizens today support recognition of a Palestinian state. The British government has a moral responsibility to reverse some of the damage it has inflicted in Palestine, and recognising the Palestinian state would be a good start.

If May won't do it, and she probably will not, then perhaps Jeremy Corbyn, "the prime minister in waiting" who is boycotting Balfour celebrations, will.