Redrafted version of Balfour Declaration to be presented in London to mark centenary
It was delivered by hand from the desk of Arthur Balfour, then British foreign secretary, to the home of Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, on November 2, 1917. But the Balfour Declaration was only made public on November 9. In between the Bolshevik Revolution took place in Russia, overshadowing a move by the British Empire that was to have momentous ramifications for the Middle East.
A century on, however, Britain is marking the historical importance of that short despatch of 67 words — which stated the British government's support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" — with hundreds of events in the coming days. Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN special envoy to Syria, said the outcome of these commemorations should be a fresh perspective on the Palestinian situation. “Palestinians have rights and they have the right to fight for those rights,” he said. “The Palestinians that are still in their shrinking homeland and those pushed into exile are suffering systematic oppression, injustice and humiliation.”
Perhaps the most consequential of the commemorative events is shaping up to be a gathering of 1,000 people in a Westminster conference hall on Tuesday to hear a new version of the document signed by members of both Houses of Parliament and other British public figures: the Centenary Balfour Declaration.
Sir Vincent Fean, a former British consul-general in Jerusalem and ambassador to Libya, has been instrumental in putting together the new reformulation of the declaration. The thinking behind the redrafting is based on a growing consensus that British foreign policy should recognise the Palestinian state.
“We could validate that second state by recognition of the State of Palestine on ‘67 lines and uphold international law properly — not just talk about it — with consequences for whoever seeks to destroy the outcome of two states,” said the retired British diplomat.
For Mr Fean, the fact that Israel took full advantages of the Balfour pledges but that the Palestinian assurances were neglected remains a “leading cause” of radicalisation by Islamist extremists to this day.
The meeting in the ornate Central Hall opposite Westminster Abbey has been organised by the Balfour Project, which is seeking redress for the Palestinians, with speeches given by a series of MPs and sympathetic activists. The project itself is the brainchild of Roger and Monica Spooner, a couple from Edinburgh, who were moved to launch it following a visit to the region.
Meanwhile, Palestinian ambassador to the UK Manuel Hassassian will spend November 2 in Glasgow and Edinburgh, speaking to Scottish parliamentarians and at an event hosted by the University of Glasgow. He has also been invited onto the influential Today programme on BBC Radio 4, to speak as a guest.
“Britain talks the talk on Palestine and the peace process but now it must walk the walk,” he recently told The National. “The Balfour declaration mentions the civil and religious rights of the Palestinian Arabs. What we are calling for is the third right to be established, the political rights of the Palestinians.”
Balfour's memo stated that Britain supported the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine on the clear understanding "that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious right of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".
In almost one of her first acts on entering Downing Street following the June election, British prime minister Theresa May invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to London to “mark the century [since the Balfour Declaration] with pride”. The two leaders will be guests of the current Lord Balfour and Lord Rothschild at a dinner in a central London town house. The leader of Britain's opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, has snubbed an invitation to the event.
A series of events backed by Lord Rothschild and dubbed "Balfour 100" include a lecture by the historian Simon Schama to hundreds of guests and a conference on Thursday in the House of Commons that has been organised by the pro-Israel lobbying group Bicom and Jewish News.
Balfour 100 events are set to take place across Britain and have been closely co-ordinated with the Israeli embassy. Perhaps the most remarkable event will be held at the Royal Albert Hall in London where Christian Zionists will celebrate the Balfour Declaration as a stepping stone to the prophecy that the foundation of the Israeli state brings closer the moment of rapture for the world.
To this day the Israeli prime minister lives at 100 Balfour St and the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has announced a special session to develop the themes of the centenary.
The Washington-based Israel Forever Foundation has meanwhile organised hundreds of events in the United States around the centenary, which it says are aimed at making it "your declaration”.
As a counter, in London, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign will rally supporters outside the US embassy on November 4. Thousands are expected to march to Trafalgar Square where the speakers will include the film director Ken Loach as well as trade unionists and activists.
“For the past 100 years, Palestinian rights have been disregarded. As we approach the centenary of the Balfour Declaration — on the 2 November — which built the path for their dispossession, we are demanding justice and equal rights for Palestinians now,” said the call from the organisers.