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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

The battle over the Balfour Declaration’s place in history

A petition to parliament that called for a government repudiation attracted thousands of signatures.

Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter on November 2, 1917 to Lord Rothschild setting forth Britain's support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Photo12 / UIG via Getty Images
Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter on November 2, 1917 to Lord Rothschild setting forth Britain's support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Photo12 / UIG via Getty Images

The courtyard of the British Library in central London is dotted with posters advertising the historic documents that can be viewed within its reading rooms.

From the Magna Carta to Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches to The Beatles’ notebooks, the treasures encompass a vast tract of culture and politics. One item in the archives that is not advertised however is the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 letter that reshaped the Middle East.

The rare manuscript is not available on demand, not even to those who have obtained a reader’s card. To retrieve it from the archives requires a letter on headed notepaper stating a reason for the request. Finally there is bureaucratic hurdle of ordering the documents to be delivered to the reading room.

The letter from Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild is surprisingly brief. It is accompanied by a Foreign Office discussion document. The envelope is also preserved, as is an image of the wax seal that graced the back.

Balfour stated three principles. That the British government viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. That nothing should have prejudiced the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. Nor should developments have affected the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

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The brevity of the communication belies its impact. The tussle over the Balfour Declaration has raged for almost a century. The lead-up to the century of the Nov 2nd letter has provoked a new battle to define the letter’s place in history.

The Palestinian government has demanded an apology to the Palestinian people from Theresa May’s government.

“This declaration is our tragedy,” Mahmoud Abbas declared last year.

Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the PLO, believes that Britain should make amends for “one of the greatest tragedies in history” by recognising the Palestinian state on the centenary.

“Britain, the European Union, the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the rest of the world have to obligate the Israeli government to accept the principle of two states based on the June 4, 1967 borders, that is an independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital living in security and peace alongside the state of Israel on the 1967 lines and a halt to all Israeli colonial activities,” Mr Erekat said last month.

Mrs May has instead invited Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to Britain to mark the event. The Foreign Office rejected the demand for an apology.

“The Balfour Declaration was a historic statement and one that the UK Government will not be apologising for,” it said. “We are focused on encouraging the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps which bring them closer to peace.”

Amid stalemate, the level of interest in the anniversary has steadily built on both sides.

A petition to parliament that called for a government repudiation attracted thousands of signatures. The Balfour Campaign on Twitter has spearheaded the demands for an apology. “We believe the British public should demand, with us, that the British government recognises its brutal colonial practices in Palestine,” the campaign declared.

The only event at the British Library itself will held in early October by private group. Separately an exhibition is being staged in New York with a copy of the letter on display as well as the desk used by Lord Balfour.

The Balfour letter was this week described as the “umbilical cord” of the Israeli state by David Dafoor, a wealthy individual who has funded a new centre for British Israeli relations in Jerusalem.

The centre opens tomorrow with an event titled From Balfour to Brexit. Among the attendees will be the former British prime minister Tony Blair as well as leading Israeli politicians, including Tzipi Livni. Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to London, has flown in for the event. The fifth Earl of Balfour, heir to the title of the ex-Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, is also on the guest list.

The objective of commemorating the centenary was outlined in January by Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister. “We’re often seen as a country without roots, a new country that represents an ancient people but whose roots in this land are very short. The idea is to bring us back to the bigger picture,” she said.

Meanwhile British parliamentarians and diplomats have been invited to discuss a fresh start on the Balfour Declaration at a rally at Westminster’s Central Hall in October. Among the speakers is the former ambassador to Libya and consul-general in Jerusalem Sir Vincent Frean and Layla Moran, the first British MP of Arab descent. The event is organised by the Balfour Project, which is a dedicated to a call to fulfil the “second part” of the declaration.

“When the prime minister announced that we should celebrate the Balfour Declaration with pride that was a step too far,” said Chris Doyle of the Campaign for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding (CAABU). “We are still living with the consequences of the declaration and there is a relevant debate to be had about the impact of Balfour on the lives of millions. It is seen very differently by Arabs and others.”