Century-Old Letter Stirs Palestinian Anger Over U.K. Commemoration of Balfour

  • Balfour Declaration, written in 1917, still roils Middle East
  • Netanyahu, May to celebrate as Palestinians demonstrate

Benjamin Netanyahu

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A century-old letter is triggering Palestinian protests that aim to disrupt Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to London this week.

The Israeli prime minister will depart Wednesday for events in the U.K. marking the Balfour Declaration, a 1917 missive from Britain’s foreign secretary supporting “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The letter -- the first explicit endorsement of Zionist goals by a world power -- is one of the legal foundations of the Jewish state, while Palestinians say it paved the way to their displacement.

Joining Netanyahu at Thursday night’s commemoration will be U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who said she would mark the occasion “with pride.” Her comments touched off a storm among Palestinians, who demand an official U.K. apology for Balfour. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki called the letter a “testament to the colonial, racist mentality that exacted injustice and suffering on peoples around the world.”

That the issue stirs such passions a century after Balfour put pen to paper reflects the difficulty of bridging competing claims to the Holy Land. U.S. President Donald Trump is preparing to present a peace plan for the region in pursuit of what he calls “the ultimate deal,” one that has eluded his predecessors dating back two decades.

Still Relevant

It might seem esoteric to protest a 100-year-old document, but the Balfour Declaration remains at the heart of the Middle East conflict, said Michael Oren, an Israeli deputy cabinet minister and former ambassador to the U.S. who taught seminars on Balfour at Harvard and Yale. The letter’s fundamental point is that the Jews are a nation with a right to self-determination, something the Palestinians still don’t accept, he said. 

The League of Nations ratified the declaration, giving it the status of international law. Oren says Palestinians ought to stop trying to relitigate the issue, strengthen their government institutions and focus on building a state that does not threaten Israel.

In a speech to Parliament Monday, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson defended Britain’s backing for Jewish self-determination.

“I see no contradiction in being a friend of Israel and a believer in that country’s destiny, while also being profoundly moved by the suffering of those who were affected and dislodged by its birth,” Johnson said.

Palestinian Protests

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K. Labour Party and a prominent Palestinian supporter, has said he won’t attend the dinner hosted by descendants of Balfour and Walter Rothschild, the British Jewish leader who received the letter. Emily Thornberry, the opposition’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, said the government should mark the occasion by recognizing a Palestinian state.

The main protest against the commemoration, organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, will take place Saturday in London’s Parliament Square. Demonstrations also are planned across the Palestinian territories, including a march to the U.K. Cultural Office in Ramallah.

— With assistance by Fadwa Hodali, and Thomas Penny

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