By Andrew Whitley
Often it requires taking a break away from a situation to be able to observe more distinctly dramatic changes taking place; changes that might otherwise pass unnoticed to a day-to-day observer. That was the case for The Elders, the global group established by Nelson Mandela.
Madiba cared deeply about the injustice suffered by the Palestinians. When he brought the founding figures together – giants of their day like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan – he urged The Elders to make a peaceful resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict one of their top priorities. In the early years they did exactly that. During frequent trips they put their moral weight behind what was then seen as the only practical and equitable outcome: the “two-state solution.”
Two of The Elders, Mary Robinson and Ban Ki-moon, the group’s chair and vice-chair respectively, returned there recently. It was the first trip by the London-based organisation since 2015. The dismay at what they witnessed and heard is palpable in the statement issued at the end of their trip. Speaking on behalf of the entire group – Nobel Laureates, former Heads of Government and State and prominent human rights defenders – they described the “one-state reality” they had witnessed, along with growing evidence that apartheid is being practised.
The contrast with the mealy-mouthed platitudes heard from our own government and others, notably the Biden Administration, about preserving hopes for the two-state solution to be realised could not be more striking. This lack of honesty from serving Western officials about the realities on the ground, and what should be done, would be deeply discouraging if it had not become so familiar.
This is why the Balfour Project endorses the urgent call from The Elders for those “countries who care about the international rule of law…[to] …consider serious enforceable measures to increase pressure on the Israeli Government to meet its international obligations.” Ensuring that due process of legal accountability for the grave crimes being committed is crucial, not just in this instance but for the tattered credibility of the rules-based international order.
Far from upholding international law when it comes to Israel/Palestine, the Balfour Project understands that Rishi Sunak’s Government intends to inform the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the United Kingdom formally opposes its consideration of the legal status of the occupied Palestinian territories. (Last December, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution asking the ICJ to deliver an Advisory Opinion on the subject; its ruling could have far-reaching legal and political ramifications.)
In addition to monitoring this issue, the Balfour Project is also focused on an important issue for us closer to home: Michael Gove’s Bill to prevent public bodies from taking ethical decisions when it comes to the Israeli-occupied territories, including the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. This odious bill, which recently passed its second reading in the House of Commons after Labour abstained, will have a chilling impact on free speech in our country. We shall be making a written submission to Parliament in opposition to the Bill, with the goal of preventing it becoming law in the autumn.
Andrew Whitley, a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times in Tehran and Jerusalem, later a senior official in the Middle East and in New York with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, was previously on the staff of The Elders. He is the current chair of the Balfour Project.