From Balfour to Biden: universal values and international law versus national interests

By Sir Vincent Fean, Balfour Project Vice-Chair

I was invited on 5 June to contribute virtually to a conference in Palestine to mark the 55th anniversary of the Six- Day War of 1967, leading to the occupation by Israel of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. The other speaker from abroad was Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Here is what I said.

I was Britain’s Consul-General, Jerusalem (2010-14), talking to Palestinians on behalf of my Government. I saw injustice, then. Now retired, I am free to talk, and to advocate change. I am Vice-Chair of a British charity, the Balfour Project, which seeks not to defend or promote Balfour but to shed light on Britain’s fateful role in Palestine before the creation of the modern state of Israel – and to argue that our historic role gives us British a particular responsibility to work to advance equal rights for all in Palestine/Israel. We have hosted webinars with Al Haq, Breaking the Silence, Save the Children, ad-Dameer, Al-Mezan, Raja Shehadeh and Jonathan Kuttab. We advocate immediate recognition by our Government of the state of Palestine on pre-June 1967 lines – a position shared by the three main British Opposition parties: Labour, Scottish Nationalists and Liberal Democrats. We seek to help amplify the Palestinian voice for equality, and the voice of reason. We have a website:

My theme is the relationship between universal values and perceived national interests, often short-term interests. The challenge is to affirm, and to convince political leaders, that the values claimed by the Western democracies – reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – must be implemented through policies which uphold those values. Too often the international community looks away from politically difficult issues, or puts out a statement and pats itself on the back for a job well done. But nothing changes – and we need change. It is a challenge familiar to you  – one with a long history.

Let me start with my own country. In 1917, Imperial Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. Historians give many reasons for this, including Christian Zionism in the case of Balfour and Prime Minister Lloyd George; Imperialist strategy to divide and rule; seeking to please the USA and the Jewish diaspora. Balfour’s subsequent writings show the duplicity of the Balfour Promise – a duplicity sustained throughout the Mandate period until Britain’s ignominious retreat in 1948. In 1919 Balfour wrote: “The weak point of our position is of course that in the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination.” The late British historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, himself a strong supporter of Zionism, said that the centrepiece of British Mandate policy was to withhold representative institutions in Mandate Palestine until such time as there was a Jewish majority to control those institutions. That policy worked, with the deeply unjust results you live with today. That is why our charity believes that Britain has a duty now to do more, and do better, to advance equal rights.  

Fast forward to 1967. Britain under Harold Wilson accepted the Israeli victors’ version of history – that Israel had fought and won an existential war. True, Britain drafted and promoted UN Security Council Resolution 242, five months after the war. The first of many Security Council Resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal. The failure of the Security Council to will the means as well as to will the end has been a constant – a negative constant.

The British Government under Boris Johnson is moving the wrong way on Palestine/Israel, notwithstanding the valiant, undervalued work of British and Palestinian diplomats. And notwithstanding Johnson’s own public assertion to Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017 that

  “You either have a two-state solution or some form of Apartheid system.”

We come back to interests versus values. In terms of short-term interests – what we now call deliverables – Israel has much to offer: trade, Joint Ventures, health research, intelligence sharing, defence sales – you name it. Palestine has a grievance – a legitimate, profound grievance, and a right to be heard. It is increasingly hard for Palestine’s diplomats to influence UK policy – and here in London you have a truly excellent, articulate and hard-working Ambassador, Dr Husam Zomlot. Under-resourced, certainly, and meriting increased resource–because Britain could – could – still play a key positive role, given the political will. The challenge is to reach and motivate the British people to put pressure on their political leaders for change. That takes sustained effort, using social media and all modern means of informing and raising awareness. Britain is worth the effort. You can tell that by the amount of investment and effort that Israel puts into Britain, both through its Embassy and through various cloned Non Governmental Organisations, thinly disguised. British politicians instinctively look to the USA for a steer on Israel/Palestine, and on much else in the foreign policy sphere. They are not hearing much back by way of guidance from Washington.

I turn now to Europe, of which Britain is still a part, although outside the European Union.

European policy on Palestine/Israel has had its highs and its lows. The Venice Declaration of 1980 by the Nine member states was a high water-mark, born of frustration with US policy at the time. It spoke of the Palestinian right to self-determination, to be exercised fully, and of ending the 1967 occupation. But the initiative petered out. Another high-point, at least in words, came in 1999 as the Oslo process stalled. The Berlin European Council that year “reaffirms the continuing and unqualified Palestinian right to self-determination, including the option of a state, and looks forward to the early fulfilment of this objective. This right is not subject to any veto.” That was 23 years ago. Eight years ago, Sweden courageously recognised Palestine. No one in Europe emulated Sweden. France under President Hollande spoke of recognising Palestine. France under President Macron does not speak of it, though at the UN France makes better, sharper points than the UK or the US.   

Today I fear that we are at a low water-mark of EU political engagement with Palestine/Israel, despite the best efforts, sporadically, of Josep Borrell. Competing world crises distract him, and he does not have full control of the dossier – the Hungarian EU Commissioner is well-placed to be a spoiler. Persuading 27 EU states to speak as one, never mind act, is like herding cats. Hungary is a maverick. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria can also obstruct on occasion. There are signs of positive activity in Belgium, and Ireland’s Foreign Minister a year ago rightly called illegal settlements by their name: annexation. But what has changed on the ground? When new de jure annexation in the West Bank stopped, so did EU work on consequences for annexation.  Differentiation between Green Line Israel and illegal settlements remains a valid EU policy, worth pursuing rigorously. It is the very bare minimum that the EU should do — but the policy lacks teeth, and Eastern Europe is not complying. The European Parliament is distracted by allegations of incitement in Palestinian Authority textbooks, when violence by settlers and “mowing the grass” by the Israeli army pass without a response beyond rhetorical condemnation.

There is more for the EU to do in its relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority, from pressing hard for national elections to redeveloping Gaza. It should do both of those things, and more.

You do not need me to tell you it must be a lonely life, being a Palestinian. The Arab brothers are not all brotherly. Leaving aside Jordan and Egypt, who need to care – and, in their own ways, do care – the Abraham Accords turned the Arab Peace Initiative inside out, giving Israel what it sought with no benefit to the Palestinians. It is a sign of the times that transactional, short-term interests overtook universal values: for Morocco, Western Sahara; for the UAE, trade through normalisation, for Sudan, coming off the US terrorist list.  

My title mentions Joe Biden. Now, he is the best US President we’ve got, and light years better than his predecessor and – God forbid – eventual successor. But if the most powerful nation in the world cannot persuade its friend and ally to reopen the US Consulate General in Jerusalem – a Presidential campaign promise – then we are in a bad way, and the 7th Cavalry are not coming over the hill to the rescue. Israel is engaged and active in domestic US politics to a unique extent – more intimately than in Britain, France or anywhere in Europe. Tony Blinken spoke well, one year ago, when he said “Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity.” That was when he announced the reopening of the Consulate General. One year on… Managing this issue, or seeking to shrink it, isn’t working. Towards the end of my time as Consul-General, Senator John Kerry was Secretary of State, making a real personal effort to achieve progress, with the full support of British Foreign Secretary William Hague. I believe John Kerry to be a man of honour. The two parties were never on the same page. President Abbas based his position on international law. Benjamin Netanyahu avoided any commitment to international law and UN Resolutions. And kept on building settlements.

There are so many things about the Israeli occupation of 1967 that are abnormal. With time, media fatigue and systematic Israeli policy, they have become normal. But they are anything but normal, and you and we need to say so, loudly. It is not normal that the UN Human Rights rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territory is denied entry by the occupying power. Not normal that European Parliamentarians interested in Development issues are banned from entering Gaza. Not normal that Palestinian children in Israeli military detention are denied their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signatory. Not normal that women in Gaza are denied breast cancer treatment freely available in Haifa, and may undergo an avoidable mastectomy. Not normal that Christian Zionists profess to ignore the existence of Christian Palestinians like Reverend Dr Munther Isaac. Not normal that Gazans have not met West Bankers face to face for the last 15 years. Divide and rule, again. To quote the UK Labour Party’s Middle East spokesman, not normal that babies prematurely born at Makassed Hospital have to survive their early weeks without their mothers, for lack of an Israeli permit. These things need to be widely known, challenged, and changed: systemic change, not piecemeal. The occupation is a fundamental obstacle to peace. That’s not news to Palestinians. It needs to be made known around the world.

There is hope. Last week I had the honour to hear Shawan Jabarin of Al Haq speak eloquently against Apartheid to a big, committed audience in London, alongside B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Dawn. Another of my heroes and heroines, Hanan Ashrawi spoke at a Balfour Project conference in May about Palestinian young people, resilience, change at grassroots and Congressional level in the US, change in the Democratic Party, change in the Jewish community there. Those changes are mirrored in Britain, but have yet to affect British Government policy. So we need to try harder, shout louder, become impossible to ignore. I was told in the British Foreign Service that you have to repeat yourself 15 times, until you are sick and tired of saying it, before people start to listen. I do not know all of the distinguished speakers today – I know Mohammed Mustafa, Mustafa Barghouthi, Hind Khoury, Samir Hulileh, Nabil Kassis and Sam Bahour  – but I wish to register my deep respect for all of you working peacefully for Palestinian rights. People ARE listening, more and more. And in democracies, eventually, despite all the vested interests, Governments have to listen to their peoples.

May I conclude with a respectful request. 16 years ago Palestine was rightly regarded as a genuine representative democracy in the Middle East. The treatment that election outcome received from the West was shameful, but that’s another story. My request is this: that those with a say in this matter take the plunge and hold national elections. Democratic renewal is overdue. Whatever you do, those of us who care outside Palestine will continue to make the case unconditionally for equal rights, now. Who can argue successfully against equal rights? Though we know people will so argue, finding pretexts and excuses, which need to be rebutted, and can be, and will be. I simply say that it will be good, and right, for the Palestinian electorate to make its voice heard in Palestine.

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