By Avi Shlaim.
This article is reprinted from Middle East Eye, January, 2022.
Boris Johnson once described the Balfour Declaration as ‘tragically incoherent’. With Israel now explicitly saying it will never negotiate peace, the UK must rethink its Palestine policy
On 3 January, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made an extraordinary statement. Under last year’s coalition agreement, he is due to replace Naftali Bennett as prime minister in August 2022. “When I am prime minister,” he announced, “we still won’t hold negotiations with the Palestinians… the coalition agreement prevents progress in this channel.”
So we now have it straight from the horse’s mouth: there is no Israeli partner for peace. Nor can there be any room for illusions about Israel’s intentions – while continuing to eschew negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Israel will preserve the status quo.
The nature of this status quo is encapsulated in the title of a recent report by B’Tselem, the highly respected Israeli human rights organisation. It is called “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”
The fig leaf behind which the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom have continued to hide their palpable partiality towards Israel – that the only solution is direct negotiations between the two sides, leading to a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel – has been casually dropped to suit the needs of internal Israeli politics.
The American-sponsored peace process foundered on the rocks of Israeli intransigence back in 2016. In some ways, the peace process was worse than useless: under the cover of engaging in peace negotiations, Israel was able to pursue its illegal colonial project in the West Bank. Now that the fig leaf is gone, what are the implications for Boris Johnson’s Conservative government?
It is important to introduce a historical note here, to recall that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was made in Britain. In 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, pledging its support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, provided it did not prejudice the civil and religious rights of the “non-Jewish communities” in the country.
At that time, Jews made up barely 10 percent of the population and owned only two percent of the land. Yet Britain favoured national rights for the minority and denied them to the majority.
Double standards have been the hallmark of Tory policy towards the conflict, from Arthur James Balfour to the current prime minister, Boris Johnson. Between 1920 and 1948, Britain held the Mandate for Palestine. The cornerstone of British policy was to deny elections until the Jews became the majority.
Hostility towards Palestinian statehood was a constant factor in British policy from 1947 to 1949. Imperial Britain enabled the Zionist movement to embark on the systematic takeover of the whole of Palestine, a process that continues unabated to this day.
Today, the Conservative Party is as strongly pro-Zionist as it has ever been. Roughly 80 percent of Tory backbenchers are members of the Conservative Friends of Israel. More than a third of the British cabinet, including Johnson, have made overseas trips funded by the Israeli government or affiliated lobby groups.
While the government’s official position is to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its record is one of unqualified support for Israel and total indifference to Palestinian rights.
In 2017, as foreign secretary, Johnson rejected the call for the UK to mark the Balfour Declaration’s centenary by officially recognising the state of Palestine, declaring that “the moment is not yet right to play that card”. Since recognising Palestine would further the end of a two-state solution by giving the Palestinians parity of esteem, this was a singularly unconvincing excuse for inaction.
Johnson’s partiality and partisanship toward Israel are further revealed by his persistent rejection of all attempts to call Israel to account for its illegal actions and war crimes.
Divorced from reality
In 2021, he opposed an International Criminal Court investigation into alleged war crimes in the Israeli-occupied territories. In a letter to the Conservative Friends of Israel, he said that while his government had respect for the independence of the court, it opposed this particular inquiry. “This investigation gives the impression of being a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s,” he wrote.
The perverse logic of the statement is that being a friend and ally of the UK places Israel above international law and international scrutiny.
Lapid’s statement suggests that the premise behind the Tory party’s entire policy – that Israel’s hand is always stretched out in peace and if only the Palestinians would curb their penchant for violence and come to the negotiating table, a solution can be reached – is utterly divorced from reality.
The British government needs to listen to the latest pronouncement by Lapid and reassess its own policy in light of this statement. It needs to wake up and smell the coffee. It needs to face up to the fact that the main reason for the impasse is not Palestinian but Israeli intransigence. The old policy is in tatters. A new policy is urgently needed.
For Johnson personally, Lapid’s confession offers not just a challenge but also an opportunity. Johnson had always understood that the Balfour Declaration was profoundly unfair to the Palestinians and that it had tragic consequences.
In his 2014 book, The Churchill Factor, Johnson described the Balfour Declaration as “tragically incoherent”. As foreign secretary, in 2017, Johnson reluctantly conceded that Britain might recognise Palestine when the time was right.
Surely now is the right time. Recognising Palestine would not resolve the conflict, but it would be a start in the long-overdue historic reckoning between Britain and the victims of its Palestine policy.
Avi Shlaim is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2014) and Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (2009).