How UK marks Balfour will be test for Theresa May

Few British leadership teams have been as warmly disposed to the British Jewish community as David Cameron and George Osborne. Cameron was proud of his stockbroking Jewish roots and former Chancellor Osborne retained Jewish friendships that date back to his school days. It is early days yet but the new Theresa May government has yet to show its colours, nor has it been tested in the white heat of Middle East conflict, as the Cameron-led coalition government was during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, in the summer of 2014.

Under pressure from the Labour benches and some elements of the LibDem partners in the coalition, Cameron stood firm against moves to impose sanctions on Israel during what proved to be a prolonged and event-filled campaign in Gaza.

As Theresa May has already demonstrated, she is very much her own person and is questioning much of what went on under the Cameron-Osborne leadership.

The new PM has a record of support for Israel and the Jewish community. But there are many unknowns, including the attitudes of the new leadership at the Foreign Office. There is little, probably, to fear from Boris Johnson, who is a friend of Israel. But as Labour MP Louise Ellman has pointed out, at least one Foreign Office minister, Alan Duncan, has been a long-term critic of the Jewish state.

An important test of the May leadership and the Johnson FO will be the attitudes towards the Balfour Declaration centenary on 2 November 2017. As the Jewish News reported in January this year, after the annual Downing Street round table with Jewish leaders, Cameron was anxious that the government and the Jewish community celebrated the event together. Similarly, the Israeli ambassador, Mark Regev, is determined that Israel’s diplomatic mission here will be closely involved in marking a historic turning-point for Zionist ambitions for a Jewish state in the Middle East.

At a recent editorial board meeting at the Daily Mail, Regev left little doubt that Israel wanted to be wholeheartedly involved and said that a possible joint event between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Downing Street was on the cards.

No one should imagine that the commemoration is going to be a painless exercise, as readers of this paper will recognise. The website, the Balfour Project, has all the trimmings of a neutral website, but one doesn’t have to explore very far to find it noting that ‘while a homeland for the Jewish people has been achieved, the promise to protect the life of Palestinian people has not yet been achieved.’

It then urges the people and elected representatives of the UK to take effective action to ‘promote justice, security and peace for both peoples’. Nothing much wrong with that, except that the site goes on to mention Britain’s ‘contradictory promises’ to the region.

The elderly Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has already gone to ground when it comes to renewing peace talks, is very ready to open old wounds by threatening to sue the British government. After a century, the statute of limitations makes a legal action impossible to have any success, but as we know, putting right perceived historical wrongs is a fashionable cause.

Nevertheless, British and Israeli Jews should not forget that the Balfour Declaration made it clear that Jewish arrivals in Palestine should do nothing to prejudice the ‘civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ As Palestine, as it was in 1917, no longer exists, it is hard to reconstruct this promise. But Israel, despite some pressure from the right, does do its best to keep the facilities for all religions open and functioning.

After many years of sub-optimal performance the Netanyahu government is showing better signs of understanding the need to improve the education, civil rights, housing and economic progress of the Israeli-Palestinian communities. This has been an investment that has been neglected for too long. One of the encouraging things is the adoption and scaling-up of the Abraham Fund initiative to bring Hebrew teachers into Arab schools, and Arab teaching and skills into Jewish schools.

Only through such initiatives, that fully recognise the civil and economic needs and rights of Israeli Arab citizens, can the pledges made by Arthur Balfour be fully carried out.


About the Author
Alex Brummer is the Daily Mail's City Editor
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