Israel Report

October 2001         

From Balfour to Blair

By Michael Freund - October 31, 2001
What a difference a century can make. It was 84 years ago this week, on November 2, 1917, that the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, in which British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour expressed "sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations" and emphasized that "His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." The decision was viewed as being so momentous that November 2 came to be known as Balfour Day, in commemoration of the man whose signature lay at the bottom of the document.

Now back to our troubled times: Tomorrow, on the eve of Balfour Day, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will visit. Like secretary Balfour before him, Blair will be expressing sympathy, only it will not be with "Jewish Zionist aspirations," but with those of the Palestinians. And if Prime Minister Blair emphasizes anything, it will likely be that her majesty's government wishes to see "the establishment in Palestine of a national home," not for the Jewish people, but for the Palestinians.

The irony, however, doesn't end there. Though historians offer various explanations for the British decision to issue the 1917 Balfour Declaration at the height of World War I, it was Field Marshal Jan Smuts, a member of the British cabinet at the time, who later spelled out a key factor behind the move. Smuts said that one argument the British government found particularly persuasive was that issuing the declaration "would rally Jewry on a worldwide scale to the Allied cause." In other words, the British hoped to gain global Jewish support for the war on Germany.

And that is where the irony becomes particularly acute - because nowadays it is not Jewish support, but global Arab and Muslim backing that the British are seeking, and they are doing so at our expense.

This shift in British policy over the past century, in which it has taken a decidedly pro-Arab tilt, has only seemed to worsen in recent months. Just two weeks ago, Blair exchanged warm handshakes and chummy grins with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat before the television cameras in London, even as Arafat's minions were busy murdering innocent Israelis back home. It was the 11th time that Blair had met with Arafat since becoming Britain's premier, and rather than lambasting Arafat for engaging in terrorism, Blair went out of his way to call for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Blair's shameful performance came on the heels of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's expressions of understanding for Palestinian terrorism. In late September, while paying a courtesy call on the ayatollahs in Teheran, Straw said that he "understands" the anger behind Palestinian terror, as if there can be any sort of justification for the murder of innocent Jews.

In the past two centuries, Britain has given birth, albeit involuntarily, to two of the Western world's greatest democracies - the United States and Israel. But while it is proud to associate with the former, it seems inexplicably ashamed of the latter. Frankly, this stance is as inappropriate as it is inexplicable.

One would think that as democracies, Israel and Britain would share a natural affinity for one another, particularly in light of the fact that Israel's system is modeled on that of Westminster. Israel and Britain have both been the targets of separatist terrorism in recent decades, and each has played a major role in shaping Western civilization. It is sad that the British have chosen to overlook all this, preferring instead to side with the Arabs.

But a century ago, things were different. The greatness of the Balfour Declaration lay in the fact that it established the groundwork for international support for the establishment of a Jewish state. The Declaration was later incorporated into the July 1922 League of Nations British Mandate for Palestine, which eventually gave way to the birth of the modern State of Israel.

There is no doubt that foreign secretary Balfour and his cabinet colleagues were motivated as much by diplomatic considerations as they were by moral concern for the fate of the Jewish people. But regardless of what lay at the root of the decision, the Balfour Declaration and the man behind it will forever be recalled with affection and appreciation by generations of Jews to come.

Though it is doubtful that Blair's aides were aware of the significance of the date when they planned his current visit for the eve of Balfour Day, the British prime minister would do well to spend this Friday, November 2, contemplating long and hard how he wishes to be remembered in the annals of history.

Arthur James Balfour helped create a free Jewish state - will Tony Blair now aid in the establishment of a Palestinian terrorist one alongside it? Happy Balfour Day, Mr. Blair.

(The writer served as deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999.)

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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