It was standing room only in a House of Commons committee room on Tuesday as the Henry Jackson Society, a centre-right thinktank, held a defiant rebuttal meeting about the Balfour Declaration, whose centenary falls in November 2017.
The event, under the banner of “Refuting Balfour’s Detractors”, was staged as a direct response to a controversial meeting held in October in the House of Lords. At that meeting, chaired by Baroness Tonge, members of the Palestinian Return Centre called for Britain to apologise for having issued the Balfour Declaration, describing it as a colonialist move to create the state of Israel.
But three Israeli ambassadors — the envoy to Britain, Mark Regev, the former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, and the former ambassador to Canada, lawyer Alan Baker — together with Oslo peace negotiator Yair Hirschfeld and historian Andrew Roberts — issued a trenchant response.
Professor Roberts said Britain should be proud of the role it had played in issuing the Balfour Declaration and said it had acted “with extreme foresight”.
Dore Gold, now at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, highlighted what he said were the links between the Palestinian Return Centre, which had asked for the apology, and Hamas. The PRC, he said, had been outlawed in Israel in 2010 by then Defence Minister Ehud Barak, because of these links.
“They appeared in the House of Lords seeking to delegitimise Israel, but the shoe should be on the other foot”, he said, and denounced the PRC for “seeking an apology from the British government for past colonial crimes.” Israel, he said, was not a colonialist entity: “It was restored as a Jewish commonwealth after it had been destroyed.” It was “an audacity” of the PRC “to come to the greatest parliamentary democracy in the world and challenge Israel’s existence.”
Ambassador Regev reminded the audience that 2017 was a year of anniversaries: besides the Balfour centenary, it will be 50 years since the Six Day War, 70 years since the UN vote on partition, 120 years since the first Zionist Congress and 100 years since General Allenby first walked into Jerusalem.
“It is important to remember what Balfour is and what it is not,” Mr Regev said. “It did not create the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. Zionism predates Balfour and we had that already. But it was the first time that a major world power recognised our rights, and it was a crucial milestone in moving forward for the development of a Jewish state.
Like Professor Roberts, Ambassador Regev said Britain should be proud of Balfour. “By recognising Jewish rights to self-determination, Britain corrected a historical wrong; Britain was on the right side, and did the right thing.” He added that today’s close co-operation between Britain and Israel as allies and trading partners, particularly in the area of counter-terrorism, “had saved British lives and made its citizens more secure”.
The event was chaired by the former Cabinet Minister Michael Gove MP.