Britain’s Middle East minister, Tobias Ellwood, sent out a clear signal to Israel this week that despite Israel’s hopes for a mutual celebration of the Balfour Declaration centenary, Britain would be taking “a measured approach”, mindful of sensitivities in the region.
Mr Ellwood was the first keynote speaker of the day in the UK/Israel Shared Strategic Challenges policy conference, jointly convened by the Jewish News and Bicom.
And the Foreign Office minister spoke in response to a punchy, upbeat address by Israel’s ambassador Mark Regev, who outlined all the reasons that the two countries had for an enthusiastic celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Declaration, on November 2 2017.
But if Israel had expected equally enthusiastic remarks from Mr Ellwood in relation to Balfour, disappointment lay in store. Though he was keen to tell his audience that nothing would change in terms of Britain’s relationship with Israel in the wake of the Brexit vote — in fact, he said, Brexit gave Britain the opportunity to be “flexible, free and agile” — he was much warier when it came to discussing Balfour.
The minister prefaced his remarks about Balfour by insisting that Britain considered Israel “to be an important and critical ally in the Middle East. The friendship between our two countries is a great asset to the UK”. Prime Minister Theresa May, in her first conversation with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after she took office in July, had emphasised Britain’s intention to use leaving Europe “as an opportunity to be even more active internationally and to strengthen our relationships with other countries, including Israel.”
The bedrock of the bilateral relationship between the two countries, said Mr Ellwood, “is our shared values. We are liberal democracies.” Tourism and business interests flowed in both directions: “Israeli pharmaceuticals are being used in the NHS and we are putting British Rolls-Royce engines in El Al planes”.
The minister then said, carefully: “The UK’s ties with Israel will come under the spotlight next year”. Though Britain welcomed “the fact that we played an important role in the creation of the state of Israel. We continue to support the principle o a Jewish homeland, just as Balfour did nearly a century ago.”
But, Mr Ellwood went on: “At the same time the UK government must be aware of the sensitivities around the Balfour Declaration, its legacy, and the events that have taken place in the region since 1917. The Balfour Declaration was a product of its time”; its 67 words had been pored over and analysed endlessly in the years since. “Millions, we should recognise, are still affected by the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians — and therefore our perspective should be a measured approach.”
The lesson he took from Balfour, Mr Ellwood said, “is that continents should not be carved up by foreign powers as they were in Balfour’s time.” For the peace process to go forward, he believed, it was necessary for the two parties to negotiate directly, with the support of the international community.