A century later, the Balfour Declaration still haunts the Middle East

How do you celebrate the centennial of the most consequential 67 words written in the history of diplomatic messages?

The answer, it turns out, is not obvious.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s five-day visit to London, intended as a celebration of the Balfour Declaration, the first official document to acknowledge the need for “a national home for the Jewish people,” rapidly devolved into awkwardness this week.

To begin, the British government, which had invited Netanyahu to mark the occasion, seemed to want to hide it and did not allow reporters to cover the summit at which both he and his British counterpart spoke.

Faced with the prospect of a speech but no cameras, Netanyahu met privately with the Israeli journalists who had accompanied him — and wound up scolding the British government for its failure to implement the promise enshrined in the declaration he had come to applaud.

“I don’t forget for a second that the British backtracked from their decision,” he said, “but I am doubtful that without it we would have received international recognition of our right on the land [of Israel]. But it is clear to me that without [Jewish] defense and settlements we wouldn’t have received a nation.”

Netanyahu observed that there were “two sides” within the British government at the time: those who supported the Zionist cause to establish a Jewish homeland, including Winston Churchill, and anti-Zionists who grew stronger over time.

It was, in short, a testy thanks for almost nothing, Brits.

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Meanwhile, in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah declared that he was “disgusted to see the U.K. celebrating and promoting for apartheid against the Palestinians. We demand the U.K. to apologize and compensate the Palestinian people and to immediately recognize the state of Palestine.”

The Palestinian government also released a video marking the “shameful disgrace.”

All the clamor is about eight lines and two words typed on a white sheet of paper 100 years ago.

On Nov. 2, 1917, days after the British army finally broke through Ottoman lines in the Battle of Beersheba, in what today is a bustling high-tech mecca in southern Israel, Lord Alfred Balfour, the British foreign secretary, was looking ahead. As World War I still raged, he foresaw the need to define the future of a contested piece of land his government did not yet possess.

In a statement written to Lord Lionel W. Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, but intended for international transmission, Balfour wrote: “His majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

That sentence became the legal basis for the existence of the state of Israel, although it was not established until 1948, 31 years later, after the end of another, even bloodier, world war.

The Balfour Declaration represented a monumental political victory for the Zionist movement, which advocated the establishment of a modern state for the Jewish people in the ancestral land from which it had been exiled. But it was a double-edged triumph, containing within it the acknowledgment that Jews had been unable, alone, to gain recognition for their cause and required the assistance of one of the world’s great powers.

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This was the source of Netanyahu’s resentful remarks.

For Palestinians, the declaration has become a symbol of Western treachery, in which their rights were and continue to be trampled upon by the same great powers.

In a statement calculated to anger the Israeli government, which views the land of Israel as its ancient birthright, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said that “nothing is more shameful than celebrating colonialism.”

“Today we mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, when the British colonial power promised Palestine, a land that wasn’t theirs, to the Zionist movement, thus ignoring the political and national rights of the indigenous Palestinian people,” he wrote. “To implement the Balfour Declaration, the United Kingdom made use of the British Mandate of Palestine by oppressing the Palestinian national liberation movement and changing the identity of Palestine.”

At the time the Balfour Declaration was signed, Palestine was a colony held by the Ottoman Empire, which ruled this part of the Levant from 1516 until its defeat by the British.

The Ottomans, who never recognized the national rights of Jews, Muslims or Christians in their realm, escaped mention on Thursday.

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The historic day proceeded like a ball at which no dancer can keep step.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor Party leader and head of the British opposition and a longtime activist for Palestinian statehood, snubbed the invitation to attend a celebratory dinner hosted by the current Lords Balfour and Rothschild.

His replacement at the festive soiree, Shadow Foreign Minister Emily Thornberry, greeted Netanyahu’s arrival by calling on Britain to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine, which Israel, the United States and Europe hold should be achieved by negotiations, not by unilateral declaration.

“I don’t think we celebrate the Balfour Declaration,” she said, “but I think we have to mark it because it was a turning point in the history of that area and the most important way of marking it is to recognize Palestine.”

And yet, Netanyahu’s less than graceful comments and the opposition’s antagonism toward the celebration of a one of Britain’s signal diplomatic achievements were the least of Prime Minister Theresa May’s problems on the day her defense minister resigned amid a growing sexual harassment scandal in Parliament.

As she stood outside Downing Street with Netanyahu, British journalists shouted, “Is it time to clean the stables, prime minister?”

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