By recognising Palestine, Britain can help right the wrongs of the Balfour declaration

Nov 02,2020

The theft of Palestinian land is a legacy of British colonialism. The UK must stand in the way of further Israeli annexations.

Palestine Post 24

If ever there was a time to re-examine colonial legacies and responsibilities, this is it. The theft of Palestine from the Palestinians is one such legacy.


On 2 November 1917, the foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, issued his famous declaration in support of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. In 1917, Jews constituted 10% of the population, the rest were Arabs. Yet Britain recognised the national rights of a tiny minority and denied it to the majority.

In his 2014 biography of Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson described the Balfour declaration as “bizarre”, “tragically incoherent” and “an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama” — a rare example of sound judgment and historical accuracy from the pen of Johnson.

The Balfour declaration enabled the Zionist movement to embark on the systematic takeover of Palestine, a process the Zionists themselves initially described as settler colonialism, a process which is still continuing.

In 1917, only 2 per cent of Palestine was owned by Jews. In 1947 the UN proposed partitioning Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Under this plan, the Jews were allocated 55 per cent of the land although they still owned only 7 per cent after an intensive Zionist migration to Palestine. In the course of the 1948 massacres and displacement of Palestinians by Zionist Jews, backed by Britain and Arab allies, occupied 78 per cent of Palestine.

In the June 1967 war, Israel completed the occupation of Palestine by occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. By signing the Oslo Accord with Israel in 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organisation gave up its claim to 78 per cent of Palestine. In return they hoped to achieve an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with a capital city in East Jerusalem. It was not to be.

There were many reasons for the breakdown of the Oslo peace process but the most fundamental was the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land in flagrant violation of international law.

Settlements consolidate the colonial project beyond the green line, the pre-1967 border. By expanding these settlements, all Israeli governments since Oslo – Labour as well as Likud – have demonstrated that they are more interested in land than in peace.

Having formed a new coalition government following a third inconclusive election in one year, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, has announced his plan to formally annex about 30 per cent of the West Bank, including the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. There is a majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, for annexation.

If annexation takes place, it would leave the Palestinians with roughly 15 per cent of historic Palestine. It would also hammer the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution to which the international community still clings.

Support for annexation comes from Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s friend and close political ally. In January, Trump unveiled his much-vaunted “deal of the century.” This is not a peace plan but a US endorsement of every item on Netanyahu’s wish list.

Unsurprisingly, it was hailed by Netanyahu and his rightwing cronies as a second Balfour declaration. It gives Israel a free pass to annex roughly a third of the West Bank without having to negotiate with the Palestinians, let alone make any concessions.

To the Palestinians, Trump’s plan offers a paltry reward of $50bn over five years if they acquiesce in a “state” consisting of a collection of enclaves surrounded by Israeli settlements and military bases, with no territorial contiguity, no capital in East Jerusalem, no army, no borders with the outside world, and no control over their airspace or natural resources.

Palestinians will only be allowed to call this a state if they meet a list of conditions determined by Israel. By any standard, this is a grotesquely unfair and insulting proposal.

Netanyahu is inundated with protests against annexation from leftwing Israeli political parties, from a network of diaspora Jewish organisations, and from a group of 220 former Israeli generals and heads of security services who call themselves Commanders for Israel’s Security.

The British government joined 10 European Union countries to warn Israel against annexation, while 130 MPs signed an open letter urging Johnson to impose economic sanctions on Israel if it went ahead with the move.

The MPs are right that action is needed; tepid expressions of disapproval have never deterred the Israeli government. Recognising Palestine as a state within the 1967 borders is another way for Britain to right the wrongs of Balfour and end up on the right side of history.

More than a dozen European parliaments have recognised Palestine but only one government – Sweden.

In 2017, Johnson, then foreign secretary, rejected Labour’s call for the UK to mark the Balfour declaration’s centenary by officially recognising the state of Palestine, declaring that “the moment is not yet right to play that card.” Surely today the moment has come.

This article was originally written by Avi Shlaim, an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. It was published in June 2020 and republished here after making some –but not essential– changes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Palestine Post 24