The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will wade into a decades-old controversy over Britain’s role in the formation of the state of Israel when he meets Theresa May as part of celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, which pledged Britain’s support for a Jewish national home in Palestine.
At a dinner on Thursday evening, May is expected to say that Britain is “proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel” and call for “renewed resolve to support a lasting peace that is in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians”.
Before his visit to London on Thursday, Netanyahu said the Balfour declaration was not a tragedy for Palestinians, and the true tragedy was the refusal of Palestinians to accept the sentiments of the declaration.
Before the formal dinner, thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah marched from the city centre to the British consulate, with many waving black flags and banners with slogans such as “100 years of dispossession”.
Netanyahu’s talks with May in Downing Street will extend beyond Britain’s role in the formation of Israel, and cover Israel’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, which is strongly supported by the UK government.
The two leaders are also expected to discuss Israel’s military incursions into Syria and the prospects of reopening Middle East peace talks if the Palestinians are able to form a national unity government between Hamas and Fatah.
There are signs that the UK is using the Balfour declaration centenary to press Israel not to undertake further settlement-building in the West Bank.
The Foreign Office knows that the Balfour declaration – seen as the Magna Carta of Jewish liberation by its supporters – represents a diplomatic minefield. It is trying to adopt a balanced approach, celebrating the role of the former British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour in the establishment of the state of Israel, but adding that the 1917 declaration included a commitment to protect the rights of the Palestinian people, which the UK says remains unfulfilled.
The declaration said the British government viewed with favour “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” so long as it did not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.
The declaration marked the first international recognition of the right of the Jewish people for a state in Palestine, and went on to form the basis of Britain’s mandate for Palestine in the 1920s.
At the dinner, May is expected to say: “We are proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel. We are proud to stand here today together with Prime Minister Netanyahu and declare our support for Israel. And we are proud of the relationship we have built with Israel.
“I believe it demands of us today a renewed resolve to support a lasting peace that is in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians – and in the interests of us all … A peace deal that must be based on a two-state solution, with a secure and prosperous Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.”
She will also warn against “a new and pernicious form of antisemitism, which uses criticism of the actions of the Israeli government as a despicable justification for questioning the very right of Israel to exist”.
Manuel Hassassian, in effect the chief Palestinian diplomat to the UK, chastised the UK government’s approach, saying it should apologise for the Balfour declaration, not celebrate it.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4, he said: “The 67-word letter meant the destruction and destitution of the Palestinian people [and] bringing the Jews from Europe to Palestine – that is a crime against humanity. That is how we look at the Balfour letter.”
He said the second part of Balfour’s letter has never been fulfilled.
Hassassian said his remarks did not represent a rejection of the state of Israel. “Today we are not talking about the extermination of Israel … Instead of celebrating, marking and adding insult to injury, we Palestinians would have expected the moral and historic responsibility to be shouldered by the British government to apologise to the Palestinian people and to recognise the state of Palestine.”
He called the UK’s commitment to recognise a future Palestinian state “a hollow promise”, claiming no practical pressure had been put on Israel over its illegal settlements. Britain, he said, was “talking the talk but not walking the walk. The two-state Palestinian solution is slipping because of the continuous building of settlements by the Israelis.”
In Jerusalem, Palestinians delivered letters written by students to the British consulate on Thursday, asking why Britain has not recognised a Palestinian state. The letter, addressed to May, said if it had not been for the Balfour declaration, their lands would not have been “stolen”.
The UK has repeatedly rejected calls to apologise for the declaration and drawn back from recognising a Palestinian state, despite the House of Commons voting three years ago to do so. The Foreign Office says the time is not ripe to recognise Palestine, but does not set out the precise conditions that the Palestinians would have to meet for recognition to be offered.
May ‘proud’ to mark 100 years of UK support for Israel with Netanyahu visit – The Guardian