Peace in Palestine: Balfour Apology Is a Distraction

Hamas militants grab Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel before executing them in Gaza City, on August 22, 2014. Alona Ferber writes that apologizing for the Balfour Declaration won’t achieve a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. reuters

If love means never having to say you are sorry, then the renewed push for the U.K. to "atone" for the 1917 Balfour Declaration is yet another reminder of the bad blood between Israelis and Palestinians—and of how elusive peace remains.

Today, on 99th anniversary of the letter, which endorsed "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, has published an op-ed urging Britain to apologize for the document, which was incorporated into the British Mandate for Palestine.

"In order to build a future of peace between Israel, Palestine and the rest of the world, justice must be honored," Erekat argues. "The United Kingdom cannot continue to avoid its historic responsibility in Palestine." President Mahmoud Abbas also raised the issue at U.N. General Assembly in September. "This is the least Britain can do," he said.

In the U.K. last week, a 2013 campaign supporting this plea was relaunched at the House of Lords. "Britain's legacy in Palestine marked an historical breach against the aspirations of the people of Palestine and shattered its hopes for freedom and self-determination," the campaigners from the Palestine Return Centre argue. "Our mission is to seek an official apology from the British government for issuing the catastrophic Balfour Declaration."

Indeed, according to the campaign, "Britain recognising its past colonial crimes committed in Palestine is a necessary step towards achieving peace, justice and reconciliation."

However, Britain apologizing on this issue would achieve nothing of the sort. This backwards-looking call contributes little to advancing the Palestinian cause, building bridges between Israelis and Palestinians, or securing an independent and viable Palestinian state.

Since the original Balfour apology campaign launched in 2013, a number of opinion pieces have been written making historical arguments for or against an apology.

On one side are those who argue that the British should say sorry for faltering on their promise, set out in the Balfour Declaration, that Jewish self-determination would not trample on the rights of non-Jews. They also argue that Britain promised Palestine to outsiders without consulting the people who lived there, as Erekat writes in his op-ed.

There are those who argue that it is the Jews who deserve the apology, as Britain did not fully uphold its promise to do all it could to "facilitate the achievement" of a Jewish national home.

According to yet another argument, the Balfour Declaration was only ever about British wartime interests, and the U.K. should apologize to Jews and Arabs, because Mandate "divide and rule" policy was miscalculated and, ultimately, left a violent mess that has yet to be resolved.

In the history of Zionism, the Balfour Declaration is broadly seen as a landmark document, the first endorsement of the movement by a world power. Contrast this Erekat's description of the document as a "grave insult to world justice."

These words assume that Britain's treatment of the Jews was somehow better than its treatment of the Arabs under the Mandate, and that the Jewish community did not suffer between 1917 and 1948. The Jewish Yishuv, or community, was often at odds with Britain over its Palestine policy, which as the decades ground on violently, put less and less stock in supporting the Zionists and more in supporting its own wartime agenda.

This is not to discount the Palestinian suffering that Erekat describes, but apologizing for Balfour would mean Britain accepting one perspective of history. It would also mean reneging on its commitment to Jewish self-determination, which was hard-won through decades of war, not handed to the Jews on a plate by the British.

Israel has much to apologize for when it comes to its treatment of the Palestinians, but Britain apologizing for one of the founding documents of liberation for the Jewish people would do nothing to redress those wrongs. Instead, it bypasses Israel, creating not an opportunity for reconciliation, but one for denying Israelis legitimacy.

This will not help achieve the elusive two-state solution to the conflict. The logical conclusion of that line of thinking is that Israel, the Jewish state established in Palestine in 1948, should never have existed. The problem is that it does exist, and even if—as some believe—Israel was born in "sin and blood," the millions of Israelis who call it home have nowhere to go.

By looking to overturn a nearly century-old endorsement of a Jewish national home in Palestine, Erekat and the other apology campaigners offer no solutions or practical suggestions, only counterproductive rhetoric.

What matters is not the British commitment to Zionism on paper in 1917, but Israeli policy today, concrete steps toward a resolution and a chance for Israelis and Palestinians to accept each other's narratives in order to move forward.

Further, with its focus on the Balfour Declaration, the campaign overlooks other British promises over that tiny sliver of land as part of its "divide and rule" policy.

Between 1915 and 1916, Britain also promised land in the region to Sheikh Husayn of Mecca in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence. At the same time, under Sykes-Picot, Britain and France secretly carved up the area between them.

Should Zionists demand an apology for the land being twice-promised? Surely these three documents trampled on the rights of Jews and Arabs in Palestine. If Britain should apologize, shouldn't it apologize for all three?

Whatever the argument, however, what is clear is that across the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian divide, there is little consensus on this issue. This echoes the broad disagreements on the history of the conflict; there are two very different narratives, depending on which side of the line you sit. The fact that, when Israelis celebrate Independence, Palestinians mark the Nakba, or tragedy, is perhaps the most potent symbol of this.

The old adage goes that history is written by the victors. This conflict is still ongoing, and the apology campaign is a reminder of that. History matters, but with peace so far off, what Israelis and Palestinians need are opportunities to look forward, not to the past, which they will be hard pushed to agree on.

Our goal should be to secure a two-state solution, with an independent and viable Palestinian state; reconciliation over past wrongs can come later.

Just last month, thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women went on a two-week march to Jerusalem, calling for a return to the negotiating table. Walking together, they worked on building the bridges that are necessary for any peace agreement to last after decades of violence and bad blood.

This is the kind of initiative that will lead to "two sovereign and independent states living side-by-side in peace and security," as Erekat writes.

Those who purport to care for the plight of the Palestinians, or the Israelis, should refrain from measures that look only to a contested history and not to the future.

Alona Ferber is deputy managing editor of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics,Tony Blair's counter-extremism think tank.

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