Perfidious Albion and Israel-Palestine

British policy towards Palestine reveals a persistent pro-Israeli bias, from Lord Balfour to Theresa May.

Tony Blair was the most ardent supporter of Israel, with the possible exception of Harold Wilson, writes Shlaim [EPA]
Tony Blair was the most ardent supporter of Israel, with the possible exception of Harold Wilson, writes Shlaim [EPA]


Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University.

The Palestinians are the victims of the cruel geopolitics of a region in which foreign powers have always played a decisive role.

Britain, the pre-eminent Western power in the region in the first half of the 20th century, was no friend to the Palestinians and it is still no friend today. Leaders of both main parties have tended to side with the Zionists in this bitter, bloody, and apparently intractable century-old conflict.

Duplicity and double-dealing were the hallmarks of British policy towards Palestine from the beginning.

In 1915, Britain privately promised Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, to support an independent Arab kingdom after the war if he would mount an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

The venerable Sharif kept his side of the bargain but Britain did not. On November 2, 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, pledging its support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. So Palestine became the twice-promised land.

‘Classic colonial document’

In 1917, the Jews constituted 10 percent and the Arabs 90 percent of the population of Palestine. Britain had no legal or moral right to assign national rights to the tiny Jewish minority and to deny them to the Arab majority. But it was a colonial era and the Balfour Declaration was a classic colonial document.

One of the very few honest remarks on the subject was made in retrospect by none other than the author of the Balfour Declaration himself.

“In short, so far as Palestine is concerned”, wrote Lord Balfour, “the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.”

OPINION: How Britain Destroyed the Palestinian Homeland

Among Labour leaders, Tony Blair was the most ardent supporter of Israel, with the possible exception of Harold Wilson. Blair felt an ideological affinity with democratic Israel, but geopolitics also played a part.

A major reason for Blair’s utterly uncritical support for Israel was his desire to curry favour with the neo-conservative administration of George W Bush. Some of the leading neocons in the administration were Jewish and all of them were pro-Israel.

The neocons were chomping at the bit to wage war on Iraq for various reasons, one being to remove a potential threat to Israel’s security.

Linking Iraq to Israel-Palestine

In Britain there was strong popular and parliamentary opposition to war on Iraq, especially within the Labour Party’s ranks. To overcome this opposition, Blair linked Iraq to the Israel-Palestine issue.

There were two key issues in Middle East politics, he told the House of Commons on March 18, 2003: Iraq and Palestine. The most urgent task was to disarm Iraq from the weapons of mass destruction – which it later transpired it did not possess – and after that he pledged to do his utmost to bring about a just solution to the Israel-Palestine problem.

By stepping up settlement activity on the West Bank, Israel blocked the road to peace. It was like a man who pretends to negotiate the division of a pizza while at the same time guzzling it.

A hesitant House of Commons duly authorised the war on Iraq, which was attacked, occupied and devastated, but in the aftermath of the war, Blair was unable to make any headway in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By stepping up settlement activity on the West Bank, Israel blocked the road to peace. It was like a man who pretends to negotiate the division of a pizza while at the same time guzzling it.

Blair always believed that by embracing Israel, by winning its trust, third parties could persuade her to show some diplomatic flexibility. His own experience, however, should have disabused him of this notion.

Prime Minister Theresa May and her buccaneering Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, fit neatly into this pattern of duplicity and double standards; of indifference to Palestinian rights and uncritical support for Israel despite its systematic violation of these rights.

In their partiality towards Israel, May and Johnson are typical of the Conservative Party at large. About 80 percent of Tory MPs, including most Cabinet ministers, are members of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), a well-connected, well-funded, and highly influential parliamentary lobbying group.

Some 34 out of the 74 Tory MPs who were elected in 2015 have been taken by CFI to visit Israel. For many of them this trip is just the beginning of a life-long association with the country. There is no equivalent organisation of Conservative Friends of Palestine.

READ MORE: Israel funding spin trips in UK as it smears critics

The official position of the government on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seemingly even-handed. Britain supports a two-state solution, which requires the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel with a capital in Jerusalem.

Britain also regards the Israeli settlements on the West Bank as illegal and as an obstacle to peace. But this opposition to the Zionist colonial project on the West Bank is half-hearted; it is rarely backed by concrete action. The underlying reality is not one of neutrality, but one of alignment with one side in the conflict: Israel.

‘Unqualified admiration’

David Cameron, when he was prime minister, described himself as a “passionate friend” of Israel and insisted that nothing could break that friendship. Theresa May evidently shares this unqualified admiration and passionate attachment to the Jewish state.

In a keynote address to the CFI’s annual business lunch, May described Israel as a “remarkable country” and went on to give the reasons: “We have, in Israel, a thriving democracy, a beacon of tolerance, an engine of enterprise and an example to the rest of the world”. She spoke of Israel as “a country where people of all religions and sexualities are free and equal in the eyes of the law”.

She reserved her sharpest criticism for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, the global grassroots campaign for Palestinian rights. This movement, she stated, “is wrong, it is unacceptable, and this party and this government will have no truck with those who subscribe to it”.

READ MORE: What is the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement?

May reminded her audience that Britain was entering a “special time” – the centenary of the Balfour Declaration –  and she went on to deliver her wholly one-sided verdict on this infamous document.

“It is one of the most important letters in history”, she said. “It demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. And it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride”.

There was not a word about helping the Palestinians to create a homeland of their own on the territory that has been illegally occupied by Israel since the June 1967 war.

The prime minister’s view of Israel may be dismissed as “Theresa in Wonderland” but that is the view that informs her foreign policy. It is true that last December Britain voted for Security Council resolution 2334 which condemned Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank as illegal and as a threat to the viability of the two-state solution based on the 1967 lines.

The experts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had in fact played an important part in drafting this resolution and in ensuring that it would not meet with a veto from the outgoing Obama administration. But May was not too pleased with the result. Privately, she complained that she had been side-blinded by the FCO.

Kerry’s ‘extraordinary intervention’ attacked

When John Kerry followed up on December 28 with a tough speech which was highly critical of the Likud-led Israeli government, May made an extraordinary intervention. Kerry described Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as the “most right-wing coalition in Israeli history” and warned that the rapid expansion of settlements in the occupied territories meant that “the status quo is leading towards one state and perpetual occupation”.

May retorted that it was inappropriate to make such a strongly worded attack on the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally or to focus solely on the issue of Israeli settlements.

Kerry had in fact covered the full range of threats to a two-state solution, including Palestinian terrorism, violence, and incitement.

May’s comments may, therefore, be regarded not simply as tactless but as part of an effort to distance herself from the outgoing Obama administration on this issue and to ingratiate herself with the incoming Trump administration.

Another manifestation of this “my ally right or wrong” attitude was Britain’s response to the conference convened by the French government, on January 15, in Paris with the aim of reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process and warning Donald Trump not to abandon the two-state solution. The conference was attended by 70 nations.

By [the Conservatives’] ridiculously low-level representation at the conference, Perfidious Albion wrecked the chance of a united European front on the Israel-Palestine issue.

Thirty-five countries – including the US, France, Germany, and Italy – were represented by their foreign minister. Britain was represented not by its foreign minister, nor by a junior minister, not even by its ambassador to Paris, but by a junior official in the FCO. Worse still, the official was only there as an observer with no authority to sign the final communique.

By its ridiculously low-level representation at the conference, Perfidious Albion wrecked the chance of a united European front on the Israel-Palestine issue. The move reflected a shift by the Conservative government from a barely even-handed approach towards a blatantly pro-Israeli one.

It was a snub to the Palestinian Authority and its president, and an expression of solidarity with Benjamin Netanyahu who dismissed the Paris talks as rigged and as “the last twitches of yesterday”. It also sent a none-too-subtle signal of May’s keen desire to turn her back on Europe and to kindle an intimate relationship with the Trump White House.

The Israeli Lobby in Britain

Another example of the Conservative government’s indulgence towards Israel was its response to Al Jazeera’s four-part documentary “The Lobby”, which was screened from January 11-14.

Using an undercover reporter and secret filming, Al Jazeera presented incontrovertible evidence of improper interference by the Israeli embassy in Britain’s democratic processes. It revealed clandestine collaboration between the embassy and parliamentary lobbyists in both the Labour and the Conservative parties to undermine their political opponents and to discredit supporters of Palestine.

“The Lobby” shows how unsubstantiated allegations of anti-Semitism were used to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, the pro-Palestinian leader of the Labour Party, and his allies.

OPINION: Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in British politics

It also documents the links between embassy staff and the Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement, two groups who are not above invoking the anti-Semitic card to silence perfectly rational and legitimate criticism of Israeli policies.

The most shocking exposure of “The Lobby” is that of Shai Masot, a senior political officer in the Israeli embassy, discussing with a Conservative ministerial aide how to “take down” Sir Alan Duncan, the deputy foreign minister, and other pro-Palestinian politicians. Masot described Boris Johnson as “an idiot” but  wished him no harm, presumably because, unlike his outspoken deputy, he does not represent a threat or a problem for Israel.

Al Jazeera Investigations – The Lobby P4: The Takedown

The government’s response to “Shaigate” was feeble. The prime minister rejected calls from Jeremy Corbyn and MPs from all political parties, including her own, to institute an inquiry.

Johnson failed to back his deputy and rejected calls to sanction the Israeli embassy for its gross violations of diplomatic protocol. Nor did he summon the Israeli ambassador for a dressing down. Johnson told the House of Commons that to the best of his knowledge the diplomat in question was no longer employed by the embassy, that the Israeli ambassador had issued a full apology, and that he considered the matter closed.

Just imagine how the Israeli government would have reacted to evidence that a British diplomat in Tel Aviv was meddling in internal Israeli politics. When Britain voted in favour of Security Council 2334, prime minister Netanyahu summoned the British ambassador on Christmas Day for a dressing down.

He also tried to humiliate May, one of the most pro-Israeli leaders in Europe, by cancelling a meeting he was due to have with her in the Davos forum. Britain’s crime was to vote for a UN resolution which conformed to official British foreign policy and commanded almost universal support.

The Israeli embassy in London, by contrast, was caught red-handed in underhand manipulation of British democratic processes. There is only one word to describe the Conservative government’s conduct in this affair: cowardice.

Britain bears a heavy historic responsibility for the Palestinians’ loss of their patrimony. The original sin was the Balfour Declaration. As the mandatory power from 1920 to 1948, Britain enabled the gradual takeover of Palestine by the Zionist movement.

Britain bears a heavy historic responsibility for the Palestinians’ loss of their patrimony. The original sin was the Balfour Declaration.

When the Arab Revolt against Britain and its Zionist proteges broke out in the late 1930s, it was the British army which crushed it with indescribable brutality.

And when the struggle entered its critical phase in the late 1940s, and the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, Britain backed the bid of its client, King Abdullah of Jordan, to capture and annex to his kingdom the main area that had been allocated by the UN cartographers to the Arab state.

Abdullah and the Zionists were the only winners in the war for Palestine; the Palestinians were the losers and they were left out in the cold.

Today Israel controls 90 percent of mandatory Palestine and the Palestinians are still stateless. There are many reasons for the Nakba, the catastrophe that overwhelmed the Palestinian people. The treachery of Perfidious Albion was only one factor but not an insignificant one.

Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Jerusalem Holy Site Muslim, Not Jewish: United Nations Resolution On Temple Mount Angers Israel


“The heritage of Jerusalem is indivisible,” Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, said. “And each of its communities has a right to the explicit recognition of their history and relationship with the city.”

Israel suspended cooperation with the U.N. cultural organization Friday in reaction to the vote on Judaism’s holiest site. The text refers to the Muslim site Al-Buraq Plaza, but places the Jewish name, The Western Wall, in quotations. The wall a remnant of the first biblical temple, is the holiest site where Jews can pray, while for Muslims, the temple marks the place where the prophet Mohammed ascended up to heaven. The site is officially under Muslim administration and under Israeli law, Jews are not allowed to pray there to avoid potential violence. But activists have increasingly pushed for the right to go inside the temple in recent months, prompting Palestinians and Muslim-majority nations such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia to complain that Israel is trying to take back the site.

An aerial view shows the Dome of the Rock (R) on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, and the Western Wall (L) in Jerusalem’s Old City Oct. 10, 2006. Photo: Reuters

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip and is pledged to Israel’s destruction, called the resolution a “step in the right direction.” Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet called the decision “shameful,” while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the vote as “the theater of the absurd.”

“What’s next? A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock and roll?” Netanyahu tweeted after the decision.

Out of the 57 nations present for Thursday’s vote, only six voted against the resolution. Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and the United States took issue with the draft, while a number of Arab and Muslim-majority countries joined Brazil, China and Russia to secure 24 votes in favor. Other member states, such as India, Italy and Spain, abstained. Serbia and Turkmenistan were absent.

The votes by Arab world countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan, which sponsored the bill, are not surprising. Only Egypt and Jordan have established diplomatic relations with Israel. Jordan has custodian rights over the site after Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War.

A number of other nations have been critical of Israel in recent years, voicing support for Palestinian statehood. Roughly 130 countries recognize Palestine. In 2011, Iceland became the first Western European country to recognize Palestine, followed by Sweden in 2012. That same year, a number of European nations, including France, Italy, and Switzerland, joined the successful vote to include Palestine as non-member observer state at the U.N. In 2014, the parliament of the European Union voted to recognize Palestinian statehood. This growing list of supporters has angered Netanyahu, who routinely criticizes nations that pursue Palestinian recognition.

While no European country voted for Thursday’s draft resolution, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm to block it as well. On the abstaining list, countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain have symbolically recognized Palestine in their respective legislating bodies.

Israel can claim a few diplomatic victories, however. A draft resolution similar to Friday’s was previously voted on in April, with the same text that Israel finds problematic. That vote saw 33 members including France voting in favor, after which Netanyahu personally wrote to French Prime Minister Francois Hollande, saying he was “honestly astounded to see our French friends raise their hands in favor of this shameful resolution.” France abstained Thursday.

It is typical of Israel to not only objects but gets angry when someone criticizes their policy, their mass killing of Palestinians or anything else about them. Forget about what’s right or what’s ethical. Israel wants everything to be in its favor. It’s acting like a spoiled child who wants everything his way and throws a fit if it doesn’t. 


Is the BDS movement facing new challenges in the US?

New bills have barred state governments from contracting or funding entities that support the boycott of Israel.

Demonstrators gathered outside New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office on June 9,
2016 to denounce his executive order targeting the BDS movement

Last April, more than 350 people travelled to Los Angeles, California to attend a conference against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Organised by the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, attendees gathered to strategise how to combat BDS, which advocates for economic action against Israel to pressure the Israeli government over its human rights abuses.

One of the speakers at the event was Noah Pollak, head of the Emergency Committee for Israel. Pollak had a message for proponents of the BDS movement.

“While you were doing your campus antics, the grown-ups were in the state legislatures passing laws that make your cause improbable,” he said.

Pollak’s message referred to an increasingly effective strategy pursued by pro-Israel groups in the United States.

BDS advocates are facing a barrage of bills that condemn the movement as “anti-Semitic” and bar state governments from contracting or funding entities that support boycotting Israel.

The aim of the bills, say pro-Israel advocates, is to prevent state contracts from funding what they see as a discriminatory movement.

“Israel’s diplomatic missions in the US have expressed full support and appreciation for legislative initiatives to boycott the boycotters,” said Shimon Mercer-Wood, spokesperson for the Consulate General of Israel in New York.

“The BDS movement is racist, discriminatory and hostile to freedom of speech. It is ironic that some try to paint anti-BDS decisions as a limitation of freedom of speech, since the movement itself is dedicated to silencing Israeli voices in the public space,” Mercer-Wood added.

Legislation that prohibits state funds from going to pro-BDS entities has been enactedin 10 states and is being debated in many more. However, in some states such as Virginia and Maryland, coalitions of free speech advocates and Palestine solidarity groups have banded together to defeat anti-boycott bills.

Freedom of speech?

The legislative measures are the most significant challenge the BDS movement has faced in the US.

Palestine solidarity activists say that the BDS movement is not anti-Semitic, and that the measures are an attack on free speech and seek to stigmatise action for Palestinian rights. There is also fear that the legislation could chill free speech by making people fearful of punishment if they support the boycott movement.

“The rash of anti-BDS legislation that we’re seeing is really a frantic attempt to stifle the success of the BDS movement,” said Josh Ruebner, the policy director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which has lobbied against such legislation.

The BDS movement started in 2005, when more than 170 Palestinian groups endorsed the call for boycott and encouraged people around the world to join their campaign.

The goal of the movement is to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, to ensure equality for Palestinians living in Israel and implement Palestinian refugees’ right to return to communities they and their families were expelled from in 1948, when Israel was founded.

A woman holds up a sign at a protest on June 9, 2016 against the New York governor for issuing an anti-BDS executive order [Sainatee Suarez/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

The call to boycott Israel has since been taken up by hundreds of progressive organisations in the US.

It has found success on college campuses, where Students for Justice in Palestine chapters have helped pass student government resolutions that endorse divestment from companies supplying the Israeli military.

It has also found success in academic associations and among churches, some of which have voted to divest pension funds held in companies such as Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard, which sell equipment to the Israeli army.

In 2013, the American Studies Association endorsed the academic boycott of Israeli universities over their complicity in Israel’s control of Palestinians. The move sparked a fierce backlash in the US.

The New York State Senate became the first body to pass a bill to prohibit state colleges from funding academic groups that boycott Israel.

The New York measure ultimately did not become law. But since then, a wave of anti-BDS legislation has swept across the country.

Twenty states have considered anti-BDS laws. Nine have enacted the legislation, and in June, the governor of one state – New York – issued a first-of-its-kind executive order against the movement, according to a count by Palestine Legal, a group that defends the right to advocate for Palestine.

The number of anti-BDS laws debated and passed in the past year is unprecedented in scale, said Rahul Saksena, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal.

“Organizing that’s happening on the ground is not just gaining momentum but winning the hearts and the minds of people in this country,” said Saksena. “Israel advocacy organisations are seeing that, and it’s alarming them.”

While some of the bills are mere resolutions that put a state on record as being against BDS, others have more teeth to them.

States such as Illinois, New York, South Carolina and others have enacted measures that prohibit state pension funds or state contracts from going to companies or institutions that support BDS.

These measures require the state to compile (PDF) a public list – called a “blacklist” by pro-Palestine activists – of institutions that support the boycott. These entities could range from banks that have pulled investments out of the occupied West Bank to church groups that have voted to divest holdings in companies that contract with the Israeli army.

Attacking BDS

Civil liberties groups say that these measures are unconstitutional attacks on the right of activists to boycott Israel, and note that the US Supreme Court has upheld boycotts as protected advocacy under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

But Eugene Kontorovich, a legal scholar who has helped to write some of the anti-boycott laws, told Al Jazeera: “The laws in question do not prevent or punish anyone for engaging in any speech. It is well established that states can require that companies that receive state money do not engage in what the state views as discriminatory activity, even when that activity is motivated by sincere beliefs.”

The dispute over whether anti-BDS bills are constitutional will most likely end up in a US court, Kontorovich said.

READ MORE: BDS is a war Israel can’t win

Meanwhile, the US Congress has also joined the attack against BDS.

Last year, Congress passed a trade law that includes language requiring the US to discourage European boycotts of Israel.

And in February 2016, Democrats and Republicans introduced legislation, backed by the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that would authorise states to take funding away from companies that boycott Israel.

Ruebner, the policy head of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, expects that more anti-BDS bills will be introduced in the coming months, especially since 2016 is an election year.

Introducing pro-Israel legislation could curry favour with some voters and donors. But, he added, Palestine solidarity activists will continue to advocate and lobby against anti-BDS measures.

“Palestine solidarity activists, First Amendment rights activists, are fighting back against these bills, in many cases successfully,” said Ruebner. “We’re not going to allow our legislations to try to punish civil society for responding to a call for social justice.”

Israel’s water cuts: West Bank ‘in full crisis mode’

Israel stands accused of using ‘water as a weapon’ as some West Bank homes have gone without water for a week.

'There are little excuses left not to give Palestinians back their water rights,' says Corradin [Getty Images]
‘There are little excuses left not to give Palestinians back their water rights,’ says Corradin [Getty Images]

Salfit, occupied West Bank – Salfit sits atop an underground wealth of water, but the city’s residents are forbidden from accessing it – and they are now in crisis, as Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, has reduced water supply to the northern West Bank.

Since the start of the month, residents of Salfit have been receiving between 30 and 40 percent of their normal water allowance, said Saleh Afaneh, the head of the local water and wastewater department.

“On the first day of Ramadan, the water stopped for 24 hours, with no notice,” Afaneh told Al Jazeera. “Since then, it has been coming in at less than half the capacity. We’ve done everything we can to try and make residents comfortable, but this is a crisis.”

“He hasn’t slept in two days,” the city’s mayor, Shaher Eshtieh, cut in. “We’ve never seen anything like this; we are in full crisis mode, working around the clock to help our people, but we are doing this on our own … We’ve continuously reached out to the Palestinian government, the prime minister even, but they’ve been no help, and the Israelis are denying there is a problem.”

A Palestinian Authority spokesperson did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

READ MORE: Israel – Water as a tool to dominate Palestinians

Water shortages and cuts have also been reported throughout the northern Jenin and Nablus districts of the West Bank, although Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit, the Israeli body in charge of the occupied West Bank, denied water had been cut or reduced at all.

In a statement, COGAT said the shortages in the Jenin area were reported due to a broken water pipe that had since been repaired. COGAT also stated that a pipe had burst in Salfit, although local water officials said they had no knowledge of this.

Water is running under our ground while our taps run dry … The people are getting angry. They won’t continue to accept this.

Shaher Eshtieh, Salfit mayor

The Israeli water company Mekorot, meanwhile, said that owing to shortages in the water supply, it had made “a broad reduction of the supply to all residents in the area”, referring to both Israeli settlements and Palestinian areas in the occupied West Bank.

Camilla Corradin, the advocacy task force coordinator for the Emergency, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (EWASH) group, told Al Jazeera that Israel is using “water as a weapon”.

“EWASH believes that Israel has managed to achieve a water surplus, thanks to its advanced water and wastewater technology and its control over Palestinian water resources,” Corradin said.

“There are little excuses left not to give Palestinians back their water rights, so that Palestinian towns and villages will no longer be left without the most basic of rights – water – in hot summer months.”