On 7 May, the British public will cast their votes in the UK general elections. Groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) are trying to ensure Palestine is a key issue in the elections and are encouraging voters to vote for candidates who support the freedom and self-determination of the Palestinian people. For many voters who may not understand why the issue of Palestine should be one to consider in a UK domestic election, it is imperative that we look at Britain’s historical and moral stake in the conflict.
In 1917, Lord Balfour, the then British foreign secretary and former prime minister, sent a letter to Baron Rothschild, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement in an unprecedented display of solidarity. He promised British support for the Zionist programme of establishing a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine; this promise became known as the Balfour Declaration.
The Balfour Declaration contrasted sharply with the assurances of Arab independence Britain had made only a few years earlier: that if the Arabs rebelled against the Ottomans, the fall of the empire would bring them independence. Unbeknownst to them, Britain and France secretly agreed to divide up the area between them in a treaty known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. This agreement was made a year prior to the Balfour Declaration, and when the Ottoman empire finally fell, the British Mandate in Palestine was established as Britain took unilateral control over the territory.
The Mandate lasted until 1947, when Britain relinquished control to the United Nations. The UN proposed dividing the area into a Jewish and Arab state, with Jerusalem placed under UN administration. This was agreed on by the UN General Assembly and on 14 May, 1948 the state of Israel was born. During the Mandate years, Jewish immigration to Palestine was encouraged and the numbers of Jewish settlers on Palestinian land rocketed. Meanwhile, opposition to British control from the native population was brutally crushed – with the authorities attempting to crush Palestinian national sentiment along with it.
It was Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government that oversaw the end of the British Mandate and the birth of Israel. Attlee was not considered a friend of Zionism and was pressured by his US counterpart Harry Truman for preventing Jewish emigration to the Holy Land in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Underground Jewish militant groups, such as the Irgun, waged a violent campaign against the British, and the final years of the Mandate were marked with blood, destruction and the beginning of the Palestinian mass exodus. By allowing the establishment of Israel under such circumstances, Britain neglected to observe the Declaration’s final clause: “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Since then, successive UK governments have supported Israel. Attlee’s leadership came to an end and Winston Churchill, who served his first term during WW2, took over – a bust of him was recently unveiled in Jerusalem to thank him for his “staunch and unwavering support for Israel”. While some have criticised Churchill for stemming the flow of Jewish refugees escaping to Palestine during the war, others see him as a man who made the Balfour promise a reality.
As the current prime minister, David Cameron, was vying for leadership in 2010, he gave a speech at a conference organised by Conservative Friends of Israel a mere six months after the end of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2008-2009 which claimed nearly 1,500 Palestinian lives. Cameron ignored the ramifications of the recent Israeli assault on Gaza, and instead – as renowned journalist Peter Oborne noted – “went out of his way to praise Israel because it ‘strives to protect innocent life’.”
Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) is one of Britain’s largest lobbying groups. Some 80 per cent of all Tory MPs are members of CFI, including most Cabinet ministers. Every year, lobbying groups such as CFI or its counterpart Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) take a significant number of parliamentarians to visit Israel. In total, CFI spent £63,608 on sending MPs on trips to Israel from 2011 to 2014. Over an estimated 15 per cent of Conservative and Labour MPs have visited Israel since the last election on trips funded and orchestrated by such lobbying bodies.
Since becoming prime minister, Cameron has maintained a similar pro-Israel line. During the 2012 Gaza conflict, he told Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu that Hamas “bears the principal responsibility” for the violence in southern Israel and Gaza, and that the frequency of rocket attacks was the “immediate cause of the situation”. During the latest bout of violence – a massive military assault on Gaza launched by Israel in the summer of 2014 and dubbed Operation Protective Edge – Cameron not only defended Israel’s right to self-defence throughout the conflict, but also resisted calls to condemn Israel’s actions as “disproportionate” or to suspend arms trade despite a threat to review arms sales to Israel. In 2013, Israel received around £8bn in the form of 400 arms licenses from the UK ; weapons which were undoubtedly used in the recent Gaza war.
A few months prior to the start of Operation Protective Edge, Cameron gave a speech to the Israeli Knesset in which he called his belief in Israel “unbreakable”. He condemned the international boycott movement and commended the UK and Israel on their trade relations. UK-Israel trade relations for the first half of 2014 increased by 28 per cent compared with the same period in 2013, reaching a record high during the summer’s attack on Gaza and seemingly in spite of mass public outrage at the scale of the violence. While on paper British policy on Israel-Palestine supports a two state solution, Cameron abstained on the symbolic vote in October 2014 to recognise Palestine as a state.
But rather than being an anomaly, Cameron is simply following in the footsteps of a long line of British prime ministers in his support for Israel. Thatcher, for example, was the first British prime minister to visit Israel in person. She was not, however, uncritical of the Jewish state – in fact, she voiced anger when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Nevertheless, on the occasion of her death, Netanyahu commented that: “She was a staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish people. She inspired a generation of political leaders.” Gordon Brown (who is also a member of Labour Friends of Israel) was criticised in 2009 for opposing the arrest of Tzipi Livni for war crimes and pledged to work to change the law that allowed it – at the time, he informed Livni that she “would always be welcome” in the UK.
The historic meeting between Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and the Conservative prime minister Balfour in 1905, during which Weizmann convinced Balfour of the case for a Jewish national state, created an “unbreakable” partnership, to use Cameron’s words, between the two countries. Over a century has passed since the founding of that special relationship, and successive British governments have strengthened this bond while steadfastly ignoring Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and disregard for international law. PSC is currently creating a database of how candidates in all 632 constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland feel on the issue of justice for Palestinians – from their views on Israel’s illegal settlements to ending the UK’s arms trade with Israel. Voters will be able to access that database and use it to vote for the candidate in their constituency who has said they will stand up for Palestine. Let’s hope they do so.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.