Britain should apologise for its 1917 declaration endorsing the founding of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and should recognise Palestine as a state, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday.
Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly, Abbas said that the Palestinian people had suffered greatly because of the Balfour Declaration in which Britain said it favoured the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine but that this should not undermine the rights of others living there.
“We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, misery and injustice this declaration created and to act to rectify these disasters and remedy its consequences, including by the recognition of the state of Palestine,” Abbas said. “This is the least Great Britain can do.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking a short time later at the annual gathering of world leaders, derided Abbas for focusing on the declaration and alluded to the possibility of the Palestinians suing Britain for it.
“President Abbas just attacked from this podium the Balfour Declaration. He is preparing a lawsuit against Britain for that declaration from 1917. That’s almost 100 years ago. Talk about being stuck in the past,” Netanyahu said.
An online video depicts Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Malki reading a speech on behalf of Abbas in which he asks the Arab Summit meeting in July to support the Palestinians in the preparation of a legal case against the British government over the declaration.
The mutual recriminations in Thursday’s speeches underlined the low expectations for any revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As it happened, the only speech between the two Middle East neighbours was given by the prime minister of Norway, where the secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations took place leading to the 1993 Oslo accords.
Peace talks last collapsed in 2014 and there are few hopes for a resumption anytime soon in part because of Israeli anger at Palestinian attacks and Palestinian criticism of Israel’s construction of settlements on occupied land where Palestinians want to establish a state.
The Balfour Declaration, named for the British foreign secretary at the time, offered a more nuanced message than Abbas described in his speech.
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country,” it said.
The British mission to the United Nations had no immediate comment.