PM calls Balfour's letter a 'great' event in world history

Palestinians must accept Israel, Netanyahu tells May in London

Ahead of centenary celebration for Balfour Declaration, British leader says UK ‘proud’ of document, set on two-state solution

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses with British Prime Minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street in London on November 2, 2017. (AFP Photo/Daniel Leal-Olivas)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses with British Prime Minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street in London on November 2, 2017. (AFP Photo/Daniel Leal-Olivas)

In London to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the Palestinians to come to terms with Israel’s existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people. A Palestinian acknowledgement of that fact, he said at the start of a meeting with his British counterpart, Theresa May, would be a big step toward peace.

May said the UK was “proud” of its role in Israel’s creation but added that London is approaching the Balfour centennial with sensitivity due to Palestinian grievances, noting Israeli settlements were a “barrier” to peace.

At 10 Downing Street, Netanyahu also called for “changes” to the nuclear deal with Iran, saying he would present May with “a few concrete ideas” on that front.

“A hundred years ago, the Balfour Declaration helped pave the way for the reestablishment of an independent state for the Jewish people in our ancestral homeland,” Netanyahu told May. He hailed the document – in which then-foreign UK secretary Arthur Balfour promised London’s support in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Mandate Palestine – as a “great” event in world history.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London on November 2, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“Israel is committed to peace, I’m committed to peace,” he said.

“A hundred years after Balfour, the Palestinians should finally accept the Jewish national home and finally accept the Jewish state. And when they do, the road to peace will be infinitely closer. In my opinion, peace will be achievable.”

In recent weeks, the Palestinians have vehemently protested the British government’s decision to mark the Balfour Declaration with pride, calling on London to apologize for the document and recognize a Palestinian state.

Many Sunni Arab states no longer see Israel as their enemy but as an “indispensable ally in the battle against militant Islam,” Netanyahu told May in what was their second meeting this year. In contrast, he said, Shiite Iran is seeking to regional hegemony and still wants to attain a nuclear weapon.

Addressing the Iran nuclear deal, which Jerusalem opposes but is fully backed by London, Netanyahu appealed to May to consider his proposals for improving it.

“The goal that I have in mind is not keeping or eliminating the deal; it’s improving the deal and correcting its main flaws. And I think those who want to keep the deal should cooperate in correcting the deal,” Netanyahu said. “I have some concrete ideas, which I look forward to discussing with you.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses with British Prime Minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing street in London on November 2, 2017. (AFP Photo/Tolga Akmen)

In October, US President Donald Trump decided not to recertify the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, thus putting the pact’s future into question. Britain, together with other major players such as France, Germany, China and Russia, have rejected any effort to cancel or amend it.

Netanyahu enthusiastically endorsed Trump’s position on the deal, urging world powers to “fix it or nix it.”

May said it was a “great pleasure” to host Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street to commemorate the Balfour Declaration.

“The United Kingdom is proud of the role that we played in the establishment of the State of Israel and we’re approaching this commemoration with respect and honor,” she said.

“I obviously, as we commemorate the Balfour Declaration, recognize the sensitivities that this raises. We, obviously, want to see a resolution of the issue for the Israelis and Palestinians. And we remain committed to a two-state solution.”

In discussing the Middle East peace process, Israeli settlements need to be discussed, the British leader added, arguing that they constitute “some of the barriers and some of the difficulties” toward reaching an agreement.

After his meeting with May, Netanyahu met with UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in London on November 2, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Later on Thursday, both May and Netanyahu are scheduled to attend a private gala in honor of the Balfour Declaration’s centenary.

Despite Palestinian protests, May is expected to once again express her pride in the UK’s role in Israel’s creation and to hail bilateral relations. At the same time, she is set to call for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal based on a two-state solution, according to her aides.

The event, hosted by Lord Rothschild at Lancaster House, will also be attended by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, opposition leader Isaac Herzog, and British and Israeli dignitaries.

On Friday, Netanyahu is scheduled to address the Chatham House. At the venerable think tank, whose formal name is the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the prime minister will deliver remarks and then answer questions from the audience.

He is also scheduled to take part in the market open ceremony at London Stock Exchange Headquarters in Paternoster Square and to meet with leading British businesspeople.

Before returning to Israel on Sunday, Netanyahu is set to meet with Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and other Jewish community leaders.

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