Theresa May vows to mark Balfour centennial ‘with pride’

Theresa May vows to mark Balfour centennial ‘with pride’

A week before hosting Netanyahu in London, British PM acknowledges Palestinian ‘sensitivities,’ urges commitment to two-state solution

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

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street in London, February 6, 2017. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street in London, February 6, 2017. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

UK Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday that her country would celebrate “with pride” its role in the creation of the State of Israel and upcoming 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which pledged London’s support for a Jewish homeland.

Her comments came amid Palestinian demands that Britain retract and apologize for the declaration, and one week before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due in London to celebrate the document’s centennial.

“We are proud of the role that we played in the creation of the State of Israel, and we will certainly mark the centenary with pride,” May told the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions.

However, she acknowledged Palestinian grievances with the Balfour Declaration from November 2, 1917, in which then-UK foreign secretary Arthur Balfour told British Jewish leader Lord Walter Rothschild that His Majesty’s government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

Said May: “We also must be conscious of the sensitivities that some people do have about the Balfour Declaration. We recognize that there is more work to be done.”

Responding to a question by Tory MP Robert Jenrick, the prime minister also reiterated her country’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“That is an important aim,” she said. “I think it important that we all recommit to ensuring that we can provide security, stability and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians through such a lasting peace.”

Despite Palestinian protests, May has repeatedly reiterated her intention to celebrate the Balfour Declaration.

“It is one of the most important letters in history,” she told Conservative supporters of Israel in December. “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.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses a Conservative Friends of Israel lunch, December 12, 2016 (Courtesy CFI)

In July, the Palestinian Authority announced its plan to sue the UK over the Declaration, triggering scorn from Israel.

In recent weeks, Palestinian officials have stepped up calls for London to retract its support for a Jewish homeland in the area of the former British mandate, arguing that the land didn’t belong to Britain and that it therefore had no right to promise it to the Zionist movement.

“Palestinians need the UK to first and foremost recognize its historic responsibility and apologize,” Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat wrote in a piece for Newsweek Wednesday.

“Rather than ‘mark’ this grave insult to world justice, Britain needs to acknowledge its responsibility and commit to protecting and advancing the political, civil and national rights of the Palestinian people.”

He went on to urge London to recognize Palestinian statehood. “For what is the two-state solution without two sovereign and independent states living side-by-side in peace and security?”

Photo of a draft of Lord Balfour’s declaration document from 1917 (PMO)

Israelis, meanwhile, have started celebrating the Balfour Declaration’s centennial with a series of events that will culminate with Netanyahu’s planned visit to London next week.

In the British capital, the prime minister is scheduled to attend a festive dinner in honor of the Declaration. May is set to attend as well.

“We are about to mark 100 years since Lord Balfour sent a letter on behalf of the British Government, supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel. In that moment, Lord Balfour made history, he changed history,” President Reuven Rivlin said Tuesday at an event at the residence of Britain’s ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey.

“It is a history that places upon us all a duty to work together, to continue to strengthen the friendship between Britain and Israel. And also to continue to build the State of Israel, as a proud Jewish and democratic state. This is the legacy of the Balfour Declaration, and it is a great and proud legacy indeed.”

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