Israel, British Foreign Policy and the Balfour Declaration—Part Two

David Charlwood | November 2, 2017

Editor’s Note: The Balfour Declaration was signed 100 years ago on 2 November 1917. The following article is the second installment in a series noting the history of British-Israeli relations since the declaration. The first installment is available here.

On November 5, 1956, British paratroopers dropped out of an early dawn sky above an Egyptian airfield three miles west of Port Said. It was part of a joint British and French operation conducted in coordination with an Israeli armored thrust across the Sinai desert. Officially, the British and French were “intervening” to stop war between Israel and Egypt. In reality, they were belatedly punishing Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for nationalizing the Suez Canal. A few weeks later, following worldwide outrage at the invasion which had in fact been secretly planned with the Israelis, British forces withdrew. The ignominious defeat of British ambitions in the Middle East would later lead U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson to famously remark that Great Britain had “lost an empire and not yet found a role.”  

After fighting together in Suez, Israeli-British relations deteriorated. The Foreign Office’s long-held stance – of favoring the Arab position when in doubt – became that of the U.K. government, and relations with Israel grew decidedly frosty as Britain developed closer ties with Jordan and the Gulf States. At the height of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath – fearing an Arab oil embargo – banned the shipment of arms to Israel and refused U.S. planes permission to refuel on British soil en-route. As the Jewish homeland fought for its very life, the government that had proposed its creation actively conspired in its destruction. Heath’s premiership marked the low-point in Britain’s dealings with Israel. It would fall to the U.K.’s first female Prime Minister to begin to re-build Israeli-British relations. 

In May 1986, Margaret Thatcher became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Israel. She proposed Britain in a new role, to encourage “negotiations for a lasting peace, which meets the needs of all the peoples of the area. I have been to your Arab neighbors as a friend. I come to Israel as a friend – indeed as an old friend. I want to help if I can.” Her statement of support for Israel was more than just set-piece diplomacy. Harvey Thomas, Thatcher’s Director of Press and Public Relations throughout her three terms in office, recalls that privately, in casual conversation, “she made positive comments about Israel needing to be independent and protected.” 

In practice, Britain played mostly a walk on part in the significant moments of the peace process. The 1993 Oslo Accords were concluded with little input from Britain; it has largely been the U.S. which has historically sought to broker peace in the region. Successive governments have warmly supported the efforts of multiple U.S. Presidents, but until Tony Blair, Britain did not a have a leader who consistently and actively sought a leading role. Having negotiated peace in Northern Ireland, Blair perhaps saw himself as the savior of the Middle East peace process. After working with former members of the IRA, he had no qualms about being photographed shaking hands with Yasser Arafat outside 10 Downing Street. At the same time, Blair strongly and publicly supported the 2003 “road-map for peace” launched by President George W. Bush. Blair saw bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians as the cure to the region’s ills. In a passionate speech to the U.S. Congress on the eve of the Iraq war, he asserted, “terrorism will not be defeated without peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine … The ending of Saddam’s regime in Iraq must be the starting point of a new dispensation for the Middle East … And to symbolize it all, the creation of an independent, viable and democratic Palestinian state side by side with the state of Israel.” It was a heady ambition, but it was to be dashed by the Iraq war, which would mortally wound his credibility as a mediator.  

By the time David Cameron entered Number Ten, multiple British Prime Ministers had made trips to Israel. In a speech to the Knesset during a visit in 2014, Cameron asserted that remembering the past was “about remembering the long and rightful search of a people for a nation, and the right for the Jewish people to live a peaceful and prosperous life in Israel. From the early pioneers … to the Balfour Declaration, the moment when the State of Israel went from a dream to a plan, Britain has played a proud and vital role in helping to secure Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.” 

Theresa May’s premiership has largely maintained stability in terms of Britain’s foreign relations, continuing to support a two-state solution and urging both Palestinians and Israelis to resume negotiations. She has, however, been publicly supportive of Britain’s past. In a speech in December 2016 ahead of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, Theresa May stated that it “is one of the most important letters in history. 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.”  

For decades after the founding of the State of Israel, British governments stood firmly with the Arabs and distanced themselves from Britain’s historical promise to Israel. But Margaret Thatcher and her successors have generally been willing to view the Balfour Declaration in a more favorable light. Tony Blair, in his exhaustive efforts to broker a solution to the peace process, found himself the target of increasing criticism in Israel, at the same time as his credibility within the Arab world was obliterated by the 2003 Iraq war. Subsequent British Prime Ministers have sought to tread more carefully in the Middle East, but without exception, they have regarded the Balfour Declaration positively. Even the Foreign Office – for years firmly pro-Arab – seems to have come around to the idea. In November 2016, when Palestinian activists launched a campaign to call on Britain to apologize for the Balfour Declaration, a Foreign Office spokesman told the press: “The Balfour Declaration was a historic statement and one that the UK Government will not be apologizing for. We are focused on encouraging the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps which bring them closer to peace.”