LONDON - The Palestinians have yet to take the same basic step that Great Britain did 100 years ago, when it issued the Balfour Declaration recognizing the right of the Jewish people to a state in their homeland, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his British counterpart, Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday.
The two leaders met at Downing Street, less than a day after Netanyahu arrived in London to celebrate that seminal event in Zionist history.
“One hundred years after Balfour, the Palestinians should finally accept a Jewish national home and finally accept a Jewish state. When they do, the road to peace will be closer and in my opinion peace will be achievable,” said Netanyahu.
May told Netanyahu that her country was proud of the role it played in establishing the State of Israel. It has related to the Balfour Declaration’s anniversary “with respect and pride,” she said.
But May also made note of the political debate in Britain surrounding the anniversary.
“Obviously we recognize the sensitivities that this raises,” she said.
“Britain remains committed to a two state solution,” said May. She added that she believes some of the barriers to peace “are clearly settlements.”
A spokesperson for Downing Street later said that May noted her “grave concerns about illegal settlements” but also said that they were not the only obstacle to peace.
Netanyahu and May were scheduled to attend a gala dinner on Thursday night to celebrate the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, where the British premier was expected to issue a strong statement against antisemitism.
A preview of her speech published on Wednesday said that criticism of Israel should never be used as an excuse to hate Jews.
“Today [there is] a new and pernicious form of antisemitism which uses criticism of the actions of the Israeli government as a despicable justification for questioning the very right of Israel to exist,” according to Wednesday’s version of the speech that was made available to the media.
“This is abhorrent and we will not stand for it,” May’s speech continues.
“Criticizing the government of Israel is never – and can never be – an excuse for hatred against the Jewish people, any more than criticizing the British government would be an excuse for hatred against the British people,” the text of May’s speech read.
May is also expected to speak of the pride she feels between Israel and Great Britain, as well her country’s role in the creation of the Zionist state through its issuance of the Balfour declaration, which made Great Britain the first major Western power to recognize the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland of their own in what was then an area controlled by the Ottoman Empire and known as Palestine.
The short 67-word document was penned by Lord Alfred James Balfour on November 2, 1917 toward the end of World War I, while he served as the country’s foreign secretary.
The Palestinian Authority has demanded in the recent past that Great Britain apologize for the document and has threatened to sue its government. Palestinians plan to protest the centenary anniversary with demonstrations in the West Bank and in London, including one planned for Saturday.
Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Thursday that the Balfour Declaration “paved the road for our dispossession and the systematic denial of our inalienable right to self-determination.”
“By taking pride in celebrating 100 years of the Balfour Declaration, the British government has chosen to celebrate 100 years of injustice, racism, and violence,” he said.
“Instead, it should apologize for this shameful declaration and take concrete measures to fulfill its moral and political obligations towards the people of Palestine,” Erekat said.
British politicians are themselves divided on whether they want to celebrate the historical moment.
Britain’s Labour party has said that unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state is the best way to mark the Balfour anniversary.
Labor’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry told Middle East Eye that the event should be marked, not celebrated.
“It was a turning point in the history of that area and I think the most important way of marking it is to recognize Palestine. The British government have said they will do, it's just a question of when the time is right and it seems to me this is the time,” Thornberry noted.
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