Century-old bonds

The battle of Beersheba and the Balfour Declaration are now 100 years old, how do Australian-Israeli and British-Israeli relations look today?

October 30, 2017 21:27
3 minute read.
UK AND Israeli flags together at a march in London.

UK AND Israeli flags together at a march in London.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Tuesday, October 31, marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba. Together with the Balfour Declaration, which will be commemorated on November 2, the Battle of Beersheba set the groundwork for the creation of the State of Israel by paving the way for the British Mandate.

It is fitting that the centennial of these two events will be marked in the space of just a few days. It is also fitting that today Israel’s relations with Australia and Britain have never been better.

In February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Australia, making it the first time a serving Israeli prime minister paid an official visit. And despite controversy that has destabilized his government coalition, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is in Israel to take part in the festivities surrounding the commemoration of the Battle of Beersheba. It is the first visit to Israel by an Australian prime minister since John Howard’s in 2000.

Meanwhile, Britain’s government has expressed its unabashed pride in the Balfour Declaration. “I am proud of Britain’s part in creating Israel,” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote in the Telegraph newspaper on Sunday, adding that the document was “indispensable to the creation of a great nation.”

Thursday, just two days after the anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – a 67-word letter from Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour supporting the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine that had the backing of the US, France, Italy and the Vatican.

Both the Battle of Beersheba and the Balfour Declaration were crucial for the creation of the State of Israel.

The charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba was a major strategic victory in the First World War. The battle, which took place on October 31, 1917, forced the Turkish army to retreat and opened the way for the fall of Jerusalem. After a fierce day of fighting, Australian Gen. Harry Chauvel took a gamble: he ordered the Fourth Australian Light Horse to charge across open ground to capture the Turkish trenches at Beersheba. Chauvel’s gamble paid off.

The military investment of the Australians together with the British and New Zealand in defeating Ottoman forces in Palestine was instrumental in ensuring the creation of a British Mandate over Palestine at the end of the First World War.

The reasoning was simple: The British and the Anzacs did all of the fighting and dying to liberate Palestine from the Turks. Why should Britain share it with the French and international forces, as the original version of the Sykes-Picot Agreement had originally stipulated? If the Battle of Beersheba was pivotal from a military standpoint, the Balfour Declaration provided the vision and diplomatic backing for the creation of a Jewish state in the historical homeland of the Jews.

Taken together, the Battle of Beersheba and the Balfour Declaration set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel.

The fact that Britain and Australia were so instrumental in bringing about the world’s only Jewish state, and to this day remain proud of their role, continues to shape Israel’s relations with these two countries.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has praised Israel as “a remarkable country” and “a beacon of tolerance.” Turnbull, meanwhile, referred to the Jewish state as a “miraculous nation” and has rejected UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which in December harshly criticized Israel’s settlements. Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has stated that Israel’s building of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria is not illegal according to international law.

In coming days, as leaders from Israel, Australia and Britain commemorate the Battle of Beersheba and the Balfour Declaration, they will not just be celebrating events that took place a century ago; they will also be reaffirming the bonds that tie these countries together to this day.

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