Consistency has never been Boris Johnson’s strongpoint.
When Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Foreign Office earlier this year, Johnson beamed as he pointed to the ‘desk where the Balfour Declaration was composed’. Johnson has both celebrated that November 1917 document as a ‘great thing’ and described it as ‘tragicomically incoherent’ and ‘bizarre’.
The Balfour Declaration is indeed bizarre. Britain had no legal or moral standing to dictate Palestine’s future in November 1917; it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. That did not stop Arthur James Balfour, then foreign secretary, from issuing his pledge to facilitate the development of a ‘Jewish national home’ - code for a Jewish state - in Palestine. Lip-service was paid to the ‘civil and religious rights’ of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants but the idea that they could constitute a nation was not entertained. Through that deception, Britain threw its weight behind a colonisation project that is still continuing a century later. With the stroke of Balfour’s pen, Palestinians were condemned to upheaval and oppression.
That much became clear after Britain was tasked with administering Palestine under a League of Nations mandate in 1920. Over the next five years, the British authorities issued around 150 ordinances, many of which facilitated the dispossession of and discrimination against Palestinians.
As well as favouring Jews in access to land and employment, the British enabled the so-called Jewish Agency - a body representing settlers in Palestine - to behave as a de facto government. As part of their efforts to quell Palestinian dissent, the British trained and recruited Jewish forces. Replicating Britain’s policies in other lands that it controlled, one section of the population was armed so that another could be subjugated.
That does not mean that Britain relied on proxies; its own forces - including some illustrious commanders - were guilty of immense brutality. Bernard Montgomery, a military chief later credited with a key battle victory in the Second World War, advocated a ‘shoot to kill’ policy against all those who took part in or assisted a Palestinian revolt in the 1930s. Jaffa’s Old City was largely demolished in that period; men from a number of villages were rounded up en masse; hospitals were attacked and torture chambers established. Many suspected rebels were interned without trial in a concentration camp - the precise term used by British representatives.
Britain bears much of the responsibility for the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’), the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Around 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted then by Zionist militia who had been mentored by the British Army. The expulsions from Haifa took place under British supervision.
The relationship between Britain and the Zionist movement has been occasionally fractious. Two armed Zionist groups even waged a campaign of guerilla warfare against the British in the 1940s. The relationship has nonetheless endured, albeit in an often grubby manner. Britain has tried at times to manipulate Israel - the state it sired - in order to advance its own agenda. That was certainly the case in 1956 when Britain and France persuaded Israel to attack Egypt over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which lay on a key shipping route between Europe and India. Israel again declared war against Egypt in 1967. Though Israel was now acting on its own initiative, it received substantial supplies of arms from Britain. The result was the seizure of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights - territories that remain under Israeli occupation 50 years later.
During the second half of the twentieth century, the British were forced to accept that they had been replaced by the United States as the world’s leading imperial bully. Henry Kissinger was among the key strategists in advancing American power. His approach towards the Middle East involved simultaneously courting Arab dictators and Israel. Britain connived in such efforts, which continued long after Kissinger ceased to play a direct US government role.
Tony Blair, for example, doubled up as a guarantor of arms contracts with Saudi Arabia and as a leading apologist for Israel. By applauding Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon - a criminal endeavour that involved spraying vast tracts of land with cluster bombs - Blair finally lost the confidence of his Labour Party colleagues. Yet that did not prevent him from bagging an international job focused on the Middle East ‘peace process’ within hours of saying farewell to Downing Street. That post ended without any tangible results, according to many pundits, yet it did allow Blair strengthen his connections with the Israel lobby. He was among the star attractions at the latest annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful pressure groups in Washington.
The Conservative-led governments of the past seven years have tried to hug Israel even tighter again. While serving as foreign secretary, Philip Hammond enthusiastically backed Israel’s 2014 offensive against Gaza. Not only was the British government unperturbed by how entire families were wiped out by the Israeli military, it has ordered significant quantities of Israeli arms tested out on Palestinian civilians. Securing a free trade deal with Israel, meanwhile, has been identified as a priority for Britain now that its membership of the European Union is coming to an end.
Following the recent general election, the newly retired MP Eric Pickles wondered how Labour candidates sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle could prove attractive to voters. Pickles’ remarks smacked of desperation. Foreign policy has been regarded as an elite issue by successive British governments; they have treated the views of ordinary people with contempt. The contempt may not be sustainable, especially if it is rejected at the ballot box. And while Britain’s support for Zionism remains solid after a century, the toxic alliance could ultimately collapse.
• First published by Left Book Club, 23 June 2017.