Skip to main content

Balfour Declaration

Volume 782: debated on Monday 3 April 2017


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to commemorate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

My Lords, on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, we will mark the centenary of Balfour with pride. The Prime Minister has extended a guest of Government invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to visit the UK on the centenary. We are proud of our role in the creation of Israel. However, we recognise that the declaration should have called for the protection of political rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination. This is why we support a two-state solution.

First, I am sure that the whole House wishes the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, a speedy recovery, and recognises the huge contribution she has made on Palestinian matters. I thank the Minister for her reply. She recognises, I think, that there was a conditionality on granting in the terms of the Balfour Declaration the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. That conditionality was very clear, as the declaration states,

“it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Does the Minister agree that successive British Governments, both under the British mandate and subsequently, have failed to deliver that declaration protection to the Palestinian people? Furthermore, should we not mark the centenary with a gracious apology from the British Government and Parliament for the suffering that that failure has caused and try to make amends—

We have waited a long time, my Lords—with a clear commitment to recognition of a viable independent Palestinian state?

First, my Lords, I send my good wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, and wish her a strong and full recovery. The Balfour Declaration was an historic statement and one for which the United Kingdom has no intention to apologise. We are focused on encouraging the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps which bring them closer to peace. That is the whole thrust of government policy which has underwritten the work of this Government, the coalition Government, and the Labour Government before that. We continue to carry that work forward. With regard to recognition, perhaps in the future, of Palestine as an independent state, bilateral recognition does not deliver reality. We will make sure that we recognise a Palestinian state when we judge that it is in the best interests of peace and a lasting negotiated solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authorities to do so.

My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks of the Minister about the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge. I also welcome the commitment again to the two-state solution, which the Opposition have supported historically. The most important thing we can achieve, 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, is to ensure that peace talks commence. Can the Minister tell us how she can put direct pressure on both parties to start talking to each other rather than firing rockets at each other?

My Lords, that point is extremely well made. I assure the noble Lord and the House that we are making our best efforts to encourage both sides to come to the table for discussions. When my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he made just those points. When I had discussions last week in New York with Nikki Haley, who is a member of the President’s Cabinet, I too made those points, and we agreed entirely that it is important that we all work together to get the interested parties to the table to talk, not fire weapons.

My Lords, at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday last week regarding Israel, Her Majesty’s Government expressed regret that neither terrorism nor incitement was a focus of that council’s meeting. Syria’s regime butchers and murders its people on a daily basis, but it is not Syria that is a permanent item on the council’s agenda. Since 2007, it has been only Israel—the one country in the Middle East that protects human rights for women and gays, among others. Therefore, I welcome the Minister’s statement that, if things do not change in the future, Her Majesty’s Government will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel in the Occupied Territories and Palestine. What steps have been taken to encourage our European partners to adopt the same principled and even-handed statements? I declare my interest.

My Lords, we are in active discussions with like-minded partners to support the council in addressing the fact that there appears to be a disproportionate focus on Israel in the council, which we believe hardens positions on both sides.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that there is grave concern about facts on the ground tending to suggest the impossibility of a two-state solution?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises a vital issue. Announcements such as the one made last Friday by the Israeli Government about building a new settlement in the West Bank—the first such government decision there for over 25 years—make one worried that it is becoming more difficult for negotiations that could lead to a two-state solution, and it is necessary to ensure that they do not proceed with such settlements.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the Balfour Declaration, which says that nothing should be done,

“which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”,

and I welcome that. However, with the tinderbox in the Middle East, is it not even more urgent than ever that the future of Israel and the Palestinians is taken forward, and does that not mean reversing rather than expanding the settlements?

My Lords, given the increasing vacuum from the United States and the concern expressed by Arab partners, is it now realised that Israel can become a strategic ally in the common cause of combating terrorism and Islamist extremism?

My Lords, I think it is incumbent on all those who believe in peace around the world to do exactly that, and I hope and expect that Israel would be part of that work.