Hugo Swire's Speech on the Balfour Declaration

It is a great honour to join you for this special commemoration service so close to the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. We come to church to reflect and pray for peace among nations, for forgiveness and reconciliation and for an end to human suffering. It is therefore perfectly fitting that, here, we reflect on the troubled past between Palestine and Israel. The issue, being so intricate and wrought with emotion, often presents itself as too complicated to comprehend and we here in Britain all to often forget, or were never taught, its origins and how a situation developed as tragic as the one we see today.

The truth is it was never meant to be like this. It is often forgotten, partly as it occupies so little space in our national curriculum, that Israel was not merely a reaction to the brutalities of the Holocaust. Zionists had argued for centuries for the Jews to return to the Holy Land on biblical grounds. But the idea was crystallised 100 years ago. In November 1917 Arthur Balfour, at the time Foreign Secretary, writing in the Foreign Office basement, penned an extraordinary single side of paper to Lord Rothschild. In his note there was no indication that this would be the State called Israel, which we know today, but instead a right for Jews to return to the Holy Land. Balfour’s note is known to history as the Balfour Declaration. 100 years on, and a century of disagreement and division later, I want us to use the Balfour commemorations to cast a light on the reality Britain has helped to create and make firm steps to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

Firstly, let me emphasise something crucial. The Balfour Declaration comprised not one, but two, distinct elements. It firstly committed Britain to creating a home for the Jews in the Holy land. But its second element also required the protection of the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

The ramifications of both the Balfour Declaration and its incomplete realisation, and the resulting situation of a stateless Palestinian people, are still felt today.


In today’s world of 24 hour news headlines driven by internet ‘hit’ rates we must remind ourselves that in order to understand the current situation in Palestine we need to understand the chronology of events and transport ourselves back to the dark days of the first world war.

The Middle East was then a single imperial unit - the Ottoman Empire. There was not a single sovereign Arab nation like today - no Saudi Arabia, no Jordan, no Iraq, no Syria etc. And The Ottamans were allied with Germany against Britain. The Middle East was, however, of great strategic importance for Britain due to its wealth of oil and its control of the Suez Canal - a vital part of Britain’s trade and transport links with India. Britain removed this strategic advantage from the Turks. In order to do so it inadvertently made agreements and promises that later stoked the fires of distrust and discontent when, after the war, it was called on to honour them.

The British engaged Arabs to provoke resistance against the Ottoman Turks. In October 1915 Sir Henry McMahon agreed with Sherif Hussein of Mecca that if the Arabs rebelled, then after the war they could have an autonomous Arab state. Believing that they were fighting for liberty and freedom, Hussein duly agreed.

In 1917 General Allenby commanded British troops into Palestine. By December they had captured Jerusalem. They were not to leave for 30 years.

Sir Henry’s agreement of 1915 is the first of three agreements now known collectively as the ‘contradictory promises’. The second of these was the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which carved up large swathes of the Middle East between Britain and France. Under Sykes-Picot Palestine was to be kept under international control.

The third ‘contradictory promise’ was the the Balfour Declaration itself. To my mind there are two reasons why The Declaration happened. Firstly, by the end of the 19th Century the Zionist movement had committed to reasserting Jewish independence in the historical Jewish homeland. Like many other figures in the British establishment, Balfour and Lloyd-George were Christian Zionists and were sympathetic to the Zionist lobby. Secondly, the Cabinet were keen to win Jewish support around the world at such a time of international instability and the seeming failure of the European-dominated world order that had led to devastating war being fought at the time in Northern France.

The three ‘contradictory promises’ were made even harder to square by the Anglo-French declaration in November 1918 that former Ottoman subjects would have the right to self-determination. Wherever your own sympathies lie; with Britain, the Jews or Arabs, it is quite clear that by 1918 the stage was set for a disagreement. Britain had promised the creation of an autonomous Arab state, but had also promised land currently occupied by Arabs to Jews while at the same time promising self-determination to those same Arabs as former Ottoman subjects.

Following the end of the Great War the Palestine situation developed swiftly. The San Remo Conference of 1920 incorporated the Balfour Declaration into international law; The League of Nations gave Britain the Palestinian Mandate and the responsibility for developing a Jewish homeland there but also to prepare Palestinians for eventual self-government - the latter being something it neglected to do over the following decades. Britain was given what was then termed the “sacred trust” of caring for both the Jews and Arabs under its control. This “sacred trust” remained until Britain referred responsibility for Palestine to the League’s successor, the UN, in 1948.

Following World War One, Britain honoured in part Sir Henry McMahon’s agreement with Sherif Hussein to create an Arab State by creating both the Emirate of Transjordan and Kingdom of Iraq and installing two of Hussein’s sons as their leaders.  Palestine, however, was excluded, and by the 1920s and 1930s with Jewish and Arab immigration swelling the population and both believing that they had been promised Palestine there began  intermittent protests and violent skirmishes between the two sides.

During this period, Jewish migrants begun developing the institutions of government, including creating a legislature, necessary for the administration of a modern state and simultaneously Jewish investment reshaped Palestine’s economy. Such developments increased the Arab’s sense of isolation. Increasingly  in order to gain political representation and influence it in effect meant Arabs accepting the premise of Balfour and abandoning their claim to Palestinian land. Few were keen to do so.

By the 1930s, with anti-semitism on the rise in Europe, Jews increasingly re-settled in Palestine and as more land passed into Jewish hands the Arab sense of increasing dispossession grew. The feeling of being both geographically suppressed and concentrated by Jewish settlements exists to this day for Palestine’s Arabs.

With increasing discontent rising in Palestine, the British were faced with a dilemma they never resolved: how to placate one community without provoking anger in the other.

By 1939 World War once again dictated British policy on Palestine. As today, the issue of the Arab Palestinians risked British relations with the Arab world. In order to mitigate against the risk of the Arab world siding with the Axis, the British decided to strengthen the Arab hand in Palestine. A 1939 white paper set out a proposal which proposed to control Jewish immigration into Palestine. Britain ruthlessly stuck to this throughout the war despite the human cost as even Jews escaping anti-semitism were deported back to Europe - even to Nazi Germany. Predictably this undermined British relations with Palestine’s Jews and provoked a prolonged militant campaign against British forces in Palestine.

Suffering from increasing Jewish militancy and crippled by post-war austerity, Britain handed control of Palestine to the UN and announced its mandate would end in May 1948.

On the 14th May 1948 Israel declared independence and was instantly recognised by the US. The State of Israel had been officially born. None of the Arab states recognised Israel and five Arab armies invaded western Palestine in 1948 and by the 1949 armistice, Palestine was split in four. In addition to Jordan, Israel controlled the Galilee, a narrow central coastal plain, and the Negev desert. Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. Jordan occupied Judaea and Samaria. The 1949 borders caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, reconfigured Palestine’s demographics, and for this reason the day of Israeli independence is known to Palestinians as Nakba - ‘The Catastrophe’.

That demographic shift continued into the early 1950s. The UN defined a new nation of stateless “Palestine refugees” comprised of all displaced non-Jews who had lived in western Palestine and established a permanent agency, UNRWA, whose sole responsibility was catering to the members of this newborn stateless nation.

70 years and several Arab-Israeli conflicts later, Gaza, Judaea and Samaria remain disputed territories. Israel gained control over them in 1967, ceded partial control to a Palestinian Authority created under the Oslo Accords of 1993, and withdrew entirely from Gaza in 2005.

The now called Occupied Palestinian Territories, the land which could comprise a Sovereign Palestine, today consists of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.


Current situation

I hope that such an overview explains the origins of so many of the issues familiar to us today; the question over Jewish settlements, the disputed borders and what both the Jewish and Arab claims are to the same land. I want to jump ahead to the situation today.

No one could look at Palestine today, a place I have visited twice over the years and am shortly to visit again in my capacity as Chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, and not be truly moved by the scenes of utter desperation and crisis particularly in Gaza.  53% of Gazans are considered to be living in poverty, with the population constantly at risk of a major health crisis. The international community must do whatever it can to alleviate this suffering and that does mean using our close relationship with Israel to do more.

In addition, we have seen over recent months an escalation of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces - these were primarily focused along the Gaza-Israel border - and were held in the run up to the 70th annual commemoration of the Nakba. Around 130 Palestinians were killed by Israel’s security forces.

The increasing number of Jewish settlements remain a highly controversial issue but have been exacerbated by current Israeli Government policies of settlement expansion and demolitions of Palestinian homes - including this week’s demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, a bedouin village in the West Bank. There are now at least 600,000 Israeli settlers in over 143 localities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They are frequently the target for terrorist activity.

And more obviously, the humanitarian situation facing many Palestinians and especially those in Gaza, should be of great concern to us all gathered in church today - whether that be the treatment and detention of children under Israel’s law or the lack of schools and adequate hospitals.

What can Britain do to help?

The UK is taking and should continue to take steps to help the Palestinian humanitarian situation. Of course the UK is not alone in this, but at a time where cuts to US funding for Palestinian refugees will only increase the plight and further overstretch scarce medical resources, UK commitments to invest an additional £1.5million in medicine and surgical equipment are very welcome. The total British aid package to Palestine will total £125 million by 2021. This includes ongoing commitments to provide access to clean water and sanitation facilities to prevent the spread of deadly disease. And a recent commitment to provide £20 million for schools.

Beyond humanitarian assistance, Britain must place diplomatic pressure on Israel to reverse policies of settlement expansion and ease access controls to Gaza. For instance by allowing the Kerem Shalom - the only goods crossing to Gaza - to operate at full capacity would reduce constraints on the economic development of Gaza and expedite the delivery of humanitarian relief.

Applying pressure to allow for Palestinian economic development would not be, and should not be seen, to be a cooling of the British relationship with Israel or any endorsement of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS). But, Britain should use it’s relationship with Israel, as well as its voice on international bodies, to enforce the implementation of existing international and human rights law . This includes complying with the 4th Geneva Convention - of which both Palestine and Israel are signatories - which says ‘the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territory it occupies’. Yet, the Israeli settler programme does precisely this.


Finally, how do we resolve the conflict and what role can Britain play?

British policy is based on one foundation: that it is unacceptable for anyone to deny the legitimacy of the connection of either the Jewish or Palestinian peoples to the land. That being so, successive UK governments have been committed to the goal of a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, with secure and recognised borders and with Jerusalem as a shared capital of both States - otherwise known as the two-state solution.

That is a political goal, and it is a long-term aim. We must recognise that Britain is in a relationship of influence and not power as in 1917 or 1948. If Britain is committed to the two-state solution it must use its influence to defend that aim on the international stage.

Defending the two-state solution is firmly in Britain’s interests. I simply cannot see an argument to say that anything other than a strong relationship with Israel, and a strong relationship with a sovereign Palestine is in Britain’s best interest. Israel is a vital strategic ally in the region, and in a post-Brexit world, will play an increasingly important role in ‘Global Britain’ including trade, national security and intelligence and business. Stronger relations with Palestine would, I argue, improve our relations with the rest of the wider Arab world. Beyond that it matters for us at home, given the current domestic threat of militant Islamic terrorism, stronger relations, on an equal footing with both an Islamic Palestine and a Jewish Israel may go some way in addressing feelings of Muslim alienation in Britain.

In 2011 William Hague, the then Foreign Secretary, said that “the UK reserves the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a time of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace”. British recognition of the Palestinian state is, in my opinion, overdue and is needed now. In November 2017 I joined parliamentary colleagues across the house in signing the Balfour Centenary Declaration which states that “Israel’s 50 year military occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem prevents the Palestinian people from exercising their own equal and inalienable right to self-determination, a right endorsed by the UN, the EU and our Government.” (A right, as I said earlier, which can be traced back to the 1919 self-determination proclamation). Among other things we collectively called on the Government to  immediately recognise the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel on the basis of the pre-June 1967 borders (i.e. the borders agreed in 1949 and not territories occupied by Israel since 1967) and uphold the Geneva Convention which Britain co-wrote and ratified after  World War ll. 

Some have said that UK recognition would be giving something away for nothing. I quite simply do not agree. It does not mean that the Palestinian leadership will no longer need to end the occupation through negotiation. In fact it will better equate the two parties ahead of negotiations. It would also strengthen the hand of Palestinian moderates and give leverage for Britain to lobby the Palestinian Authority to oppose violence and place Britain in a good place to fairly mediate relations between Israel and Palestine.

100 years after it was written, it is up in part to Britain specifically to fully implement the Balfour Declaration. Many commentators have stated that we cannot simply leave it to Palestine and Israel to resolve themselves. In the words of former British Consul to Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean, “pitching the strong against the weak, simply makes the weak, weaker”. Britain is one of two European countries to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has unique historical, economic and cultural ties across the Middle East Region. Britain is a powerful ‘influencer’ in the region and regardless of Brexit, working for peace, with European colleagues not just for Israel and Palestine but across the Middle East will remain a shared priority for us. It is perfectly clear to me that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict will do more than alleviate human suffering but will affect the entire MENA region.  It will drastically alter the region’s traditional strategic alliances. Israel will be able to have true peace with the rest of the Arab world. Common interests in countering Iran’s destabilizing activities, in fighting extremists, as well as diversifying their economies, have created real possibilities for something different if both Palestine and Israel take advantage of the opportunities for peace. Indeed I have often thought that the real question is why have none of Israel’s Arab neighbours ever seen Israel as a viable ally until recently - for instance both Saudi Arabia and Israel have been US allies for decades, have few conflicting strategic interests, and no territorial claims against each other - yet because of ‘the Palestine question’ they have never found ground for collaboration.

The two-state solution is the only answer remaining true to the spirit and intention of the Balfour Declaration and is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace and security with its neighbors and the only way to ensure a future of freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people. 100 years on from Balfour and 100 years of failing to implement a lasting peace, let’s stop repeating what we have done until now and make Balfour’s second century, and it’s true legacy, one of partnership, peace, and prosperity for both Israel and Palestine.