This week, Conservative MP Caroline Ansell led a landmark Westminster Hall debate on the ‘Centenary of the Balfour Declaration’, with numerous Conservative, Labour, and DUP MPs voicing their support of Israel. She said that the debate was “particularly fitting” given that “just a few days ago, on Tuesday 2 November, we marked the beginning of a year of events leading to the centenary of the Balfour declaration—one of the most defining moments in the UK’s shared history with Israel”.
In her speech, the Member of Parliament for Eastbourne explained that the Balfour Declaration, a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild in 1917, gave the official approval of the British Government to the Zionist movement’s aspiration for Jewish self-determination, paving the way for the establishment of the State of Israel.
She said that this “landmark letter, comprised of just three paragraphs, has been the subject of intense historical debate right up to, and I am sure including, today”.
Ms Ansell said in her opening remarks: “I am proud that our country supported the establishment of that national home, and I am also proud of the strength of the UK-Israeli relationship. Our partnership in trade, technology, medicine and academia, and our shared values, have flourished in the 68 years of Israel’s young life”.
Conservative MPs to contribute in the debate included: John Howell OBE MP, Rt. Hon. Theresa Villiers MP, Bob Blackman MP, Jonathan Djanogly MP, Mark Field MP, Dr Julian Lewis MP, Chris Green MP, Nigel Huddleston MP, Graham Evans MP, Michael Tomlinson MP, David Burrowes MP, and John Glen MP.
Hailing Israel’s democracy, Ms Ansell said: “A hundred years on and Israel today is a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy where Arabs, Druze and other minorities are guaranteed equal rights under law. Israel’s 1.7 million-strong Arab minority—around 20% of the local population—participates fully in Israel’s political system, and there are currently 17 Israeli Arab members in the 120-seat Knesset. Israeli Arabs serve as university professors, senior police and army officers and heads of hospital departments, and an Arab judge sits in the country’s Supreme Court”.
She continued: “Opponents of Zionism and the State of Israel have freedom of speech and are permitted to form political organisations within the country. In fact, Israel is the only country in the world whose Parliament has Members advocating the destruction of the state”.
Emphasising the UK and Israel’s strong bilateral ties, she asserted: “Britain and Israel have an enduring relationship shaped both by our historical ties and by our extensive co-operation and shared interests today. The Prime Minister recently described the relationship between our two countries as remaining ‘as strong as ever, based not only on bilateral trade, scientific research and security co-operation, but the values we share, like freedom, democracy and tolerance'”.
Speaking about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, Ms Ansell said: “Elsewhere in the middle east, minority communities live in starkly different circumstances. The Christian community, for example, is in serious and dramatic decline across much of the middle east because of persecution and oppression, while in Israel Christians enjoy full rights and freedoms. Indeed, Christians make up the largest religious community in Israel after Jews and Muslims, and the holiest sites in Christianity are protected by Israel”.
She said: “The value of bilateral trade in both directions over the past 10 years has increased by 60%, and in 2015 reached a record high of almost £6 billion”.
In an intervention, Conservative MP Mark Field, said: “I and many of our colleagues present here today acknowledge the importance—hopefully, the globally acknowledged importance—of the recognition of an Israeli homeland”.
He added: “Although I accept that there is still work to do to ensure that every aspect of the Balfour declaration is put in place, and we will hopefully play a part in that work in the decades to come, it is equally important to recognise that Israel has been a success story and its right to exist should be recognised globally”.
In another intervention, he asked: “Does she recognise that as well as the trade to which she refers, a huge amount of incredibly important co-operation on security and intelligence is happening between our two countries to make the Middle East and, hopefully, the world a safer place in the years to come?”
Conservative MP for New Forest, Dr Julian Lewis, also contributed with an intervention, stating: “Would we not have a two-state solution today if the armies of five Arab states had not invaded the newly independent declared state of Israel in 1948? It is really from that decision that the Palestinians lost their allocated share and their homeland”.
MP for Bolton West, Chris Green intervened, asking: “Does Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020 indicate, post-Brexit, that the European Union will still be open not only to Israel, but to Britain in the really important area of scientific research?”
Ms Ansell hailed Israel’s innovation, stating: “Israel has defied the challenges posed by an arid climate, a small population and security threats to make significant contributions to the advancement of the world. Israeli inventions have transformed the way we live our lives. The algorithm for sending emails, mobile phone technology, technology for anti-virus software, instant messaging and the USB flash drive were all developed in Israel. It is little surprise that so many multinational tech giants have established R&D facilities in Israel. Apple, Windows, Intel, HP, Google and many more all have a presence in a country that is the size of Wales”.
Highlighting that Israel’s contribution to the world should be celebrated, Ms Ansell said: “From helping refugees in Lesbos to fighting Ebola in west Africa, Israeli aid teams are a common and welcome sight for countries in their time of need. On my visit to Israel last year, I had the great pleasure of visiting Save a Child’s Heart, which is an extraordinary project that provides life-saving surgery for children with congenital heart defects. The lives of children throughout the developing world have been saved by Israeli doctors. There is much to recognise, value and celebrate”.
She explained that during to her visit to Israel in September 2015 with CFI, she had the opportunity to see the first ever planned Palestinian city of Rawabi, which “is a really positive vision for what the future could look like”.
Underlining how important the peace process is, Ms Ansell said: “The region could look very different today, with two prosperous states—one Arab, one Jewish—working together and more faithfully reflecting the Balfour aspiration that the civil and religious rights of all be safeguarded”.
On Israel’s history of land for peace, including the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Ms Ansell said: “Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 in an effort to bring more momentum to the peace process. Gifted with a highly educated population and a very beautiful Mediterranean coastline, it has been said that Gaza had the potential to be the Singapore of the East, but rather than being able to seize that opportunity, the Islamist terror group, Hamas, has committed Gazan civilians to ongoing rounds of violence”.
Conservative MP for Salisbury, John Glen, gave an intervention on Palestinian actions following the unilateral disengagement: “When I asked a Palestinian official why several thousand greenhouses had been destroyed during that period, I received the reply, ‘We were very stupid to do so’. That great opportunity was squandered. Does my hon. Friend agree that that was surprising?”
Nigel Huddleston MP intervened, to ask: “Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very difficult to have sensible negotiations on a two-state solution if the other side does not turn up or, indeed, recognise the existence of the other side?”
CFI’s Vice-Chairman, John Howell OBE MP said in an intervention: “Does my hon. Friend accept that the Palestinian people have been badly let down by their leadership? When I spoke to the Palestine Liberation Organization about duplicating Rawabi, it told me that it did not want anything to do with the project because it involved the private sector. That is a disgraceful approach to a very significant project in the region”.
Former Northern Ireland Secretary, Rt. Hon. Theresa Villiers MP gave a speech in the debate, underlining that the Balfour Declaration “was the first official statement of recognition by a major foreign power of the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, free and safe from persecution and exile”.
Mrs Villiers said that “since its rebirth in 1948, Israel has sadly been attacked many times and has repeatedly faced existential threats. Despite those threats, Israel is a liberal, pluralist democracy that is committed to working for a peaceful settlement with all its neighbours”.
She asserted that the “centenary is also an opportunity to celebrate the bilateral relationship between the UK and Israel. Since its creation, the state of Israel has had an enduring partnership with our country that covers many areas, including trade, technology, science, medicine and academic research. Trade between our two countries is now at record highs”.
CFI Officer, Bob Blackman MP, gave a speech stating that “we should celebrate the Balfour declaration, but the one element that was not put in it was the borders of the State of Israel… It took three years for the Balfour Declaration to be accepted worldwide, but accepted it was. Israel has since had to endure the second world war; the Holocaust; the 1948 War of Independence, when it was attacked by Arab states that sought to wipe Israel off the face of the planet on its inception; a war in ’67, when it was invaded again; and a war in ’71, when it was invaded. Yet Israel continues to exist”.
He said: “Israel is the only country in the world in which someone can go to one side of it, see the other and know that they are surrounded by neighbours that want to destroy the state in its entirety”.
Graham Evans MP, said in an intervention: “It is worth reminding the House that in 1922 the League of Nations overwhelmingly ratified the Balfour agreement—it was unanimous”.
Michael Tomlinson MP intervened during Jim Shannon MP’s speech to state: “The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the motion is not anti-Palestinian; it is quite the opposite. Does he agree that the centenary is an opportunity to encourage both sides to get together and look towards a formal peace process?”
Jonathan Djanogly gave a speech detailing the historical context of the Balfour Declaration, stating that Theodor Herzl’s dream for Jewish self-determination “empowered Jews as human beings; it permitted them to be proud to stand up for their rights with a united destiny, based on shared religious and cultural values, not least the rebirth of the spoken Hebrew language”.
He said: “It was that Zionist movement that increasingly persuaded world leaders to understand that Jewish homelessness must come to an end and that the solution was down to the international community and world leaders, working together with the Jewish people”.
CFI Officer and MP for Enfield and Southgate David Burrowes said: “Is it not important to offer practical support to projects for peaceful coexistence, such as Save a Child’s Heart, the Peres Centre for Peace and Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow? Those organisations are showing the lead in terms of the spirit of Balfour and the peaceful coexistence we all want between Palestinians and Israelis”.
Minister for Middle East, Tobias Ellwood MP gave a speech at the end of the debate which addressed the questions by previous speakers. He said: “It is an honour to be able to respond to a debate on the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which is the letter written on 2 November 1917 by the then Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community”.
Mr Ellwood said that the UK “would not apologise” for the Balfour Declaration, despite calls from the Palestinian Authority to do so.
He underlined that “We continue to support the principle of a Jewish homeland and the modern state of Israel, just as we support the critical objective of a Palestinian homeland”.
Addressing the current status of the peace process, the Middle East Minister said: “We are not seeing the leadership on the Palestinian side that would invoke the necessary measures of support to bring people to the table”.
The Minister referred to Israel’s peace deals with Egypt and Jordan, which he said “proves what can happen when sides come together, conflict stops, war is put aside and strong leadership comes together”.
“The relationship between Israel, Egypt and Jordan is to be commended. It shows that deals can be struck regardless of what has happened in the past”, Mr Ellwood said.
Labour MPs to speak in the debate included John Spellar, Ivan Lewis, and Luciana Berger.
DUP MPs to speak included Gregory Campbell, David Simpson, Jim Shannon, and Nigel Dodds.
The debate was chaired by Christopher Chope MP.
Click here to read the full transcript of the debate.