For all the undoubted statesmanship implicit in Arthur Balfour’s Declaration of November 1917, promising “a National Home for the Jewish People,” Britain has never been much more than a fair-weather friend to Jewish national aspirations.
The Declaration itself was at least in part conceived to keep Eastern European and Russian Jews supporting the Great War after the Bolshevik Revolution, and Chaim Weizmann’s preferred wording of “a Jewish State” was turned down by the British Foreign Office. As David Ben-Gurion wrote at the time: “Britain has made a magnificent gesture . But only the Hebrew people can transform this right into tangible fact: only they, with body and soul, with their strength and capital, must build their National Home and bring about their national redemption.”
Sure enough, at the Versailles Conference and its ancillary meetings up to 1922, although Britain was given the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, the Jewish National Home was not established. During the Mandate period there was an observable tension between the Colonial Office, which was responsible for administering Palestine and wanted to do so within the terms of the (admittedly self-contradictory) Balfour Declaration, and the Foreign Office, which feared that allowing the de facto creation of a Jewish state would alienate Arabs.
In 1937 the Peel Commission recommended ending the Mandate and partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, with population transfers of 225,000 Arabs from Galilee, an outcome Ben-Gurion said “could give us something which we have never had, even when we stood on our own during the days of the First and Second Temples.” Nonetheless, both the Arabs and the 20th Zionist Congress rejected Peel’s recommendations, to the palpable relief of the Foreign Office, which concentrated its own opposition to it on the basis of its supposed impracticality.
Instead there was the notorious 1939 White Paper, which severely limited Jewish immigration into Palestine at precisely the period of the Jews’ greatest need, during the Final Solution. A total upper limit of 75,000 Jewish immigrants was set for the fateful years 1940-44, a figure also intended to cover refugee emergencies.
The White Paper was published on November 9, 1938 – the very same day of the Kristallnacht atrocities in Germany – and was approved by Parliament in May 1939, a full two months after Hitler’s occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia.
The Manchester Guardian described it as “a death sentence on tens of thousands of Central European Jews,” which in sheer numerical terms was probably an underestimation. Although the Labor Party Conference voted to repeal the White Paper in 1945, Labor Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin – a bitter enemy of Israel – persisted in it, and it was not to be repealed until the day after the State of Israel was proclaimed.
In late April 1948, Bevin ordered that Arab positions in Jaffa needed to be protected from the Jews “at all costs,” and when Israeli independence came the next month, the departing British sometimes handed over vital military and strategic strong points to the five invading Arab armies, the most efficient of which, Transjordan’s Arab Legion, was actually commanded by a Briton, Sir John Glubb.
There was still in the ensuing years massive resentment over the War of Independence; Israel was considered at best a headache by the Foreign Office. Worst of all, unlike its neighbors, Israel had no oil. Nor did the Suez Crisis much help matters seven years later: the way Israel fitted in neatly with British plans to crush Nasser ought to have endeared it to the Foreign Office, but of course it didn’t.
When in May 1967 Nasser announced the blockading of the Straits of Tiran, closing Israel’s commercial lifeline to the east, the guarantors of this international waterway – including Britain – failed to act quickly or decisively, and though Prime Minister Harold Wilson was proud of his pro-Israel sentiments, his foreign secretary George Brown and the Foreign Office certainly did not reciprocate them.
Britain compounded its generally lukewarm attitude by sponsoring Resolution 242 at the end of the Six-Day War, which called on Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied” in a resolution that was so badly worded by the Foreign Office that Arabs and Israelis have been arguing over its proper meaning ever since.
The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 saw even worse bias by the Foreign Office in favor of the Arabs and against the Jews. Announcing an arms embargo “equally” between the belligerents, the Heath Government effectively stopped Israel from buying spare parts for the IDF’s Centurion tanks, while allowing them to be bought by Jordan, the only other country affected, because it was not (officially, at least) a belligerent.
Egyptian helicopter pilots continued to be trained in Britain, with the foreign secretary, Sir Alec Douglas Home, lamely telling the Israeli ambassador it was better for the pilots to be training in Britain than fighting at the front. Heath even refused to allow American cargo planes taking supplies to Israel to land and refuel at British bases on Cyprus.
In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher seemed to offer a new warmth to Anglo-Israeli relations. She was the most philo-Semitic prime minister since Churchill, yet even she was stymied by the Foreign Office, especially over intelligence cooperation with the Mossad.
It’s true that her successor, John Major, sent a special SAS unit to seek and destroy Iraqi Scud missile batteries targeting Israel during the First Gulf War, but that was largely to remove the danger of Israel retaliating and thereby perhaps destroying the Arab coalition against Saddam.
After 9/11 Tony Blair seemed to appreciate how Israel was on the very front line in the War against Terror, and he thus bravely refused to condemn Israel’s acts of self-defense in Lebanon, but since then Britain’s contribution to the EU’s strand of negotiating over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been, frankly, pathetic.
One area of policy over which the Foreign Office has traditionally held great sway is that of royal visits. It is therefore no coincidence that though the queen has made over 250 official overseas visits to 129 different countries during her reign, neither she nor any other member of the British royal family has ever been to Israel on an official visit.
Even though the mother of the queen’s husband Prince Philip, Princess Alice of Greece, who was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” for sheltering a Jewish family in her Athens home during the Holocaust, was buried on the Mount of Olives, Prince Philip was not allowed by the Foreign Office to visit her grave until 1994, and then only on a private visit.
“Official visits are organized and taken on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth office,” a press officer for the royal family explained when Prince Edward recently visited Israel privately – and a spokesman for the Foreign Office replied that “Israel is not unique” in not having received an official royal visit, because “Many countries have not had an official visit.” But the Foreign Office has somehow managed to find the time over the years to send the queen on state visits to Libya, Iran, Sudan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey. So it can’t have been that she wasn’t in the area.
Perhaps Her Majesty hasn’t been on the throne long enough, at 57 years, for the Foreign Office to get around to allowing her to visit one of the only democracies in the Middle East. At least she could be certain of a warm welcome in Israel, unlike in Morocco where she was kept waiting by the king for three hours in 90-degree heat, or at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda the time before last, where they hadn’t even finished building her hotel.
The true reason of course, is that the Foreign Office has a ban on official royal visits to Israel, which is even more powerful for its being unwritten and unacknowledged. As an act of delegitimization of Israel, this effective boycott is quite as serious as other similar acts, such as the academic boycott, and is the direct fault of Foreign Office Arabists. Which brings us to Mr. Oliver Miles.
One of the reasons I’m proud to be a historian is that there are scholars of the integrity and erudition of Prof. Sir Martin Gilbert and Prof. Sir Lawrence Freedman who also write history. If people as intelligent, wise and incorruptible as they choose to be historians, then it must be an honorable profession. Let me quote, therefore, word-for-word, what Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya and Greece, wrote in The Independent newspaper commenting on the composition of the present Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War:
“Both Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish, and Gilbert at least has a record of active support for Zionism. Such facts are not usually mentioned in the mainstream British and American media . All five members have outstanding reputations and records, but it is a pity that, if and when the inquiry is accused of a whitewash, such handy ammunition will be available. Membership should not only be balanced; it should be seen to be balanced.”
If that’s the way that Foreign Office Arabists are prepared to express themselves in public, can you imagine the way they refer to such people as Professors Gilbert and Freedman in private? For the balance that Miles is talking about here is clearly a racial balance – that only a certain quota of Jews should have been allowed on to the Inquiry.
There’s a reason, of course, why “Such facts are not usually mentioned in the mainstream media,” and that is because it is a disgraceful and disgusting concept even to notice the racial background of such distinguished public servants – one that wouldn’t have even occurred to most people had not Miles made such a point of it.
Because there are 22 ambassadors to Arab countries, and only one to Israel, it is perhaps natural that the Foreign Office should tend to be more pro-Arab than pro-Israel. On occasion there are remarkably good British ambassadors to Israel.
Overall, however, such men are swimming against the tide of a Foreign Office assumption that Britain’s relations with Israel ought constantly to be subordinated to its relations with other Middle Eastern states, especially the oil-rich ones, however badly those states behave in terms of human rights abuses, the persecution of Christians, the oppression of women, medieval practices of punishment, and so on.
It seems to me there is an implicit racism going on here. Jews are expected to behave better, goes the Foreign Office thinking, because they are like us. Arabs must not be chastised because they are not. So in warfare we constantly expect Israel to behave far better than its neighbors and chastise it quite hypocritically when occasionally, under the exigencies of national struggle, it cannot.
The problem crosses political parties today, just as it always has. William Hague, the Conservative Party shadow foreign secretary, called for Israel to adopt a proportionate response in its struggle with Hizbullah in Lebanon – as though proportionate responses ever won any victories against fascists.
In the Second World War, the Luftwaffe killed 50,000 Britons in the Blitz, and the Allied response was to kill 600,000 Germans – twelve times the number and hardly a proportionate response, but one that contributed mightily to victory. Who are we, therefore, to lecture the Israelis on how proportionate their responses should be?
Very often in Britain, especially when faced with the overwhelmingly anti-Israel bias that is endemic in our liberal media and the BBC, we fail to ask ourselves what we would do placed in the same position.
The United Kingdom’s population of 63 million is nine times that of Israel. In July 2006, to take one example entirely at random, Hizbullah crossed the border of Lebanon into Israel and killed eight patrolmen and kidnapped two others, and that summer fired 4,000 Katyusha rockets into Israel which killed a further 43 civilians.
Now, if we multiply those numbers by nine to get the British equivalent, just imagine what we would do if a terrorist organization were to fire 36,000 rockets into Sussex and Kent, killing 387 British civilians, after killing 72 British servicemen in an ambush and capturing a further eighteen.
I put it to you that there is absolutely no lengths to which our government would not go to protect British subjects under those circumstances, and quite right too. So why should Israel be expected to behave any differently?
At a time when Barack Obama appears to be the least pro-Israel president since Eisenhower, the dangers facing Israel are obvious. For there is simply no way Obama will prevent Ahmadinejad, perhaps Jewry’s most viciously outspoken and dangerous foe since the death of Hitler, to acquire a nuclear bomb.
None of us can pretend to know what lies ahead for Israel, but if it decides preemptively to strike against such a threat – in the same way Nelson preemptively sank the Danish Fleet at Copenhagen and Churchill preemptively sank the Vichy Fleet at Oran – then it can expect nothing but condemnation from the British Foreign Office.
The Israelis should ignore such criticism because Britain has only ever really been at best a fair weather friend to Israel.
Though history does not repeat itself, its cadences do occasionally rhyme, and if the witness of history is testament to anything, it is testament to this:
In its hopes of averting the threat of a second Holocaust, only Israel can be relied upon to act decisively in the best interests of the Jews.
Andrew Roberts is a renowned historian and author (most recently of “Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945”) who appears regularly on British television and radio. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. This essay was adapted from his recent address to the annual dinner of Britain’s Anglo-Israel Association.