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BBC Today’s disgraceful Balfour travesty

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UPDATE  An earlier version of this post contained some loose wording which has now been corrected. in particular, I said Nick Robinson had stated the Balfour Declaration had promised a homeland to the Arabs too. He did not state that.

Although I believe the Today programme allowed calumnies to go unchallenged, I am not accusing Nick Robinson of lying. Nor am I accusing him of being an Israel-basher or an antisemite. I have therefore removed certain phrases which did not clearly express what I intended to say and may have given the wrong impression. 

BBC radio’s flagship Today programme broadcast this morning (around 0720, then again at around 0735) a vicious historical travesty to mark today’s centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the letter from Britain’s Foreign Secretary in 1917 committing the government to work towards the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.

Presenter Nick Robinson revealed a degree of historical illiteracy matched only by the aggression he displayed towards Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely – who herself gave a master-class in catastrophically missing the point, and thus utterly failed to address the central calumny being hurled at Israel from the other side of the microphone.

Robinson suggested that this letter, which promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, also promised rights for the Palestine Arabs which were never fulfilled. It did no such thing. The relevant text of the letter was as follows:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country” (my emphasis).

The crucial point is in the passage I have highlighted. For the letter did not offer the Arabs political rights. Had it done so, this would have meant a state for them too. That was the inescapable consequence of granting them political rights. The declaration undertook rather to protect the “civil and religious” rights of existing non-Jewish communities.

That pledge has been fulfilled to the letter, since Israel’s Arab citizens and those from other non-Jewish communities have full civil and religious rights. The letter deliberately omitted any pledge to protect Arab political rights because it was only the Jews who had the right to a homeland in Palestine – and that was because it was only the Jews for whom this land had ever been their national kingdom. The Arabs were merely latter-day occupiers.

On the basis of this fundamental error, Robinson constructed a platform of aggression towards Israel. Questioning Lord Rothschild, a descendant of the grandee to whom Balfour had addressed his famous letter, Robinson asked whether the declaration wasn’t “deceptive” and insisted that the Arabs of Palestine had been dispossessed in an act described by some as “colonialism”. Lord Rothschild’s feeble reply, that there had been no deception because the Jews had taken over a largely uninhabited and dreary place, missed the point. He should have replied that there was no deception because Balfour’s letter had promised specific rights to the Arabs which had indeed been fulfilled, and no dispossession as they had never possessed the land or been promised political rights.

Questioning next Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, Robinson stated that the British had promised independence to the Arabs (by implication, the Palestine Arabs) in a letter to the Sharif of Mecca. The prince obligingly duly claimed that Britain had made two incompatible promises. Should the Balfour declaration therefore be celebrated, Robinson asked the prince, or should Britain be ashamed of it? The prince adroitly finessed this all-too loaded invitation to stick the knife into Israel by saying merely that “celebrate” was “rather a strong word”.

In fact, the letter to the Sharif of Mecca did not promise Palestine to the Arabs. It promised them independence – but in territory which did not in fact include Palestine.

And in any event, the British did carve out a state for the Arabs within Palestine when, in 1921, Winston Churchill hived off more than three quarters of Palestine – territory his government had promised for a Jewish homeland – to create Transjordan, now Jordan.

Jordan is therefore the Palestinian Arabs’ own state, and thus in effect represented the original “two-state solution” – a fact that Prince Hassan bin Talal for some reason chose not to mention.

The interview with Tzipi Hotovely was a car crash. In the face of Robinson’s unleashed aggression Hotovely simply didn’t have a clue. The encounter illustrated yet again that the Israelis have zero understanding of the big lie behind everything British Israel-bashers hurl at Israel – that its behaviour is fundamentally unconscionable because the Jews displaced the indigenous inhabitants and rightful inheritors of the land.

As a result, Hotovely missed the point every time and thus failed to counter Robinson’s allegations with core facts that the listening and uninformed British public badly needed to hear. When Robinson falsely claimed again that the Balfour declaration’s undertaking to protect Arab rights was “unfinished business”, Hotovely replied that Israel’s Arabs did have rights. She was talking, however, about civil and religious rights, totally failing to grasp that Robinson was talking about political rights – which were never in the declaration.

Then Robinson started accusing Israel of denying those Balfour rights to the Arabs living under Israeli “occupation”. Hotovely should have replied that these Arabs were not Israel citizens and therefore not entitled to the rights afforded to Israel’s citizens, including Israeli Arabs. Instead she resorted to the knee-jerk and irrelevant political point about the Jews’ own claim to Judea and Samaria. Even when Robinson further compounded his own error by stating falsely that the Balfour declaration had said “nothing should be done which prejudices the rights of the Palestinian people”, she failed to say it had said nothing of the sort because there was no identifiable “Palestinian” Arab people at that time. Instead she spluttered, correctly but irerelevantly, about the Palestinians’ refusal to coexist with Israel.

She was, in short, beyond hopeless, reflecting the profound and enduring failure of Israeli diplomacy even to understand the world in which it has to manoeuvre.

The Today programme’s disgraceful coverage of the Balfour anniversary was redeemed to some extent only by Robinson’s co-presenter, Mishal Husain, who interviewed the Palestinian general delegate to the UK, Manuel Hassassian (around 0835).

Invited to say what the declaration meant to him, Hassassian replied most tellingly that it meant “the destruction of Palestine” and that bringing the Jews to Palestine was “itself a crime against humanity”. The Balfour declaration had become part of the British Mandate, he went on, which had facilitated Jewish immigration “without mentioning political rights” for the Arabs.

Echoing Robinson’s error, Mishal Husain sought to correct Hassassian by saying the declaration stated “nothing should be done to prejudice those rights”. Remarkably, Hassassian then corrected her by stating the truth: that the second part of the letter did not mention political rights.

Indeed! But then two things developed. To her credit, Mishal Husain observed that it sounded as if Hassassian was objecting also to the first part of the declaration, thus suggesting he was opposed to the very existence of the State of Israel; and she further pressed him to acknowledge the hundreds of Israeli civilians killed by Palestinian terrorist attacks.

To which Hassassian not only professed to be “really shocked” by this equation of the “occupiers with the occupied” but blustered that the existence of Israel was a “different reality” (reflecting the deceptive formula by which the Palestinian Arabs conceal their enduring aim to destroy Israel by accepting merely the reality of Israel’s existence rather than its right to exist as a Jewish state) and that the second part of the declaration had not been fulfilled because no Palestinian state had been created. Hassassian thus totally contradicted his statement a few seconds earlier that the declaration had conspicuously failed to acknowledge Arab political rights.

So what precisely is the outrage? That the British had promised the Arabs a state carved out of Palestine, or that they had failed to make such a promise?

For the “Palestinians”, of course, it’s both at the same time. For their useful idiots and worse in Britain, the contradiction isn’t even noticed.

The significance of the Balfour declaration was that Britain, then a great power in the world, explicitly affirmed the inalienable right of the Jewish people to recreate its own ancestral home in the former land of Israel. The BBC has chosen to portray this as “controversial” on the false basis that it represented a “broken promise” – to those who have sworn to overturn it.

Balfour must be turning in his grave.

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