Opinions were divided in the UK as to whether it was appropriate to host such a high-profile visit by the Israeli leader to mark an event that has provoked so many emotions, and whose meaning for Israelis is diametrically opposed to the Palestinian view. The Balfour Declaration was clearly a defining moment in the history of the Zionist movement in fulfilling its dream of self-determination. But the Palestinians see it as a betrayal by the British government, a sacrifice of their interests and rights.
For the Israeli government the visit itself was a triumph. The very fact that it took place, in the face of vociferous opposition to a British–Israeli celebration of this anniversary, from Palestinian and Arab officials as well as from many in Britain, was a great source of satisfaction. It has added to Netanyahu’s sense of complacency that regardless of his and his government’s constant defiance of the international community on the Palestinian issue he is still welcomed in most major capitals, and in this case on an occasion that Israel has considerably more interest in celebrating than Britain.
In rare unrehearsed remarks at a London think tank, the Israeli prime minister reveals his warped views, simplistic mentality and rejection of any territorial compromise with the Palestinians.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May, at a gala dinner that honored Netanyahu as well as the historic declaration, announced that Britain stood by the Balfour Declaration, and was “proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel.” There is no reason to take her to task over Britain’s sense of pride in helping the Zionist movement fulfill its dream — but the British government also had an obligation to the Palestinian people. The Balfour Declaration might not have regarded the Arabs living in Palestine as people, but it required the Jewish national movement to protect the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.” This has not been the reality for millions of Palestinians, including those who became refugees and are forced to live away from their homeland. The centenary was also an opportunity for the British government to be clearer in stressing that regardless of what the Balfour Declaration said or meant, they are fully behind the establishment of a Palestinian state too. This is where the hosts, whose mind is more on Brexit and preventing the UK from falling apart, were reluctant to confront their Israeli guest.
Netanyahu is not known for agreeing to appear in public and take questions from the public. His willingness to appear at the prestigious think tank Chatham House was something of a surprise. He usually prefers more choreographed events where he is in complete control of the questions and consequently of the answers. The to and fro of questions and answers were revealing of the man’s take on international affairs and of Israel’s relations with its neighbors.
To no one’s surprise it emerged that his top priorities are security in terms of military power and economic prosperity, but he failed to mention a strong and cohesive society as a priority; and resolving the conflict with the Palestinians is for him neither a priority, nor a feasible or desirable prospect.
When he speaks without notes he reveals a worrying and incredibly simplistic view of the world. He sees the world in binary terms, a struggle between those he calls “medievalists” and modernizers. Israel is counted among the latter and the rest of the Middle East the former. The corollary of this is that democracy is an alien concept to the region. In Netanyahu’s thinking this leads to the conclusion that a sovereign Palestinian state that won’t endanger the existence of the Jewish state is an impossibility, so Israel is not going to allow it to happen. In his audacity he told a packed audience that the demand to remove illegal Jewish settlements amounted to ethnic cleansing. In his parallel reality occupation doesn’t exist, building settlements doesn’t violate international law, and neither does confiscating land or building a security wall on land that international law considers to be occupied territory.
But the big bone that Netanyahu has between his teeth these days is the danger from Iran. Nuclear or non-nuclear, Iran poses a threat not only to Israel but to the entire world, and his government will do anything to stop it from becoming a nuclear or a dominant force in the region. Of course, one shouldn’t underestimate either Iran’s ambitions in the region or its increasing military capabilities, but between this and the scaremongering image of Iranian world domination there is a huge discrepancy. It is hard to tell whether Netanyahu’s obsession with Iran is genuine, or a convenient deflection from his own failures as a leader.
As I left the meeting I was more convinced than ever that the Israeli prime minister has completely rejected the idea of any territorial compromise with the Palestinians. He argues that the formula of “land for peace” is a recipe, in his words, for a “land for terror.” Thus he closes the door on a final status agreement based on a two-state solution. Netanyahu thrives on his siege mentality and is attempting to infect Israeli society with it. But by doing so he is actually jeopardizing what is, for Israelis, the great achievement stemming from the Balfour Declaration — the state of Israel.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House.