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UK accused of giving Balfour a miss in Israel

Senior Israeli officials say Britain's role is deliberately low-key out of concern for Palestinian protests

    Austrlia's prime minister and New Zealand governor-general laying wreaths at Beersheba with Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. Britain was represented by its ambassador.
    Austrlia's prime minister and New Zealand governor-general laying wreaths at Beersheba with Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. Britain was represented by its ambassador. Flash90

    Israel believes Britain’s Foreign Office is deliberately downplaying the centenaries of both the Balfour declaration and a key First World War battle by sending only junior representatives to its events. 

    Senior officials here believe members of the British diplomatic corps are downplaying the events out of concern for Palestinian and Arab protests, despite Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge to commemorate Balfour “with pride and respect”. 

    They point to the minimal level of official UK government representation for Balfour commemorations in Israel and an event to mark one hundred years since the Battle of Beersheba.   

    Earlier this year, there had been expectations that Britain would take a more prominent role in both centenaries, raising hopes that a member of the Royal Family would make an official visit for the first time since Israeli independence in 1948. 

    Israeli officials had been encouraged by Mrs May’s warm remarks on Balfour and the fact so many senior ministers and royals have attended centenary commemorations of other First World War battles since 2014. 

    The Battle of Beersheba on 31 October 1917 marked the moment Allied forces under General Edmund Allenby broke the Ottoman army's resistance in the Negev desert and began a push through to Jerusalem, Amman and eventually Damascus. 

    But no UK official representatives other than the ambassador to Israel were expected to attend an event in Beersheba this week or the forthcoming event to mark Balfour in the Knesset. Meanwhile this week's Balfour dinner in London attended by Mr Netanyahu and Mrs May is being described as a "private" event. 

    The full extent of the FCO’s official commemoration of Balfour overseas was a low-key reception last Wednesday at the ambassador’s residence near Tel Aviv, with no major names in attendance.  

    A senior diplomat in Jerusalem told me last week that, with distractions over Brexit negotiations, it was “hardly surprising” that Ms May did not have the time to push through a more high-profile programme of events.  

    "Ultimately the Foreign Office line prevailed,” my source said. 

    The Foreign & Commonwealth Office did not respond to a request for comment.

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