On November 2 this year, the world will mark 100 years since the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British government during World War I, announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
The declaration was contained in a letter dated November 2, 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of theBritish Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.
I will write more on the Balfour Declaration and its implications 100 years on in my next column. There are plans to observe the Declaration with a Palestinian Film and Arts Festival here in Barbados in November.
Today, I will look at Palestine and the Caribbean and use excerpts from an article I wrote for the website Middle East Monitor last September.
“In June, a conference aimed at bringing together leading technology companies from Israel and entrepreneurs and business experts from the Caribbean was held in Bridgetown, Barbados; it was met with small but very vocal opposition. Such opposition to Israel is generally unheard of in the Caribbean, but with the coming into being of CAAP (Caribbean Against Apartheid in Palestine) a few years ago, a concerted campaign to highlight the issues of the Palestinian people has been gaining momentum.
Israel has developed strong ties with several Caribbean governments over the years and agreements have been signed, especially in the areas of cooperation in agriculture and security. The Israeli government has a longstanding policy of engagement with its Caribbean counterparts to get their support. Barbados is an example of this; diplomatic ties go back as far as 1966 when Barbados became an independent nation. Over the past 50 years Barbados has received some benefits from Israel, especially in the area of educational scholarships, assistance in agriculture development and in security. Other countries in the Caribbean region, however, took a different approach and furthered the Palestinian cause with more vigour and declining Israel’s largesse.
In the past decade, as the issue of Palestinian statehood came to the United Nations, a more robust engagement of Caribbean governments has taken place by both the Israelis and, significantly, the Palestinians. In 2011, ahead of the UN vote on recognition of Palestine and against a backdrop of the US saying it will use its veto to block Palestinians’ bid for statehood within the 1967 borders, intense lobbying was taking place and Caribbean governments were being cajoled into action.
It was reported then that the Israeli Foreign Ministry had been promising Caribbean states security and intelligence assistance in return for their UN General Assembly votes against recognition of Palestine’s sovereignty. Israel’s strategy was to have 60 members of the General Assembly vote against the Palestine resolution, abstain or be absent from the Assembly and not vote. Sixty votes would have denied Palestine the required two-thirds majority. For that reason, Israel was concentrating its efforts on the 38 members of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS).
Interestingly, Caribbean governments were also being warned of “severe implications” for the region if they did not support Palestine’s application for statehood at the UN. The warning was issued by the then General Secretary of the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL), Senator Chester Humphrey.
“It has serious implications for governments who are straddled with serious constraints in terms of falling revenues, growing social demands and poverty and large unemployment,” Humphrey told a trade union conference. “This is why we need a very robust foreign policy.” It’s the right and just thing to do, he added. “The Palestinians need a state and the occupation of their country must come to an end.”
Humphrey stressed that Bible-based ideologies should not be confused with political realities. The Senator said that governments should not be worried about any backlash from the US, one of Israel’s strongest allies, since, according to him, it has tightened its immigration policy over the years, and has not been pumping considerable funds into the region.
The visit by the Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riyad Al-Maliki to Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St Kitts-Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago seeking support for an independent Palestine was also noteworthy. Al-Maliki said that he was confident of the region’s support in his country’s bid for nationhood.
“All responses were very encouraging to us and this really raises our expectations that things would move in the right directions,” he said, without indicating the Caribbean countries likely to support the diplomatic initiative. “There are countries that have said that they would contemplate that issue; others said that they would look positively, favourably, into this matter; others said we would go forward with recognising the state of Palestine.”
Prior to the 2012 UN vote, Guyana, Suriname, Belize, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda had formally recognised Palestine. In fact, Guyana has been in the forefront of recognition of the Palestinian state. Since the seventies, it has been vocal on the world stage promoting the Palestinian aspirations.
Furthermore, at the 14th Meeting of the Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR) in St. Kitts, Caribbean Foreign Ministers stressed their longstanding and unwavering solidarity with, and commitment to, the just and legitimate aspirations of the people of Palestine for the exercise of their right to self-determination and to achieve a homeland of their own, independent, free, prosperous and at peace.
The position adopted by Caribbean governments did not go unnoticed by the Israelis. It is reported that the Israel Project, a major right-wing, pro-Israel lobby group based in Washington, sent “a delegation of 18 Washington-based ambassadors from four continents” to Israel and the West Bank. This was apparently aimed at heading off the Palestinian statehood initiative at the UN.
The UN vote on 29 November, 2012 saw all CARICOM countries supporting the motion to recognise Palestine, with only Barbados and Bahamas abstaining. Barbados’ abstention was strange, as in September 2011, only a year earlier, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart spoke to the UN General Assembly and stated the following:
“The State of Israel has a right to exist and the people of Israel have a right to live in security and to do so with the full and undisputed recognition of the rest of the world. On the other hand, the Palestinians are entitled also to enjoy the fruits of prosperity within their own sovereign state. Much else in this conflict may be negotiable. Surely, those two postulates are not. “
The varying positions taken by Caribbean governments on the issue of Palestine are representative of the differences that exist among the states in the region relating to their foreign policy decisions. Some countries exercise extreme caution about going against US and British interests, while others are bolder in their exercise of their sovereign rights, including the right to free association.
The two-state solution has seemingly found favour among most of the region’s governments. Moving from voicing acceptance to outright support of Palestine and condemnation of Israel’s continued aggression against the Palestinian people seems a little harder for some Caribbean states to do.