The Iron Lady and the Jewish state

A new study of the famed British leader shows that the more things in Israel change, the more they stay the same.

UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waves to a crowd in Jerusalem alongside prime minister Shimon Peres in May 1986 (photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waves to a crowd in Jerusalem alongside prime minister Shimon Peres in May 1986
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
By Azriel Bermant
Cambridge University Press
274 pages; $99.99
On June 7, 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. Israel was worried the reactor was about to “go hot” and bombing it after that date could lead to more deaths and contamination. UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher was outraged. The Jewish state’s actions were a “grave breach of international law,” and an “unprovoked attack.” Iraq was a peaceful country seeking peaceful nuclear energy in line with international obligations. Thatcher supported condemning Israel at the United Nations Security Council.
The 1981 controversy is one of many highlighted in a new book, Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East, by Azriel Bermant. A historian and lecturer in international relations at Tel Aviv University, Bermant brings an incisive analysis to Thatcher’s relations with Israel, and examines how she also balanced ties with the US and the Arab states in this period.
As prime minister from 1979 to 1990, she faced many of the key crises in the region, including the Israeli withdrawal from Egypt, the Lebanon invasion of 1982, the breakout of the intifada, Iraq’s attack on Kuwait and the first tentative steps toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Bermant argues that Thatcher was “instinctively sympathetic toward Israel,” an image that history has inherited. However, the declassified archival material revealed in the book paints a much more nuanced picture. Thatcher inherited a Foreign Office that was inimical to Israel. Many viewed the UK as responsible for the problems in the Middle East let loose by the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the creation of Israel. The Jewish state was a burden that harmed relations with the Arab states which many Foreign Office leaders felt an affinity for.
From the start, Thatcher was encouraged to support the policy of her foreign secretary Lord Carrington, who sought to provide Palestinians with the right to self-determination and thus statehood. This was part of the European Venice Declaration of June 1980. The Iron Lady saw support for the Arab states as closely tied to fighting Soviet Communism. The UK needed oil, and if the Middle East fell under Soviet influence or the Arab states didn’t think the British were with them on the Palestine issue, the oil threat would enter the picture. Personalities played a role as well. While Thatcher warmed to King Hussein and the Saudis, “There was no chemistry between [prime minister Menachem Begin] and Thatcher.”
Arab states were also expert manipulators of the British. King Hussein “was able to use the threat of closer ties with Moscow as a means to persuade Thatcher to use her influence with the Americans,” writes Bermant. Hussein “warned that there would be an eruption of bloodshed and chaos” if he wasn’t supported. Saudis pretended they couldn’t help eject the Russians from Afghanistan if Palestinians didn’t get something. The PLO threatened more terrorism if the UK didn’t “listen to their cause.”
Thatcher was so convinced by her friends in Amman, Baghdad and Riyadh that she began telling their own views back to them. In a conversation with Iraq’s trade minister Hassan Ali “she claimed that the Israeli allegations regarding Saddam Hussein’s ambitions to target the Jewish State were untrue.” She basically acted as a spokesperson for the Iraqi regime. Later, in discussions with US president Ronald Reagan, she again spoke on behalf of Arab views, claiming there was “a mood of disappointment and alienation” among “moderate” Arab states and that they were unhappy with the US “one-sided” approach to Israel. Here Riyadh, Baghdad and Amman had outsourced their foreign policy to London, which worked on their behalf.
The fascinating aspect of Bermant’s book is not only that it shows the level of British entanglement in the Middle East, but reveals the numerous peace plans launched in the period that have direct parallels with today. In 1982, Reagan’s administration argued for a “settlement freeze” and a self-governing Palestinian Authority with full autonomy. King Hussein put forth the Amman accord in 1985 seeking self-determination for the Palestinians and an Israeli withdrawal. When Thatcher proposed municipal elections in the West Bank in 1986 she was rebuffed by Yitzhak Rabin. In 1988, cabinet minister David Mellor visited Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp and found “misery on a scale that rivals anything anywhere in the world.”
Enter then-minister Ariel Sharon in 1989, who said the West Bank could be carved up into Arab cantons and Gaza might be a viable enclave by itself with “Western assistance.” All of these plans in the 1980s have parallels today, with discussions of “final status” and Jerusalem and claims that Israel’s policies foster extremism in the region.
Some readers may like to see more of a comparison to Thatcher’s policy in Northern Ireland and in Israel. She was implacably opposed to the IRA and its terrorism, an issue raised twice in the book. Thatcher argued that the central difference was that Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland could vote in UK elections, whereas the Palestinians were not citizens of Israel. The fact that the PLO and IRA had historical connections and ideologies was ignored, as were the contradictions between Thatcher’s view that Palestinians deserved autonomy, but the IRA and its supporters did not.
The great lesson in this tale is that very little has changed in the central differences between Israel’s views and those of the Western governments. The recent UN Security Council resolution bears much similarity to the divides that existed between London and Jerusalem in the 1980s.