UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waves to a crowd in Jerusalem alongside prime minister Shimon Peres in May 1986.
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
For 33 years, including the 11 years she spent as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher represented the north London suburban seat of Finchley, the constituency with the highest proportion of Jewish voters in Britain.
What officials in the Foreign Office derisively termed “the Finchley factor” was believed by many to explain her rock-solid support for Israel. Indeed, soon after she became leader of the Opposition in 1975, panicked diplomats secretly debated how the impending danger – that Arab capitals might view a potential future prime minister as “a prisoner of the Zionists” – might be averted. One urged that she be encouraged to sever her ties with pro-Israel groups such as the Finchley Anglo-Israel Friendship League – of which she was both a founding member and president – and the newly formed Conservative Friends of Israel. Another, more dramatically, suggested she swap Finchley, with its heavy concentration of Jews, for another constituency.
Like any highly astute politician, Thatcher was aware of, and sensitive to, the concerns of an electorally important group of voters in a constituency which, however big her majority, she always treated as if it were highly marginal.
But her affinity for Israel was both much deeper and more complex than these superficial and cynical interpretations. Charles Powell, her long-serving foreign policy adviser, suggested to me that Israel, alongside the United States and Singapore, was one of her three favorite countries in the world. There’s plenty of evidence to back that contention. She traveled to Israel three times before entering Downing Street and in 1986 became the first sitting prime minister to visit the Jewish state. She backed its actions unhesitatingly in 1967 and, as a member of the Cabinet in October 1973, fiercely argued against prime minister Ted Heath’s shameful decision to treat Israel and its aggressors alike by imposing an arms embargo upon both. And, once inside No.10, she frequently matched her rhetorical paeans to the “miracles” Israel had performed with concrete support.
Thatcher’s view of Israel was forged during her first visit to the country in 1965. Unsurprisingly given her deep Christian faith, she was deeply affected by, as she put it on her return to Britain, being able to “relive the Bible stories... seeing where Jesus was born, where he grew up and where he preached.” She spoke of the “indelible impression” this had left upon her and of telling her two young children about standing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
But there was another “indelible impression” from that 1965 trip. Staying in the King David Hotel at a time when it overlooked the “no man’s land” that split Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan, she was struck by the young state’s vulnerability. It was, she told a meeting in Finchley, “like having another country on the other side of your own garden wall at home.” Thatcher also had no doubts about the rights and wrongs of the conflict. “Israel,” she declared, “holds out the hand of friendship to all who will accept.”
This perception of vulnerability simply heightened her perception of Israel’s virtues. Throughout her life, Powell suggested, she saw Israel as “a lone bulwark of democracy in a pretty unpleasant area.” On her death in 2013, Yehuda Avner, who served as Israel’s ambassador for five years of her premiership, wrote of the admiration he detected in Thatcher for “the old fashioned patriotism of Israelis and [the country’s] ‘grit and guts.’” She herself spoke of Israelis’ “sense of purpose... and pioneer spirit” and their “tremendous courage and self-reliance.”
Self-reliance was, of course, high on the list of Thatcherite virtues. Recalling a conversation with an official at the Israeli Labor Exchange after her visit, she told her constituents: “They don’t pay people for being idle in Israel.” As Malcolm Rifkind, one of six Jews who would later serve in her Cabinet, argued, Israel encapsulated many of Thatcher’s own values and persona: “Self-help, hard work and an interesting combination of stubbornness and enterprise.”
Coming to power at the height of renewed Cold War tensions, she was also keenly aware that Israel – the “one nation that would really stand and fight” as she termed it one internal government memo – was the West’s only truly reliable ally.
Thatcher was not always an uncritical friend. She clashed with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir over the invasion of Lebanon and settlement building and expressed sympathy for the “utterly hopeless” plight of the Palestinians. Warning Begin that the Soviets “thrived on disunity and dissension” she also appealed to him not to take actions that might drive moderate Arab states into the arms of their enemies in Moscow. Thatcher was to find Shimon Peres an altogether more agreeable and charming interlocutor. She helped to broker the London Agreement between Peres and King Hussein of Jordan in 1987 – which envisaged an international peace conference between Israel and its enemies – and was ever-sensitive to the frailty of the former’s domestic political position.
However, Thatcher drew a clear red line at repeated attempts by her notoriously Arabist Foreign Office to ramp up Britain’s contacts with the PLO. She was insistent that until it renounced violence and accepted Israel’s right to exist, it could not meet her ministers or play any part in the peace process. Even when Yasser Arafat appeared to meet those conditions toward the end of her premiership, she retained an abiding distrust for him: “He looks like a terrorist,” she confided to her staff, while urging King Hussein to get the PLO leader to “clean up his appearance” before a scheduled address to the UN.
But beneath domestic political or geostrategic considerations lay a simple truth: Thatcher’s great admiration for the Jewish People and what she termed “the Jewish way of life.” As she told Begin at their first meeting, she saw the values of her Methodist upbringing reflected in the teachings of Judaism and Britain’s “wonderful” chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits (a close personal friend whom she later elevated to the House of Lords).
“Methodism, you see, means method,” she explained to the Israeli prime minister. “It means sticking to your guns, dedication, determination, triumph over adversity, reverence for education – the very qualities you Jews have always cherished.”The author’s book
Margaret Thatcher Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape the Iron Lady and her Beliefs is published by Biteback Publishing.