When Begin met Thatcher

How Menachem Begin held his ground in a meeting with Margaret Thatcher and then-foreign secretary Lord Peter Carrington.

Begin521 (photo credit: Courtesy: US Federal Government/Wikimedia CommonsC)
(photo credit: Courtesy: US Federal Government/Wikimedia CommonsC)
With much earnestness, prime minister Margaret Thatcher once confided to prime minister Menachem Begin her fervent admiration for the Jews. “It has to do with my Methodist upbringing,” she told him.
“Methodism, you see, means method. It means” – her fingers instinctively bunched into a fist – “sticking to your guns, dedication, determination, triumph over adversity, reverence for education – the very qualities you Jews have always cherished.”
Begin, whom she had invited to 10 Downing Street for lunch shortly after her election victory in 1979, responded with a small, modest smile.
“I cannot deny,” said he, “that millennia ago, when monarchs did not even know how to sign their own names, our forefathers had already developed a system of compulsory education.”
Thatcher’s eyes were ablaze with enthusiasm.
“Your marvelous chief rabbi here, Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, recently made exactly the same point.
He said that the term ‘an illiterate Jew’ is an oxymoron.
There is no such thing. How right he is! He has...,” she paused, as if to refresh her stock of awe and respect, “such a high moral stature, such an undaunted courage, such an inspiring commitment to the old-fashioned virtues, like community selfhelp, individual responsibility, and personal accountability – all the things I deeply believe in.”
Then, with sudden exasperation in her voice and a frown on her brow, “Oh, how I wish our own Christian leaders would take a leaf out of his book.”
Begin nodded an acknowledgment, but said nothing. Perhaps this was because he thought it would be indiscreet to concur. Or perhaps it was because he and Chief Rabbi Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, champion of Israel and celebrated Judaic scholar whom Thatcher would later elevate to the peerage, did not always see eye-to-eye on the Jewish state’s vision of itself.
The two prime ministers were standing chatting in what is called the Blue Room, when the house manager rapped three time on the floor and announced, “Prime minister, gentlemen, lunch is now served.”
“Do you know,” continued Mrs. Thatcher doughtily as she led the way into the oak-paneled state dining room, “in all the many years I have represented Finchley, my parliamentary constituency, which as you know has a high proportion of Jewish residents, I have never once had a Jew come to me in poverty and desperation. They are always so well looked after by their own. And that is absolutely splendid!” Pundits would postulate that it was this cast of mind that accounted for the remarkably high number of Jews in the various Thatcher governments – five at one time or another, in addition to close advisers. And in a class-conscious society where the aristocracy was solidly Anglican, her Methodist roots made her an ambitious outsider.
So, yes, it was natural for her to see Jews as kindred spirits. They provided refreshing ballast to the paternalistic Tories of the old-school “squirearchy,” where anti-Semitism was commonplace, while Jews were not.
“Now, let’s talk about your country,” said Mrs.
Thatcher affably, as they reached the table and took their seats, accompanied by half a dozen colleagues and aides, myself among them.
Lord Peter Carrington, the foreign secretary, full of the self-confident repartee common to graduates of Eton and Sandhurst, ho-hummed in the authoritative, patronizing warble of the British upper class: “I bet you a wager, Mr. Begin, that I know what passed through your mind when we were introduced earlier, before lunch.”
“Do you, Lord Carrington? I’m not a betting man, but please tell me: what did pass through my mind?” An impudent and impish smile hovered over Begin’s features. The whole table grinned at the cheekiness of the banter.
The foreign secretary chuckled devilishly.
“You were thinking to yourself: By George, those Camel Corps chaps at the British Foreign Office are a bunch of Arabists besotted with an irredeemable proclivity toward the Arab interests. Am I not right? Come on – own up.” He threw an audacious smile and pointed two fingers like a pistol to add to the tease.
Begin raised his arms in a don’t-shoot pose, his eyes bright with mirth.
“Amazing! Totally correct! And you put it so well, Lord Carrington.”
Everybody threw their heads back and let out a great peal of laughter.
Thatcher, laying on all her charm, said sportingly, “Oh, come, come, prime minister, you know Peter’s just teasing. You know very well you have good friends here in Whitehall, even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye on everything.” And then, solicitously, “How do you find the salmon? It’s specially catered – kosher.”
“Delicious. Your thoughtfulness is appreciated.”
And then, back to the foreign secretary sitting opposite him: “What, pray, do we not see eye-toeye about these days?” He was desirous of moving on to the nub of things.
Lord Carrington’s gung-ho jousting vanished.
Flatly, he answered, “Your bag-and-baggage approach toward settlements, mostly.”
A fiery light in the Israeli premier’s eye switched on. “Bag-and-baggage approach, minister?” “Yes, prime minister.”
And he stepped into the ring and began punching hard, one-two, one-two, one-two: “Your settlement policy is expansionist. It is intemperate. It is a barrier to peace. The settlements are built on occupied Arab soil. They rob Palestinians of their land. They unnecessarily arouse the animosity of the moderate Arabs. They are contrary to international law. They are inconsistent with British interests.”
In a voice like steel wrapped in velvet, Thatcher affirmed, “The foreign secretary is speaking on behalf of Her Majesty’s government in this matter.”
BEGIN CHOSE to fight Carrington, not Thatcher.
He leaned forward to focus his fullest attention on him. The two men’s eyes traded malevolence.
Then he let fly: The settlements were not an obstacle to peace. No Palestinian Arab sovereignty had ever existed in the biblical provinces of Judea and Samaria. The Geneva Convention did not apply.
The Arabs had refused to make peace before there was a single settlement anywhere. The settlements were built on state-owned, not Arab-owned land.
Their construction was an assertion of basic Jewish historic rights. The settlement enterprise was critical to Israel’s national security.
Lord Carrington’s face went blotchy with anger. He would have none of it. Tempers were at flash point.
Abruptly, Begin turned to face Margaret Thatcher.
“Madam prime minister,” he said, “Your foreign secretary dismisses my country’s historic rights.
He pooh-poohs our vital security needs. So, I shall tell you why the settlements are vital: because I speak of Eretz Yisrael, a land redeemed, not occupied; because without these settlements Israel could be at the mercy of a Palestinian state astride the commanding heights of Judea and Samaria.
We would be living on borrowed time. And” – his face went granite, like his eyes – “whenever we Jews are attacked we are always alone. Remember in 1944 how we came begging for our lives – begging at this very door?” The British premier’s brow creased in concentration, and she muttered pensively, “Nineteen-forty-four? Is that when you wanted us to bomb Auschwitz?” “No, Madam, not Auschwitz. We asked you to bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz. In the summer of 1944 Eichmann was transporting a hundred thousand Hungarian Jews a week along those lines.”
Thatcher cupped her chin in contemplation, “You know, prime minister,” she said forthrightly after a momentary pause, “I have at times wondered what I would have done had I been here at No. 10 in those days. And I have to tell you in all candor, the policy of the Allies then was to destroy the Hitlerite war machine as speedily as possible. I would have agreed to nothing that would have detracted one iota from that goal. I would not have agreed to bomb those lines.”
Begin went white. Clearly, the woman had not been briefed who this man was – a survivor of a Soviet Gulag, a survivor of the Shoah, orphaned of virtually his whole family.
“But Madam, this was 1944,” he said in a low voice reserved for dreaded things. “The Allies had all but won the war. You were sending a thousand bombers a night over Germany. What would it have taken to divert 70, 60, 50, aircraft to bomb those lines?” “And what does this have to do with the settlements?” Thus, Peter Carrington, barging in.
A livid Begin turned on him and snapped: “Lord Carrington, please have the goodness not to interrupt me when I am in the middle of a conversation with your prime minister. Do I have your permission to proceed?” Carrington went puce.
The shocked silence was interrupted only when Mrs. Thatcher, in a gesture of uncommon informality, placed a calming hand on Begin’s arm, and said, “Please do not allow yourself to be upset. You are truly among friends here. In my constituency I go to synagogue more often than I go to church.
Then to Carrington: “Peter, I think an admission of regret is called for.”
The foreign secretary took off his spectacles, breathed on them, polished each lens in turn with a handkerchief from his top pocket of his Savile Row suit, seemed about to speak but didn’t, and then changed his mind and did: “Quite right, prime minister,” he said apologetically. “Somehow, your little country, Mr. Begin, evokes all sorts of high emotional fevers. Stirs up the blood, so to speak.”
Begin, his composure regained, smiled at him in an unmirthful way, and said, “The story of our people is very much a tale of having to defend ourselves against bouts of irrationality and hysteria.
It happens in every generation.”
“Gentlemen,” said the “Iron Lady” sharply, “it’s time to move on. I should now like to talk about our binational trade relations which, incidentally, are excellent.”
All concurred, after which the talk tended to peter out, and then it was time to go. ■
The writer was an aide to five Israeli prime ministers, and a former ambassador to Britain. He is the author of the best-selling The Prime Ministers (Toby Press). A documentary based on the book is being premiered this month in Los Angeles and New York, to be followed next year by a full-length feature.