Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher Photo by AFP
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With the recent release of "The Iron Lady," Margaret Thatcher is all the rage. It is just over 25 years since Thatcher made her landmark visit to Israel - the first by a serving British prime minister. At the time, in May 1986, Thatcher received a rapturous reception, partly because of her support for the U.S. bombing of Libya a month earlier. The Israelis appreciated her support for what they perceived as an American operation against state-sponsored terrorism.

Yet Thatcher's attitude toward Israel was complex. Despite her clearly warm feelings for British Jews, her outspoken support for Soviet Jewry, and the presence of a remarkable number of Jews in her various cabinets, Thatcher had a nuanced and unemotional approach toward Israel.

She clearly admired Israel as a democracy in a region of autocracy. Initially, she also tended to view it as a strategic buffer against spreading Soviet influence in the Middle East. But her position gradually changed over her 11 years in power.

Exaggerated claims have been made regarding the impact of Thatcher's Finchley constituency, which she represented as an MP. She was sensitive to the views of her many Jewish constituents, but this had little influence over her government's Middle East policy. By the early 1980s, with the resurgence of Cold War tensions, Thatcher feared that the Soviets and others would exploit turmoil in the region to expand their influence there. She began to see certain Israeli policies as a liability for Western interests, fearing they would exacerbate regional instability and undermine the security of Britain's Arab allies. Thatcher strongly agreed with her Foreign Office on the urgent need to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as a way to defuse regional tensions.

Already, during a difficult meeting with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in May 1979, Thatcher expressed concern over his attitude toward a comprehensive peace settlement. Begin maintained that he could grant the Palestinians autonomy, but not sovereignty. His belief in Israel's right to build settlements rankled with Thatcher. In a letter to the Foreign Office, Thatcher's private secretary disclosed her fear that "Mr. Begin's attitude could kill the whole process of the search for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East."

Tensions with Begin grew worse when, in June 1980, the British premier offered her country's endorsement of the EEC (now the EU ) Venice Declaration. The Begin government detested the initiative, which called for an end to Israel's "territorial occupation" and expressed support for Palestinian self-determination and the PLO's role in negotiations. Begin wrote to Thatcher in great anguish, asserting that the initiative was "impossible to accept."

In the wake of the 1979 revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Thatcher's support for the EEC initiative was arguably reinforced by the fact that it was designed to win over the moderate Arab states to the West. But the declaration never had a chance since Israel rejected it out of hand. Furthermore, the PLO was not prepared to renounce terrorism or recognize the existence of Israel, as stipulated by the declaration.

Thatcher saw eye to eye with the Foreign Office on the need to strengthen moderates. She made sure to visit Israel when Shimon Peres, then in a unity government with the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir, had his turn as prime minister. Thatcher's attitude to both Begin and Shamir was also influenced by her perception of them as former terrorists, during the Mandate period.

Like Peres and Jordan's King Hussein, Thatcher sought Palestinian self-determination within the framework of a federation with Jordan. Thatcher sought to strengthen Peres and Hussein through her robust support for an international peace conference, which Shamir fiercely opposed, and was angered and dismayed by the Reagan administration's refusal to support Peres or Hussein.

Once King Hussein disengaged from the West Bank, in August 1988 (following the failure of the so-called London Agreement between Hussein and Peres, which Thatcher supported but Shamir torpedoed ), a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had to involve the PLO, and Britain saw the urgent need to open a higher-level dialogue with the organization. After Yasser Arafat's December 1988 speech in Geneva, in which he renounced terrorism and accepted Israel's right to exist, Thatcher encouraged the Reagan administration to also open a dialogue with the PLO, and it did so during its final days in power, though the dialogue was short-lived.

Thatcher remained protective of British political and commercial interests in the Middle East, and was unwilling to risk them through automatic support for Israel. This explains her direct role in controversial arms sales to Arab countries (which both Shamir and Peres strongly opposed) and her readiness to cooperate with Whitehall over restrictions on arms sales to Israel and the refusal to sell it North Sea oil.

All of this may have some rather unsettling implications for Israeli policymakers today. Thatcher regarded herself as a steadfast friend of Israel, and was certainly viewed as such by many of her Jewish supporters. However, she was influenced to some degree by a view that was commonly held by British mandarins following the establishment of the State of Israel: the perception that the Arab-Israel conflict was at the core of the difficulties facing the West in the region. Arguably, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is almost an irrelevancy in the context of the current turbulence sweeping through the Middle East. However, perceptions matter. As long as that conflict continues to fester, many Western leaders may continue to exercise caution in their bilateral ties with the Jewish state.

Historian Azriel Bermant completed his Ph.D. at University College London on the Thatcher government's policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.