Israeli Leaders, British Immigrants Remember Margaret Thatcher as Admirer of Country's 'Grit and Guts'

The Iron Lady may have had 'sharp differences' with Israeli governments, but she was a 'genuine friend of Israel and the Jewish people,' says Matthew Gould, Britain's current ambassador to Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres sent condolences, the British Embassy in Tel Aviv lowered its flag to half-mast and many here in Israel mourned the death of former British Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher, considered by most to have been a true friend to this country.

Peres called the grocer's daughter who became known as "the Iron Lady," and who led her country from 1979 to 1990, a "great and exceptional leader," an "inspiration," and a "close personal friend." Thatcher died Monday of a stroke at age 87.

David Franklin, who grew up in the heavily Jewish North London district of Finchley, remembers Thatcher from back when she was his district's representative. "My father was the chairman of the Jewish-Christian association in Finchley and I remember how attentive she was to the needs of that association," says Franklin, who later made aliya and became the CEO of Sugat.

"Whenever my father wanted to meet her, she made the time - even in the middle of the Falklands crisis. He always said it was quite amazing and showed what kind of person she was," says Franklin. "I think she was sincerely interested in furthering relations between Jews and Christians. My dad only had words of praise for her."

"She was very close to the chief rabbi at the time, Lord Jacobovits, and my sense was that she was always very much on the side of the Jewish community," says Brenda Katten, chairperson of ESRA - the English Speaking Residents Association in Israel, who was born and raised in London. Katten remembers interacting with Thatcher when she, Katten, served as the chairperson of the British WIZO and the prime minister came to speak at one of their gala events. "And of course, she was a wonderful role model for women. Many of us looked up to her."

"She felt a connection to the Jewish people," stresses Yehuda Avner, another Brit, from Manchester, who in time made aliya, served as a personal assistant to several Israeli prime ministers and later returned to the country of his birth as Israel's ambassador between 1983 and 1988.

"The first time I encountered her was in 1979, shortly after she became prime minister," recalls Avner, telling of a meeting at No. 10 Downing Street when then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin was visiting and Avner was his adviser. An "intense conversation" broke out between her Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, a staunch critic of Israel's settlement policies, and the Israeli delegation, relays Avner.

At one point, when the discussion turned particularly heated, remembers Avner, Thatcher put her hand on Begin's shoulder - "a very unusual thing to do," he notes, - and said: "Prime Minister, you are among your friends here," and then, joking about her representing such a heavily Jewish constituency, she added: "I go to synagogue more often than I go to church."

Later, in 1986 when Thatcher became the first sitting British prime minister to make an official visit to Israel, Avner accompanied her on the journey. He remembers, in particular, their drop-in to Ramat Gan, a city twinned with Thatcher's constituency of Finchley. "It was a majestic occasion. They pulled out all the stops there in Ramat Gan, and I think she really appreciated it," he says. Years later, at an official dinner back in London, Avner heard someone ask Thatcher what her most memorable visit overseas had been - and she responded by saying it had been that trip to Israel.

"She admired the old fashion patriotism of Israelis," Avner says, "and this country's 'grit and guts.'"

Not that Thatcher always agreed with or liked Israel's policies, notes Avner. She consistently came out against settlement building, once called Begin the "most difficult" man she had to deal with as prime minister, opposed Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and supported Palestinian self-determination, along with the involvement of the PLO in peace negotiations. She spoke out for an end to the occupation.

Strong stand against terror

But, he adds, she also knew that her foreign office sometimes had "overly negative tendencies," as he calls it, towards Israel, and worked to counter them. "On certain occasions," he says, "she would circumvent the foreign office and call me in directly to discuss high-level matters."

Moshe Raviv, who served as Avner's deputy in London, and later became ambassador to the Court of St. James between 1993-97, has his own memories of the Iron Lady. He recalls her strong stand against terrorism of any kind, and her great support of the Israeli-Jordanian peace process, in which she once played a mediating role. Peres has often said that Thatcher was well-suited to this mediation as she had the full trust of both him and King Hussein of Jordan.

"She was very determined, and incredibly supportive," says Raviv. In later years, even when she was out of office, he adds, she remained up to date on Middle East politics and hopeful for a comprehensive peace in the region.

Dame Shirley Porter, daughter of the founder of Tesco supermarkets and a former Conservative leader of Westminster City council in London, who moved to Israel in 1994, is arguably one of the Israelis who knew the Iron Lady best.

"She was a remarkable woman. People say she was bossy - but if she were a man, people would have just said she was a great leader. She inspired others and was a caring person and a politician with true convictions," says Dame Shirley. Thatcher's admiration for Israel, she continues, was connected to both her admiration for democracy and to the work ethic she felt the Jewish community possessed. "She had real values and appreciated others who did too."

Matthew Gould, Britain's current ambassador to Israel, grew up with Thatcher as his prime minister. He describes her as "someone who changed the course of British history. Look at where Britain was before she took over and compare that to the country she left. She had a dramatic effect," he says.

Thatcher was undoubtedly a "genuine friend of Israel and the Jewish people," he continues. There were "sharp differences" at times with Israeli governments, he allows, but she had "no time for anyone who did not believe in Israel or who was an anti-Semite." In fact, he notes, it went far beyond not being anti-Semitic: "She could not even understand anti-Semitism," he says.