Thatcher's U.K. Feared That an Embattled Israel Might Use Nukes, Declassified Paper Shows

In a separate document, the Iron Lady hoped Jerusalem would 'reconsider its present policy of planting settlements.'

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

The Thatcher government believed that Israel would use nuclear weapons if it felt it was in danger of being destroyed, according to declassified British documents.

Under British law, official papers are declassified after 30 years, so the declassification of documents from Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministry, which began in 1979, has been under way for a few years. The latest papers to be released include the Thatcher government’s response to the 1982 Lebanon war, as well as several that discuss its efforts to help forge a Middle East peace agreement.

One declassified document asserted that Israel possessed nuclear weapons and considered the circumstances under which they might be used. It was drafted by the British Embassy in Tel Aviv before a planned meeting in May 1980 among Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The embassy sought to give Carrington background information on Israel’s defense doctrine.

According to the document, this doctrine was based on “three convictions.” First was that “They can trust no one but must rely for their security on themselves alone” – a belief, the embassy acknowledged, for which “their experience since independence gives them strong arguments.” Second was that “Faith can make up for lack of material strength,” a conviction bolstered by the fact that many Israelis “can say they are only here because they have survived impossible odds.”

The third pillar was that if the country faced destruction, it would “go down fighting." The Israelis, the cable warned, “will be ready to use their atomic weapon. Because they cannot sustain a long war, they would have to use it early.”

The document also said that a change in Israel’s government would not lead to major changes in Israeli policy. Nor would a potential change in America’s government, it added.

If Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as U.S. president later that year, the embassy wrote, Israel’s leadership was hopeful that he would “continue to supply the arms and money and [UN] vetoes” that would “allow Israel … to deter an Arab attack from outside and to go on crushing the evidence of Palestinian despair whenever it erupts in the occupied territories. Israel will then be able to go on refusing self-determination for the Palestinians, which it sees as a mortal danger to its security.”

Other documents detail Thatcher’s conversations with Israeli leaders, such as her phone call with Yigael Yadin, then the deputy prime minister, in March 1980. At that time, Begin had not yet fleshed out his planned offer of autonomy to the Palestinians, which was required under the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt.

The transcript reveals that Thatcher was worried both by King Hussein of Jordan’s refusal to come to Camp David to discuss the future of the territories and by the potential impact of Israel’s settlement policy. She told Yadin there was no logic whatsoever to the construction of new settlements.

Yadin commented on her use of the word “new,” saying Israel’s concern was the United Nations' demand that it dismantle existing settlements. But Thatcher ignored this comment, merely saying that Begin was aware of her views.

Still other documents deal with Thatcher’s view of the PLO. In a letter to Begin in April 1980, for instance, she wrote the following:

“There is no change in our policy towards recognition of the PLO … nor do we accept their claim to be the sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinians. We do however accept that the Palestine Liberation Organisation is an important factor in the area and that at some stage they will have to be associated with negotiations. We have occasional contacts with PLO representatives at official level but there have been no discussions at Ministerial level. We continue to urge the PLO to renounce terrorism and to accept only the principle of a negotiated settlement in which Israel’s right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries will be fully accepted. No settlement will be possible unless the PLO is prepared to accept these principles.”

She concluded by expressing hope that Israel would “reconsider its present policy of planting settlements in the occupied territories and show itself ready to implement [UN] Resolution 242.”

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan in 1982. Credit: AP

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