Revealed

Mubarak, Thatcher and Reagan Secretly Negotiated a Solution to the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Declassified documents show Egypt's ex-president and Britain's Thatcher discussed a resettlement plan for Palestinians fleeing conflict in Lebanon, on the condition of Palestinian statehood

Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greets Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak inside 10 Downing Street, London on March 14, 1985 where they had talks.
Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greets Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak inside 10 Downing Street, London on March 14, 1985 where they had talks. Roy Letkey/Reuters

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak held a discreet meeting with Britain's then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982 in which he said his country could take in displaced Palestinians fleeing the civil war in Lebanon, on the condition that a solution would be found to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Rare documents dating back to the high-profile and secret meeting held thirty five years were obtained by the BBC via the U.K.'s Freedom of Information Act and revealed on Thursday.

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According to the declassified records, Mubarak had also met with ally and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan to discuss an American push to relocate Palestinians trying to escape war-torn southern Lebanon to Egypt.

Following that parley, Mubarak flew to the U.K. to meet Thatcher, who he then told he would only accept such an endeavor "as part of a comprehensive framework for a solution" to the Palestinian problem; in other words, Mubarak stipulated the move on a deal that would end the Arab-Israeli conflict and work to establish an independent Palestinian state.

Mubarak also told the U.S. ambassador to Egypt at the time, Philip Habib, that "by making the Palestinians leave Lebanon" without striking a deal to resolve the conflict, "the United States risked a dozen difficult problems in various countries."

Thatcher's reaction was initially negative. The British premier expressed concern that Palestinian statehood would actively jeopardize Israel's security. She was also worried that Palestinians would be encouraged to put military personnel along the borders of a theoretical Palestinian state close to Israel.

Thatcher also told the Egyptian president that "even the establishment of a Palestinian state could not lead to the absorption of the whole of the Palestinian diaspora." But, Egypt countered Thatcher's reservations, with the country's then-Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Boutros Ghali telling the British prime minister that "the Palestinians will have their own passports, however, and they will take different positions.

"We should not only have an Israeli state and a Jewish diaspora, but a small Palestinian state and Palestinian diaspora," Ghali added.

The Egyptians also tried to reassure Thatcher that a Palestinian state would be small in size and would not pose a political, regional threat.

Another hurdle Thatcher foresaw was that Russia, an avid supporter of the Palestinian cause even prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, would try to intervene in the emerging political process.

Mubarak's political adviser, Osama al-Baz, told Thatcher that the Palestinians were not likely to seek support from Moscow. Thatcher's fear, he told her, "was a misconception." He insisted that a "Palestinian state would never be dominated by the Soviet Union. It would be economically dependent on the oil-rich Arabs who were vehemently opposed to a pro-Soviet state."

"Saudi Arabia for one will never allow it," al-Baz predicted.

Trying to ease Thatcher's concerns, the documents show that Mubarak told Thatcher that "a Palestinian state will never be a threat to Israel. The Palestinians in Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf will never return to a Palestinian state."

The Palestinian state discussed between Britain and Egypt was slated to operate in a confederation with Jordan, and according to that plan the Palestinians would remain connected to Jordan and "evolve within 10 to 15 years into a demilitarized Palestinian state," Egyptian adviser al-Baz suggested.

But while the Palestinians did join a confederation with Jordan, conflicts with Israel did not abate in the following decades. The proposed plans did not bear fruit, mostly due to the tense reality on the ground and because of reluctance on the British side.  

The issue of a Palestinian statehood remains a point of contention between the Israeli government and Palestinian factions in the West Bank and in Gaza, which are now forming an accord to end their decade-long dispute and forge a united leadership for the Palestinian people.