LONDON − Acolytes of the late British prime minister are called Thatcherites in the English press, but in Hebrew the word is Thatcherist. Benjamin Netanyahu is routinely branded a Thatcherist by his Israeli rivals. But while there are some similarities between the prime minister’s financial policies and the program pursued by Margaret Thatcher, who passed away on Monday in London, Thatcherism is much more than just a socioeconomic approach.
Even the Iron Lady’s most vitriolic detractors − those who see her as being responsible for millions of Britons losing their livelihoods and for the destruction of hundreds of communities throughout the land − cannot deny that her leadership was resolute, brave and devastatingly efficient. She was never afraid to express her beliefs; without taking public opinion into account, she drove to make her vision a reality.
Netanyahu announced on Monday that he “mourns” Lady Thatcher’s death and is planning to attend her funeral this Wednesday. “She inspired a whole generation of political leaders,” he said, but this inspiration seems to have lain very lightly on him. The poll-haunted, zigzagging and stuttering premiership of Netanyahu is anything but Thatcherist. The way he signed the lopsided prisoner exchange deal to release Gilad Shalit − a move in complete contradiction of his security strategy − just to reverse Likud’s plummeting ratings in the wake of the social protests, would have been entirely foreign to Thatcher.
Thatcher was never deterred from turning the public against her when she felt she was right. She won three general elections and transformed British society despite having been, for long periods of her rule, the prime minister with the lowest popularity rating since the war.
Thatcher, though, could also be a pragmatist, even if it meant enraging her party’s core constituents. She led an uncompromising front against Irish Republican terror, but still signed − in 1985, a year after the IRA tried to assassinate her by detonating a bomb in a Brighton hotel − an agreement with the Irish government, giving it a say in the northern province, to the distress of Protestant nationalists. Thatcher was a tough negotiator of budgets with European community leaders, but she was also one of the main forces behind the creation of the single market and expanding the European Union to new nations, despite the strong Euro-skeptic influence within her party. Compare that with Netanyahu’s consistent failure to take on the pro-settler lobby within Likud.
Thatcher also succeeded in making President Ronald Reagan − despite his dramatically contrasting character − into a personal friend and partner, while not hesitating to stand up to him when she felt the need. She embarked on a military campaign against Argentina to regain the Falklands Islands in 1982, despite the U.S. administration’s urging for diplomacy, and sternly denounced America’s 1983 invasion of former British colony Grenada. Netanyahu has earned the loathing of the two U.S. presidents he has worked with and still cannot withstand their pressure − as was made clear last month when Barack Obama forced him to make a belated apology to Turkey.
Thatcher was blamed, with some justification, for making enemies of a whole class of workers from northern England, Wales and Scotland by closing the coal mines and shutting down entire industrial sectors. But she cannot be blamed for having done so on behalf of the old ruling class. Thatcher was not one of them. She despised those who were “to the manor born,” ignored the Church of England, despaired of the Oxford (her alma mater) and Cambridge intelligentsia, and had frosty relations ever with the royal family. She created a new aspiring middle class of people, from all parts of society, who wanted to get ahead and make loads of money. They were greedy but enjoyed no special birthrights.
Netanyahu, on the other hand − and despite his Revisionist origins − is the quintessential product of the old Ashkenazi elite. Not only has he failed at advancing Israel’s middle class, his entire political career has been built on exacerbating the country’s social divides. He pays lip service to Israel’s sense of entrepreneurship, but in reality no prime minister has done more to isolate the ultra-Orthodox community from the workplace as Netanyahu has through his alliances with Shas and United Torah Judaism. How ironic that while Thatcher admired “the Jewish emphasis on self-help and acceptance of personal responsibility” and called upon others to learn from the way Britain’s Jews had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps without waiting for government handouts, her admirer Netanyahu is the staunch ally of those Jews who insist on consigning an entire community to a life of poverty, ignorance and dependency.
He may be a Thatcherist, but he is certainly no Thatcherite.
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