Don’t Believe the Hype: Thatcher's 'Friendship' With Israel Based on Pragmatism Not Love

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Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was one of many world leaders who paid tribute to Britain’s former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who died last week at the age of 87. He described  her as “A woman of principle, determination, strength and greatness”, as well as “a staunch friend of Israel and of the Jewish people.” Netanyahu’s admiration for Thatcher appears to be based upon her uncompromising leadership style, her strong belief in free markets and her defence of Western freedoms in the face of Soviet totalitarianism.

Yet Thatcher was a pragmatist on many foreign policy issues, and this certainly applied to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In her book "Statecraft", Thatcher wrote that she had always sought to avoid compromise because she associated it with an “abdication of principle”. Interestingly enough, she perceived that the Arab-Israeli conflict was one of the exceptions to this rule, because she believed that both parties had “unimpeachable moral cases.”

In the post-war years, the British Foreign Office had placed an emphasis on building strategic alliances with moderate Arab regimes. Stability in the Middle East was essential for Britain in order to protect its political and economic interests in the region. In view of concerns over the possible expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East, British mandarins believed that urgent measures had to be taken to ensure that Arab states would remain within the Western orbit. As a result, the Foreign Office took a cautious approach towards British relations with Israel, exemplified by restrictions on arms sales to the Jewish state, as a means to maintaining Arab support for Britain. Furthermore, it had always placed an emphasis on the urgent need for a comprehensive resolution of the Israel-Arab conflict, viewing this as a key to defusing regional tensions.

As a Member of Parliament for the London district of Finchley, with its relatively large Jewish population, Thatcher was influenced to some degree by the pro-Israel views of many of her constituents. On becoming leader of the Conservative party in 1975, concerns were expressed within the Foreign Office that Thatcher’s position as President of the Finchley Anglo-Israel Friendship League could damage Britain’s relations with the Arab world. One British official wrote that “It is presumably in the national interest to do what we can to counter Arab fears and suspicions that the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition is already a prisoner of the Zionists.”

However, such concerns were unfounded. Among Anglo-Jewish leaders, she was certainly viewed as a stalwart friend of Israel, while the Foreign Office was perceived as a hostile institution. However, recently declassified diplomatic files in both Britain and Israel show that the former Prime Minister was largely in agreement with the Foreign Office position on the Middle East.

While Thatcher greatly admired the State of Israel as a robust democracy, she never took a strong ideological position on the Arab-Israel conflict, unlike, say, the issue of Europe or even South Africa. With the breakdown of the East-West détente in 1979, policymakers were concerned to ensure that the Soviet Union would not exploit a Middle East stalemate to heighten its influence in the region. While Thatcher initially viewed Israel as a pro-Western asset that could fend off communist influence in the Middle East, she became increasingly alarmed by the policies of successive Likud governments. Throughout her time in office, Thatcher consistently opposed settlement expansion in the West Bank, since she realized that this would block any chances of a long-term understanding between Israel and the Palestinians. In one letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Thatcher drew his attention to the view of the Saudis and other Arab countries that “The whole Western position in the area was undermined by the Arab/Israel conflict and the failure to solve the Palestinian problem.” Thatcher was clearly echoing the sentiments of the Foreign Office.

Thatcher was also outspoken in her condemnation of Israel’s raid on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. In personal correspondence, she claimed that Iraq, unlike Israel, had acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and had agreed to subject its nuclear facilities to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). She asserted that Israel’s refusal to accede to the NPT, and its subsequent attack on the Osirak facility was “a setback to the cause of non-proliferation” Thatcher’s position on the Israeli raid was related to her understanding that Iraq had gradually been moving away from the Soviets and seeking closer ties with the West.

The received wisdom is that Thatcher was uncompromising in her stand against terrorists. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that Thatcher could also be flexible on this issue. For example, during talks with representatives of Britain’s Board of Deputies of British Jews in November 1979, Thatcher refused to rule out dealings with the PLO. Thatcher stated that “she had an intellectual problem” when she spoke of no recognition of the PLO. The Prime Minister was aware that her own position on terrorism was inconsistent, since she had recently authorized talks with terrorists in Zimbabwe in order to achieve peace there. Thatcher told the delegation that she might one day have to deal with the PLO for the same reason.

On the one hand, Thatcher was opposed to Foreign Office attempts to initiate high-level ministerial contacts with the PLO. In her talks with Jordan’s King Hussein, she demonstrated a strong interest in encouraging an alternative moderate Palestinian voice to the PLO. On the other hand, she endorsed the EEC Venice Declaration of June 1980 which supported a role for the PLO in peace negotiations. She allowed the PLO to hold an office in London, and British diplomats were able to meet freely with representatives of the organization both in the UK and abroad. Thatcher’s authorization of talks between her Foreign Office Minister, Douglas Hurd, and the PLO’s Farouk Kaddoumi in 1982 represented a breakthrough in British policy towards the organization. In November 1988, Thatcher encouraged the Reagan Administration to open talks with the PLO, and finally approved a higher-level dialogue the following month once the organization had renounced terrorism and implicitly recognized Israel. Thus, even on the vexed issue of terrorism, Thatcher was a pragmatist.

In essence, Thatcher’s perspective on Israel was not dissimilar to the position taken today by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel – another European stateswoman who has shown both genuine friendship and a readiness to tell Israel home truths. In spite of her criticisms, Thatcher has always been viewed as a friend of Israel and the Jews, because of her identification with the Jewish state, her record on Soviet Jewry, her strong admiration for Jewish values and her defence of Western freedoms. In other words, her criticisms of Israel have been overlooked largely because of the perception that her heart was in the right place.

Dr Azriel Bermant is a Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. He is writing a book on Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East.

Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Margaret Thatcher in Jerusalem in 1998.Credit: GPO
The coffin of British former prime minister Margaret Thatcher rests in the Crypt Chapel of St Mary Undercroft beneath the Houses of Parliament in central London on April 16, 2013.Credit: AFP

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