As with all her objects of affection, Israel received bags of tough love
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Margaret Thatcher with Menachem Begin in 1979 (Photo: Sidney Harris)
Margaret Thatcher entered office as a great admirer of Israel, and remained so in the years after she left 10 Downing Street. Not only that, but during her second term, Anglo-Israeli relations reached an all-time high when she became the first British Prime Minister to visit Israel while in office, in May 1986.
During her first three years in office, however, Mrs Thatcher’s relationship with the Jewish state was put to the test. She was elected in May 1979, only a short time after Israel and Egypt had signed their historic peace treaty. The euphoria quickly evaporated as it became clear to the British government that Menachem Begin was not interested in making meaningful concessions towards the Palestinians.
Mrs Thatcher had endorsed the EEC Venice Declaration of June 13 1980 which called for Palestinian self-determination and an end to Israel’s “territorial occupation”, as well as a role for the PLO in peace negotiations. Mr Begin was fiercely opposed to the European initiative.
Distrust between the two countries then rose following Britain’s condemnation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. The Israelis viewed Britain as the leading party behind the European decision to impose an arms embargo on Israel.
By 1984, change was in the air. Shimon Peres was elected Prime Minister and spent two years in a national unity government with Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir as Foreign Minister. Mrs Thatcher moved to strengthen the dovish Mr Peres, viewing him and Jordan’s King Hussein as the great hopes for a regional peace settlement.
Mrs Thatcher perceived her historic visit to Israel as an opportunity to strengthen Mr Peres and win public support for his policies. Thousands of Israelis thronged the streets to welcome the British leader. The British Ambassador to Israel, William Squire, wrote that Mrs Thatcher’s visit had been a “personal triumph” in its impact on Israeli public opinion.
Mrs Thatcher intensely disliked the PLO, and this applied to all terrorist groups, yet she invited two PLO officials to London in October 1985 in a bid to encourage a process of moderation within the organisation. Both Mr Peres and Mr Shamir were strongly opposed to the initiative, although it later fell through since one of the officials refused to renounce terrorism.
During Mrs Thatcher’s third term, ties with Israel cooled as the influence of Mr Peres withered within Israel’s government. In the course of 1987, she actively encouraged the Reagan administration to support the Peres-Hussein London Agreement which was designed to bring about an international peace conference.
Since Mr Shamir was opposed to the London Agreement, the Americans refused to get involved. Mrs Thatcher was very disappointed and dismayed by the Reagan administration’s coolness towards Mr Peres and King Hussein. She feared that a regional stalemate would heighten instability and undermine the position of Britain’s moderate Arab allies.
Mrs Thatcher approved an upgraded dialogue with the PLO in December 1988 following Yasser Arafat’s renunciation of violence and his implicit recognition of Israel. Indeed, she refused to cut off ties with the PLO in June 1990 in the wake of an aborted terrorist attack, maintaining that no peace settlement was possible if the group was excluded. In the same year, she condemned the settlement of Russian immigrants in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, antagonising many in the Anglo-Jewish community.
However, this did not mean that she had turned against Israel during her last months in office. On the contrary, she was a leading opponent of diplomatic efforts to draw a link between a resolution of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mrs Thatcher insisted in the Commons that the two cases were different: Kuwait had never attacked anyone before it was occupied by Iraq. In the second case, Jordan had attacked Israel during the 1967 war. Mrs Thatcher’s statement was a reflection of her sympathy towards Israel, irrespective of her differences with Likud policies.
Azriel Bermant is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He is writing a book on Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East