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Review: Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East by Azriel Bermant

Cambridge University Press, £64.99

    There is little about which Israel’s political leadership agrees, but the death of Margaret Thatcher, three years ago, brought about a rare moment of consensus. From left and right, the former Prime Minister was lauded as a friend of the Jewish state and its people.

    The plaudits were deserved but, as Azriel Bermant suggests, the picture was more complex than the tributes suggested. One of Mrs Thatcher’s first foreign visitors after she entered Downing Street was Menachem Begin. It was not a meeting of minds.

    Despite her attempts to reassure him — “We only think of the good of Israel, we are friends,” Mrs Thatcher stated as she, Begin and her Foreign Secretary rowed about settlements and the future of the West Bank — it set the seal on a distinctly frosty relationship during much of her first term in office.

    Begin was furious at her decision to join other European leaders in signing the Venice Declaration recognising the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and suggesting that the PLO be “associated” with any future negotiations.
    Mrs Thatcher, in turn, was full-throated in her condemnation of the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor and the invasion of Lebanon.

    Nor did it escape Jerusalem’s notice that, on her watch, restrictions were imposed on arms sales to Israel, even as Britain hawked its mili tary wares to Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As Bermant convincingly argues, the strategic importance of bolstering Britain’s moderate allies and, especially in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan, fending off Soviet expansionism in the region, often outweighed the fear of upsetting the Israeli government or the Jewish community.

    If she despaired of Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Thatcher grasped the opportunity afforded by Shimon Peres’s short stint as PM in the mid-1980s to try to advance the peace process: using her strong per sonal relationships with Peres and King Hussein of Jordan to act as a “bridge” between the two while, albeit largely unsuccessfully, tirelessly lobbying the Reagan administration to seize the moment she had identified. Her visit to Israel in 1986 was consciously designed to bolster Peres domestically.

    Whatever tensions existed with the three men who served as PM during her time in Downing Street, Thatcher’s basic commitment to Israel was not in doubt.

    It is in exploring its roots that this well-written, meticulously researched book sometimes falls a little short. The story of Edith Muhlbauer, the refugee whom the young Margaret Roberts’s family helped to escape from Austria in 1939, and whose plight instilled in the future Prime Minister a life-long detestation of antisemitism, goes untold.

    Likewise, her deep admiration for Jewish values, her close friendship with Immanuel Jakobovits (with whom, as was often the case, she saw eye-to-eye on Israel) and the importance of part nerships with Jewish Tories, notably her political mentor, Sir Keith Joseph.

    As Malcolm Rifkind — one of six Jews she would later appoint to her Cabinet — wrote after Mrs Thatcher’s first visit to Israel after becoming Opposition leader: “Israel is, in many ways, the embodiment of many of Margaret Thatcher’s own values. Self-help, hard work and an interesting combination of stubbornness and enterprise would be an appropriate description of both Israel and the Leader of the Conservative Party.”

    These matters are not central to the author’s task embodied in his title but, without such full context, Mrs Thatcher’s Middle East policy is less explicable and, perhaps, less interesting.

    Robert Philpot’s book on Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Jewish community will be published next year

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