Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday at the age of 87, was an ardent philo-Semite. The Finchley constituency she represented from 1959 to 1992 was a factor in her strong relationship with the Jewish community in Britain. When Thatcher first became the local MP in 1959, it was believed that about 20 percent of the constituency was Jewish.
However, it would be deeply misleading to claim that her Finchley constituency was the main reason for her support of Jewish causes. It has been claimed that her sympathies toward Jews went back to the 1930s, when she shared her childhood home with her sister’s pen-pal, Edith, an Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazis. Edith’s plight would have strengthened Thatcher’s identification with Jewish suffering. She had great admiration for what she perceived as traditional Jewish values such as family, responsibility and self-help.
Thatcher was a great admirer of the chief rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, Sir (later Lord) Immanuel Jakobovits, and shared his belief in self-help and individual responsibility. Indeed, her reverence for Jakobovits could be contrasted with the derision she felt for the then-archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. There was also a large number of Jews who served in the various Thatcher governments.
It is therefore no surprise that Thatcher was also a great admirer of the State of Israel. She viewed Israel as a democratic, Western place surrounded by autocracies. Her daughter, Carol, had been a kibbutz volunteer. Thatcher’s admiration for Israel is expressed clearly in her memoirs: “The political and economic construction of Israel against huge odds and bitter adversaries is one of the heroic sagas of our age. They really made the desert bloom.” Moreover, the views of Israel’s supporters within the Finchley constituency would not have gone unnoticed by Thatcher.
Yet Thatcher did not view the Arab-Israel conflict in black-and-white terms. While she understood the dilemmas facing Israel, she was also from the generation that lived through the Mandate period. Thatcher’s hostile attitude toward Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir (both prime ministers during her time in office) was influenced to some degree by their violent actions against the British prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.
Thatcher was a concerned friend of Israel. She feared that the continued failure to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict would be damaging both for Israel and western interests, in general. Her strong ideological opposition to the Soviet Union became an increasingly influential factor in her Middle East policy. The prime minister was worried that the Soviets would exploit their support for the Palestinians as a means to build influence in the Arab world at the expense of the West.
The Thatcher government’s Middle East policy was dictated mainly by concerns over threats to the stability of the moderate Arab states. Thatcher may have enjoyed a warm relationship with the Reagan administration, but serious differences emerged over the approach toward Israel’s Likud leadership. Thatcher was angered by the settlement-building policy supported by both Begin and Shamir. She believed it would damage any chance of a comprehensive peace agreement in the region. Thus, Thatcher did everything she could to support the dovish Shimon Peres who served for two years as prime minister in Israel’s National Unity Coalition Government of 1984-1988.
She strongly believed that a diplomatic solution rested on the shoulders of Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein. Like Peres, she was convinced that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could best be resolved within the framework of a federation with Jordan rather than through an independent Palestinian State. Thatcher saw eye to eye with the Foreign Office on the need to strengthen Peres at the expense of Shamir. This approach was unsuccessful since the Reagan administration was unwilling to exert pressure on Shamir to make concessions to the Palestinians. Within seven months of the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada in December 1987, Hussein had cut his links to the West Bank, with the more radical PLO becoming the new address for negotiations with the Palestinian side.
Thatcher was often critical of Israel when she addressed Jewish audiences. For example, in December 1981, she strongly condemned Israel’s decision to annex the Golan Heights during an address before the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Yet these audiences accepted her criticism since they believed that it came from a candid friend. When similar criticisms were made by figures such as Lord Carrington, the first foreign secretary of the Thatcher era, there was often bitter resentment among Anglo-Jewish leaders.
Thatcher was also an outspoken supporter of Soviet Jewry. In May 1986, she became the first British prime minister to visit Israel while in office. During her visit, Thatcher paid tribute to the Jewish state’s “remarkable achievements” while also telling Israelis that they would only find security by recognizing “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”
‘A future in which two classes of people have to co-exist with different rights and different standards is surely not one which Israel can accept, nor one which Israel’s reputation allows.’
At a dinner given by Peres in Jerusalem, Thatcher told her audience, “Because of your own high standards, more is expected of Israel than of other countries, and that is why the world looks to Israel to safeguard the rights of Arabs in the occupied territories, in accordance with the principles which Israel respects and demands should be respected elsewhere. A future in which two classes of people have to co-exist with different rights and different standards is surely not one which Israel can accept, nor one which Israel’s reputation allows.”
If this sounds familiar, it might be because identical sentiments were found in President Barack Obama’s recent address to Israeli students during his visit to the Jewish State. Perhaps the US president has taken a leaf out of Thatcher’s book? Although the late prime minister would not have seen eye to eye with Obama’s domestic policies, she would surely have agreed strongly with his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
Dr. Azriel Bermant is a Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv and a diplomatic historian. He is currently writing a book on Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East.