British policy toward Zionism and Israel has been a 100-year roller-coaster, from the triumphant Balfour Declaration to the depths of the 1939 White Paper, and back again to Margaret Thatcher — the first British prime minister to visit the Jewish state, and famously pro-Israel.
Or was she?
Tel Aviv University lecturer Azriel Bermant’s new book “Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East” (Cambridge) draws on recently released British and Israeli government papers to reveal the truth about Margaret Thatcher’s Middle East policy and reassess her famous battles with the Arabists of Britain’s Foreign Office.
Author Elliot Jager’s book “The Balfour Declaration: Sixty-Seven Words – 100 Years of Conflict” (Gefen), explores the myriad of influences and personalities who came together at a pivotal point in history to issue the famous founding charter of the Jewish national home.
The two authors will reflect on the past century of Anglo-Zionist relations at a public discussion, in English, produced with the Sir Naim Dangoor Center for UK/Israel Relations at Mishkenot Sha’ananim on Tuesday, February 27. Tickets are available HERE.
Although Thatcher’s personal sympathies were pro-Israel, when it came to concrete policy “there was very little difference between the way she saw things and the way the Foreign Office saw things,” says Bermant.
Even as UK policy seemed to diverge from Israel’s – opposing Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, denouncing settlements, supporting arms and AWACs deals with Saudi Arabia, softening the UK’s rejection of the PLO – Thatcher was still lauded as a great friend.
“She went along with it, and once she endorsed it, the Israelis and the Jewish community blamed the Foreign Office. Thatcher never got the blame,” Bermant says.
She also urged US president Ronald Reagan to throw his weight behind Shimon Peres and King Hussein of Jordan to bolster the forces of moderation in the region against the threat of Soviet influence. Thatcher’s historic visit to Israel in 1986 was as much to try and help Shimon Peres as it was to show support for Israel.
“She saw Begin and then Shamir as hardliners,” and was frustrated by Reagan’s refusal to try and influence internal Israeli politics, says Bermant.
“She warned the Americans that if they didn’t take a more active stance, trying to support the moderates and help Peres and Hussein, it was going to be damaging for Western interests.”
When the British Jewish community asked Thatcher to attend the 70th anniversary celebration of the Balfour Declaration in 1987, by which time Shamir was Israel’s prime minister, she refused.
“Right at the beginning she saw Israel as a strategic asset against the Soviets, but over time she was more concerned that the failure to resolve the Arab-Palestinian conflict was creating a problem for the West. The geopolitical issue came very much to the fore,” Bermant says.
But the promises in the Balfour Declaration were weighing on British policy long before Thatcher, says Jager.
“As soon as the key players who were behind the Balfour Declaration left the scene and their powers waned, that was it,” says Jager. “The British were determined to undo the Balfour Declaration. They found themselves in a bind. They discovered the animus of the Arab world and they decided they were going to backtrack.”
The declaration, says Jager, was the result of many factors, of “the right people being in the right place at the right time, pushing a policy that the British saw as being in their national interest and were also philosophically comfortable with.”
As soon as World War I ended, and the British political leadership changed, British policy changed. The stars that had aligned to produce the declaration never re-appeared in the same constellation.
“It’s not like there were ebbs and flows,” he says. “There were some who made some noises about not backtracking, but in essence they were backtracking, and that’s it. That’s the whole story. They backtracked to the point where they reversed it.”
Join us for what promises to be a fascinating evening.
BRITAIN & ZIONISM: BALFOUR TO THATCHER
AZRIEL BERMANT & ELLIOT JAGER
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 27
Tickets NIS 40 HERE
Sunday, March 18
Kipat Barzel English Premiere
Creator Avner Bernheimer interviewed by Jessica Steinberg
7:30 p.m., Jerusalem Cinematheque
Produced along with Nefesh B’Nefesh
Wednesday, March 21
Becoming Israeli: The Hysterical, Inspiring and Challenging Sides of Making Aliyah
Moderator: Sarah Tuttle-Singer
Panel: Akiva Gersh, Talya Amira Woolf and Shira Pasternak Be’eri
8 p.m., Beit Krinitsi, 64 Krinitsi, Ramat Gan
Produced along with the Ramat Gan City Council
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