Timid leaders could learn from Thatcher on dealing with a crisis in Israel

Published by The i paper (30th October, 2023)

Two years after becoming prime minister, Margaret Thatcher gave an interview to The Jewish Chronicle about her forceful condemnation of an Israeli attack on a nuclear reactor in Iraq. She said such actions caused “great grief” for the country’s friends by cutting the ground from under their feet, explaining how her opposition to such aggression was rooted in a passion for freedom and contempt for terrorism. “I believe firmly in fair dealing and fair principles,” she said. “Don’t you see, if I openly condemn the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] for terrorism, I have to condemn everyone for the use of violence and terrorism?”

This attack in 1981 was defended by Israel’s leadership on the basis of thwarting development of weapons of mass destruction. “There won’t be another Holocaust in history,” said the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, leader of the Likud Party. “Never again.”

Such statements did not intimidate his British counterpart. “If we are not going to live by a system of international law, we are going to live by international anarchy. Then no people anywhere in the world are safe,” responded Thatcher, saying this sentiment drove her desire for Middle East peace. “You cannot be selective in your defence of law – you cannot say: ‘I like that law, I will uphold that one, I will not uphold the other.’”

Her words have eerie resonance reading them four decades later as Israeli forces step up an assault on Gaza under another Likud leader and hopes of peace shrivel further. The circumstances today are very different as Israel responds to atrocities committed against citizens on its soil – and as Thatcher said in that interview, every country has the right to defend itself. Yet every bomb, every bullet, every death, takes that tormented region further from peace. And we must not forget British people are both hostages and stuck inside Gaza.

Thatcher’s resolve that Israel should respect democratic values and international law offer sharp contrast to the pusillanimous response of both Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer to the latest unfolding horrors in the Middle East. Her stance is all the more instructive when she is rightly seen as such a firm supporter of Israel, a nation she admired as an oasis of democracy and enterprise surrounded by autocracies, and her philosemitism went far beyond the representing of Finchley with its many Jewish constituents. “I simply did not understand antisemitism,” she wrote in her memoirs.

This dated to her teenage years – and what she called her greatest accomplishment in helping rescue a young woman from the Nazis in 1939. Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Austrian, wrote asking to stay with her pen pal – the future prime minister’s big sister Muriel – and in response, the family worked with their local Rotary Club to raise funds for her travel and lodging in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Margaret was shocked when their “very sophisticated” guest – who shared a room with her at one point – detailed Jews being forced to scrub the streets. “She told us what it was like to live as a Jew under an antisemitic regime,” recalled Thatcher later.

This was, bear in mind, a time of bigotry in Westminster and open prejudice barring Jews from public places; indeed, she joined one protest as a young Tory politician against a golf club excluding Jewish people. Several members of Edith’s family were murdered in the Holocaust, so she believed she might have died too without the intervention of that grocer’s family in Lincolnshire. “Never hesitate to do whatever you can, for you may save a life,” said Thatcher.

When Thatcher died 10 years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu hailed her as “a staunch friend of Israel and of the Jewish people”. She admired the values of the community in Britain, saying that in 33 years representing Finchley: “I never had a Jew come in poverty and desperation to one of my surgeries.” She was a supporter of Soviet Jewry, pushing their cause in Moscow. She promoted many Jewish ministers. And she was such a strident backer of Israel that some British diplomats fretted she might damage relations with the Arab world.

But Thatcher was a pragmatist and accepted both parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict had what she termed “unimpeachable moral cases”. She opposed the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, seeing them as a barrier to peace. In 1980, just one year after entering Downing Street, she backed a landmark European declaration to Begin’s fury that called for an end to Israel’s “territorial occupation” and the PLO to have a role in peace talks. Two years later she authorised foreign office talks with PLO leaders despite fierce public hostility to terrorism amid the raging conflict in Northern Ireland.

Her views on the Middle East even led to friction with Washington after she pushed the United States to talk to the PLO, warning that its uncritical support for Israel was hampering a peace process that needed to be rooted on justice for Palestinians. She condemned Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, comparing it with Argentina’s attack on the Falklands two months earlier. Then she spoke out against “pure barbarism” when war crimes were committed after Israeli forces allowed their allies to massacre civilians in two refugee camps.

Thatcher’s foreign policy and stand against racial bigotry were far from perfect, as seen in South Africa. She governed also in a very different era. Yet, she respected the rule of law and knew the real meaning of friendship between nations. As fears grow that Israel has rushed into a trap set by Hamas and Iran with its siege and savage pounding of Gaza, our current generation of leaders on all sides of the political spectrum might do well to learn from her moral clarity on these issues.

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