Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East [book review]

Azriel Bermant’s subject book commences with the election of Margaret Thatcher as the UK Prime Minster in May 3, 1979. As such, it closely follows Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt on March 26, 1979, precedes Anwar Sadat’s assassination on October 6, 1981 and Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan on October 26, 1994.

Bermant’s book is extremely readable and carefully subdivided in meaningful chapters. The title, however, is misleading as the focus is essentially what has come to be known as the Arab – Israel conflict. All the key players are included and many lesser known facets addressed. The overall content is suitable for researchers.

In the introduction of the book, the author is able to capture the key issues in a way, which truly facilitates its reading. This applies to both the topics and the key players.

The author makes reference to Arnold Toynbee “who had exerted a strong influence on British Policy—-” This is true but ultimately, it was fully challenged by Israeli Ambassador to Canada, Yaacov Herzog in a famous debate at McGill University in Montreal on 31 January, 1961. In defending the essential nature of Jewry since the overthrow of the Hasmonian dynasty against Toynbee’s absurd theory of Jewry as a “fossil”, Herzog succeeded in destroying Toynbee’s credibility in public.

In attempting to assert that “from a moral standpoint, the attitude of Israel to the Arabs in 1947 and 1948 compared with the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews” Toynbee was elegantly and fully challenged by Herzog. The latter’s arguments extended through the Nuremberg Court of 1941, the 1947 United Nations decision on the partition of Palestine, the refugee problems, Israel’s democratic acceptance of the Arabs remaining after the War of Independence, the suffering caused by Arab governments, Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations on the right of self-defense, Gandhi,the Stern Gang, the Irgun, Deir Yassin, thirty years of the Mandate, the Rothschild Settlements,the Palestine question, the British Land Register,the Jewish people’s historical right to Israel, the continuity of Jewish residency in the land of Israel, the return to Israel, the rights through the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations, and the United Nations,1921 Transjordan separation, tenth century Jewish settlements in Palestine, repatriation, democracy and hatred.

In the words of Shneur Zalman Shazar, President of Israel 1963-1973, “The gauntlet had been thrown down before the entire Jewish people and the truth of history, and the young ambassador [Yaacov Herzog ] picked it up on the public platform, confronting the professor as an equal in McGill University” So much for Toynbee!

Bermant, referring to Thatcher taking positions that undermined the Begin government,, comments on “ her fierce condemnation of Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June, 1981.” Conor Cruise O’brien , representing Ireland on the UN Special Political Committee in 1956, in his own words, “found myself seated between the delegate from Iraq on my left, and the delegate for Israel on my right.”When discussing the IDF’s destruction of the reactor, which he describes as “ a spectacular, and brilliantly, executed, military operation”, he does not specifically single out Thatcher’s reaction.

In fact, O’brien states that International reaction to Operation Babylon was mostly indignant, but the indignation died rather rapidly. Iraq still mainly concerned with its war with Iran, took advantage of the situation, “to mend some fences with the United States.”

What comes through very strongly in the reading of Bermant’s book, is the absolute contempt in which Margaret Thatcher held for both Saddam Hussein and Arafat. This differs greatly from several of the American leaders, George Bush being an exception. One can find fault in America’s failure to reconstitute Iraq, as was done in Germany and Japan, but not the war itself.

Bermant points to Thatcher’s willingness to accept the the idea of a Palestinian state while harboring “ a strong dislike of the organization [PLO] and its leader Yasser Arafat.” He adds that throughout Thatcher’s time in 10 Downing Street, she insisted that she would never meet with Arafat. Apparently she modified her attitude towards the PLO in 1988.Then again, the British governments suspension of its dialog with the PLO in September 1990 was related to the Palestinian’s support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait; rather than its refusal to condemn terrorist attacks against Israel.

In the case of Saddam Hussein, Thatcher is quoted as saying, “Saddam was not only an international brigand, but he was also a loser who had done immense damage both to the Palestinian cause and to the Arabs.” no explanation is provided for this assertion. We also learn in this segment on Iraq’s Gulf War that Thatcher had a fallout with King Hussein who had opposed the US led action against Iraq. Apparently, she failed to understand his resentment over Washington’s unstinting support for Israeli policies and its refusal to grant Jordan political and financial assistance in its hour of need.

The book’s introductory remarks on the Thatcher – Begin interface reads, “Thatcher and Carrington’s meeting with Begin was a disaster.” At the time , 23rd May, 1978, barely two weeks after the Conservative party’s election, Begin attended a luncheon hosted by Thatcher at 10 Downing Street. Thatcher raised the matter of a peace settlement while to Begin her remarks appeared to indicate that her overriding concern in the Middle East was to prevent the Soviets consolidating their influence.

Begin made the case for Israel, adding that the Arabs were already enjoying self-determination in 22 sovereign states and that a former British prime minister, David Lloyd George, had recognized that Palestine belonged to the Jews. He also pointed out that both US President Jimmy Carter and Jordan’s King Hussein were opposed to a Palestinian state because it could pose a military threat to Israel. His and their fears did, in fact, manifest themselves as a consequence of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.

Throughout the relationship between Begin and Thatcher we are reminded of her recall of Begin’s record of violence during the mandate and that “she would never forgive Begin for the hanging of two British sergeants during the British mandate period.”

One can readily find praise for Azriel Bermant’s excellent book. He has succeeded in cramming an expansive view of history in but a few pages i.e. 257. Apart from the principal content, it includes a list of figures, list of maps,worthy acknowledgments, notes on pages, a bibliography and a well constructed index.

Where it fall short is in not exposing Margaret Thatcher’s apparent lack of knowledge of world history.
Yehuda Avner, in his book, The Prime Ministers” was able to address this surprising characteristic from his first hand contact with her. He visited Thatcher two years after she had been “ousted by her Conservative Party.” He did this in order to enquire if she would accept an honorary doctorate at the next Bar Ilan University conferment, which she did.

In her own words, recalling a meeting with Menachem Begin, Thatcher said, “He spoke bitterly about how the Allies had not bombed the railway lines to Auschwitz. And I have to tell you [this almost in sorrow] at the time of that luncheon, I was hardly aware of what Auschwitz truly was. I knew it was a concentration camp, but it was only later, when I visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, that I fully realized
it was a hideous death camp. It brought tears to my eyes.”

Avner, “You really did not know?”
Thatcher, “ Back then there were a number of things of which we were not as fully cognizant as we ought to have been about the Holocaust.” [said broodingly]
Avner, “One cannot begin to understand Menachem Begin without understanding the Holocaust. Virtually his whole family was exterminated. The Jewish helplessness and homelessness of those times
dominated his whole being. They were at the core of many of his policies.”
Thatcher, “So, remind me – when exactly was it that Mr. Begin first entered office?”
Avner, “In nineteen seventy-seven.”

Yehuda Avner then proceeded to fill Thatcher in on segments of Begin’s history; the 1944 British “hunting season”, the Altelena in 1944 etc. One would have thought that Thatcher would have read Begin’s book, “The Revolt” prior to her dealings with him!

Azriel Bermant’s conclusion speaks volumes and emphasizes the very reason for recommending the book. “The difficult misperceptions afflicting the relationship between Israel and Europe some thirty-five years ago have not dissipated. They are likely to remain with us in some form for some time to come as long as the conflict remains unresolved.”

About the Author
Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until departing for the US in 1977 where he spent 26 years. He is an engineering consultant. For 18 years he was employed by Westinghouse until age 60 whereupon he became self-employed. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon.
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