Monday 15 April 2024

Reflect On Her Example

For all their drama, and barring an Israeli counter-escalation, the weekend’s events do not change the course of the Gaza War. Six months in, the campaign has been a disaster for all concerned, apart from Iran and its regional allies. The suffering has primarily been borne by Gaza’s Palestinian population, more than 33,000 of whom, including 13,000 children, have been killed, in figures from Gaza’s Health Ministry accepted as accurate by Israel’s intelligence services, if not its Western supporters.

Yet Israel, too, has very little to show for its incursion, launched with sudden fury, but no discernible exit plan. As the IDF has withdrawn the vast majority of its troops, the Hamas leadership remains intact, the group can still fire rockets into Israel and is still killing Israeli soldiers on the ground. Netanyahu’s fragile Right-wing coalition — which survived months of mass protests even before Hamas’s brutal October rampage — is increasingly unpopular within Israel, with 71% of Israelis desiring him to step down.

Even as Netanyahu, against the Biden administration’s expressed will, pledges to launch an assault on Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees have fled, his own defence minister openly contradicts him, asserting that no date for the operation has been set. When even the most committed American supporters of Israel, such as the New York Times’s Bret Stephens, and Thomas Friedman, feel compelled to state that “In a thousand years, Jews will remember Netanyahu’s name with scorn” for his “utterly insane strategy” which has “locked Israel into a politically unwinnable war”, it looks increasingly apparent that Israel’s conduct of the Gaza War will be remembered by history as a diplomatic and strategic error of historic proportions.

Yet there is very little reflection of these dynamics to be found in British conservative discourse which, for parochial culture-war reasons, committed itself to Israel’s ill-thought-out campaign early on and now finds itself held hostage by Netanyahu’s ineptitude. Like much of Britain’s talk-show populism, as a political strategy it is not a very popular one: even a plurality of Conservative voters now believes Britain should withhold arms sales to Israel, a debate roiling our moribund Conservative Party. While the optics of simultaneously dropping aid on Gaza and arming Israel indeed look absurd, in truth British arms sales represent only a miniscule fraction of Israel’s military capabilities, with the increasingly heated debate on both sides existing in a purely symbolic realm. Britain has no cause to enter this war, yet our political class seems determined nevertheless to reap all the domestic turmoil involvement would bring. Indeed, the full-throttle support for Israel’s war displayed by Suella Braverman or the Daily Mail columnist Boris Johnson is worthy of analysis for its pure novelty. It signifies a partisan approach to the Middle East’s most intractable conflict that is a startling divergence from a century of British, and particularly Tory, policy.

For a party that has failed to escape Thatcher’s long shadow, afflicted in its dotage with a cargo-cult weakness for matronly blondes of dubious merit, perhaps what is most remarkable is how far the current Conservative Party’s aspiring populist wing diverges from Thatcher’s own approach to the conflict. Following its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a disaster that she correctly foresaw would birth new and harder threats to both the Western order and Israel’s own security, Thatcher placed an embargo on British weapons sales to Israel, a policy that was not lifted until 1994. Her rationale, as she told ITN, was that Israeli troops had “gone across the borders of Israel, a totally independent country, which is not a party to the hostility and there are very very great hostilities, bombing, terrible things happening there. Of course one has to condemn them. It is someone else’s country. You must condemn that. After all, that is why we have gone to the Falklands, to repossess our country which has been taken by someone else.”

A famously unsentimental woman, Thatcher framed the conflict in terms that seem strikingly empathetic to today’s eyes. In 1985, she visited an “utterly hopeless” Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, where, as she recounts in her 1993 memoirs, The Downing Street Years, “I talked to one old lady, half blind, lying in the shade of a tree outside her family’s hut. She was said to be about 100. But she had one thing above all on her mind, and spoke about it: the restoration of the Palestinians’ rights.” For Thatcher — perhaps counterintuitively, viewed through the prism of today’s Conservative party — the “plight of the landless Palestinians” was a major foreign-policy concern. Under her helm, the British government worked hard to bring about a peace deal, though her efforts were frustrated at every turn by both Israeli and American intransigence: as she “scrawled” on one cable from the British ambassador in Washington: “The US just does not realise the resentment she is causing in the Middle East.”

Striving to find a workable peace, Thatcher asserted the only possible solution to the conflict was an approach which balanced “the right of all the states in the region — including Israel — to existence and security, but also demanded justice for all peoples, which implied recognition of of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination”. Writing of her visit to Israel in 1986, the first by a British prime minister, Thatcher remarked that “The Israelis knew… that they were dealing with someone who harboured no lurking hostility towards them, who understood their anxieties, but who was not going to pursue an unqualified Zionist approach.” Instead, she “believed that the real challenge was to strengthen moderate Palestinians, probably in association with Jordan, who would eventually push aside the… extremists. But this would never happen if Israel did not encourage it; and the miserable conditions under which Arabs on the West Bank and in Gaza were having to live only made things worse.”

The British-Jewish historian Azriel Bermant’s excellent 2016 book, Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East, makes for enlightening and perhaps discomfiting reading in the light of the Gaza War. An idealistic supporter of both Anglo-Jewry and Israel, whose own daughter Carol volunteered on a kibbutz, Thatcher nevertheless approached the country with a critical detachment. With a keener eye to Israel’s internal dynamics than Braverman or Johnson, Thatcher viewed the Right-wing Likud leaders Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Shamir with distaste, as former terrorists against the British state with whom she was forced to deal by circumstance. Her preference throughout was for the Labor leader Shimon Peres who she viewed as a moderate, committed to a lasting peace settlement. To Thatcher, peace would entail not an independent Palestinian state — she thought this unviable, and most probably undesirable — but the incorporation of the West Bank and Gaza under the rule of Jordan’s Anglophile King Hussein.

Yet when Thatcher signed on to an European Community declaration of support for Palestinian statehood, just days after the PLO confirmed its commitment to the destruction of Israel, and was condemned for this by the Labour leader Jim Callaghan — British attitudes on the conflict were yet to assume their present form — Thatcher responded in robust terms. “The words in the communiqué I support entirely,” she told the House. “They concern the right of the Palestinian people to determine their own future. If one wishes to call that ‘self- determination’, I shall not quarrel with it. I am interested that the Right Hon. Gentleman appears to be attempting to deny that right. I do not understand how anyone can demand a right for people on one side of a boundary and deny it to people on the other side of that boundary. That seems to deny certain rights, or to allocate them with discrimination from one person to another.”

Strikingly, Thatcher condemned Israel for its annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria, for its attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear power plant, and for its seizure of Palestinian land for settlements, including the housing of Soviet Jewish refugees: as she told the House in 1990, “Soviet Jews who leave the Soviet Union – and we have urged for years that they should be allowed to leave – should not be settled in the Occupied Territories or in East Jerusalem. It undermines our position when those people are settled in land that really belongs to others.” Indeed, as she later remarked in her memoirs, “I only wished that Israeli emphasis on the human rights of the Russian refuseniks was matched by proper appreciation of the plight of landless and stateless Palestinians.” With such sentiments, it is doubtful that today’s self-proclaimed Thatcherites would find a prominent place for Thatcher herself in their nascent faction.

While Thatcher’s views on Israel were balanced by the need to placate opinion in her 20% Jewish seat — the stated “Finchley factor” frequently cropped up in moments of self-doubt — her moderate stance on the conflict was sustained by the diversity of opinion then held by British Jews on Israel’s conduct. As Bermant notes: “Within British Jewry, the consensus on Israel had been seriously eroded with the invasion of Lebanon and, particularly, in the wake of the Sabra and Shatila massacre,” with the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, releasing a statement condemning the massacre, while “an editorial in the Anglo-Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle, called on Begin and Sharon to resign in the wake of the killings”. In some ways, it could be argued that British Jewish opinion on the Palestine question back then was more akin to the conflicted attitudes expressed by American Jews today, while Thatcher lamented the then hardline American support for Israel, which she felt distorted US policy in self-defeating ways.

Yet just as Labour’s about-turn on Israel followed the 1982 Lebanon invasion, American attitudes to the country are today undergoing a historic convulsion, with what are sure to be significant consequences to Israel’s future security. The Biden administration is under increasing domestic pressure for its support for Netanyahu’s campaign, with even organs of middlebrow liberal opinion like The Atlantic, CNN and The Daily Show turning against Israel’s war and America’s support for it. The increasingly radical American Right is also turning against Israel, expressing dissent in often markedly antisemitic ways. In this dramatically shifting political landscape, the discourse in Britain’s media sphere seems strangely parochial, partly a reflection of American conservative fashions a generation ago, and partly an expression of Britain’s own anxieties over mass immigration, projected, like Brexit, onto more comfortable rhetorical ground.

Cameron’s largely moderate stance on the conflict, supporting Israel’s right to strike Hamas after its October brutalities while emphasising Britain’s opposition to Israel’s immoderate violence against Palestinian (and now British) civilians, and its commitment to a future Palestinian state, is broadly the correct one, even if the Conservative party’s Overton Window has drifted closer to Likud in intervening years than Thatcher would have permitted. Thatcher herself, as Bermant notes, “underlined that Israel’s policies were having a problematic impact on the geopolitics of the region: it was very unhelpful that the United States was being perceived as ‘Israel’s lawyer’, while the Soviet Union was being seen ‘as the friend of the Arabs’” — a dynamic Putin is happily exploiting this today, while America’s stock dwindles in both the Red Sea and the court of world opinion. Instead, Bermant observes: “Thatcher argued for Britain and the EC to play a role as ‘a third party’ which was ‘not bound by US or Soviet policies.’” Though perhaps, as I argued at the beginning of the war, it would have been better for us to stay out of the matter entirely: better for Britain, better for the Palestinians, and ultimately better for Israel and its Western advocates.

When the war ends, when journalists are allowed into Gaza as the full civilian toll is unearthed and counted, the more outlandish expressions of solidarity with Netanyahu’s campaign made by Right-wing pundits will surely come to be seen as a needless, unforced error. As Bermant recently observed: “the Netanyahu government refuses to spell out its objectives for the end of the Gaza war and has allowed the most extreme elements in his government to exert influence over the management of the war… Israel’s prime minister has yet to come out against those in his government who have called for the displacement of Palestinians and the Jewish resettlement of Gaza.” The results have been, and will be, precisely what any detached observer or sufficiently critical friend would have expected.

Losing the American support on which its continued existence depends, with France now mooting sanctions against Israel, and a simultaneous genocide case working its way through the Hague, Netanyahu has dramatically worsened Israel’s strategic position. Within the context of this self-inflicted diplomatic injury, the focus on Right-wing discourse or campus radicals or pro-Palestine protests looks, at the most charitable interpretation, wrongheaded.

Perhaps the last word is best left to Thatcher herself. Summing up her years-long engagement with the region, she noted that “the United States, which was the power most responsible for the establishment of the state of Israel, will and must always stand behind Israel’s security. It is equally, though, right that the Palestinians should be restored in their land and dignity: and, as often happens in my experience, what is morally right eventually turns out to be politically expedient. Removing, even in limited measure, the Palestinian grievance is a necessary if not sufficient condition for cutting the cancer of Middle East terrorism out by the roots. The only way this can happen, as has long been clear, is for Israel to exchange ‘land for peace’, returning occupied territories to the Palestinians in exchange for credible undertakings to respect Israel’s security.”

More Likudist than the vast majority of Israelis, more uncompromisingly heartless than Thatcher herself, the Tory commentators who claim the Iron Lady’s mantle would do well to reflect on her example.


  1. She nearly didn't meet Menachem Begin when he visited London.

    1. And then she wished that she hadn't.

      He went on to arm Argentina during the Falklands War.