A short book could be written about British prime ministers and Zionism. It might begin in 1840, when Lord Palmerston, foreign secretary and prime minister-to-be, received a letter from his stepson-in-law Lord Ashley, an MP better known later as Lord Shaftesbury, the Tory philanthropist commemorated by the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus. Palmerston ‘had been chosen by God’, Ashley said, ‘to be an instrument to do good to his chosen people’. The time was ripe ‘for the return of the Jews to their inheritance in the Land of Promise’, and England might help ‘plant the Jewish people in the land of their fathers’.
This introduced early one of the great ironies in this most ironical of stories. Well into the 20th century, Orthodox rabbis would teach their flocks to abhor political Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state on theological grounds: Zionism was not only secular but presumptuous, claiming to second-guess the Almighty by anticipating an event – the restoration of his chosen people to their Promised Land – which only he should bring about in his own good time. At the same time, some of the keenest enthusiasts for ‘return’ weren’t Jews but evangelical Christians inspired by the hope that such a return would hasten the Second Coming. Ashley was among them, which didn’t make him a liberal friend of the Jews: he opposed Jewish emancipation in England, just as scores of millions of American evangelicals today who share his chiliastic dreams are far from philosemitic in more everyday ways.
It wasn’t only religious Jews who looked askance at Zionism. When Theodor Herzl launched his audacious project with Der Judenstaat in 1896 and the first Zionist congress at Basel in 1897 he encountered strong resistance to his scheme among emancipated assimilated Jews. In London he visited an elite Jewish dining club called the Maccabees and recorded their objection: ‘English patriotism’, as they put it, and their belief that their hard-won position as ‘Englishmen of Hebrew faith’ would be threatened by the promotion of a new Jewish nationality. And so Zionists looked for gentile support. When Winston Churchill deserted the Tories for the Liberals in 1904 he was obliged to find another parliamentary seat, in Manchester North West, which had a substantial Jewish electorate. In December 1905 Arthur Balfour resigned after his short, fraught spell as Tory prime minister, and the new Liberal government called an election which they would win by a landslide. Having already spoken against Balfour’s Aliens Bill, which was designed to restrict Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, Churchill attended a meeting in Manchester in support of persecuted Russian Jews. There he met Chaim Weizmann, his exact contemporary, a Russian Jew and already a Zionist activist, who was working as a research chemist at Manchester University. They would remain friendly acquaintances, and Churchill would remain a supporter of Zionism, until Weizmann became the first president of Israel.
It was a hundred years ago last November that the fateful letter to ‘Dear Lord Rothschild’ was signed by Balfour, who had by then returned to office as foreign secretary in the wartime coalition government led by David Lloyd George. The British government would ‘view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’. Although there was realpolitik behind the Balfour Declaration, both Balfour and Lloyd George became committed believers in the Zionist cause. Again, this was no obvious manifestation of philosemitism: Balfour privately admitted that he felt uneasy in Jewish company, and Lloyd George could be spitefully antisemitic. By contrast, the only Jewish member of the cabinet at the time, Edwin Montagu, passionately opposed the declaration and detested Zionism.
After the Great War, the British saddled themselves with responsibility for Mandatory Palestine, which proved one of the unhappier episodes in the decline and fall of the British Empire. In 1922, when Churchill was colonial secretary for a short but eventful spell, he unified one territory to the east, an artificial amalgam which became known as Iraq, while dividing another: ‘Palestine’ had originally comprised a much larger territory, but Churchill separated ‘Trans-Jordan’, today the kingdom of Jordan, from the land between Jordan and the sea which the British ruled until 1948 and is now ruled by Israel, one way or another. It was in protest against this partition that the formidable Vladimir Jabotinsky broke away from the mainstream Zionists to form his New Zionist Organisation – or the ‘Revisionists’, from their aim of revising or undoing that partition – with the uncompromising slogan: ‘A Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both banks of the Jordan.’
Even at the time the Declaration was plainly contradictory, with its promise that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’ This had been carefully worded. ‘Civil and religious rights’ weren’t the same as national and political rights, and honest supporters of Zionism recognised what they were doing. In 1920, Balfour wrote candidly to Lloyd George, one Zionist convert to another: ‘The weak point of our position of course is that in the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination. If the present inhabitants were consulted they would unquestionably give an anti-Jewish verdict.’ That was later echoed by Churchill. In 1937 he met Jabotinsky, and took up his opposition to a second partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors, as the Peel Commission proposed. Giving private evidence to Peel, Churchill said he had no more sympathy for the displaced Palestinian Arabs than he had for the American Indians or Australian aborigines: it was merely the advance of history if a weaker or lower race was supplanted by a stronger or, as he put it, a ‘higher grade race’. In 1941 he said that the Atlantic Charter, which he and President Roosevelt had just issued, with its promise of no changes ‘that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned’, could not be applied to Palestine, lest ‘the Arabs might claim by majority they could expel the Jews from Palestine, or at any rate forbid all further immigration. I am wedded to the Zionist policy, of which I was one of the authors.’
All these arguments were drowned out by events: the war, the Jewish catastrophe in Europe, Zionist violence during the last unhappy years of the mandate, and the creation of Israel in 1948 during the premiership of Clement Attlee, who had no strong Zionist sympathies and was enraged by Truman’s demagogic meddling in the Palestine question. In 1951, Churchill returned to Downing Street for a somewhat eerie second innings as prime minister. Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh of the Foreign Office described a bibulous evening at Number Ten that autumn, when Churchill told his foreign secretary Anthony Eden how to deal with the troublesome Egyptians and other Arabs: ‘Rising from his chair, the old man advanced on Anthony with clenched fists, saying with the inimitable Churchill growl, “Tell them that if we have any more of their cheek we will set the Jews on them and drive them into the gutter, from which they should never have emerged.”’
That wasn’t a bad description of what was tried in 1956, when Eden and the French colluded with the Israelis in the ill-fated Suez enterprise. Eden departed, the British licked their wounds, and ‘what is, somewhat oddly, called the Middle East’, as Churchill had put it in 1940, receded from view until the dramas of the Six Day War in 1967, the next war in 1973, and the oil crisis. This had a direct impact on British politics, leading to Harold Wilson’s return to Downing Street in 1974. He resigned two years later in a miasma of dark suspicion, not much brightened by his resignation honours list, with its bizarre collection of mountebanks and crooks. Even that wasn’t quite as strange as The Chariot of Israel, the book which appeared under Wilson’s name in 1981: ostensibly a history of ‘Britain, America and the State of Israel’, it was a weirdly one-sided polemic, whose hero was Balfour and villain Ernest Bevin, Attlee’s foreign secretary and an ogre to Zionists to this day. It was so slipshod and inaccurate that Thurston Clarke in the New York Times thought the most charitable speculation was that it had been ‘dictated but never read, neither by the former prime minister nor by his publishers’.
After the brief and futile interlude of James Callaghan’s premiership, a new Tory prime minister entered Downing Street in May 1979. Almost thirty years before, at the 1950 general election, a 24-year-old research chemist by the name of Margaret Roberts had stood unsuccessfully for Parliament. By now called Margaret Thatcher, she was elected MP for Finchley in 1959: the first chapter of Azriel Bermant’s outstandingly valuable Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East is titled ‘Thatcher and the “Finchley Factor”’. Like Churchill’s Manchester seat, this outer suburb of North London had a large Jewish population, not universally loved by the local Tories. Thatcher was selected as a candidate thanks to one prejudice trumping another in the local Conservative Association: she might be a woman, but at least she wasn’t a Jew.
That phrase ‘Finchley factor’ stands for the widely held belief that Thatcher was a strong supporter of Israel, in part because of her constituency. It’s true that she was naturally philosemitic, one of her more attractive characteristics, as witnessed by her penchant for Jewish cabinet ministers, although Bermant is too sweeping when he says that until her arrival the Tories had long been dominated by a ‘patrician class which tended to have close ties with the Arab world’: there was a range of views in the party, and only a handful of Tories, not all of them ‘patrician’, had any such links. It was sometimes said that her instinctive support for Israel set her at odds with the Foreign Office, which Zionists had long liked to portray as a nest of antisemitic Arabists. That wasn’t really true, except to the extent that diplomats posted to Arab countries listened sympathetically to their side of the case. Thatcher had not only a well-attested admiration for ‘entrepreneurial values and self-help’ but also, Bermant thinks, an affinity with ‘Jewish associates such as Sir Keith Joseph’ (though surely Joseph – scion of a rich Anglo-Jewish family, Harrow, Magdalen, All Souls, wounded in action and mentioned in dispatches – was something of a patrician himself). Her devotees on both sides of the Atlantic have also lauded her supposed close personal bond with Ronald Reagan. At the time of Reagan’s death, Harold Evans, an English journalist long exiled in America, said that ‘the relationship between Thatcher and President Reagan was closer even than Churchill and Roosevelt,’ and after Thatcher’s death the self-proclaimed ‘very right-wing’ historian Andrew Roberts wrote in the Wall Street Journal that ‘her support for Israel was lifelong and unwavering.’
All this is quietly and comprehensively demolished by Bermant, who has scoured both the Israeli and the British archives, and interviewed many of the surviving political players from the 1980s, ministers in the Thatcher government like Douglas Hurd and William Waldegrave as well as her private secretary Charles Powell, and the late Yehudi Avner, who was Israel’s ambassador in London between 1983 and 1988.
When she became prime minister a number of pressing questions faced Thatcher at home and abroad: the economy, the unions, Ulster, Rhodesia, the Cold War in what proved to be its final phase, relations with Europe and its nascent monetary system, prelude to a single currency. But the intractable conflict in the Holy Land wouldn’t go away. Shortly after she reached Downing Street, Menachem Begin, who had been Israel’s prime minister for nearly two years, visited London and met her and Lord Carrington, her first foreign secretary. The meeting was a ‘disaster’, with Carrington telling Begin that the continuing colonisation of the West Bank was impeding any just settlement of the conflict, and Thatcher lecturing him on the need for such a settlement to counter the Soviet threat. Begin was unmoved, saying that he might grant limited government on the West Bank and that its inhabitants could choose between Israeli and Jordanian citizenship, but that he would never concede a Palestinian state. In response, Thatcher pointed out that if the West Bank Palestinians became Israelis then the ‘Jewish state’ might soon have an Arab majority, one of the first occasions on which this demographic question was raised.
When the Tories were in opposition in 1975 and Carrington had led the party in the Lords, he had aroused the ire of supporters of Israel by meeting Yasser Arafat. He continued to see the conflict as a matter of the first importance, which had to be resolved by a two-state settlement. Now, in February 1980, he wrote to Thatcher to say that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan had presented a unique opportunity for the West to rally support among Muslim countries to counter Soviet influence, but that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the great stumbling block. Thatcher herself ‘found it difficult’, Bermant writes, ‘to argue with Arab visitors who drew comparisons between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank’. When Carrington suggested that the time had come for the British to go beyond the 1967 Security Council Resolution 242, which had demanded Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories in return for recognition, and declare their support for Palestinian self-determination, the lord chancellor, Lord Hailsham, warned Thatcher of the electoral ‘importance of Jewish opinion here’. ‘I would not have cared to fight St Marylebone’ – which he had represented in the Commons – ‘as a Conservative candidate in the face of Jewish hostility on this issue. Manchester, Leeds and the whole of North London would be profoundly affected.’ Thatcher told Hailsham that she understood his position but advised him against joining the Conservative Friends of Israel, her own membership of which was causing her ‘problems’, presumably because the CFI had put pressure on her and was embarrassing her in her own constituency. As all this suggests, from the very start of her premiership her views on Israel were more complex than myth has long had it.
For the rest of the 1980s there was continuing tension between London and Tel Aviv, and between London and Washington. Thatcher subscribed to the Venice Declaration, which called for a Palestinian state and proposed a role for the PLO. In June 1981, Israeli aircraft bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, on what proved to be the spurious grounds that it was making nuclear weapons to be used against Israel: as Bermant says, ‘it later emerged that there was no substance to the Israeli allegation.’ The bombing was condemned by the British government and by Thatcher personally. When the Labour MP Greville Janner asked whether she wasn’t pleased that Iraq had been weakened, she replied: ‘Had there been an attack on Israel of the kind that there has just been on Iraq, I should totally and utterly have condemned it. I, therefore, totally and utterly condemn the attack on Iraq.’ All the while, there was no progress at all on the question of Palestine. In 1982, Carrington visited Israel in a forlorn attempt to mend some fences, but he had to return hurriedly when news came of an imminent assault by Argentina on the Falklands, which would end his ministerial career. In June, less than a fortnight before Argentina surrendered, Palestinian zealots tried to assassinate Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador in London. Begin took this as a pretext to launch an attack on Lebanon, culminating in the massacre of Palestinians in refugee camps. This was the work of Phalangist militias, but the Israeli army plainly bore responsibility. The atrocity was condemned internationally and by many Israelis, including the wounded Argov, who said, ‘We are tired of wars. The nation wants peace,’ and for the first time the solidarity shown by even the official Anglo-Jewish establishment, let alone the broader Jewish population, was ruptured. What should have been clear was that a settlement of the Palestinian question was more remote than ever.
After Carrington resigned he was briefly succeeded at the Foreign Office by Francis Pym, until Thatcher won her crushing victory in the 1983 election and replaced him with Geoffrey Howe. He stayed for six years until he was kicked sideways and then, in his quietly devastating resignation speech in November 1990, precipitated Thatcher’s fall. The Israelis made frequent attempts to separate Thatcher from the Foreign Office by appealing to her directly but they met with little success. They were acting on the assumption that she instinctively favoured Israel, but that was a grave misapprehension.
The most riveting moment in Bermant’s book records an exchange between Argov and Sir Michael Palliser, who was permanent under-secretary of the Foreign Office when Thatcher became prime minister. Argov told Palliser that Israelis saw Carrington (and maybe Palliser himself) as characteristic of the old English elite, whose disdain for the Jewish state reflected traditional prejudice. By contrast, Argov claimed that the prime minister was truly reliable, a friend who naturally sympathised with Israel. He could not be more wrong, Palliser replied. Like Palliser himself, Carrington had been a young Guards officer in 1945, when they had both entered Germany to see for themselves the horrors inflicted by the Third Reich on the Jews, and they had never forgotten that ‘terrible suffering’. By contrast, it was ‘not Carrington who has never missed an opportunity to mention the two sergeants,’ Palliser said. ‘It is the prime minister.’
Maybe today those words, and ‘the two sergeants’, need glossing. While Miss Roberts was still at Oxford, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the armed force of the militant Revisionists, began what everyone from the British authorities to the New York Times called a terrorist campaign. In 1946 they blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people, British, Arab and Jewish, and in 1948 they massacred the villagers of Deir Yassin. In between those two events, in 1947, the Irgun captured two British sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, both National Service conscripts, and then hanged them, leaving their bodies booby-trapped. There was a spasm of rage in England, where two Jewish Labour MPs expressed their ‘shame and humiliation’, and the Jewish Chronicle said that ‘British Jewry cannot but feel a deep sense of shame that these murders have been committed.’
At the time, the Irgun was led by Begin, who was condemned in a letter to the New York Times in December 1948 signed by 29 Jewish eminences, including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and Sidney Hook, as the leader of a movement ‘closely akin … to the Nazi and Fascist parties’ which had ‘boasted’ of its massacre of innocents and inaugurated ‘a reign of terror’. Less than thirty years later, Begin was prime minister of Israel. Less than two years after that, Thatcher reached Downing Street – and she hadn’t forgotten the sergeants.
As Bermant describes all this he omits to mention Lord Moyne. Churchill’s minister resident in Cairo was assassinated in November 1944 by two members of the Lehi or Sternists, an extreme fraction of the Irgun. Churchill’s ferocious response – ‘If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins’ pistols and our labours for its future to produce only a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past’ – was the nearest he came to abandoning his support for Zionism. If Thatcher hadn’t known already, she must have learned from the intelligence services that Moyne’s killing had been organised by the Lehi leader, Yitzhak Yezernitsky. While underground he adopted the codename ‘Michael’ in homage to Michael Collins (despite some myth-making, almost no self-styled anti-colonial movement took Irish republicanism as a model, with the exception of Revisionist Zionism), and then changed his name to Shamir.
In October 1983, months after Thatcher won her second election victory, Yitzhak Shamir succeeded Begin as Israel’s prime minister. He later said that the murder of Moyne ‘was completely justified … there were good reasons for him being shot,’ implying – quite wrongly – that Moyne had been antisemitic. Strong-willed and sometimes pig-headed, Thatcher had very firm views on most subjects, including terrorist violence, Irish or Arab. But she wasn’t a hypocrite, and she didn’t make the fine casuistical distinction others made between murder by Palestinian terrorists and murder by Zionist terrorists. And if she never liked or trusted Begin, she liked his successor even less. There was a lull between September 1984 and October 1986 when Shimon Peres was prime minister, but then Shamir returned until 1992. And so for all but two of Thatcher’s eleven and a half years in Downing Street, Israel was led by men she deeply disliked and distrusted.
Nor did she have any profound reverence for the American president. No doubt Thatcher shared Reagan’s free-market and anti-communist convictions, but she had no illusions about him. Shortly after he was inaugurated, Thatcher and Carrington were talking over a drink one evening in Downing Street when the conversation turned to the new president, at which Thatcher tapped the side of her skull and said: ‘Peter, there’s nothing there.’ And after she had left office, Nicholas Henderson, her ambassador in Washington between 1979 and 1982, told Tony Benn: ‘If I reported to you what Mrs Thatcher really thought about President Reagan, it would damage Anglo-American relations.’ Few people reading this, it can be safely assumed, deeply admired Margaret Thatcher or have warm memories of her. But I would ask them to consider this: that she compares favourably with Tony Blair on many points, not least her far less sycophantic attitude towards Washington. Unlike too many prime ministers from Churchill to Blair, she did not delude herself that the British and the Americans were one people. She recognised that the United States was a sovereign country that would pursue its interests and objectives as it conceived them, if not always wisely, with complete disregard for the interest and objectives of its supposed friends, let alone its avowed enemies. And she embodied the Palmerstonian principle that England has no eternal friends and no eternal foes, only eternal interests.
One place where British interests did not coincide with American policies was the Middle East, and this was, as Bermant says, the source of her most persistent friction with Washington. We know what happened, or what didn’t happen: any ‘peace process’ was delusional; a resolution of the conflict was no nearer when Reagan and then Thatcher left office than at the beginning of the decade, and it became ever clearer to her that the Americans were simply not taking the matter seriously. In 1986 she told George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, that there would be no peace in the Middle East unless justice was done for the Palestinians, and that this was not going to happen as long as Washington offered effectively uncritical support for any Israeli action. But her words had little effect. In some areas, she was certainly often at odds with the Foreign Office, which she regarded as too conciliatory, especially towards Europe, maybe forgetting that conciliation is the object of diplomacy.
But Israelis who supposed that their own country was the cause of dissension between her and some of her ministers and diplomatists were completely misreading her. Although Argov told his colleagues that Ian Gilmour, Lord Privy Seal and second in command to Carrington at the Foreign Office between 1979 and 1981, embodied British ‘hostility and contempt’ towards Israel to an ‘almost pathological’ degree, it was Gilmour’s hostility towards Thatcher’s economic policies, not any clash of views on the Middle East, that finally led her to sack him. She needed no suasion from him or any Foreign Office Arabist to condemn the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, or the raid on Iraq, or to warn Reagan that American collusion with Israel placed the Arab allies of the US in an impossible position. Those were her own views. As Bermant writes, ‘Ultimately, Thatcher acted against Israel because she sincerely believed it was in the wrong and this had little to do with FCO pressure.’
One ruler she did warm to was King Hussein of Jordan, and she seems to have sympathised with his exasperation at the obstructive games-playing of the Israelis and the Americans: ‘Thatcher was furious with the Reagan administration over the failure to produce a meeting with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.’ Shortly after this, Shultz addressed a conference of Aipac, the main Israel lobbying group, and was so carried away with the heady atmosphere that he led a chant of ‘Hell no to the PLO.’ So much for the American claim to be an even-handed broker.
By early 1986, it’s true, Thatcher’s mood had altered. Now it was the games-playing of the PLO that strained her patience, and with Peres in office she visited Israel in an attempt to restore relations. Even so she used her speeches there ‘to state uncomfortable truths to her audience’ in a way that no American politician would have done. The world expected Israel to show high standards and to protect the rights of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, she pointed out, admirably if optimistically. She met Palestinian leaders – the first such meeting with any Western head of government – and then had ‘a ghastly breakfast’ with Yitzhak Rabin, later to acquire martyrdom and a possibly misleading reputation as a man of peace. He read out a prepared statement saying that no concessions to the Palestinians were possible, while looking at his watch. ‘Thatcher was rather disgusted by Rabin’s conduct,’ and privately disappointed with Peres as well.
A meeting was convened in London between Israeli and Jordanian leaders, and even Shultz in Washington appeared to view the resulting London Agreement with favour. In late 1987 there were flickering signs that Washington might support an international conference to settle, or at least examine, the dispute. Then, in January 1988, David Mellor, a minister of state at the Foreign Office, visited Gaza against the advice of his officials, and with grandstanding buffoonery enraged the Israelis by his comments. He enraged Thatcher too, for making her task so much the harder, and because she understandably thought Mellor’s behaviour had ‘more to do with self-promotion than the plight of the Palestinians’.
Months later Mellor was moved sideways and replaced by William Waldegrave, who offers a merciful moment of light relief in this bleak story. When Arafat was staying in London, Waldegrave called on him. Picking up an embroidered cushion, he said how handsome it was, and looked forward ‘to the day when I can walk down a Palestinian street and buy Palestinian goods as beautiful as this in a country you can call your own’. Completely missing the point, Arafat replied: ‘No, no. You can buy these in London. There’s a place in the Edgware Road!’ By now Arafat was hinting at recognition of Israel, and spoke at the UN, not quite taking Thatcher’s inimitable matronly advice ‘to clean up his appearance’.
As Reagan’s departure approached, Thatcher complained bitterly to King Hussein about the president’s total failure to address the conflict seriously, urged his successor, George Bush the Elder, to begin a new peace initiative, and foresaw correctly that James Baker, the incoming secretary of state, would not have the ‘same hang-ups’ as Shultz. During her last year in Downing Street her relations with the Israeli government cooled further. She addressed the Board of Deputies of British Jews, expressing strong support for Israel’s right to exist combined with deep concern about current Israeli polices. And she was much affronted by the settling of the new immigrant wave of Russian Jews on the West Bank.
Any hope of a fruitful partnership between Thatcher and the new American administration was undone by events. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 disrupted the whole of Araby, and Western policies with it. Thatcher urged Saddam’s removal by force, but wasn’t in office to see it. As it was, after she was deposed that November, she could look back on a record of failure in the Holy Land – a failure, above all, Bermant concludes, to persuade ‘the Reagan administration to play a more active role in the peace process’. But there was more to it than that. In the summer of 2006 Israel again invaded Lebanon. One effect among others was to end Blair’s premiership: his cabinet colleagues and Labour MPs, who for so long had supported him with a kind of abject reluctance, were sickened by his final refusal to budge from the Israeli and American position, and he was forced to say that he would leave within a year. As Alan Cowell, the London correspondent of the New York Times, put it at the time, ‘if the Lebanon conflict said anything about what some Britons like to call their special relationship with America, it seemed to be this: in this Middle East war, the only special relationship bound the United States to Israel, not Britain.’ So it was then, so it had long been, so it remains. Margaret Thatcher may have been the first British prime minister – and the last – who grasped that truth.