The Finchley Factor
- Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East by Azriel Bermant
Cambridge, 274 pp, £22.99, September 2017, ISBN 978 1 316 60630 8
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’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 18 · 27 September 2018
As head of the FCO department dealing with Israel and Palestine from 1980 to 1983, I agree with and can confirm a good deal in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article (LRB, 13 September). It was widely thought at the time that Margaret Thatcher’s Jewish constituents and her feelings about Israel put her at odds with her foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, and the Foreign Office. It is true that Carrington told us half seriously that he gave her weekly tutorials on the subject, and that she drove him mad by demolishing his ideas and then repeating them the following week as her own. But her views owed less to Finchley and what Wheatcroft calls her philosemitic inclination than to her loathing for terrorists. For her the Israeli prime ministers she had to deal with, Begin and Shamir, were terrorists as much as Arafat and the PLO.
Wheatcroft mentions the affair of the two British sergeants who were hanged by the Irgun. During the 1981 G7 summit in Quebec our consular representative there phoned me – he said it was the first time he had ever phoned anybody in the Foreign Office. He thought London ought to know, in case it was picked up by the mainstream media, that a local paper had a story to the effect that Thatcher and Pierre Trudeau had gone for a walk together and she had told him the story of the two sergeants, and as she was telling it broke down and wept. I told the Number 10 press office. The story wasn’t picked up, but Number 10 rang back later to tell me it was true.
When it became clear that the Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov, shot in London by Abu Nidal terrorists, would never be able to return to his duties there was press speculation about his successor. One hot favourite was the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, a former chief of staff of the Irgun. I suggested that rather than waiting for the politically rather embarrassing business of refusing Agrément we should let the Israeli government know in advance that they had better not propose him. Some of my FCO superiors were doubtful; the PM dealt regularly with Begin, the former leader of the Irgun – how could she say no to this man? I said that HMG had no locus in choosing the Israeli prime minister but we had the right to refuse an ambassador. The file went to Number 10 and she agreed with me. The Israelis were tipped off and no more was heard.
Two corrections to Wheatcroft. The 1980 Venice Declaration did not call for a Palestine state, it called for self-determination for the Palestinian people – it’s true that the coded message was the same, but decoding it wasted valuable years. Second, Thatcher was not the first Western head of government to meet Palestinian leaders – the pioneer seven years earlier was a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist Jew, the Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky.
It might be worth trying to suppress a small myth before it becomes established as a footnote to history. Geoffrey Wheatcroft retells a story about a remark I made to Arafat hoping that one day I would be able to buy Palestinian textiles in an independent Palestine. The remark he says was made ‘when Arafat was staying in London’. Not so. It was made when I visited Arafat, with the full backing of Thatcher, in Tunis. This visit was a careful and important upgrading of relations with the PLO, which had never had a formal meeting with a serving British minister before. It followed detailed negotiations in London between FCO officials and Bassam Abu Sharif. Arafat never came to London in that period. This was not just light relief but a serious and considered step by the British government led by Thatcher, and briefly at least tacitly supported by President Bush Senior’s State Department.