In a statement marking the occasion of Margaret Thatcher's passing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "She was a great leader, a steadfast friend of Israel and the Jewish people." The statement is true on both counts. Thatcher was renown for her closeness to the British Jews of her North London parliamentary district, staunchly backed Soviet Jewry, and even took in an Austrian Jewish refugee of the Nazi takeover of Europe. She was indeed a "steadfast friend of Israel," having staked out an early position by criticizing the U.K.'s reluctance to ship weapons to Israel in its 1973 war against regional Arab powers.
But remarking on Thatcher's steadfastness in her friendship toward the Jewish State highlights what has become an absurd debate in 21st century America about what it means to be a friend to Israel. Contra Israel's right-leaning supporters, being Israel's friend does not mean never criticizing Israel; it does not mean never trying to push Israel into policy changes that you think might be beneficial for the region, the world, and even the Jewish State itself; and it does not mean subverting one's own state interests to those of Israel, especially its right-wing government of the moment. Thatcher was not one to sugar-coat her objections, and this held true of Israeli actions she perceived as unhelpful just as it did of her broader disdain for Communism. Thatcher, if she was Prime Minister today, might well have the same hostility for Netanyahu that she had for his Likud forebear, Menachem Begin.
Documents released by the British archives reveal Thatcher as a hard-nosed opponent of Israel's West Bank settlement project. Just weeks after taking the premiership in May 1979, she hosted Begin, the Israeli leader who'd formed the country's first right-wing government in 1977, at No. 10 Downing Street. The meeting was reportedly tense: Thatcher's foreign minister railed against the settlements. Thatcher, as many world leaders then did and today do, believed that settlements imperiled a potential deal that could end the Mideast conflict. But Begin was not convinced: Thatcher "commented after Mr. Begin's call that it was clear from the discussion that Mr. Begin had no comprehension of the broader aspects of security and that there was no basis on which he could be persuaded to change his narrow concept of it," said official notes from the meeting. "She was apprehensive that Mr. Begin's attitude could kill the whole process of the search for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East."
Thatcher's view of Begin became more clear in a meeting with her French counterpart later that year. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing of France said he found Begin's "approach fanatical and unrealistic," since-released British documents revealed. Thatcher said she "agreed entirely with what President Giscard had said about Mr. Begin." She'd "never had a more difficult man to deal with," she told Giscard. (This, of course, will remind of Barack Obama's griping to then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy about having to deal with Netanyahu.) What's more, Thatcher was explicit with Giscard that she viewed Begin's policies in the West Bank with disdain: she
called them "unrealistic" and said, "All efforts to convince Mr. Begin that his West Bank policy was absurd, and that there should not be Israeli settlements on the West Bank, had failed to move him." Begin, she recalled, responded "that Judea and Samaria"—the settlers and Israeli right's name for the West Bank—"had been Jewish in biblical times and that they should therefore be so today." In 1981, just after Israel had seized a huge swath of land near the West Bank city of Nablus for settlements, Thatcher responded in parliamentary questioning that the incident "illustrates the importance of trying to secure an agreement on this long-standing problem."
The spat with Begin over settlements wasn't Thatcher's only row with Israel: she also pressed—against Israel's will—for increasing recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a negotiating partner for resolving the Palestinian question, just as today many press for recognition of Hamas's small steps into the diplomatic fold not by recognizing them wholesale, but by encouraging moderation along the way. Thatcher supported the ill-fated Venice Declaration in 1980 to conditionally recognize the P.L.O. and, in 1988, pressured Ronald Reagan and then-incoming President George H.W. Bush to take an active line on bringing the P.L.O. in from the cold. She considered the P.L.O.'s recognition of a two-state framework—an implicit recognition of Israel—a "a modest step forward and something on which we could build." While Thatcher agreed with Reagan that the P.L.O.'s recent statements didn't go far enough, she saw an opportunity to encourage the group to go farther: "Now, when it looks as if they are trying to do it and may actually be doing it... if you don't encourage them... you won't get further moves." Likewise, when Israel attacked Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Thatcher publicly called the strike an "unprovoked attack" and said that "armed attack in such circumstances cannot be justified. It represents a grave breach of international law." She went on to implicitly criticize Israel, then as now the world's only undeclared nuclear power, for not joining the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Perhaps Thatcher's most stark failure to see eye to eye with Israel's right was her explicit recognition of a Palestinian right to self-determination. In an interview with the U.K.'s Times in 1988, she said she hoped Israel "might at last live in peace within secure borders, giving the Palestinian people their legitimate aspirations, because you cannot demand for yourself what you deny to other people." She went on about the concept in terms that one might hear today at J Street, or in Obama's recent remarks about the Palestinians in Jerusalem: ..."[N]ow I think we are beginning to realize more and more that the real security lies in proper peace agreements, each respecting the rights of the other, backed up by proper defense always." Those sorts of public statements, coupled with her vociferous opposition to settlement expansion didn't stop Thatcher from being branded a friend to Israel; today, they might be enough to get one labeled "the most anti-Israel president (ever)." We've sure come a long way.