Staunch Friend

When Thatcher Cut Off Israel's Weapons

04.11.13 4:45 PM ET

When I listed some of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Israel record the other day, I left out one crucial example that bears mentioning. In April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands group, a set of small islands off its coast. The British laid claim to the territory (of somewhat dubious strategic value) and Thatcher was determined to hold them. So began the Falklands war. Less than two months later, three Palestinians terrorists tried to assassinate Israel's ambassador to the U.K. in London. In response, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in an effort to root out the Palestinian Liberation Organization from its base. How did the Thatcher government react to Israel's move? With indignation. 

Late last year, when previously undisclosed papers on the British reaction became public under the U.K.'s thirty-year rule, Jenni Frazer rounded up the Thatcher government's sentiments: it was "more concerned with maintaining ostensible balance in the Middle East than in recognising Israel's determination to stamp out terrorism from its northern border." Frazer goes on:

Overwhelmed with managing the Falklands War, Mrs. Thatcher—though MP for Finchley and Golders Green—drew a comparison with invaded Lebanon in Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands. Francis Pym, Foreign Secretary, made it clear publicly that Britain wholeheartedly condemned Israel's invasion.

In private, the papers confirm, Britain was furious with Israel. A Foreign Office memo states: "It would be odd if we were now to conduct bilateral business with the Israelis as though nothing had happened."

An invitation to Israel to attend the British Army Equipment Exhibition was withdrawn and licences for arms sales were stopped, the papers reveal, though the Foreign Office noted bitterly that "we have considered the possibility that the likelihood of Israeli arms sales to Argentina will be increased, but given what we know of Israel's attitude and practice on this already, we do not believe that this is likely to make much difference in practice."

Today, the notion that the U.S. would stop buying weapons for Israel, let alone block their sales, is unthinkable. Imagine the uproar among Washington's powerful pro-Israel groups and in Congress if the Obama administration were to reneg on its public promises that Israel can take any decision it likes for its own security. And despite decades of U.S. opposition to Israel's settlement expansion—viewed by the world, including America, as illegal—no consequences have been forthcoming since the first Bush administration sought to revoke loan guarantees to Israel, took a drubbing for it, and reversed course. Even the notion that U.S. policy should be "balanced" in the Middle East  (as Frazer, not the U.K. government, put it) is too far afield for our modern discourse in the U.S.

Thatcher was, in this case, indeed a woman of "woman of principles, possessing resolve, self-confidence, strength," as Benjamin Netanyahu put it. He's reportedly set to attend her funeral. Netanyahu considered Thatcher a "staunch friend of the State of Israel and the Jewish people." One wonders if he'll reflect on what the above and other rocky episodes—not to mention her support of Palestinians' "legitimate aspirations"—say about the true nature of friendship between nations.