Saturday, April 13, 2013.
The Daily Star
By Michael Glackin
At the height of Lebanon’s Civil War during the early 1980s, British troops, serving with the Multi-National Force in the country, found themselves being shelled by Druze militiamen operating from the surrounding mountains. On hearing the news, during a lunch with her soon to be installed Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered Heseltine to telephone Walid Jumblatt immediately and tell him that she wanted the shelling to stop. Needless to say the shelling stopped.
Such was the appeal of the Iron Lady, or Iron Man as the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat once called her. In terms of the Middle East, Thatcher is principally remembered for urging U.S. President George H. W. Bush not to go “wobbly” in the buildup to the first Gulf War, and her ill-fated attempts to strengthen what she saw as moderate Arab and Israeli factions and politicians in a bid to solve what she called the issue of “abiding importance” in the Middle East.
But it is almost forgotten now that Thatcher, despite her fierce opposition to organizations she deemed to be involved in terrorism, was also responsible for opening up talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1980s.
For most of her premiership she refused formal governmental talks with the PLO over its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism. But as far back as 1982 she allowed Douglas Hurd, then a junior Foreign Office minister, to meet Farouq Qaddoumi, a senior PLO figure in Tunis. It was the first encounter of its kind, and those discussions later led to formal talks, paving the way for meetings between Arafat and the Reagan White House later in the decade.
In the event this, and more public attempts to forge agreements between moderates on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide, amounted to nothing in the crucible of Middle East politics.
But Thatcher at least attempted to pursue an independent strategy in the region, one aimed at overturning the status quo, rather than slavishly following U.S. policy as her successors had done. Despite her close relationship with President Ronald Reagan she was deeply critical of his intervention in Lebanon and had warned him against retaliatory action in the wake of the suicide truck-bomb attack which killed 242 American troops in Beirut.
Despite her support for Israel she cared little for Likud prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Part of her antipathy toward Begin stemmed from his role in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem during the final years of Britain’s mandate in Palestine in 1946, killing 91 British soldiers. She famously described him as a man who “could kill the whole [peace] process.”
She also continued the policies of previous British governments and refused major arms sales to Israel. This policy in particular annoyed Begin. He wrote to Thatcher demanding to know how Britain could refuse Israel defense equipment when it was happily selling sophisticated arms to Middle Eastern states.
Thatcher ignored the letter, refusing even to allow the Foreign Office to send a formal reply.
Her relationship with Begin cooled further with the outbreak of the Falklands War in April 1982 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon two months later. Israel was selling arms to Argentina, but Thatcher’s wrath was reserved for Israel’s attack on Lebanon, which she considered a carbon copy of Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands.
Her government introduced a fresh arms embargo on Israel and rescinded an invitation to attend a British Army Equipment Exhibition.
For his part, Begin accused Thatcher of hypocrisy, insisting Israel was simply doing what the United Kingdom was doing in the Falklands, namely defending its citizens.
Thatcher consistently warned that Israel could not gain security by expanding its borders – something then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon later agreed with. She believed instead that embracing the principal of “land for peace” was Israel’s best option, remarking that Palestinians should be “restored in their land and dignity.”
That said, she had a number of reservations about the practicality of an independent Palestinian state. She doubted it would be truly independent and would likely fall under the influence of Syria or factions such as Fatah. Her preference was for Palestinian self-determination as part of a federation with Jordan, a plan that at the time had the support of both King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, with whom she enjoyed good working relationships.
Thatcher had visited Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Syria, along with her husband Dennis, and both were appalled by the conditions. She once remarked that she wished Israeli appreciation of the human rights of Soviet refuseniks was matched by appreciation of the plight of landless and stateless Palestinians.
At the same time, she made the point that the PLO, which effectively ran the Palestinian refugee camps, had a vested interest in maintaining their Spartan conditions, since the ensuing discontent meant the camps could remain a permanent recruiting ground for what Thatcher called the PLO’s “revolutionary struggle.”
It was during her last days in office that she famously urged Bush to drive Saddam Hussein’s invading Iraqi army out of Kuwait, when he appeared to be wavering. As she pointed out in her memoirs, the desire for swift action against Iraq stemmed in part from her experience in the Falklands, but primarily from a desire to protect Saudi Arabia and its oil from a similar fate. Thatcher reasoned that if the Iraqis crossed the border into the kingdom, their troops could annex the Gulf “in a matter of days,” giving Saddam Hussein control of 65 percent of the world’s oil reserves, from which he “could blackmail us all.”
Ultimately Thatcher failed to have a meaningful, long-term impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict or indeed the wider Middle East. While to the wider world she restored Britain’s global presence and pride, the leverage to end the Palestinian tragedy rested entirely with the U.S. While Walid Jumblatt may have heeded Thatcher, Washington did not.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 13, 2013, on page 7.