[..] Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, was also the first British prime minister to visit Israel. She had a record number of Jews in her cabinet and was a strong advocate for the release of Soviet Jewry. She often championed the Jewish people as well as their state – even as she harshly criticized some of its policies.
“She was a staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish people,” said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who knew her personally. “She inspired a generation of political leaders.[..]
Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter who became both a lawyer and a chemist before running for parliament as a member of the Conservative party, was first elected in 1959 as the representative of the Finchley district in north London, which had a heavy Jewish population.
“She felt a kinship with the Jewish people,” recalled Yehuda Avner, Israel’s ambassador to Great Britain from 1983 to 1988, and author of the book, The Prime Ministers.
“She was not of the usual Conservative Party establishment.
There was nothing upper class about her. It had been suggested that this is why she felt a certain kinship with Jews,” Avner said.
He added that she once explained to him that she saw in Israel some elements of “oldfashioned patriotism.”
“She admired Israel’s grit and guts. I once heard her say as much to the queen,” he said.
Avner recalled that upon becoming prime minister, Thatcher invited then-prime minister Menachem Begin to lunch at 10 Downing Street, even though there were those in the UK who still considered him a terrorist because he had been the head of the Irgun, a pre-state military organization, recalled Avner.
She didn’t always agree with Israel’s policies and had a preference for the Labor party over the Likud when it came to diplomatic issues, he said.
Avner also remembered how she once summoned him to No.10 to personally ask that then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir instruct Ariel Sharon to stop referring to Jordan as Palestine.
“She very often had to fight her own foreign office who tended to support sanctions against Israel because of its settlement policy,” said Avner. “As a matter of fact on certain very sensitive issues – and this was an expression of her friendship – she would invite me to her office at 10 Downing in order to avert the foreign office, which she knew would take a certain dim view.”
Azriel Bermant, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, who is writing a book on Thatcher and the Arab-Israeli conflict, said that although she was a genuine friend of Israel, her relationship with the state had its peaks and valleys.
It went downhill during Thatcher’s first term when she opposed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and her support of Palestinian self-determination – particularly of the EEC Venice Declaration that called for an end to Israel’s territorial occupation.
Although she took a strong stand against terrorism while in office, Thatcher also supported involving the PLO in the peace negotiations, he said.