If there was ever a moment to regret the passing of a world political figure from the scene, it is now. Oh, that the late Margaret Thatcher could have been granted 20 more years of active political life. The “Iron Lady”: renowned for her brains and fortitude, scourge of British labor unions, resolute ally of Ronald Reagan, sensible Cold Warrior, successful (if widely despised) modernizer of Britain’s socialist welfare state, philo-Semite. I include the last because it is true—ask any American neoconservative who was around during the 1980s, or the old-line British Tory who sardonically noted that Thatcher had placed “more old Estonians in her cabinet than old Etonians.”
It is also relevant to America’s great battle over who will have greater say over Washington’s policy in a critical region, America’s own president or Bibi Netanyahu. For there is ample evidence that Mrs. Thatcher would take the side, resolutely and forcefully, of President Obama. This is not despite her philo-Semitism, and not because of it either, but because she was a lady of firm principles and broad judgment.
To begin, Thatcher was a staunch proponent of the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. She thought Menachem Begin’s plans to build settlements on the West Bank a dangerous barrier to any long-term peace. She supported conditional recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization at a time when most American politicians (and Israel) bitterly opposed any negotiations with Palestinian representatives. She publicly opposed Israel’s strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, and implicitly criticized Israel for not joining the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Her government strongly opposed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and cut off arms shipments to Israel in response to it. Thatcher expressed the hope that 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.”
Since Thatcher spoke those words, Israel has moved some 400,000 people into West Bank settlements, in violation of international law and in all probability ending any prospect of a two-state solution. In Israel’s last election, the Labor or center-left camp hardly mentioned the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. Israel is going through some self-criticism at the moment after some settlers burned down a Palestinian home with children inside, but the fact is that Israel has long winked at settler violence and seldom prosecuted it, implicitly considering it a kind of asset in the ongoing project to drive the Palestinian people out of Palestine.
Are Thatcher’s words also applicable to Israel’s nuclear policy, which can be summarized concisely as “we can have nuclear weapons and you cannot”? This double standard has become the lodestar for American policy as well: the United States went to war against Iraq under the pretext of preserving Israel’s nuclear monopoly, and every American president has threatened war against Iran as well. What would Thatcher think about this, in view of her past statements? Might it not fall into the category of demanding for yourself what you deny to other people?
How long can Israel’s nuclear arsenal can be kept out of the broader debate about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East? It is bubbling nearer to the surface. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called attention to the matter in an op-ed in The Guardian, in which he labeled the Vienna agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1, stripping Iran of its nuclear weapon-building potential, as a foundation upon which a Middle East free of nuclear weapons could be built. Of course Iran would say that, one would counter. But on what moral or practical grounds does the argument that Israel can have nuclear weapons, and other Middle Eastern states cannot, stand? Is such a double standard sustainable over the long term?
We probably will not find out soon, but the question is beginning to be broached. Egypt (under its military government, considered Israel’s best friend in the Arab world) is sponsoring an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution to monitor Israel’s nuclear program and turn the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone. Israeli officials are worried: In the past Israel has succeeded in rallying Western countries to oppose such initiatives, but the Iran deal changes the calculation. And if the subject becomes openly debated, what arguments are available to rebuff it and sustain the status quo? The ones I can imagine are blatantly racist, and unlikely to be accepted over the long run. But one wonders whether any of the signatories of the Vienna agreement will go to the mat to protect Israel’s nuclear program from IAEA scrutiny while Netanyahu is simultaneously working to undermine their own diplomacy.
Britain’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron has lobbied for the Iran deal in the United States, phoning senators to amplify his view that the deal is a good one. But he is not the cult figure among conservatives that Thatcher was. If she were alive and active, would the congressional Republican Party behave as it now does, taking its marching orders from the most right-wing government in Israel’s history? Indeed, Republican subservience to Netanyahu is unanimous, at least in the House and Senate, and may be the defining feature of what it is to be a Republican today. (Surely it is a relief to no longer hope that Rand Paul will lead the party out of this abyss, as he was clearly not up to the task.)
Could Margaret Thatcher have made a dent in that consensus? It was never wise to bet against her.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.