LONDON (Nov. 28)
British policy toward Israel is unlikely to change much under John Major, who officially replaced Margaret Thatcher on Wednesday as prime minister.
But leaders of British Jewry seem to feel that no matter how friendly and attuned to Jewish concerns Thatcher’s hand-picked successor may be, he will not be able to match the so-called “Iron Lady’s” empathy with Jews, which is rooted in shared values.
The British government announced Wednesday that it was renewing diplomatic relations with Syria immediately, but sources at the Foreign Office stressed there was no connection between the move and Thatcher’s departure.
Thatcher had always opposed the resumption of relations, which were broken off in 1988 in the face of evidence of Syrian involvement in the abortive attempt to blow up an El Al airplane at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Douglas Hurd, who is to remain foreign secretary in the new government, told Parliament on Wednesday that Britain had received a “confidential account” of the Syrian position on the attempt to blow up the plane, as well as “confirmation that Syria rejects acts of international terrorism and will take action against the perpetrators of such acts that are supported by convincing evidence.”
The restoration of ties with Syria follows closely on President Bush’s meeting last Friday in Geneva with Syrian President Hafez Assad. Both countries would appear to be shoring up ties with Damascus in appreciation for its support in efforts to isolate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
WILL MEET WITH SHAMIR NEXT WEEK
The Persian Gulf crisis is likely to remain the top international priority of the British government under Major. Like Thatcher, he is said to favor focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only after Iraq withdraws its forces from Kuwait or is defeated in a military confrontation.
Major’s stance on Israel is largely unknown. His stint at the Foreign Office, from July to October 1989, was too short to reveal his views on the Jewish state and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“We really do not know much of his thinking on the Middle East or what he feels about Israel,” said a senior Israeli official here. “We will be waiting to see not only what positions Mr. Major adopts, but who he appoints to key foreign policy positions.”
The official will not have to wait long. Major is scheduled to meet Yitzhak Shamir when the Israeli prime minister passes briefly through London next week en route to the United States.
Before he joined the Cabinet, Major visited Israel, as part of an official parliamentary delegation, and the West Bank, as a guest of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat.
On domestic issues, Major opposed Nazi war crimes trials in Britain by voting initially against the enabling legislation supported by the government. When the War Crimes Bill came up for a second reading in the House of Commons last March, Major failed to cast a vote either way.
But parliamentary observers pointed out that a number of prominent politicians, including Jews, opposed such trials in principle.
Regardless of how supportive for Jewish concerns Major turns out to be, his predecessor will be held in deep affection by British Jews. They already regard her tenure, the longest of any British premier this century, with nostalgia.
PUSHED HARD FOR SOVIET JEWS
The “Iron Lady” rarely shed tears in public. Jews recall one occasion, however, when a group of Soviet Jewish mothers described the agony of having their sons held captive in the Soviet Union. Profoundly moved, Thatcher listened and wept silently as they told their stories.
During her incumbency, the doors of No. 10 Downing St. were always open to Jews from the Soviet Union and to delegations seeking to help them. Soviet Jewry campaigners were astonished by the persistence with which Thatcher pressed Soviet leaders to let their Jewish citizens leave.
Thatcher herself traces her sympathy for the Jewish people to a time just before World War II when Edith Muehvaer, an Austrian Jewish girl, wrote a poignant appeal for help.
Muehvaer was the pen pal of the young Margaret Roberts’ sister. After she wrote about the Nazi threat, the future prime minister’s father invited her to stay with the family. It was then that Margaret learned firsthand about the tragedy unfolding for European Jewry.
When she was first elected to Parliament for Finchley, Thatcher paid 10 shillings (about $1) to be the first subscriber to the Anglo-Israel Friendship League and was elected its president.
In one of her earliest public tributes to the Jewish state, Thatcher maintained that “Israel has achieved more in the 16 years of her existence than most states achieve in a century.”
Her secretary of state for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind, once observed that Israel “is the very embodiment of Margaret Thatcher’s own values: self-help and hard work.” According to Rifkind, Thatcher and Israel share two characteristics: “stubbornness and enterprise.”
The prime minister was an enthusiastic member of the Conservative Friends of Israel. She joined the Friends of the Hebrew University and became a patron of the Tel Aviv University Trust.
APPOINTED RECORD NUMBER OF JEWS
Thatcher visited Israel both as an opposition leader and while in the government. She took genuine pleasure in the fact that her daughter Carol lived on a kibbutz for some time.
On her official visit to Israel in 1986, Thatcher was told by Shimon Peres, who was prime minister at the time, “Our people have taken you to their hearts.”
Thatcher appointed a record number of Jews to Cabinet office. It is widely accepted that her political and moral outlook was shaped to a significant degree by two Jews: Lord Joseph and Lord Jakobovits.
Keith Joseph was her early political mentor. The policies that came to be known as “Thatcherism” might well have been labeled “Josephism.”
Thatcher, an archconservative in politics and economic matters, made no secret of her admiration for the Jewish ethic of close family life, hard work, self reliance and initiative articulated by Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, the recently retired chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth.
She was said to be perfectly happy with commentator Hugo Young’s description of the chief rabbi as, “in effect, the spiritual leader of Thatcherite Britain.”