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Both Thatcher and May have had difficulties with Washington’s attitude towards the conflict. Thatcher believed that President Reagan’s reluctance to help moderate leaders such as Israel’s Shimon Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein, both of them far-sighted leaders who took risks for peace, was damaging for Western interests in the Middle East. In spite of the Begin government’s fierce opposition to the sale of the US AWACS system to Saudi Arabia in 1981, she wrote to Reagan to persuade him to go ahead with the deal. Thatcher feared that its collapse  would damage US ties with the Arab world and strengthen the position of the Soviets in the Middle East. In a private conversation with King Hussein, Thatcher remarked that the President had never shown “the slightest interest” in the region. 

In a similar vein, May condemned President Trump’s announcement in December 2016 recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, describing his move as “unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region”. She has urged instead that the Trump administration promote detailed peace proposals to resolve the conflict.  In May’s eyes, the two-state solution remains the key to achieving a settlement.

Thatcher’s caution on policy towards Israel was understandable during the Cold War and at a time when the Arab world was uniformly hostile towards Israel. However, much has changed. The moderate Arab states seem to care little these days about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and are much more concerned about the threat from Iran. It would appear that Britain has less to lose from building a stronger relationship with Israel. Many Israelis argue that the upheavals in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world show that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a peripheral issue in the region.

And yet Thatcher’s concern about the role of Moscow has now been borne out by Russia’s growing clout in the region and the malignant impact this is having, most noticeably through its close cooperation with Iran and the Assad regime. Putin’s Russia has ditched Soviet-style Communism but this does not diminish the threat it poses to Western interests in the Middle East. Russia, Turkey and Iran were quick to exploit Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem to maximise political gains. Iran, in particular, is doing exactly what the Soviets did during an earlier era, exploiting the Palestinian cause and going over the heads of Arab leaders  to strengthen its influence in the region.

What will happen if the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians erupts once more? From this perspective, Mrs May’s caution, like that of Margaret Thatcher before her, continues to make sense.
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