MI5 and SAS refused Israel help on counter-terrorism under Margaret Thatcher

The Conservatives used to be cautious about assisting Israel with counter-terrorism, in sharp contrast to the party’s current leadership, declassified files show.

1 November 2023

Margaret Thatcher with Shimon Peres at Downing Street. (Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty)

When he was running to become Britain’s prime minister last year, Rishi Sunak promised to be the heir to Margaret Thatcher.

He pledged to follow her legacy by doing “what is necessary to advance the interests of our country, no matter how difficult or daunting”.

Yet when it comes to the current conflict in Gaza, Sunak’s administration appears to be far more pro-Israel than Whitehall was during Thatcher’s premiership.

Sending ships, spy planes and marines to the eastern Mediterranean strongly signals that Sunak has given Israel carte blanche to blitz Gaza.

His policy could jeopardise other UK interests in the region, such as relations with Arab allies and even the safety of British hostages held by Hamas.

This hyper-partisan stance is one that UK diplomats and security officials would have been reluctant to take in the Thatcher-era, according to formerly secret files from the period seen by Declassified.

They reveal how hesitant Britain was about answering requests for security assistance from Israel’s prime minister Shimon Peres in 1986.

Back then, UK officials were concerned that expanding cooperation with Israel on airline security and hostage rescue could jeopardise relations with Arab states and even the US.

The Foreign Office was particularly vexed with Mossad for using forged British passports to conduct covert operations.

A British diplomat in Tel Aviv complained that “the Israeli security services are pretty well a law unto themselves” and bemoaned instances where “international law has been flouted” by them.

The UK’s defence intelligence service actually broke off contact with the Israeli military between 1987-88 after the “discovery of undeclared intelligence activity by Mossad in the UK.”


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‘No enthusiasm’

Although Thatcher did agree to a “modest increase” in cooperation with Peres on “non-controversial issues” like tracking terrorist finances, she refused to deepen assistance on hostage rescue and bomb disposal.

These were seen as “extremely delicate and sensitive areas and the relevant Departments have shown no enthusiasm for collaboration with Israel in them.”

Sir Leonard Appleyard, an aide to Thatcher’s foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, cautioned that “on rescue techniques, the Ministry of Defence have in the past taken the view that there is very little the SAS could gain from such exchanges which, if they become known, could put at risk their high valued contacts in the Arab world.”

Britain’s military had – and retains – extremely close relations with Jordan’s Sandhurst-trained royal family. In 1986, the SAS held a training exercise in Jordan for a mock battle over an airfield in Aqaba – a port city next door to Israel.

‘Good deal of difficulty’

Even on the subject of terrorist financing, Howe was “concerned that the Israelis will be tempted to make public our willingness to extend cooperation in this field” and cause “a good deal of difficulty for us in other Middle Eastern countries.”

He added: “There is a clear risk that publicity about counter-terrorism cooperation with Israel will undermine the benefits we enjoy from our liaison with Arab intelligence agencies, particularly the Jordanians; and that we will become associated in Arab eyes with any Israeli retaliation to terrorist acts.”

Howe’s scepticism was not without foundation, especially as the UK hosts a substantial Arab diaspora which strongly supports Palestine. After the Hamas break-out from Gaza on October 7, MI5’s current chief Ken McCallum told Sky: “My teams are absolutely alert to the possibility that events in the Middle East cause some people in the UK to attempt some form of attack.”

Sunak has made no secret of his support for Israel’s subsequent crackdown on Hamas, which has seen more than eight thousand civilians killed. Some reports indicate Downing Street has sent an SAS team to help free British hostages held in Gaza. 

An Israeli special forces veteran told Declassified that these days there is “extensive collaboration” between the SAS and its Israeli equivalent, Sayeret Matkal. Israel’s defence ministry declined to comment.

There is “extensive collaboration” between the SAS and its Israeli equivalent, Sayeret Matkal

‘Extreme caution’

Such a high degree of assistance would have been unthinkable in the Thatcher-era. The declassified files show that if Israel’s airline, El Al, saw staff held hostage at its London office, the UK would allow Israel to “send a team of experts” who would “set up their own operations centre in their Embassy and liaise directly” with MI5.

Britain would “do the same in any incident involving British interests in Israel”, but their level of involvement would be limited. When Peres’ adviser on counter-terrorism, Amiram Nir, visited London in 1986, he failed to persuade officials that the SAS should go on a military exchange in Israel.

Nir was met with suspicion across Whitehall. A memo about his visit reveals: “Everyone, and notably the Ministry of Defence, agreed that there is no wish to see a deeper CT [counter-terrorism] relationship with Israel.”

Such scepticism was due to “their tendency to leak as and when it suits them”, causing Howe to “counsel extreme caution in any CT dealings with the Israelis.” Special forces collaboration with Israel was viewed as an area “where we wished to be positively discouraging to the Israelis”.


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The UK was even unwilling to help Israel protect passenger planes from surface-to-air missiles. Both countries had obtained the same advanced decoy equipment from the US. Britain had fitted it to military planes in Northern Ireland, aircraft carrying the prime minister and one flight taken by the Queen to Jordan.

However they were not prepared to discuss their experience of using this jamming kit with Tel Aviv. MI5 told the Foreign Office that “cooperation with the Israelis would not be advisable” and warned they might not have a licence from the US to discuss such technology with a third country.

Howe was apparently “impressed by the reservations voiced by the Security Service [redacted] about the development of close links with Israel in this field.”

Whitehall’s suspicion of Israeli activities only deepened in October 1986, after Mossad was found to have used fake UK passports. Nir tried to explain the “very real operational difficulty in that they could for obvious reasons rarely use Israeli passports.”

Israel had been warned twice before about “similar mis-use of forged British passports”

A security expert at the Foreign Office rebuked him that it “in no way justified the forgery of the passports of a third government whose interests and citizens abroad could be severely affected by such action.”

The matter was taken seriously “at a senior level in London” because Israel had been warned twice before about “similar mis-use of forged British passports” in 1973 and 1979. Nir “gloomily acknowledged that this had been a major setback in his attempt to develop cooperation in the counter terrorism field”.

After dying in a plane crash in Mexico in 1988, Nir was unmasked as playing a key role in the Iran-Contra Affair, which saw weapons smuggled to Israel’s arch-enemy Iran in an effort to free US hostages.

Since the 1980s, and particularly after 9/11, the UK has been much more willing to extend its counter-terrorism ties with Israel. Hamas has been portrayed by Tel Aviv as akin to Al Qaeda and now ISIS.

MI6 has taken an active role in countering the militant group since at least 2004, when it drew up a plan to help rival Palestinian factions mount a purge.