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 Thursday, 2 January, 2003, 23:00 GMT
Files reveal British-Israel tank secrets
Chieftain tank
Britain feared an impact on trade with Arab nations

Previously secret files released by the Public Record Office tell how the Britain blocked the sale of Chieftain tanks to Israel in 1969, even though it had agreed to the sale the previous year.

Israel was furious because at the same time, Britain sold Chieftain tanks to Libya.

It is a story of how governments can mean yes in principle but no in practice.

Britain had agreed in 1968 that it had no objection to the sale.

After all, it had supplied Israel with the Centurion tank, which had helped to win the Six Day War between Israel and Arab states in 1967.

Trade concerns

But by early 1969, doubts had grown in London.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir
Meir personally came to London to confront the British Prime Minister

Opposition came from the British Foreign Office even though the Ministry of Defence seemed quite relaxed about the sale, perhaps regarding it as prestigious for a tank whose gun was widely admired at the time but which foreign governments were not ordering.

So the Israelis were told that a decision would be put off until the autumn.

The then-Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, wrote to the Israeli ambassador in London, Aharon Remez:

"We are concerned about the impact of major deliveries of arms of this kind on the prospects for peace in the Middle East," he said.

Britain argued that a forthcoming international summit on the Middle East would be put at risk if the sale went through.

But there was also concern about the effect on British trade with Arab countries.

The Israeli Prime Minister, the feisty Golda Meir, came to London in June to confront the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a man who was basically sympathetic to Israel.

'Great shock'

The Israeli image at the time was much more that of David against Goliath than it is today.

Israeli F-16
Israel turned to the US for its arms supplies

A report of their meeting stated that Mrs Meir said that she wanted to deal with Chieftain tanks.

Israel needed them now and, unhappily, would need them in the future.

Israel had depended on the US for aircraft and on Britain for tanks, and the British Government's decision in May to postpone a decision came as a "great shock".

At a later meeting, she likened the postponement to a "bomb exploding above Israel's head".

Harold Wilson "assured Mrs Meir that we kept a balance between Israel and the Arabs very much in mind".

But he was not moved: "News of our decision to supply would affect the four-power talks and our relations with the Arabs," he said.

British rebuff

At this, the Israeli prime minister made a play for the emotions, according to the report.

She said that Israel often felt herself to be an "adopted child... No other state was Jewish; no other people spoke Hebrew."

Israel had to rely on its friends.

France, she complained, had already let it down by reversing its policy of selling it warplanes.

French planes were instrumental in winning the 1967 war.

All Israeli attempts to get a favourable British decision were rebuffed, even though they were continually told that in principle there was no problem.


Obviously, they realised that in practice, there was.

In the autumn, the British Government did decide not to go ahead with the sale, though the files on that period are still closed.

Mrs Meir told the Knesset on 15 December that Britain had shown "one-sidedness" and was favouring the Arab states.

In 1973, the Conservative government of Edward Heath imposed an arms embargo on the region during the Yom Kippur War and Israel turned almost exclusively to the US and to its own resources to provide its weapons.

See also:

02 Jan 03 | Middle East
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