In the concise national history of Israel, few figures have become more synonymous with the concept of a “Greater Israel” than Menachem Begin. Born in 1913 in the Russian Pale, Begin’s childhood was plagued by relentless anti-Semitism. Even at a young age, Begin envisioned himself as an exemplar for the Jewish people: tough, strong, independent, and uncompromising, this is what the Jewish people ought to become.[1] By fifteen, Begin had joined the youth movement Betar bent on instilling such principles within the Jewish youth of the day. Founded by a leading Zionist intellectual, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, Begin had found his calling.[2]

Jabotinsky promulgated a Revisionist ideology critical of mainstream Zionism, of which Begin became a devoted ideologue. The foundation of Revisionist thinking was entrenched within the concept of the “wholeness of Eretz Israel”, which asserted that Israel's borders transcended those of the ‘newly-delineated’ Mandatory Palestine.[3] Jabotinsky argued that neighbouring portions of Transjordan were equally legitimate claims for the Jewish homeland. In a 1930 poem entitled, “The Left Bank of the Jordan [River]”, Jabotinsky set forth the basis of Revisionist thinking when he claimed, “Two Banks the Jordan has, This is ours and that one as well,”[4]

Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.


Begin appreciated Jabotinsky’s forcefulness. This was the “New Jew”, the one that would not pander to their Christian overlords or cower in the face of anti-Semitism. Revisionist Zionism served as Begin’s guiding ideological light for most of his life.[5] It is ironic, then, that Begin became the first Israeli Prime Minister to sign a peace treaty on the proposition of “land for peace” with Egypt in 1978. Of all Israel’s former leaders, Begin was the most steadfast in his demands and aspirations, yet when presented with a viable peace solution, he ultimately compromised. This post will explore Begin’s philosophical evolution from ardent Revisionist to the Neo-Revisionist who oversaw the implementation of Israel’s longest-standing and most sustainable peace treaty to-date. Charting Begin’s personal history against the backdrop of the rise of Israel from the nascent homeland of the Jewish people to a regional superpower by 1967, this essay will demonstrate Begin’s ideological development and, in case-specific terms, his recognition that peace and stability trumped territorial expansion and settlements.



Begin had arrived in Palestine in 1942 a soldier. Part of a Soviet Union military detachment known as the Anders Army, it boasted over 5,000 European Jews in its ranks by the time it was ordered to fight alongside the British in Palestine.[6] Relieved from military service the following year, Begin joined the Irgun, a radical underground Jewish paramilitary unit determined to drive the British out of Palestine.[7] The British, at times, appeared to be the worst perpetrators of crimes against the Jewish people in Begin’s eyes; the White Paper of 1939 which effectively outlawed Jewish immigration to Palestine cemented such attitudes. Given that merely three years later initial reports of Hitler’s “final solution” began to materialize, Begin firmly believed it was time for the Jews of Israel to stand up for themselves regardless of the costs.[8]

When a Jewish man who ‘illegally’ sounded a shofar at the Wailing Wall on Yom Kippur was beset by British soldiers and beaten by batons and rifle butts, Begin’s faith in peaceful negotiations quickly faded.[9] Begin was shocked; this was the defeated Jew he wished to eliminate from the annals of Jewish history; the Jew who could not stand up for himself; the Jew in his homeland who was unable to fulfill his religious obligations. In Begin’s own words, fighting against the British would be akin to rebelling “against the yoke of oppression and against the wanton shedding of Jewish blood.”[10] The Haganah and the Jewish Agency became the other focal points for Begin’s contempt during this time.* He viewed these organizations as too gradualist, pandering to their British rulers for clemency. Whereas Begin, now the commander of another underground movement, Etzel, had publically declared a revolt against the British, the Jewish Agency took the initiative to suppress it themselves.[11] David Ben-Gurion, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, declared, “With Jewish force and Jewish means, we must prevent the gangs’ actions.”[12]

The watershed moment in Begin’s ideological contest between Revisionist and mainstream Zionism came in June 1948 with the sinking of the Altalena. Laden with arms, ammunition, and men, the transport ship ran aground just outside of Tel Aviv.[13] In the confusion of the moment, the ship was fired upon; several men were killed, the munitions destroyed, and Begin’s faith in the Jewish people rocked. Under no circumstances could infighting amongst the Jewish people be permissible. Reminiscing upon the affair years later Begin concluded:

Whoever has followed my story knows that fate has not pampered me. From my earliest youth I have known hunger and been acquainted with sorrow. And often death has brooded over me, both in the Homeland and on alien soil. But for such things I have never wept. Only on the night when the State was proclaimed; and on the night of the “Altalena”…There are times when the choice is between blood and tears. Sometimes, as our revolt against the oppressor taught us, it is essential that blood should take the place of tears.[14]

 

Begin’s statement illustrates the ideological underpinnings by which he lived his life. Blood and sorrow were interchangeable ingredients in the story of the Jewish people, and correspondingly, the State of Israel: death was never a distant reality.

This interpretation developed into Begin’s underlying creed upon which he constructed the Herut movement following the establishment of Israel in 1948. Instantly, Begin became the most vocal and vociferous critic of the incumbent Ben-Gurion administration.[15] The first Member of Knesset (MK) to submit a non-confidence vote, Begin’s earliest days in the Israeli political arena exhibited a unique blend of classical Revisionism combined with a marked departure from certain tenets.[16] Begin had assumed the reigns of the Zionist Right following the death of Jabotinsky in 1940, and as historian Ilan Peleg maintains, ushered in an era of Neo-Revisionism.[17] Although Begin remained faithful to the ideological foundations set forth by Jabotinsky, a distinct divergence emerged. Forced to confront the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, Begin began to reformulate a new political philosophy.[18]

Begin’s upbringing played an integral role in the construction of Neo-Revisionism. Unlike Jabotinsky’s cosmopolitan and liberal childhood, Begin’s harsh exposure to spates of anti-Semitism desensitized him to non-Jewish (or as he referred to them, the “Goyim”) criticism.[19] In conjunction with a disdain for international laws and accepted norms, Begin stressed the importance of military strength and emphasized the deeply entrenched connections between Ancient Israel and the modern Jewish people.*

In the aftermath of the 1948 War, Begin began to redraw the maps and boundaries of Neo-Revisionist aspirations. While Begin had been an adamant defender of a “Greater Israel” stretching into Transjordan prior to the 1950s, a pragmatism began to implant itself by the mid-1950s: no longer were Bashan, the Gilead, and Amman listed amongst Herut literature or maps.[20] Begin had shifted considerably from his original stance that, “The homeland is an integral entity” and that any “attempt to dismember it is…an evil attempt.”[21] As existential security fears dissipated following the 1948 War, Begin’s insistence upon broader territorial claims outside of Israel-Proper manifested themselves primarily as an alternative to Ben-Gurion’s foreign policy, rather than an uncompromising political position. Subsequently, abstract geographic aspirations were maintained, but subverted, to potentially attainable political goals. Notwithstanding such rhetoric’s prevalence after the Six-Day War (1967), Begin began to confine his sights to west of the Jordan River.[22]

Herein lies the great controversy and misunderstanding regarding the nature of Begin’s Neo-Revisionism. What had initially been a pillar of the Herut Party’s adherence to a “full restoration of the homeland”, had transformed to “the whole land of Israel stops at the Jordan [River].”[23]  The Israeli military triumph in 1967 enabled Begin to emphasize the historical connection to the ‘Land of Israel’ while distancing Herut from the politically detrimental rhetoric of territorial claims beyond the Mandate’s borders. Thus, changing public attitudes in Israel provoked Begin to acknowledge and adjust to certain prevailing sentiments.[24] The trauma of the Yom Kippur War (1973) reawakened Begin to the untenable, and potentially disastrous, stance maintaining such intractable national claims had on Israel.[25] As a result, throughout the Camp David Accords, crucial negotiations surrounding Israeli settlements were generally distinguished between those in the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank-Gaza Strip. Despite Begin’s seeming implacability toward uprooting the Sinai Peninsula settlements, his arguments relied upon the vital security interests such settlement served, rather than their historical connection to Israel.[26] Moreover, as famed general Ariel Sharon argued, if nothing else these settlements could serve as the bargaining chip for Israel to solidify their settlement claims within Israel-Proper (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza Strip).[27]

In this spirit, Begin’s philosophical approach to Israel had evolved dramatically. His belief that Israel now belonged principally within the borders defined by the British mandate overrode his earlier sentiments of maximalist Zionism.[28] President Jimmy Carter was equally astonished. Confiding in his personal diary a mere ten days after the Camp David Accords, Carter confessed:

The news came that the Knesset voted to approve the Camp David agreement and remove Israeli settlers from the Sinai. This is a remarkable demonstration of political courage by Prime Minister Begin, who had to go against his own previous commitments and against his closest friends and allies. I really think a lot of him after that vote but anticipate being aggravated again as we start on the West Bank.[29]*

 

Carter had good cause to be pessimistic about negotiating the prospects of the West Bank with Begin. Undergirding Begin’s Neo-Revisionist philosophy was an entrenched ‘us vs. them’ mentality between the Jews and Arabs asserting that both were destined to be eternal enemies.[30]

The term “Arabs” though is subject to further parsing. Begin had long been staunchly reluctant to acknowledge the distinction between the Arabs and the Palestinians, the latter term rarely being referenced. While Begin had made peace with the geographic limitations of ‘Greater Israel’, evident through the Camp David Accords, Begin remained unwavering in terms of the West Bank and Gaza (the former often referred to as Judea and Samaria).[31]*

            Thus by the 1970s Begin was not diametrically opposed to a ‘peace for land’ concession, contrary to prevailing misconceptions. Undeniably, in Begin’s mind, security and national borders were indispensible and inseparable considerations; however, by the time of his Prime Ministership, the two had reached an equilibrium. Demands to secure either the lands east of the Jordan River or south of the Negev Desert only served to endanger the future of Israel. Despite the chagrin of many, Begin signed the Accords predicated precisely upon the notion that it guaranteed Israel a safer future within the historical lands of Israel.** Although Begin did pursue peace when the opportunity presented itself, it also served to reinforce his vision of a unified Israel including the West Bank and Gaza Strip.[32] Abandoning the holy sites scattered throughout the West Bank was inconceivable; in Begin’s eyes, any international condemnation of ‘illegitimate’ claims to the land were subordinated to religio-historical connection.

1967 reconfirmed for Begin a revised interpretation of the “indivisibility of the land” and the duty to protect the “fruits of victory,”[33] Had Begin been a political actor in modern day Israel he would certainly have been a proponent of the ‘One-State’ solution. Nevertheless, Begin had transformed from a man resolutely in favour of maximalist Zionism in the 1940s to a Prime Minister willing to concede vast tracts of land in the 1970s. Underlying Begin’s entire political philosophy were religio-historical considerations. Because the Sinai Peninsula fell outside the historical Eretz Israel, Camp David did not forfeit any legitimate Jewish land claims. For this very reason, Begun was similarly obstinate in surrendering claims to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.[34] In combination with the tangible security benefits, peace with Egypt greatly outweighed the value the Sinai provided. Equally, the relatively sparse resistance from the West Bank and Gaza Strip had not warranted any serious cost-benefit calculations toward renouncing Israeli claims.

The cold, stern look Menachem Begin often wore discouraged many from thinking him capable of making true concessions or being a peacenik. Certainly his past did little to dispel such notions. However, Begin is a much more complex and sophisticated figure than history has made him out to be. At the height of the deadlock during the Camp David Accords, Jimmy Carter took Begin and Sadat on an outing to the nearby Gettysburg battlefield: home to the bloodiest battle fought in the Western Hemisphere. The party stopped at the site where Lincoln made his now-famous Gettysburg Address. Captivated by the historical grounds upon which they stood, the group turned in surprise to see Begin quietly reciting the speech to himself. Slowly, Begin’s voice gained power, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure….”[35] Begin realized the gravity of the situation Lincoln faced and how great moments in history were seized by those willing to make sacrifices. Reinvigorated with a mixture of great historical initiative, executive leadership, and analytical compromise, Begin set forth to carve out his own moment in history.        

 


[1] Jack L. Shwartzwald, Nine Lives of Israel: A Nation’s History through the Lives of Its Foremost Leaders (Jefferson, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012), 124.

[2] Jack L. Shwartzwald, 125.

[3] Nadav G. Shelef, “From “Both Banks of the Jordan” to the “Whole Land of Israel”: Ideological Change in Revisionist Zionism,” Israel Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 126, accessed April 1, 2015, doi. 10.1353/is.2004.0019

[4] Nadav G. Shelef, 126-7.

[5] Amos Oz, A Tale of Love & Darkness, (Orlando: Keter Publishing House Ltd., 2003), 28.

[6] Avi Shilon, Menachem Begin: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press: 2012), 39-40.

[7] Gertrude Hirschler and Lester S. Eckman, Menachem Begin: From Freedom Fighter to Statesman (New York City: Shengold Publishers, Inc., 1979), 70-1.

[8] Gertrude Hirschler and Lester S. Eckman, 63.

[9] Gertrude Hirschler and Lester S. Eckman, 69.

[10] Gertrude Hirschler and Lester S. Eckman, 69.

* The Haganah was a military unit which worked under the discretion of the Jewish Agency and David Ben-Gurion. Whereas the Etzel or Irgun are generally viewed as irregular, underground military units, the Haganah was the official army of the proto-Israeli state.

[11] Avi Shilon, 48.

[12] Avi Shilon, 54.

[13] Maud S. Mandel, Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 30-1.

[14] Menachem Begin, The Revolt (New York City: Nash Publishing, 1977), 176.

[15] Colin Shindler, The Triumph of Military Zionism: Nationalism and the Origins of the Israeli Right (New York City: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 2010), 220.

[16] Avi Shilon, 146-7.

[17] Amir Goldstein, “Crisis and Development: Menachem Begin’s Leadership Throughout the 1960s,” Israel Studies 20, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 117, accessed April 5, 2015, doi. 10.2979/israelstudies.20.1.110

[18] Ilan Peleg, “The Zionist Right and Constructivist Realism: Ideological Persistence and Tactical Readjustment,” Israel Studies 10, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 133, accessed April 4, 2015, doi. 10.1353/is.2005.0133

[19] Ilan Peleg, 135.

* Clarification: In regard to the stress of military strength, Begin was afforded an unprecedented power in military terms, beyond what Jabotinsky possibly envisioned in his earlier writings. As historian Ilan Peleg would suggest, this could possibly be viewed as a form of Realism. In terms of the connection with Ancient Israel, Begin stressed it more so than any other mainstream Israeli party.

[20] Colin Schindler, 220; Nadav G. Shelef, 130-1.

[21] Arye Naor, “Hawks’ Beaks’, Doves’ Feathers: Likud Prime Ministers Between Ideology and Reality,” Israel Studies 10, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 157, accessed April 4, 2015, doi. 10.1353/is.2005.0131

[22] Arye Naor, 160-1.

[23] Amir Goldstein, 115.

[24] Nadav G. Shelef, 136.

[25] Yechiam Weitz, “From Peace in the South to War in the North: Menachem Begin as Prime Minister, 1977-1983,” Israel Studies 19, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 145, accessed April 5, 2015, http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/israel_studies/v019/19.1.weitz.pdf

[26] Lawrence Wright, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David (New York City: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014), 102.

[27] Lawrence Wright, 45.

[28] Ilan Peleg, 125.

[29] Jimmy Carter, White House Diary (New York City: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010), 248.

*  Carter is writing in reference to the Israeli Knesset’s decision on September 24, 1978 to accept the framework of the Camp David Accords by a vote of 11 to 2 (with three abstentions)

[30] Ilan Peleg, 138.

[31] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2000), 471.

* Judea and Samaria is a term often used to reinforce the Jewish historical connection to the land dating back to biblical times. It is a common rhetorical tool used by certain political factions in Israel opposed to the relinquishing of these territories.

** Understandably, the historical borders fluctuated throughout history but Begin reiterated such statements due to political pragmatism.

[32] Nadav G. Shelef, 135.

[33] Yehi’am Vaits, “The Road to the “Upheaval”: A Capsule History of the Herut Movement, 1948-1977,” Israel Studies 10, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 76, accessed April 5, 2015, doi. 10.1353/is.2005.0134

[34] Nadav G. Shelef, 135.

[35] Lawrence Wright, 172.

 


Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position or viewpoint of The Jerusalem Post. Blog authors are NOT employees, freelance or salaried, of The Jerusalem Post.

Think others should know about this? Please share