menachem begin 88.
(photo credit: )
As anniversaries go, 15 isn't usually an especially significant number. But for some reason, this year's commemoration of prime minister Menahem Begin's death has generated a lot more interest than in past years. This is, of course, no coincidence.
Everyone is talking about "the loss of leadership" so often that it has become a clich . But when the prime minister and the Defense Ministry are receiving single-digit approval ratings and the only serious candidates to replace them are both failed prime ministers who were resoundingly kicked out of office by the electorate, it's hard to find another name for it.
Naturally, at time like these, the public and media begin to feel nostalgic and begin casting back to a time when we seem to remember real leaders.
Ariel Sharon, though wildly popular only 14 months ago, is not a good candidate for these memories. With the engulfing charges of corruption, Sharon is suddenly being seen in a different light, as the source of much of this sleaze. Besides, his coma - not dead but not really alive either - makes us uncertain about how exactly to commemorate him. Yitzhak Shamir has also retreated from the public view and, anyway, was a colorless figure and too partisan to become widely beloved. Yitzhak Rabin, an icon to some, is too controversial to serve as a figure of consensus. Golda Meir is tainted with the trauma of the Yom Kippur War. Sharett and Eshkol are too far in the past to resonate with most of the public, and Ben-Gurion is already a demigod and therefore hard to identify with.
Menachem Begin, though vilified for almost all his political career by the establishment, is suddenly the prime minister whose reputation is most widely agreed upon. He has something for everyone. For the right-wing, he will always remain the ultimate father figure, leading the Irgun in days of revolt and danger, and afterwards, leading Herut, the party of outsiders, for three decades in the political wilderness until the unbelievable victory in the 1977 elections. The left-wing will always be grateful to Begin for setting the historical precedent of trading territories for peace in the Camp David Accords. The religious camp will remember him as a leader with the deepest Jewish historical feelings, and the haredim for being the prime minister who brought them in from the cold, making them equal coalition partners with spending budgets.
How easy it is for the leftists to forget, now, the first Lebanon War and for rightists to overlook the destruction of Yamit and other Sinai settlements, the chronically unstable coalition, the crumbling of the Israeli economy and hyperinflation, the lack of control Begin exercised over his ministers - especially Sharon - and how ultimately he disappointed all his allies. Above all, how he clung on to the office for long months of deep depression and disconnection from events, shielded by a few aides who lied about his real condition, until he finally admitted he could no longer go on.
But all of this has now been put aside because Begin still had two qualities so lacking today. He wasn't the kind of leader whose followers lose confidence after one failure. They followed Begin through thick and thin, from the years of the underground and in eight electoral defeats. They were prepared to die for him, and in the days of the Irgun, some did. He inspired the members of Herut to sacrifice and persevere, infusing them - through the power of his rhetoric - with the enduring ideal of Jabotinskean greatness. Even for ideological opponents, it is a bracing memory, with no parallel since.
But above all, it was Begin's personal humility and simplicity. In an age in which the last four prime ministers are all wealthy men of property, the subject of corruption investigations, Begin seems almost an extra-terrestrial. It's no coincidence that the IDF Radio's special feature on Begin this week was titled The Man from 1 Rosenbaum Street. Ever since he emerged from the underground and until his elevation to the premiership, Begin lived and raised his family of five in the same one-room apartment in Tel-Aviv.
Despite winning two election campaigns, Begin was rarely popular during his lifetime, and even in power he was under constant pressure from friends and foes. Fifteen years after his death and almost a quarter of a century after leaving power, Begin suddenly has a new legacy which, more than reflecting the man that was, highlights what we feel we so sorely lack today.