Steeped in pain, Menachem Begin sat in the study of his official Jerusalem residence pondering the country’s state of affairs. It was December 13, 1981, and Begin – who weeks earlier had slipped and shattered his hip – was finally back home, albeit still confined to a wheelchair.
The region was in turmoil: Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who had reached a historic peace deal with Begin, had been assassinated two months earlier; the final Israeli settlements in the Sinai were scheduled to be evacuated within four months; Syria had taken over Lebanon; and peace talks with the Palestinians were going nowhere.
The Americans and Soviets were preoccupied with the growing instability in Eastern Europe. The communist regime had imposed martial law that morning in Poland to suppress pro-democratic forces, and with Christmas around the corner, the world was already starting to go on vacation.
Despite the physical pain, Begin’s mind was crystal clear.
He called cabinet secretary Aryeh Naor and told him to immediately summon Mossad head Yitzhak Hofi, justice minister Moshe Nissim, and attorney-general Yitzhak Zamir for an emergency meeting at his house. “I want to apply Israeli law to the Golan Heights,” Begin told the group once they gathered. “What do you think?” The question took everyone by surprise, but Begin persisted.
The world, he said, would be upset, but it was busy and would pay little attention. Egypt was months away from getting back the Sinai, and while it would strongly condemn Israel, the peace deal would survive.
The group agreed. Begin ordered Nissim and Zamir to begin drafting the necessary legislation, which they worked on through the night, while Naor convened the cabinet for the following morning at Begin’s home. It didn’t take long: After 90 minutes of debate, the cabinet approved the annexation bill.
Minutes later, Begin and his ministers were on their way to the Knesset, where they surprised the opposition, and in a series of rapid parliamentary moves passed the bill in three successive readings.
In less than 24 hours, the Golan Heights had been annexed.
When I spoke to Naor this week, he still remembered being surprised by Begin’s request. Yes, he reminisced, Begin was under pressure from the settlers and the Right over the pending withdrawal from Sinai, but no one saw the Golan annexation coming.
“It succeeded precisely because it was a shock to us all,” Naor said.
I was reminded of this story this week because of the way some Israeli politicians have been jumping for joy over news that President Donald Trump might move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For some it seems that the location of the US Embassy is the most important issue today on the Israeli-American agenda.
Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin, for example, praised the Trump administration on Sunday for following through with its campaign promise (even though it hasn’t yet), and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat announced that he was already in talks with the White House about the pending move.
By Monday though, the situation seemed to change.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that no decision had been made, and that the US was just “at the very beginning” of even considering the move.
“If it were already a decision, then we wouldn’t be going through a process,” said Spicer.
It wasn’t a coincidence that a day earlier, Palestinian Authority President and Jordanian King Abdullah had met in Amman to coordinate efforts to scuttle the move.
Other Arab countries are also working behind the scenes to prevent what they view as a flagrant violation of the status quo needed to ensure the US remains an honest and objective broker for peace.
Strategies were changing. By Wednesday, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close adviser to Trump, told The Jerusalem Post’s
Herb Keinon that while the president still supported moving the embassy, “now that he is in office, there are a lot more facts and arguments and people you have to consult with before you make a final decision, and it is a more deliberative process.”
I don’t know if Trump ever really intended to move the embassy to Jerusalem, or if he was doing what many of his predecessors had done before him – making a campaign promise that would never be fulfilled. Either way, the celebrations in Israel could not have helped. Public talk does not increase the chance of the embassy moving. It does the opposite.
These politicians failed to remember what Begin did with the Golan. He didn’t talk about it or celebrate the possible news in the media. This wasn’t a political campaign for him. He wasn’t looking to score points with the Likud central committee or the Bayit Yehudi electorate. He kept quiet until the moment it was in the Knesset, and then, in three quick votes, annexed the Golan. Good things, Begin understood, happen quickly and quietly.
Does this mean that Trump won’t move the embassy? I don’t know. On the one hand, it is a grave injustice that the world refuses to recognize Israel’s sovereign rights over its capital city. Jerusalem has been at the heart of the Jewish nation for three thousand years, and there really is no reason world embassies cannot be in western Jerusalem, part of the State of Israel since 1948.
On the other hand, there are more important issues Israel needs to work on with the United States. The Iran deal, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the conflict with the Palestinians, and the battle against ISIS are all issues of great strategic importance. While the location of the embassy is important, it is mostly symbolic.
What will be interesting to see is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Trump when they meet in the White House next month. Over the last few years, Netanyahu has succeeded in developing strong ties with Arab states in the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Those ties are critical today for Israel as the Iran deal is reassessed and a bigger campaign against ISIS is contemplated.
Is it worth risking all of that for a zip code change? We will see.
In three weeks, Netanyahu is scheduled to go where no Israeli prime minister has gone before – Australia. For what it’s worth, I hope he doesn’t cancel.
Last year President Reuven Rivlin was supposed to be the first Israeli president to visit there, but at the last minute canceled the trip and flew instead to Russia for talks with Vladimir Putin. He explained that the IDF’s top brass had urged him to cancel the Australia trip and instead visit Moscow, which was solidifying its military presence at the time in Syria. The IDF, Rivlin said, wanted to use his visit to tighten coordination with the Russian military.
While Rivlin apologized profusely, the Australians were upset. He told them that he would be willing to board a plane at a moment’s notice if he was invited again. He hasn’t been.
Instead, Netanyahu received the invitation and accepted.
He is scheduled to fly there on February 21 after a brief stopover in Singapore, another country never visited before by a sitting prime minister.
It is true that Australia is far away, and for that reason there is concern within the Jewish community there that once again Netanyahu’s trip will be scratched, either because of his visit to Washington or due to the ongoing criminal investigation against him. Netanyahu’s decision last week to shorten the trip and scrap a planned stop in Fiji has added to the unease.
No matter what happens with the investigation, Netanyahu should head Down Under. Israel’s relationship today with Australia should not be taken for granted. Yes, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop condemned the announced settlement expansion plans this week, but she is also the only foreign minister who said that her country would not have supported Security Council Resolution 2334 at the United Nations last month.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also come out strongly for Israel. At a Hanukka menorah-lighting ceremony in Sydney, Turnbull said “Australia stands with Israel. We support Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.” He went on to say that the UN resolution was “one-sided” and “deeply unsettling.”
So, Prime Minister Netanyahu, fly to Australia and don’t worry – the embassy and police investigations will wait until you get back.