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There is irony in the thought that were Menachem Begin alive today he would be saddened, indeed outraged, at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's insistence - in consort with the US and the EU - that Hamas's political legitimacy be conditioned, inter alia, on its recognition of Israel's right to exist.
"Right to exist?" I can hear the late prime minister roundly chastising his younger successor who declares himself to be a Begin disciple. "Are you telling me, Ehud, that our right to exist in Eretz Yisrael has to be sanctioned for political purposes by an intrinsically anti-Semitic, murderous Palestinian Arab terrorist organization? Have you lost your Jewish self-respect? Where is your Jewish memory?"
Menachem Begin had a surfeit of both - Jewish self-respect and memory. He had an all-encompassing grasp of Jewish history. Instinctively his memory went back thousands of years and his vision forward thousands of years. Jewish nostalgia fed his soul; it nurtured his deepest convictions.
SO WHEN, on the first day of his premiership in 1977, he was waylaid by a tall, debonair, rakishly good-looking Englishman in a bow tie and a perfectly pitched BBC announcer's voice, and saucily asked whether he looked forward to a time when the Palestinians would recognize Israel, his jaw tightened in restrained Jewish anger. But honed as he was by years of legal training, he answered with the composed demeanor of a practiced jurist, saying, "Traditionally, there are four major criteria of statehood under international law. One - an effective and independent government. Two - an effective and independent control of the population. Three - a defined territory. And four - the capacity to freely engage in foreign relations. Israel is in possession of all four attributes and, hence, is a fully fledged sovereign state and a fully accredited member of the United Nations."
"But, surely, you would insist, would you not, that the relevant Palestinian organizations recognize Israel as a sine qua non for negotiations with them?" persisted the fellow.
"Certainly not! Those so-called relevant organizations are gangs of murderers bent on destroying the State of Israel. We will never conduct talks about our own destruction."
"And were they to recognize Israel's existence - would you then negotiate with them?" pressed the correspondent.
"Because I don't need Palestinian recognition for my right to exist."
TWO HOURS later Menachem Begin stood at the podium of the Knesset, presenting his new cabinet. He began by dryly outlining the democratic processes that led to the changing of the guard, from Labor to Likud. And then, in recollection perhaps, of his acerbic exchange with the BBC man, he began talking about Israel's right to exist.
"Our right to exist - have you ever heard of such a thing?" he declared, passion creeping into his voice. "Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for its people recognition of its right to exist?"
He glared at his audience and wagged a finger, stilling every chattering voice in the Knesset chamber. And now, using his voice like a cello, sonorous and vibrant, he drove on:
"Mr. Speaker: We were granted our right to exist by the God of our fathers at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization four thousand years ago. Hence, the Jewish people have an historic, eternal and inalienable right to exist in this land, Eretz Yisrael, the land of our forefathers. We need nobody's recognition in asserting this inalienable right. And for this inalienable right, which has been sanctified in Jewish blood from generation to generation, we have paid a price unexampled in the annals of nations."
Then he rose up on his toes, his shoulders squared, thumped the podium, and perorated in a voice that was thunder, "Mr. Speaker: From the Knesset of Israel, I say to the world, our very existence per se is our right to exist!"
A spontaneous applause rose from the benches. Many got to their feet in full-throated acclaim. It was a stirring Knesset moment - a moment of instinctive self-recognition affirming that though the State of Israel was then but 29 years old, its roots in Eretz Yisrael ran 4,000 years deep.
THREE WEEKS later, the very same issue cropped up once more when prime minister Begin first met president Jimmy Carter in the White House. As their encounter drew to a close, the president handed the premier a piece of heavy bond White House stationary on which the formal communiqu to be released in their name was drafted.
"I trust this will meet with your approval," said Carter in his reedy Georgian voice.
Begin ran his eye over the one page text, and said, "Totally acceptable, Mr. President, but for one sentence."
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, an unruffled man as a rule, who had invested much effort in drafting the document, became momentarily agitated. After a year at the job he had perfected a manner of drafting such joint statements designed to convey as little meaning as possible.
"And what might that be?" he asked.
"Please delete the sentence which reads, 'The United States affirms Israel's inherent right to exist.'"
President Carter's steely pale-blue eyes flared in surprise. "It would be incompatible with my responsibilities as president of the United States were I to omit this commitment to your country," he said. "To the best of my knowledge, every Israeli prime minister has asked for this public pledge."
"I sincerely appreciate you sentiment, Mr. President," said Mr. Begin, his tone deeply reflective as if reaching down into generations of memory, "But it would be equally incompatible with my responsibilities as prime minister of Israel were I not to ask you to erase that sentence."
"Because our Jewish state needs no American affirmation of our right to exist. Our Hebrew bible established that right millennia ago. Never, throughout the centuries, did we ever abandon or forfeit that right. Therefore, sir, we alone, the Jewish people - no one else - are responsible for our country's right to exist."
So yes, Menachem Begin would, indeed, have had what to say to Ehud Olmert, were he around today. Never would he have put on the table a demand for recognition of Israel's right to exist as a quid pro quo for negotiation. To him, this was a high ideological principle, a fundamental axiom, an absolute given, a natural corollary of his all-embracing view of Jewry's extraordinary history.
Ehud, take it out.
The writer served on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.
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