One on One: 'We need to defer the differences'

Why Bennie Begin returned to politics, how he came to reconcile with Likud and if he agrees with members.

benny begin 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
benny begin 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In an interview with Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea last weekend, author Amos Oz referred derogatorily to Bennie Begin as a "walking exclamation point." Other critics of the 65-year-old geologist-turned-politician-and-back-again have begun hyphenating his name with that of right-wing "Manhigut Yehudit" faction head Moshe Feiglin. The implication is clear: that Menachem Begin's son (who, in 1998, broke away from Likud in protest over the Wye River Memorandum and Hebron Accord signed by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to form Herut - the National Movement) always has been, and still is, an alarmist hawk. The purpose of stressing this now is that Begin recently buried the proverbial hatchet with Netanyahu and announced he will be running in the upcoming Likud primary. Since his announcement, several other big names - among them former Likud minister and defunct Center party founder Dan Meridor, former police chief Assaf Hefetz, former chief of General Staff Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon and even basketball champ Tal Brody - have followed suit. This, coupled with polls pointing to a Netanyahu victory in the February 10 elections, has opponents on high alert. Ironically, it also has long-time Likud loyalists and "rebels" alike looking askance at the move. Some of the former have been grumbling about being upstaged by the "prodigal son," who slammed the door in their faces 10 years ago. Some of the latter question how Begin can reconcile with Netanyahu's stated intention of inviting Kadima to join a Likud-led government. In an hour-long interview with The Jerusalem Post at his newly set-up office in Beit Menorah, adjacent to Betar headquarters in Jerusalem's Valley of the Cross, Begin addresses these very issues. Asking that the conversation be held in English, to enable him to practice the language he claims has grown rusty since his exit from politics, he quips: "I'm like the guy from Warsaw who says he wants to polish his English, and is told, 'Don't worry, your English is Polish enough.'" In fact, Begin's English - like his Hebrew - is as fluid as it is formal. No surprise there. The real shocker is how little he sounds like a "walking exclamation point," and how much he stresses consensus and compromise. Former Likud rebel Uzi Landau is running on the Yisrael Beiteinu ticket - in spite of his ideological differences with chairman Avigdor Lieberman - because of Netanyahu's willingness to ask Kadima to join a coalition with him after the elections. How does someone like you come to terms with that? That is indeed the policy of Likud leader Mr. Netanyahu today, and I do agree with the necessity of forming a broad coalition. Because of the complexity of the issues, we need a wide shoulder. And we need people with experience and talent. Such people can be found in other parties, as well, though the Likud has demonstrated recently that it has assembled quite a formidable team. Experience and talent of particular politicians aside, isn't Likud becoming a party with a "mish-mosh" of ideologies - and wouldn't this be exacerbated by forming a coalition with Kadima? My conclusion, for quite some time now, has been that ideological differences - mainly in regard to the permanent solution of the borders of the state of Israel, in the context of peace with our neighbors - are irrelevant today, and will be irrelevant for quite some years. I derived this from a simple observation, which many people share, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate, our president, the honorable Mr. Peres, who commented that he doesn't see peace as arriving in the foreseeable future. This being the case - mainly because the Arabs have not relinquished their main aim, and never neglect to stress their need to bring all refugees back to their original homes in Israel - an agreement cannot be reached, even by a leftist government, such as the one led by Kadima and Labor today. Conclusion: We have to concentrate in the next few years on the common basis of coping with the immediate threats, the security situation, a branch of Iran in Hamastan in Gaza, a branch of Iran in Lebanon through Hizbullah and Syrian ties with Iran. I regret to point out that some of the problems have not been forced upon us by factors beyond our control. Some were initiated enthusiastically by the Kadima government. For instance, the withdrawal from Gaza and uprooting of 10,000 people and dozens of settlements. President Peres recently commented: "We failed in Gaza. Instead of the settlements, we now have bases for terrorism and for launching rockets at Israel." The question is: Who failed? Did Bogie Ya'alon fail? Did [former Knesset Speaker Reuven] Ruby Rivlin fail? Did I fail to warn against these developments? Netanyahu was a minister in the Kadima-led government that carried out the withdrawal from Gaza. He only resigned at the last minute... But he did resign. You make no mention of the two-state solution? Will he - or you - relinquish it? We're not there yet. I have my ideas; other people have theirs. It is irrelevant to the current situation. There's a very wide consensus in the country regarding the utmost necessity of having IDF forces and general security personnel in Judea and Samaria. What is the difference between me and my friends on the Left? The difference is that I insist that our forces not be withdrawn from "Judea and Samaria," and they insist that our forces not be withdrawn from "the territories" or "the West Bank." But everyone understands that in the foreseeable future, if the IDF doesn't remain there, terrorism will be perpetrated by Hamas and others against our cities. Are you saying that what's needed at the moment is an emergency bandaid? With all due respect, I wouldn't use either the word "emergency," or the word "bandaid." The situation is serious, but Israel is strong. It is because of the complexity of the threats that we need the best minds and most experienced people to exchange views and reach decisions on the pressing matters. All the rest should, and even perhaps must, be postponed until the future. Though it is characteristic of Jews to immerse themselves in endless debate, we should bid farewell to this habit for a while and concentrate on the main issues. And the main issues today have very little to do with the future, which will unfold in a way we don't know yet. I'll give you a concrete example: The Kadima government has been negotiating with [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen for a year now, on what? On an agreement that most people agree cannot be reached. But once it is reached, according to their policy, it will not be implemented, because the time is not ripe for implementation. They call this a "shelf agreement." So what's the use? We shall commit ourselves to the concessions in writing. Nothing will happen. The situation won't change. The point is that they themselves agree that peace is not in the cards in the foreseeable future. And until we unshelve this agreement, nothing will happen. I'm aware that people view me as an alien, an astronaut, a guy detached from reality, but it has been proven that it was not I who was detached from reality. And I'm trying to be practical. In this case, practicality involves deferring the differences, and concentrating on the immediate. Does "concentrating on the immediate" include bombing Iran? I have to confess that after 10 years of detachment from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, it would be irresponsible for me to comment. And even if I did have access to the details, it might still be irresponsible for me to comment. But we hear from time to time, even with this government, that no option should be precluded. Of course, we and the international community should all strive to impress upon the Iranians that what they seek cannot be regarded as a realistic agenda. It should be stressed that actually it is not Israel's issue alone; it is, first and foremost, the issue of the Gulf states. They are the oil producers. And the stability of the western world, which consumes much of its oil from the Gulf, is at stake. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the international community to see to it that Iran does not go nuclear, one way or another. What will the Obama presidency - which has a more European outlook to diplomacy - mean for the next Israeli government? It was said that the Bush administration was initially so pro-Israel that it would have given the Israeli government carte blanche. What the government here did, first with Ariel Sharon at the helm and then with Ehud Olmert, was to withdraw from territory and engage in peace talks with the PA, in spite of incessant missile attacks from Gaza. If so, how will a Democratic administration accept any moves your supposed wide coalition will see fit to make? The best answer I can give is that we don't know. I'm not sure that the president's team has already crystallized a policy. It will take time, and it's too early to tell. What does remain, of course, is the basic understanding and sharing of values between the great American democracy and the state of Israel, irrespective of the name of the president, his personality or his party. Isn't the Likud's announcement of willingness to have Kadima join its government a little bit defeatist? Isn't it better to try and get the most mandates you can, to enable you to form a government without the party about which you clearly have a dim view? A clear majority would mean you wouldn't have to do this. This [kind of clear majority] has never been the case in Israel since its inception. In a parliamentary democracy, there are many splinters. We should strive for a situation in which we have two strong parties. Not two strong blocs - one Right and one Left? Why not form a coalition of like-minded parties? But you need a stable majority. Theoretically, a government can rule lawfully with a majority of one - 61-59. But I would never do that. First of all, I don't think it's fair. But also, it's impractical. We've changed so many governments in recent years, and one of the reasons is that the leading party is too small. You need a stable core in which deliberations are carried out between the two big parties, but the decisions compel everyone. But when you form a coalition, you have to give portfolios to your coalition partners. In a coalition with Kadima, couldn't we end up with the same foreign minister we have today? And if so, what is the purpose of winning an election? I cannot escape from the realistic approach. Reality dictates that there be a coalition. A coalition is formed by give-and-take negotiations. It's a fact that Israel has always managed to form coalitions, sometimes with more difficulty, sometimes with less. The question is whether they're stable, whether they can rule, whether they can do the job. When you announced that you were rejoining Likud, critics began calling it the Begin-Feiglin party, to indicate that it has become extremist. What do you think about that in general, and about Moshe Feiglin in particular? For many years, I have expressed my disagreements with Mr. Feiglin. Speaking of disagreements with other members of the party, what would you say is the main difference between you and Dan Meridor? Why don't you underline the common issues between Dan and myself? OK, in what ways do you and he share a world view? We share an assessment of the security situation and of the solutions needed. We also agree on the need to strengthen the Supreme Court - on the need to make it very clear that the supremacy of the law is basic to a democracy. You can't always count on the reasonableness of government decisions. The Supreme Court, as an authority that tells the government to be careful with its decisions, and make sure they are within the bounds of law, is essential to our society. Dan and I also both favor the quest for social justice within a vivid, free economy. All this might not only might have been said by [retired Meretz MK] Yossi Beilin, but actually was, in a recent interview with The Post. So? So, don't you feel that the Supreme Court has overstepped its bounds? When Daniel Friedmann was appointed Justice Minister, retired Supreme Court justice Mishael Cheshin wrote a letter to him in which he said: "This is my home, and I will cut off the hand of whomever raises it against my home." Is this not indicative of a climate of judge aggrandizement? The problem is that those who win their day in court are very confidant, and those who lose say the court shouldn't have intervened. There may have been some cases where I thought the court shouldn't have stepped in, but there are very few, and that's not the real issue. There are very few issues around which the court is forced by circumstances to enter into sensitive issues which may be interpreted this way or the other. Eighty-five percent of the cases brought before the Supreme Court have to do with individuals who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have been treated unjustly by the executive branch. Only 15% of the cases have arisen from the so-called opening of the doors to groups. And even many of those cases have proven to be real issues that needed intervention. In some cases, the Supreme Court entered into a vacuum created by the unwillingness of the politicians to make a decision, which caused them to postpone and procrastinate. Also, it is highly ironic that it is minority groups who are often the harshest critics of the Supreme Court, when it is they themselves who appeal to the court when they feel an injustice has been done. I cannot rule out change or reform in some procedures. But in recent years, under Mr. Friedmann, the Supreme Court has been under vicious attack that has degraded its posture with the public. This is not only ill-mannered, it is dangerous. Returning to Meridor: How do you differ from him? Dan's views are different from mind in reference to the permanent situation in which Israel will find itself within the context of a real, secured peace. As I pointed out, I'm not bothered by this difference, because it's not on the table. What about your differences with Netanyahu? You left the Likud in a huff in 1997. Now, all of a sudden, you're back. What paved the way for rapprochement? I like the way you call it "all of a sudden." This "all of a sudden" lasted a decade. I left Likud because I differed on its policy. But it's years later now. And Mr. Netanyahu and I met, and talked like adults. Grown-ups should be able to leave the past behind them, whatever it was, and look at the current situation, analyze it and prepare for the future. Are you saying that it is you who has changed - from purist to pragmatist? With all due respect, I think it has been proven that I was not unpragmatic in the past - that, in fact, I was less so than others. Are you familiar with the term [attributed to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger] "constructive ambiguity"? Well, I believe in "constructive clarity." So, no, neither my views nor my general attitude have changed. I came to the conclusion that the circumstances will allow me to be of service to the public a little more than I have been during the last nine years as director of the Geological Survey of Israel. Speaking of services rendered to the public, Gilad Schalit has been in captivity for nearly two and a half years - with prisoner releases as the only option being discussed for his rescue. Do you believe Israel will ever regain its former glory as the country that carried out the 1976 Entebbe raid? That was a specific commando operation which became a symbol of something larger. I would say that though the spirit is there and the ability is there, the situation at large has become more complex. It's a different world. Everything is tied to everything - economically, militarily, politically, diplomatically - and everything is quick. The reactions are quick, and this requires, perhaps, a different attitude, a more balanced discussion. We have to be very careful and responsible. It is a chess game with formidable enemies. We also have friends in the world, as well as the force within us. It is the role of leadership to extract this inner strength. And I think that we, in Likud today, have the chance to provide such leadership.