Ze’ev Chafets, author and columnist, was the director of the Government Press Office for five years during Menachem Begin’s tenure as prime minister. For the 30th anniversary of Begin’s death on March 9, 1992, the Magazine spoke with Chafets on his experience working with Begin, Begin’s legacy, and how Begin might perceive the challenges that Israel’s current leaders face.
How did you come to be head of the GPO during Begin’s tenure?
When I was in my late 20s, I saw an ad in the paper that a public institution was looking for a spokesman. And I said, well, let’s check that out. It turned out to be the Liberal Party, which was one half of the Gahal [political alliance], which preceded the Likud.
I didn’t have any particular political ideological positions at the time... The Liberal Party and Gahal had never won an election. They lost eight straight elections with Begin at the end of the ticket. So it didn’t seem like there was much of a chance that there was a political career there. But I wasn’t looking for a career. I just looked for a job. So I took it.
But then [Yitzhak] Rabin, who was then prime minister, resigned over an illegal bank account he had in the US just a couple of months before the election. That, plus the residual dislike of the Labor Party over its performance in the 1973 war and a rising political consciousness among Mizrahi Jews – the Likud was elected, which was an amazing thing.
Because the Likud had always been in opposition, and because it was very difficult for people, especially Herut people, to get jobs in the public sector, they tended to go to business or professions like doctors and lawyers. There were very few people in the Likud who were interested in, or fit for, jobs in the government. And there was a real thirst for people who spoke English and understood something about the United States, the rest of the world. So they offered me this job. I was 29 years old. To my amazement, and to everybody else’s amazement, I got it.
There were decades of Labor Party rule of the government. It was quite a momentous occasion that spread shock waves through the political establishment and through society as a whole. So what was it like on the inside and on the outside of that occasion?
I remember sitting at the Knesset in the dining room with a number of other people, and it had been announced in the paper that day that I was being appointed as the head of the Government Press Office. And a guy at the table says:
“Did you see this? Who is this guy? Who is Chafets? Why in the world would they employ somebody like that? Who is he?”
And I said, “That’s me.”
Everybody laughed because, really, we were not a known quantity, and they were very pissed off because the country had been theirs. They built it, they ran it, they owned it, and we were usurpers.
Begin had a very interesting attitude toward this. He had a lot of respect for the abilities of the people in the Labor Party. Many Likudniks thought that they would be foreign minister, but Begin appointed Moshe Dayan, who was, of course, a lifelong Labor guy. He also brought in Yigael Yadin as deputy prime minister, who also had been a Labor guy all his life. And he didn’t recall ambassadors who had been Labor Party appointees from Washington and from the UN and other places.
His attitude was, these are civil servants, and they should remain where they are. They’ll be loyal to whatever government is elected. Begin was both extremely clever and could be quite naive, and it was never quite clear which of those was causing him to make decisions sometimes. But as it happened, I think that in most of the places he did get sort of loyal service from the previous appointees.
At the first meeting with the advertising people for the 1977 campaign, there were a couple of analysts. And one of them said, “When I was a kid, my mother used to say, ‘If you don’t go to bed in time, Menachem Begin will come in the night and kill you.’”
Another said, “My mother said the same thing.”
It’s hard to believe what a demon he was to many middle-class Mapai-type families. And we focused the election campaign on him being a moral man, a family man, and a democrat. That was the thing that we were trying to get over, that he’s not a fascist and he’s not a warmonger. He’s not going to come and eat your children at night because they didn’t go to sleep.
Today everybody remembers Begin warmly, even his political opponents.
Begin and peace with Egypt
So I came to the GPO, and two-and-a-half months later... there was a thing on the radio that said that [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat had met with the Egyptian Parliament and said he would come to Israel.
So I called Yehiel Kadishai, who was Begin’s right-hand man, and I said, “Yehiel, did you hear that? You think that’s possible?”
And he said, “No, it’s just talk. It’s nothing.”
And a couple of weeks later, they announced that Sadat was coming, and there was a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office.
We didn’t have any idea what Sadat was going to do. He had no schedule and we didn’t have any direct contact with him. We were just talking to him through the American Embassy. So people started proposing things for his agenda. It sounded like a joke to us.
“Maybe we’ll take them to Yad Vashem.” Everybody laughed.
Twenty minutes later the answer came back: “He would be proud to go to Yad Vashem.”
And then we said, “Maybe we’ll take him to Israel’s memorial for the unknown soldier.”
“He will be happy to do that.”
Everybody had to figure out how we could provide security and media coverage for all of these events. And that was my initiation to the job. And then I was part of the delegation that went to Egypt in December. We were the first delegation to go to Egypt... And we were off and running, and that was the next five years of my life.
Did Begin expect this peace process to come to a peace deal?
Begin, I think from the very beginning, thought that it was a real thing, and he understood that there would be a problem in his party in returning the Sinai, especially the parts of it where there was Jewish settlement.
Begin had once said that he himself, when he retired, [would live] in Yamit, and he wound up destroying Yamit and returning the entire Sinai. But he did it for peace. He thought it was, strategically, absolutely necessary. It removed Israel’s main enemy.
Begin as a charismatic leader
[Begin] was very charismatic in a strange way. People sensed in him – people who should have been ahead of him in line, who had been here longer, leader-type looking guys, and here’s Begin with his thick glasses and his Polish accent – but people deferred to him immediately. People saw that he was a leader, and he kept that party together for 30 years with nothing.
He had nothing to give anybody – he had no jobs, he had no perks – only his own beliefs.
I remember, the night that he was elected, [foreign journalists] didn’t know who he was. People were calling the party headquarters saying, “Where does he live?”
They got his address. They descended on his apartment in Tel Aviv, and they were shocked. He was living in a rental apartment with two bedrooms. His younger daughter was sleeping on the couch. The journalists all came in with their cameras, everybody was getting interviews after the next, and at a certain time, Alisa, [Begin’s] wife, came in and said, “Look, you’re going to have to leave. Our daughter is going to sleep.”
When Begin was invited to see [US president] Jimmy Carter, his first foreign trip, Yehiel Kadishai said to him, “When you go to Washington, you’ll be representing the Jewish people. Your suits are not exactly what you should be wearing when you go.”
Begin said, “How much are they?”
Kadishai called the head of the biggest fashion house. He came back and he said to Begin, “They’re very excited that you’re going to wear their suits to Washington. And they’ll send the tailor and they’ll do these specifications.”
Begin said, “What does it cost?”
Kadishai said, “I don’t think that they really want money for this.”
Begin said, “I don’t want suits for free. Go back and ask him how much it will cost if I pay in installments.”
Did he ever get used to the pomp of the office?
No, he didn’t. He had his own persona, which was, you appear publicly well dressed in a suit, a tie.
I think he believed in nobility. He saw himself in the Betar model of Jewish nobility. And that’s how he wanted people to behave, and that’s how he behaved.
What do you think are Begin’s greatest legacies from his time as Israel’s leader?
First of all, I think that one legacy, of course, is what he did in the underground, which was heroic – to be in the underground and have a price on your head and all the rest of it, especially since he came here as an outsider.
The second thing is, Begin had the courage to make peace, which no previous prime minister had, and maybe other prime ministers may not have had the opportunity as well.
Begin was the first prime minister in a change government. He demonstrated how Israel could change from the opposition to the government in a free election, which was theoretically the case all these years, but never happened. And the way he handled the transition was also part of that legacy.
Another part of his legacy is the war in Lebanon, which didn’t go well. It wasn’t what he expected. I think he was manipulated primarily by [defense minister Ariel] Sharon, and he was also not in good health. And that combination allowed him to make that decision, which was a bad decision. And ultimately he couldn’t stand the weight of the people outside of his house, counting down how many soldiers had been killed in Lebanon that day or that week.
Another thing is that he destroyed [Osirak,] the Iraqi [nuclear] reactor... It was his decision; the United States was absolutely not informed. And Begin knew that there would be complete blowback. And he also knew that it could fail, and it would be somewhat disastrous. But he said that he couldn’t live with the idea of knowing that a dictator would have the opportunity of killing millions of Jewish children, which is the way he saw it, at least the way he framed it. And that has become, up until now, the doctrine of the army, the Begin Doctrine.
It’s the reason, it’s what enabled Ehud Olmert to bomb the Syrian reactor [in Al Kibar, in 2007]. And it’s what motivated Benjamin Netanyahu, I think, to work under the framework that Israel will not permit enemy countries to get weapons of mass destruction.
We’re kind of facing another nuclear showdown moment, the Iran deal. How do you think Begin would approach the Iran situation?
I think he would approach it the same way as he approached the Iraqi situation. Begin was very clear to find out if it was possible to do it, first of all, and the [Israel] Air Force did a great deal of calculation... if the pilots could get there, if they could hit the core, which was actually the issue; how deep was it planted? what kind of conditions? All of this stuff.
He asked these questions again and again, but the question that he asked the most is how many pilots will come back?
I think he would ask those questions about Iran. I think he would say, It’s farther, they’re more dug in, the munitions are different. Can we do this job? Is it plausible?
If you asked this question in 1977 or 1992, the answer would have been yes, because Iran was not prepared for something like that. Today, I think it might be a different question. I’m not so sure that the air force has the ability to obliterate the Iranian nuclear program, which is spread out, there’s not one reactor anymore, and [the program is] very deeply defended.
But if he thought that it was necessary and the Americans opposed it, I think he would have gone ahead with it, as he did with Iraq. The Americans opposed [the attack on] Iraq.
I think he would have done whatever it was that he thought he could possibly do, unless there was some reason it wouldn’t be possible militarily to do it.
The generals who opposed [the strike on the Osirak reactor] didn’t say that it couldn’t be done. They said that they’ll just get another reactor in a couple of years. But for Begin, it was a matter of principle, I believe.
How do you think that Begin would have approached the dilemma of principles regarding Russia and Ukraine that Israel’s leaders today are facing?
Begin’s family was killed in the Holocaust. He had no love for the Russians. He had no love for the Ukrainians. He did not believe that, as [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky said [in an address to the Knesset], the Ukrainians saved Jews in the war. He was very well aware of the fact that Ukrainians were extremely active in helping the Nazis once the country was under Nazi occupation. And he didn’t like Russians either.
Why should he? Not only did he suffer persecution himself, but the Soviet Union was Israel’s chief adversary for many years. They armed all of Israel’s enemies.
I don’t think Begin would have said I must rush to the defense of the Ukrainian people or the Russian people, but I think that he would have asked, what is Israel’s interest here?
Begin saved boat people. One of the first things when he came into office was that he granted Vietnamese boat people citizenship. There weren’t many of them, so it was easier, but it was a gesture that he was making that Israel has a responsibility to help refugees in need.
I don’t think that it would have been quite the same thing emotionally for him if it would have been Russia or Ukraine, but I think he would agree to send a field hospital, as I’m very sure that he would not commit Israeli soldiers to trying to defend Ukraine or Russia one from the other.
Personally, I was very proud to have that time to be in office then, and I regretted the end of our relationship.
You could say I left over a disagreement on Sabra and Shatila [the IDF’s lack of action to stop the September 1982 killing of civilians in Beirut’s Sabra neighborhood and Shatila refugee camp], but it was a professional disagreement. I just didn’t defend the government’s position on that. But later he read my book about the press and Lebanon, and he liked it.
I’ve known a lot of famous people, just in the course of my work and life, and I’ve met some that really impressed me.
I never met anybody who impressed me more than Menachem Begin. ■