Menachem Begin was from another league of historic proportions - top aide

Begin’s top aide Dan Meridor discusses how the premier laid the basis for the Abraham Accords, Iraq-Iran nuke comparisons, compassion for refugees.

 THEN-CABINET SECRETARY Dan Meridor (L) accompanies Prime Minister Menachem Begin before his testimony to the inquiry commission on the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Jerusalem, 1982.  (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
THEN-CABINET SECRETARY Dan Meridor (L) accompanies Prime Minister Menachem Begin before his testimony to the inquiry commission on the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Jerusalem, 1982.
(photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)

People do not fully comprehend the depths of Menachem Begin’s modesty, said Dan Meridor.

Speaking in honor of the 30th anniversary of the prime minister’s death, his former top aide, who himself later went on to become justice minister and intelligence minister, recently was interviewed by the Magazine to give singular insights into Begin’s personality and what we can learn from Begin today.

Meridor’s father, Eliyahu, was a commander in the Irgun and one of the founders of Herut, the movement founded by Begin in 1948 as a successor to the Revisionist Irgun, which explains the son’s close relationship with Begin.

“When Begin said he was going to resign at the end of August 1983, it was a big story. Everyone tried to convince him [to stay on], but he had already decided,” said Meridor.

Then the astonishing question came up, “Where should he go? He had no apartment, no building, no house. He had lived in the underground, been a minister, been the prime minister, but he didn’t have any property.

 MERIDOR TODAY.  (credit: FLASH90) MERIDOR TODAY. (credit: FLASH90)

“He had previously rented a very modest apartment of two-and-a-half rooms in Tel Aviv. But that had long ago been given back to the landlord – it was not his. So where would he go?” asked Meridor, with a tinge of consternation that a man he so admired would find himself in such a predicament.

“I looked around and found an apartment for rent. For eight more years, Menachem Begin paid rent of $600 per month from his retirement pension!”

He said he could not “think of another person who carried service to people” as such a guiding principle and for whom “property or material things were never important.”

Saying he was not interested in comparing Begin to others, he did note media reports about the state spending NIS 600 million on a new private aircraft for the prime minister. (The net worths of Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu have been estimated at around $10m. and $15m., respectively.)

“I was there in the second Begin government, between 1982 and ’83. Then we became closer. When he later resigned and went home, he didn’t want to see people. [After Begin’s beloved wife Aliza died in 1982, while Begin was still in office, he had become even more withdrawn.]

[Former chief-of-staff] Yehiel [Kadishai] would come four to five days a week. I used to come every Friday at 4 p.m. to Tzemah Street [in Jerusalem] where he rented to talk to him for an hour or so,” he said.  

“We talked about everything, and it went on for eight years. We probably had 400 meetings... I saw the man in his years of seclusion. 

It’s about justice

Having worked for, and interacted with, several other prime ministers, Meridor said that Begin was “from another league of historic proportions. He considered things – Jewish history and long-term history – material things never mattered to him.”

In deciding how to act, Begin typically asked whether a possible decision was consistent with the principles of justice. “Of course, he did things which were useful, but [also asked] is it right or wrong?”

For example, Meridor suggested that even as other top Israeli political leaders may have thought about justice, many times their decisive motivations might be more pragmatic or political.

When Begin was deciding whether Israel should use force, in addition to considering various military and economic dimensions, he also thought about what it meant to use force after the Holocaust and not using power just because Israel had it, said Meridor. 

Lead the people, do not be led by the people

Besides modesty and justice, Begin also balanced competing values about how to lead the country.

“There is a tension between leadership, on the one hand, and representing voters, on the other hand. You are elected by the people, so you do what they want, look for focus groups and polls... This is how we think today.”

This concept of politics, he noted, is “not only in Israel, using sophisticated polling,” adding that he is not totally against polls, which can be a good instrument to use sometimes, “but there is a problem. What I saw about Begin is that he never asked people what is labeled right-wing. Leadership is about judging when to guide [the public] to places they wouldn’t go otherwise.

“Had Begin asked Likud people and even the broader Israeli public: Should I give up every inch of the Sinai or give up unilaterally applying sovereignty to Judea and Samaria” as part of negotiations with Egypt, Meridor said, “I am sure the answer would have been no.

“Not only Likudniks were against it. Yigal Allon abstained.” It is also well known that, at earlier points, Moshe Dayan had said he would prefer to keep Sharm e-Sheikh over a peace deal with Egypt (though his views evolved). But Begin “decided where he needed to go, then he would go, say what is right and try to take the people with him.”

He stressed that if a leader does not guide the public in the way that is right, “you end up catering to their basest instinct. Not all people are born good. It says in the Bible story of Noah that humanity was ‘evil from its youth’... A leader convinces people to go where they would never go otherwise.”

Meridor said that the peace deal with Egypt was “the most important diplomatic action done since the state’s creation. It changed the Middle East completely. It opened an era of accepting Israel: for Jordan, for the Gulf states... It all started with Begin telling the people what was right.”

 PEACE WITH Egypt: ‘A leader convinces people to go where they would never go otherwise’: With president Anwar Sadat at Egypt’s Aswan Dam, 1980. (credit: Moshe Milner/GPO) PEACE WITH Egypt: ‘A leader convinces people to go where they would never go otherwise’: With president Anwar Sadat at Egypt’s Aswan Dam, 1980. (credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
Political philosophy – balancing national and private liberty

In terms of political philosophy, “he called the Likud by its official name of the Likud Movement or the National Liberal Movement. He didn’t call it only liberal or only national. The name of his first party, Herut – he didn’t call it ‘the Jewish nation.’ It referred to national liberty and private liberty.”

Meridor said that, of course, Begin was known as a strident advocate of settling the Land of Israel to the fullest extent possible and of the ingathering of the Diaspora, but that he was equally committed to various social justice and liberty principles.

“He tried to combine two sets of values. The balancing act between these two competing values was really the genetic code of Begin and the Likud Party.”

Somewhat despondently he then added, “Not anymore, of course... This explains why Begin" objected to putting Israeli-Arabs under military administration and demanded to abolish it.

“When he became prime minister in 1977, the first thing he did was call the head of the Shin Bet, Avraham Ahituv, and he told him: ‘I forbid you to use force in interrogations.’ Ahituv asked: ‘What should we do?’ Begin responded, ‘Use an interrogator’s cunning,’” Meridor recounted.

Meridor said that Begin’s views were that even though “there is a just cause for security reasons for interrogating terrorists [with force], we don’t do only what is good for security. We need to also keep the laws of justice.”

Begin’s beliefs about “how do we define democracy” were that “democracy is not only about the rule of the majority. The majority in parliament sometimes is a vehicle of rulers to deprive people of their rights. Democracy is also about how to protect people against an arbitrary majority.”

This is why Begin had such reverence for the supremacy of the courts, said Meridor.

Meridor rattled off a long list of rulings by the courts that angered David Ben-Gurion and Begin, but said that in the past “no one in the Likud said something about the legitimacy of the courts. Sometimes you might not like [the results of] justice, but you need to have respect for basic rules and basic values.”

This “is essential to the classical workings of democracy. When people don’t agree on those values, there is a danger... Begin was adamant on other things besides the territories. This combination is missing now... Is there one member of the Likud who says he is a liberal?.. This is why the Likud today is different from the Likud of those days.”

Striking Iraq’s nuclear reactor – while respecting the unelected apolitical professional echelon

Meridor noted Begin’s “fighting the nuclearization of the enemy in Iraq in 1981. He did consult with the intelligence community. They were against it. He had deep respect for the profession, for the military and for service. He did not hide from them, as [Shimon] Peres and [Yitzhak] Rabin did in Oslo.

“It took him many months to convince the cabinet that there was a need to eliminate the [Osirak] nuclear reactor in Iraq. Until he got the majority, he held off. Only then did he do it...

“I think he was right, but he was not against the professional apolitical echelon. He always listened to them and then decided. He is the leader… but you don’t act without listening and without respect,” he said.

Meridor said that it is “very popular these days to ask: who appointed these professional echelon officials?” in order to undermine their credibility and ignore their expertise in favor of political expediency.

 TOASTING ARIEL SHARON’S appointment as defense minister, 1981.  (credit: Dan Hadani/National Library of Israel) TOASTING ARIEL SHARON’S appointment as defense minister, 1981. (credit: Dan Hadani/National Library of Israel)
Lebanon and taking responsibility

One of the darker sagas of Begin’s tenure was the 1982 Lebanon War. At a meeting on June 21, 1982, US president Ronald Reagan told Begin incredulously that he and Israel had misled the US about how deep the invasion of Lebanon would go. Begin was adamant that he did not mislead him.

Asked about the issue, Meridor replied, “I don’t want to go into it. The plan was approved by the government, by [defense minister Ariel] Sharon, which specifically limited advancing to the 40-kilometer range from the border.”

He said the significance of this range, according to Sharon, was that it was the point at which rockets could reach the Israeli border, such that if the IDF controlled that area, “the war will stop then and there.

“I am sure that Begin... believed it was 40 kilometers, as approved. The fact is that things continued and continued. Later, Sharon said ‘Yes, we might have to cross the 40 kilometers’... and he always got approval.”

However, Meridor made it clear that this all happened after the fact, when the war did not go as planned and adjustments had to be made in the fog of war.

“There was no preplanned trick. This is what Begin meant” when responding to Reagan.

“There were demonstrations outside his [Begin’s] home. Sometimes there were very large numbers of protesters. This was very hard for him. The minister in charge of the police asked, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I can ask to have them removed.’ Begin responded, ‘Don’t do that. It’s their right to demonstrate,’ but in a way, it was very hard for him,” Meridor recalled.

“A deep sadness overtook him. And in the end, when he resigned, he never said, ‘I was cheated.’”

Meridor explained that Begin thought he had overall responsibility, even if immediate responsibility lay with Sharon and others. Begin believed “the prime minister was the first among equals.”

Meridor added: “My interpretation was [that] this [the Lebanon failure] was the main heavy burden” that caused him to resign. Meridor qualified, “These were not his words – he didn’t say: ‘I resigned because of this.’”

Meridor would view Begin’s readiness to take responsibility, even for situations created by those under him, as making him unique compared to many current politicians who always seek to shift blame.

Comparing striking Iraq and Iran

How does Meridor think Begin would handle the current Iran nuclear crisis, given that the Begin Doctrine of striking an enemy country’s nuclear program preemptively and before it can be used to attack Israel was named after his daring order to strike Iraq in 1981?

Meridor noted, “When he did this in 1981, it was against the advice of [opposition leader] Shimon Peres," and many others.

The operation was later seen as a brilliant success, but Begin did not lord this over others, instead saying, “It was my initiative, but the whole government, all [its members] deserve the same credit.”

Meridor said that when the US and England had to fight Iraq in 1991, “they understood he was right... they understood how the war would have looked if Iraq had gone nuclear by then. Begin always said, ‘When an enemy of the Jews says he wants to destroy them, take him seriously.’”

However, Meridor, who believes in preventive measures but also deterrence, missile defense and diplomacy in handling Iran, was not sure Begin would attack Iran today.

“Everything in the end must be measured in practical terms. Can you do it? Unlike Iraq, where we were alone in attacking and defending ourselves… in Iran it’s the opposite. Almost the entire world, the UN, the IAEA, want to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

“I had reservations [about the JCPOA nuclear deal], but if I compare what others did, an attempt to prevent them and delay or stop, not by air and bombing, but by the international community led by the US,” a diplomatic solution with the Saudis, the UAE and “with economic pressure is preferable... This is always better than to do it alone.”

Reframing the issue, he asked, “Can we do it alone? Remember, this is not one nuclear reactor. There are many nuclear facilities... If you are part of a coalition, then other people can take the torch from you and continue the race.

“But if you are doing it by yourself and you can only destroy some facilities, but are unable to destroy everything, then you are left alone [and the context will be influenced by] an agreement you broke.”

Relations with the US, when disagreeing on Iran

Meridor said that despite Israeli disagreements with aspects of the US approach to Iran, the way to work with the US “is quite clear. Israeli-American relations are a very important part of Israel’s strength in the world community, in defense, diplomacy and the economy.

“We are a strong country, but let’s be modest. We are not America, which can put on effective economic sanctions. We cannot put on effective economic sanctions on Iran... It’s always important to have good relations with America.

“There will be occasional disagreements. If it is so important to you, and you are ready to pay the price, then we can do it... It is important that no government will act without thinking 10 times. Even up to this day there are things we do not agree on [with the US], like the territories. Good allies don’t agree on everything.”

Meridor remarked, “They are with us on the Iran story, with us against terror, like ISIS, they admire Israel as a Start-Up Nation. The only one thing is the Palestinian story, where they don’t agree with us.

“Begin knew how to stand up to the Americans and say no. But he was wise enough not to fight with the Americans when we didn’t need to – only when it was absolutely necessary,” he stated.

 Menachem Begin with US president Jimmy Carter, 1979.  (credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE) Menachem Begin with US president Jimmy Carter, 1979. (credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Standing up to US for Israel

One story Meridor told approvingly about Begin negotiating hard with the US was on April 25, 1982, just before the final withdrawal from Sinai.

He recalled, “Begin wanted to fortify and strengthen the validity and power of the agreement signed with the US, and not only between Egypt-Israel.

“At my first cabinet meeting, he came over and gave me a statement and said, ‘There were some violations of the agreement by Egypt, of arms smuggled into Sinai. These are serious violations, and we consider the possibility of postponing our withdrawal if they are not corrected,’” he stated.

Suddenly, there was a crisis. “The whole world went crazy. American heads of the administration were coming to talk to him and the Egyptians.

“We got two letters signed by Reagan and [Hosni] Mubarak. Mubarak was not the [Egyptian] president who signed [the Camp David Accords]; it was [Anwar] Sadat. Reagan was not the man [who signed the Camp David Accords for the US]; it was [Jimmy] Carter. Begin wanted a reaffirmation of the commitment. I saw how brinkmanship was played very nicely,” remarked Meridor.

In contrast, “Regarding the campaign on the Iran issue that Netanyahu waged against [US president Barack] Obama, he [Netanyahu] went to Congress and said, ‘Look, I was brave enough to go against the president in his own home. I thought this was a big mistake.’”

Moreover, “the second more devastating mistake was when he [Netanyahu] convinced [US] president [Donald] Trump to violate the agreement... without offering anything [no plan B if the sanctions campaign was not effective]... Iran was set free and had a huge advancement of its progress because of this ‘success of Bibi’ – this big mistake.”

Begin on the Russia-Ukraine-Syria dilemma

At first, Meridor seemed to shy away from saying what Begin would have said about Russia-Ukraine issues, opining on his own behalf that “the world has changed. The USSR was an archenemy. Now it is more of a friend. I can tell you what I think: the government should have been much clearer [supporting Ukraine]. Yes, Russia is important, and it is good for us if Russia is not an enemy... But there are times in history when the moral imperative is so clear.

“I divide the world between Russia and the rest of the world... We should have stayed very clearly standing with the Ukrainians. We should have condemned it when the whole world did, and we hesitated and we drew attention,” he said.

“If the war doesn’t end very clearly, if the whole world goes with sanctions and we will be the only ones that don’t, it won’t work for us.”

Yet, pressed further about Begin’s sense of justice and desire to help refugees and the downtrodden following the Holocaust, he answered with a story.

Recently, Meridor said, he attended a ceremony at Jerusalem’s Begin Center.

“On the way out, my wife and I walked near Bell Park. People were waiting with us for the light to turn to green. They said ‘Hello, we come from Haifa.’ But these people do not look like us,” thought Meridor to himself.

“‘We are from Vietnam, some of those that Begin brought in,’” they explained.

“This was something so human,” said Meridor. “It goes back to national liberalism. Don’t forget about your humanity. The world is not only about wars and national causes; be a mensch. 

“Yeah, there might be a price to pay... but sometimes you need to take a stand.” ■