Earlier this month, following the Likud primary election for the next Knesset, a friend urged me to write about the “divergence” between today’s Likud and the party that was once headed by Menachem Begin.
As this friend demonstrated, the name of the first Likud prime minister is often raised in contemporary Israeli political discourse to denigrate the current Likud leadership; Begin’s many virtues contrasted with the purported vices of his political heirs.
The narrative goes like this: Begin was the consummate democrat, while today’s Likudniks undermine democracy; Begin championed the independent judiciary, when his scions seek to destroy the rule of law; Begin was the paragon of material modesty, whereas his successors relish the good life.
Yet, the same groups who today put Begin on a pedestal vilified him during his decades on the political stage, accusing Begin of being a fascistic rabble-rouser, an irresponsible demagogue, and a dangerous warmonger.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, even refused to publicly mention Begin’s name, repeatedly exiting the Knesset chamber when Begin spoke from the rostrum.
Ben-Gurion had many reasons to besmirch Begin. As an opposition MK in the early 1950s, Begin led the campaign against Ben-Gurion’s decision to sign a reparations agreement with Germany, a protest outside the Knesset famously turning violent.
Ben-Gurion undoubtedly had realpolitik on his side. The impoverished and embattled Jewish state was desperately in need of funds to integrate the massive flow of new immigrants. But coming so soon after the Holocaust, Begin had a strident moral claim, and criticism of Ben-Gurion’s German rapprochement reverberated across the political spectrum.
During the final years of the Mandate, Begin commanded the Irgun’s armed revolt against the British. This insurgency influenced London’s decision to turn the “Palestine problem” over to the UN and led to the November 1947 vote for partition and Jewish statehood.
The British deemed Begin a terrorist. For them, his two greatest crimes were the July 1946 bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, then the seat of Britain’s civilian and military rule, with its 91 fatalities; and the July 1947 hanging of two captive British sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, in retaliation for the British hangings of three Irgun members – Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar and Ya’akov Weiss. The execution of the sergeants was widely condemned, but nonetheless ended British hangings of Jewish underground fighters.
Like the leaders of other liberation movements who fought British colonial rule, Begin eventually reconciled with London. As Israel’s sixth prime minister (1977-1983), he developed cordial relations with his two UK counterparts, Labour’s James Callaghan and Conservative Margaret Thatcher.
Begin’s premiership is also associated with two military operations – one an unparalleled achievement, the other surrounded in controversy. The former was his 1981 decision to attack and destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Some of Israel’s most senior military and intelligence officials advised him against the strike, arguing that the operation’s risks outweighed the chances of a successful outcome.
However, Begin was driven by the imperative of preventing Israel’s enemies from attaining weapons of mass death, and he ordered the raid go ahead.
More contentious was Operation Peace for Galilee in June 1982, which sought to eliminate the PLO’s military presence in Lebanon and remake the politics of our northern neighbor through Israel’s alliance with Lebanese Christians. This affiliation culminated in Jerusalem being blamed for the murder of Palestinian civilians by Phalangist militia at the Sabra and Shatila camps in September 1982 – a massacre that begat one of the largest political protests in Israeli history.
Initially proclaimed a limited incursion, the First Lebanon War turned out to be the harbinger of a long-term IDF presence on Lebanese soil that was only to end in 2000.
IN JUNE 1948, as Irgun commander, Begin prevented a Jewish civil war. Then the newly created IDF, acting on Ben-Gurion’s instructions, shelled and sank the Irgun’s arms ship Altalena off the Tel Aviv shore. Despite the tension and bloodshed, Begin ordered his Irgunists not to fight their fellow Jews.
Many historians maintain that Ben-Gurion’s dismantling of the underground was essential in cementing the sovereignty of the newborn Jewish state. Others believe acting against the Altalena was superfluous and provocative, with Begin’s resolute stance preventing internecine conflict.
Three decades later, as prime minister, Begin again chose peace, this time with a neighbor. Together with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, he signed Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab country.
Throughout the talks, Begin was a tenacious negotiator, often exasperating US president Jimmy Carter who was mediating between the parties. But, ultimately, Begin agreed to a complete Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and the uprooting of all Israeli settlements there.
Conversely, Begin refused to relinquish the West Bank, and in the end a compromise formula was adopted whereby the Palestinians would be granted full autonomy for a five-year period, during which final status negotiations would commence. The sides would be free to raise their positions for the permanent arrangements – Begin reserving Israel’s right to claim sovereignty.
The successful September 1978 Camp David summit, which led to the March 1979 peace agreement, nevertheless ended in US-Israel acrimony over the issue of West Bank settlements. Carter accused Begin of backtracking on his promise for a settlement freeze for the five-year interim period. Begin asserted that he had only committed to a suspension for the three months prior to the planned treaty signing. Although Carter believed Begin duplicitous, Aharon Barak – then part of the Israeli negotiating team and later chief justice – attested to Begin’s version of events.
Begin is retrospectively criticized for not insisting Sadat take back Gaza along with Sinai, both captured from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War. But for Begin, Gaza was part of the Land of Israel – legitimizing Egyptian control would be akin to consenting to Jordanian or Palestinian demands on the West Bank, to which he could never agree.
Throughout much of his political life, Begin was a polarizing figure, generating adulation from his proponents and loathing from his detractors. He was war-maker and peacemaker, populist firebrand and accomplished parliamentarian, grandiose statesman and humble gentleman.
Most of all, Begin was representative of a generation of Jews for whom the Holocaust and the struggle for independence were formative experiences.
Since then, Israel has changed, and so have our leaders. Despite my friend’s request, those who today lionize Begin to criticize the current Likud are politicizing nostalgia – and even that is not what it used to be.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.