Begin’s Leadership Legacy
It is fifteen years since Menachem Begin’s death and many hold him up as a different kind of leader —the kind now lacking in Israel. A succession of decisions displaying political vision, historical awareness, and personal sensitivity explain why we miss Begin
Ran Porat (2/28/2007)
Fifteen years after Israeli prime minister, the late Menachem Begin, was gathered to his fathers, many in Israel consider him a leader of a caliber and character sorely missed in Israel today. The following highlights some of the leadership qualities seen in Begin, a man who embodied Jewish historical memory, the courage to act under the most intolerable pressure, national responsibility, and Jewish sensitivity.
Bombing of the Iraq Reactor
A State Even Without the Holocaust
The Danger of Democratic Self-Destruction
After twenty-five years, many in Israel and around the world praise Menachem Begin’s decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor (June 7 1981). At the time, a chorus of voices joined in opposition to the strike. Shimon Peres admonished Begin that Israel would be isolated if the attack went ahead. After listening to Peres, Begin postponed the strike, but was undaunted from carrying it out. Ten years later, the US, which imposed a six-month arms embargo after the bombing in Iraq, acknowledged its importance. This recognition was officially referred to in a letter sent by the American Secretary of Defense at the time, Dick Cheney (and today the Vice President), to the Shamir government.
This operation coined the concept, the “Begin Doctrine”—a consistent policy of preemptive action using every means to ensure that Israel’s enemies would not acquire weapons of mass destruction and endanger the existence and wellbeing of its citizens. Israel should now reintroduce this policy in light of the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel that has emerged out of the blue.
It is also important to understand that what shaped Begin’s policy was his memory of Jewish history. Forty years after the Shoah he refused to countenance any likelihood of Jewish genocide recurring.
“Never” to Civil War
As a skilled orator, Menachem Begin was adept at incorporating the motif of Jewish unity between the different sections of the nation in his speeches. In his famous speech regarding the two Irgun fighters, Moshe Barazani and Bernstein, who were hanged by the British, Begin asked rhetorically “Were they Ashkenazi? Were they Mizrachi? They were Jews!!! to thunderous applause. However, Begin’s rhetoric went hand in hand with action.
In the early days of the state, the ship the “Altalena” reached the Israeli coast carrying a shipment of arms. The leader of the Irgun, Begin, told the government that the arms were not intended to undermine Ben Gurion’s government, but to be used as part of the growing IDF. Orders, however, were given to fire on the ship which sank. In response, Begin gave explicit orders not to return fire. Even when Palmach forces fired on men from the ship who had jumped into the sea after Begin had flown the white flag, the decision to show restraint still held; consistent with Begin’s belief that there should never be a civil war between Jews. Thus, Begin wrote in his book, The Revolt: “To avoid internal bloodshed and strife, this principle, which was forged in the agonies of the “Saison” (code name for the hunt against Irgun fighters by the Hagana in the 1940s which included delivering them to the British — RP) was upheld during the test of fire and blood of the Altalena”.
The People’s Leader
Despite his Ashkenazi background (he was born in Bielorussia), Menachem Begin is one of the most admired leaders by Israel’s Mizrachi community, and not in vain. Begin worked untiringly to make the public feel he was everyone’s leader, a leader who spoke to everyone as equals, without condescension. In his controversial speech prior to the 1981 elections, Begin proved his ability to be close to all sections of the population.
Begin homed in on a “slip of the tongue” by comedian Dudu Topaz, scorning the “riffraff” following of the Likud. Before an assembled crowd of supporters in Kikar Malchei Yisrael, Begin roared that all were brothers in his eyes: “Ashkenazis? Iraqis?-- Jews! Brothers! Fighters!” Even if there were accusations later that Begin had “ridden” the ethnic demon, those close to him bore witness that he did this out of a pure and genuine spirit and desire to unite the Jewish people.
This explains the love Begin is shown by the “masses”. This affection was also evident at his modest funeral on the Mt of Olives, when thousands of Israelis from every ethnic group and country of origin reluctantly said their farewells. He will also be remembered as the prime minister who introduced the social Urban Renewal project.
Withdrawal from Sinai
Menachem Begin’s decision to relinquish all of Sinai in return for a peace treaty with Egypt in the Camp David Agreements (1979 was an outstanding act of leadership. We should bear in mind that with this move Begin established a precedent for Israeli withdrawal and acceptance of the principle of “Land for Peace”, which part of the Israeli public regards as the mother of all the sins of withdrawal that followed (the Oslo Agreement). However the treaty was also perceived as a positive strategic move which split the hostile Arab world and heralded the first recognition of Israel within it. It is fair to say that there are those who believe that Israel could have reached an agreement with Egypt without relinquishing the whole of Sinai and that Begin was under terrible pressure, which he could not withstand. On the other hand, Begin succeeded in legislating a treaty without the country being wracked by civil war. It was the force of his national presence that enabled this.
Annexed the Golan in a Day
On December 14 1981, Begin proved his political dream when he pushed the “Golan Heights Law, applying Israeli law to the Golan, through three Knesset readings in a single day. Like the bombing of the Iraqi reactor, this was a short, resolute move to achieve diplomatic and security ends.
With the passage of this law, Begin avoided being put in a bind internationally and at home which might have prevented it. In Israeli political terms, in one fell swoop, Begin transformed the discussion on the status of the Golan from one of “occupied” territory to Israeli territory in every sense. In other words, territory, that even if it is returned as part of a peace treaty with Syria will be regarded by the Israeli consensus as withdrawing from Israeli territory. By this move, Begin acted as a national, not just a sectarian leader.
One explanation given by Begin for relinquishing the Sinai was that it is not part of Eretz Yisrael, in other words, it did not appear on the map of Eretz Yisrael of Jabotinsky his revered mentor. But, the Golan doesn’t appear on that map either. In his speech that day in the Knesset, Begin saw things differently “… we won’t find anyone ... who knows the history of Eretz Yisrael who will deny that for generations, the Golan Heights was an integral part of the country”.
Here too, America’s reacted with condemnation, and the Washington administration announced that would not recognize the Golan. The Americans also decided to cancel a purchase from Israel. To this Begin replied furiously: “Are we your vassal state? Are we a banana republic? In saying this, he was expressing something which is so rare nowadays, a willingness to stand up to American opposition to Israel’s strategic policy; an expression of the fact that Israel still has a modicum of independence. Begin also proved his strength of mind in his determination to settle Judea and Samaria despite American opposition.
Begin’s first decision as prime minister (June 20 1977) was an act of humanitarian Jewish leadership and historical memory typical of him. Begin decided to taken in hundreds of Vietnamese refugees floating on refugee ships who no countries would agree to accept. This brought back memories to Begin of the world’s indifference to the suffering of Jews during and after the Shoah. As prime minister of a Jewish state, Begin decided to act differently. Conscious of symbols, Begin’s first speech as prime minister, broadcast live, focused extensive attention around the world on his decision. He thus took both a moral and humanitarian step while publicizing Israel’s humanitarian image to the rest of the world.
Besides being a giant of Zionism, a leader for whom the concept of fighting for the country and willingness to sacrifice his life for it was an incontrovertible fact, he also possessed qualities of character hardly visible in Israeli leadership today (anywhere across the political spectrum) — modesty, gentlemanliness, and true, not fake liberalism.
It is clear that the caliber of leadership which Begin embodied when he made his historical and decisive decisions like bombing the Iraq reactor, are sorely lacking today. In a generation where image and media consultants have too much impact on the images of leaders, there is a yearning for authentic people from the past such as Menachem Begin.
It was the same Jewish sensitivity and real democratic awareness that defeated him in the end. Begin could not bear the suffering of the bereaved families in the Lebanon War. Broken hearted from the politicians around him and from his personal and private pain over the fallen soldiers, he withdrew to his home and stayed there in retreat until the day he died. He even instructed to leave the sign erected outside his home bearing the daily toll of the fallen in the war. Thus, even in his last decision as prime minister, Began set a standard so high that none of those after him have managed to reach —of human sensitivity and personal responsibility.