What Would Begin Do?
To help evaluate Evelyn Gordon’s impassioned post regarding Israel’s possible $20 billion defense request, let me recount two incidents from the negotiations Menachem Begin conducted with the Carter administration in 1977-78 that are worth remembering today.
The first incident occurred in July 1977, when Zbigniew Brzezinski presented Begin with a draft statement regarding the just-concluded U.S.-Israel meeting. Begin told Brzezinski that the draft was acceptable — “except for two sentences.” Brzezinski asked what they were:
“Please delete ‘The United States affirms Israel’s inherent right to exist.’”
“Because the United States’ affirmation of Israel’s right to exist is not a favor, nor is it a negotiable concession. I shall not negotiate my existence with anybody, and I need nobody’s affirmation of it.”
Brzezinski’s expression was one of surprise. “But to the best of my knowledge every Israeli prime minister has asked for such a pledge.”
“I sincerely appreciate the president’s sentiment,” said Begin, “but our Hebrew Bible made that pledge and established our right over our land millennia ago. Never, throughout the centuries, did we ever abandon or forfeit that right. Therefore, it would be incompatible with my responsibilities as prime minister of Israel were I not to ask you to erase this sentence.” And then, without pause, “Please delete, too, the language regarding the commitment to Israel’s survival.”
“And in what sense do you find that objectionable?”
“In the sense that we, the Jewish people alone, are responsible for our country’s survival, no one else.”
The second incident came a year later, in perhaps the tensest moment of the Camp David negotiations. In his diary entry for September 12, 1978, published last year in White House Diary, Carter wrote that Begin called him during dinner and said he “wanted to see me as soon as possible for the most serious talk we had ever had.” Carter tried to postpone the meeting until the next morning, but Begin insisted.
When they met, Begin opened by saying it was “the most serious talk in his life except for one with his idol, Jabotinsky.” Begin wanted the words “inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war,” which appear in the nonbinding preamble to UN Resolution 242 but not in its operative text, removed from the draft Camp David accord. He told Carter he would not sign any text that included them.
Carter’s diary makes it clear that he disdained Begin’s “impassioned speech,” but the diary does not record any of the points Begin made to him. But because of a valuable new book containing the complete correspondence between Begin and Anwar Sadat — Peace in the Making, edited by Harry Hurwitz and Yisrael Medad — we can discover them.
The book contains a transcript of a recording, found after Begin’s death, of a speech he gave to Jewish leaders in New York on September 20, 1978, a week after the evening meeting with Carter. Begin told the audience that he endorsed the principle of the “inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war” but not if applied to a war forced on Israel because of indefensible borders:
[I]f it is a war of legitimate national self-defense … then territorial changes are not only permissible, but necessary. [Applause]. Otherwise, every aggressor will not only commit, but also repeat, these aggressions. What is he going to lose? If he wins his aggressive war, he gets his spoils. If he loses, he gets back what he lost. …
[T]he Six-Day War … was thrust upon us – as three Presidents of the United States of America wrote to us since the days of June 1967. We were then threatened with extinction. There were slogans in Cairo and in Damascus and in Rabat Ammon and in Baghdad to the effect: “Throw them into the sea! Cut them down! Kill them! Destroy them!” Military orders included a passage calling for the physical destruction of the civilian population of any town which the invading armies may conquer.
We faced another Holocaust … Surrounded on all sides by overwhelming forces. By thousands of Soviet-supplied tanks, hundreds of first-line combat planes, hundreds of thousands of soldiers. With God’s help, we repelled all of them. They did not win their night; we won the day. [Applause].
And now you ask us to sign a document with those false and falsifying words: “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory,” as a result of such a war, of legitimate self-defense, of saving a nation surrounded and attacked and threatened with annihilation?
Begin said he had refused for eight days to sign such a document and had finally asked to meet with Carter. “And this is what I told him” — that Israel was in Judea and Samaria as a matter of right, with a claim to sovereignty over the entire area; that it was “the land of our forefathers, which we have never forgotten during exile” but that “we leave the question of sovereignty open, because we want peace …. we know there are other claims.” They would be resolved later but not by a retreat to indefensible borders:
[T]hey wanted us to give them a commitment a priori … that we shall relinquish, completely, Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district, and not only give up our paternal heritage, our inherent right, the Land of our prophets and of our kings, the Land of our fathers and of our children, but also the most vital demands of our national security. … Then there wouldn’t be peace. There would be permanent bloodshed and ultimately a general war under the harshest conditions ever imagined … May I say to you a simple word: Never. [Sustained applause.]
The words to which Begin objected were removed, and three days later the Camp David Accords were signed.
Ehud Barak’s current $20 billion gambit is likely a trial balloon, an attempt to build support for a “peace agreement” in which Israel gives up defensible borders in exchange for money to help defend indefensible ones. It is not a trade Menachem Begin would have made.