While Begin exercised political sagacity, he continued to hold to strong ideological principles, such as keeping the whole Land of Israel.
On the 20th anniversary of Menachem Begin’s death, many are revisiting the former prime minister’s important legacy.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Begin’s political leadership was his unique ability to bridge the gap between ideological purity and political realism, an important component of his ultimate political success.
It was in large part due to Begin’s pragmatism and moderation that violence was avoided immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel.
On June 6, 1948, the Hagana, under orders from David Ben-Gurion, fired upon and sank the Altalena, an arms ship belonging to the Irgun, the Revisionist Movement’s military arm headed by Begin. If not for Begin’s responsible leadership, the situation could easily have spiraled out of control and led to more bloodshed.
But Begin, essentially bowing to Ben-Gurion’s will and preferring compromise and moderation over stubborn pride, vowed there would be no civil war among Jews.
Throughout his long years in the opposition, Begin resolved to keep Herut, the party he formed with the establishment of the state, in the political mainstream.
To do so, he worked toward, and eventually succeeded in, moderating and incorporating some of the ideological purists of the Revisionist Movement and the Lehi (Freedom Fighters for Israel), or Stern Group, into Herut.
In 1965, Begin orchestrated an alignment with the centrist Liberal party to form Gahal (Herut-Liberal Bloc), which garnered 26 mandates in that year’s election.
It was the entry of Gahal into the Labor-led national-unity government just before the outbreak of the Six Day War that permanently freed Begin from his political isolation.
But while Begin exercised political sagacity, he continued to hold to strong ideological principles, such as the belief in keeping the whole Land of Israel, particular Judea and Samaria. In August 1970, he quit the government headed by Golda Meir to protest initial acceptance of the Rogers Plan, which included a ceasefire agreement with Egypt along the Suez Canal and would have brought the Soviet Union into peace negotiations on the side of the Arabs. Begin said he opposed the government’s formal acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which is based on “peace for withdrawal,” including in Judea and Samaria.
After the devastating Yom Kippur War, with the Labor Party’s hegemony increasingly called into question, Begin joined forces with Ariel Sharon to mastermind the birth of the Likud out of Gahal and several smaller factions. His political savvy was vindicated in 1977 with the Likud’s electoral upset, overturning Labor’s decades-long monopoly on power.
Immediately upon entering office, Begin sent out signals to his Arab neighbors that he was prepared to enter into a peace agreement. Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, apparently sensed that Begin was a strong ruler capable of making peace, and answered his overtures. Misnamed the Sadat initiative, the resulting 1979 Peace Treaty was in reality a product of Begin’s push for peace.
Perhaps Begin’s unique ability to bridge the gap between ideological purity and political realism can be attributed to his liberal ideological roots. Like his mentor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Begin believed strongly in maintaining a robust liberal democracy that protected free speech and the human rights of both Jews and non- Jews. As far back as 1956, Begin demanded that the Knesset “not legislate any law that limits freedom of expression, orally or in writing.”
He strongly opposed Emergency Defense Regulations dating back to the British Mandate, which severely restricted Arab Israelis’ basic freedoms in the decades after the War of Independence. He also pushed for a strong and independent Supreme Court – though he never supported judicial activism. And he was instrumental in facilitating the appointment of the nation’s first Arab Supreme Court Justice. Begin’s readiness to champion the rights of minorities was probably bolstered by his experiences as a Jew living in Poland between the two world wars and later as a Zionist activist in Palestine under British rule.
Begin’s unique combination of political pragmatism and moderation are an important legacy. We can only hope that our contemporary politicians learn from his example.