Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Moshe Zak Article

Jerusalem Post - Jerusalem
Author: Moshe Zak
Date: Mar 13, 1992

The 'proud Jew' who led Israel for more than six crucial years made peace with Egypt and spoke as an equal to foreign leaders. He is movingly recalled by a veteran writer who followed his career closely from his pre-state underground leadership days to his death this week at 79.

On July 19, 1977, I was standing on the White House lawn when president Jimmy Carter received Menachem Begin on his first official visit to the US as prime minister of Israel. In his honor, 19 artillery salvos were fired.

President Carter, in his welcoming speech to Begin, praised Israel's gesture in absorbing 100 refugees from Vietnam. The president did not restrict himself to words of praise but also reminded his guest, in a delicate hint, of the refugees in the Middle East.

Begin registered that hint and in his words of greeting described at considerable length the forgotten story, from 1939, of a ship with Jewish refugees from Germany which was destroyed by the Nazis, and from which only a few survivors succeeded in reaching the Land of Israel.

The description was graphic and shocked the listeners; but Begin refrained from mentioning, by even the faintest of hints, that he was referring to the vessel St. Louis, which desperately sailed up and down the shores of America, where all ports were locked tight against its unfortunate passengers.

Begin's impromptu reply had its effect: when Cyrus Vance, then the US secretary of state, visited him in the official guest residence, Blair House, for a working discussion, he opened his remarks with: "Mr. Prime Minister, permit me to say to you that as an American I experienced a feeling of shame at my country's behavior in the incident of the ship with the wretched Jewish refugees."

Israeli professional diplomats were not happy at Begin's ad libbed reply. They followed with concern the campaign in the American media against Begin (including the emphasis on "Begin rhymes with Fagin," the negative Jewish character in the book by Dickens). They were worried by the threats emanating from the White House against Begin's declarations in favor of settlements in the territories ("There will be many more Alonei Morehs").

And they feared the prime minister's statements might further anger Jimmy Carter.

However, Begin's incisive and elegant reply had a totally different effect, as evoked in the confession by Cyrus Vance.

As for settlements, too, over which the Administration rebuked Begin during all of his visits to Washington in the following six years, Begin knew how to respond with unconventional replies. "Why is it permitted for a Jew to settle and live in Bethel or Shiloh in the US, towns named after places in Judea and Samaria, but forbidden to build his home in the original Shilo or Beth El?" he asked Carter, and added: "I shall not lend my hand to discrimination against Jews in the Land of Israel."

And not only with Carter, but at all his meetings with heads of state and government, Begin customarily replied with direct, frank words against anything he perceived as harming Israel's interests or honor.

In a conversation with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, after a sharp confrontation in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the subject of the settlements, Begin defined himself as "a proud Jew who does not tremble with fear" when speaking with foreign statesmen.

During that committee hearing, at the height of the Lebanon War, Sen. John Biden (Delaware) had attacked Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria and threatened that if Israel did not immediately cease this activity, the US would have to cut economic aid to Israel.

When the senator raised his voice and banged twice on the table with his fist, Begin commented to him: "This desk is designed for writing, not for fists. Don't threaten us with slashing aid. Do you think that because the US lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we

must do? We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats. Take note: we do not want a single soldier of yours to die for us."

After the meeting, Sen. Moynihan approached Begin and praised him for his cutting reply. To which Begin answered with thanks, defining his stand against threats.

This was the key to all his political contacts during the six years he was in office.

On two occasions, Begin was offered disguises to wear for his secret visits to King Hassan of Morocco, who had expressed readiness to meet with Israel's prime minister. But Begin turned down the disguises: "I shall travel only as the prime minister of Israel, and not in disguise."

Begin exchanged notes with the Moroccan king, but he preferred that his foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, should journey to a meeting with the king. Begin refused to disguise himself, and conditioned his visit to Morocco on being openly invited as the leader of a country with equal status.

That is how he acted, too, in responding to an invitation from the president of France, Giscard d'Estaing, for an official visit to the Elysee Palace. Begin condition his acceptance on a promise that in the address at the official reception he would hear no call to recognize the PLO. Without such a promise, he refused to go.

However, in December 1977, when Begin presented his autonomy proposal for the territories to president Carter, and to British premier James Callaghan, the French president wanted to be informed and invited Begin to lunch in Paris. The Israeli prime minister's reply was: "I prefer my wife Aliza's kitchen in Jerusalem to a banquet at the Elysee Palace in Paris." The French president had no choice but to send a high-ranking emissary to London, where Begin was visiting, to get details of the autonomy plan the Israeli government was about to submit to Egypt's president Sadat.

For Begin, this was no matter of mere protocol, but a defense of Israel's honor, which he represented. When he was in opposition, he had gone several times to visit Gen. De Gaulle, who was also in opposition, and even heard from him very flattering things about Israel and the Jewish people which "had again clung to its own land." The general even told Begin that Israel should never have withdrawn from the Gaza Strip after the Suez-Sinai Campaign of 1956. This occurred, as mentioned, when both leaders were in opposition.

At the cabinet meeting on June 25, 1967, when Begin was a minister in Levi Eshkol's national unity coalition cabinet, he surprised his fellow-ministers with a joke about a meeting he had with the British ambassador in Tel Aviv. The envoy had told him his British counterpart in Amman had heard from Jordan's King Hussein, "I thank God I have got rid of the West Bank!" (That was spoken a full 21 years before Hussein actually decided on a total break with the West Bank. )

Begin was thus trying to cool the enthusiasm of some ministers who had begun to press for an immediate accommodation with Hussein on that territory. Begin suggested informing the Americans that Israel was ready to negotiate with Jordan on economic cooperation between the two countries. But he opposed any mention of territorial concessions in favor of Hussein.

When he reached office as prime minister in 1977, he publicly mentioned his readiness to meet with King Hussein and the presidents of Egypt and Syria. But, as with David Ben-Gurion in his time, who preferred not to meet face-to-face with Transjordan's Emir Abdullah but to dispatch emissaries to him, so Begin preferred to have Moshe Dayan, his foreign minister, conduct the two conversations with the Jordanian king in London in August 1977. These meetings were meant to clarify whether the king was ready for territorial compromise with Israel. The reply Dayan brought home to Begin was negative.

On his first visit to Carter, Begin impressed the US president with his immediate positive responses to requests on such subjects as interrogations of Palestinian detainees, or Israeli overflights of Saudi Arabia. Reacting to Carter's accusation of General Security Services alleged methods of torture to extract confessions from Palestinian detainees, Begin took pains to telephone Jerusalem and order the GSS to cease these methods - if indeed they existed, as critics charged. "Big Brother's" monitoring ear heard this conversation, and Carter was pleased.

Begin was satisfied with his first visit to Washington. The compliments Carter paid him softened him somewhat, especially concerning the settlements. But immediately after he left Washington, he was told of a Saudi attempt to mediate between the PLO and the US Administration.

The "honeymoon" was over; when he was lying ill in Ichilov Hospital, Begin was informed of an American-Soviet deal to convene the Geneva Conference, with the participation of the Palestinians who had not been among the invitees to the original 1973 conference.

Begin ordered Dayan, then in the US, to start a campaign to foil this American-Soviet initiative, and it drove Carter furious, for in the meantime the US president had received a note from Sadat who also voiced reservations at the American-Soviet initiative.

Carter did not know that this coordinated stand between Israel and Egypt was not fortuitous: it was the fruit of behind-the-scenes negotiations between them. That dialog soon after bore fruit in Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. Carter was embarrassed, and at first refused to help that Israeli-Egyptian initiative. Only several days later and after hesitation, did he reconcile himself to it and even agree to participate.

But it was hard for Carter to forgive Begin for this exercise, and he searched for ways to pay him back.

At the beginning of 1978, when difficulties arose in the negotiations between Sadat and Begin, voices were heard in Washington calling for Begin's removal from office. Kol Yisrael even quoted a senior figure in Washington as saying to an Israeli leader that "Begin should be dismissed."

These words aroused the vehement reaction of the prestigious Wall Street Journal which wrote "we are actually stricken when we recall that the US has deposed the leader of a friendly government from power because he did not implement the policy conceived in the dreams of some brilliant bureaucrat in Washington."

The Carter Administration did not restrict itself to proferring advice; it also tried to apply pressure on Begin. Carter asked the Shah of Iran to impose sanctions on oil shipments to Israel to pressure the prime minister. To forestall this blow, Begin went to Teheran to meet secretly with the Shah. He brought an ancient map of Jerusalem and an antique dagger.

But it was not these gifts which determined the Shah's rejection of Carter's recommendation. The Shah later told The Washington Post that if the US wanted Iran to stop the flow of oil to Israel, it should itself first stop the flow of arms to Israel.

Begin sensed this tactic by Carter against him when he subsequently received a report from Bonn on a telephone conversation between the US president and West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Carter asked the chancellor to use economic pressure against Begin, since he himself was exposed to pressure from Jews in the US.

The Shah was worried by Carter's approach to him because he saw in it a troubling sign of the attitude of the Carter Administration to US allies. And indeed, not many months went by before Begin was compelled, in the midst of the Camp David talks, to intervene and appeal to Carter to help the Shah survive.

Those 13 days of complicated negotiations at Camp David were described by Carter's Middle East affairs adviser, Prof. William Quandt, who qualified Begin as undoubtedly the most professional negotiator there. He outdid everyone in understanding how to play his cards, Quandt wrote. He was meticulous in exploiting formulations to his advantage and effectively used the threat to end the talks in order to force concessions at crucial moments.

The description continued by saying Begin never for a moment took his attention away from certain issues; here and there, he conceded a point of symbolic but not substantive importance, to get something more concrete. He excelled in playing the game of walking a tightrope, Quandt wrote, holding back his final concessions until all the others had already laid their cards on the table for all to see.

This was the testimony of a member of the American team in the Camp David talks. In essence, it was an accurate evaluation, but in fact Begin never used a direct threat to end the talks. He proceeded with sophistication even when he wanted to signal the Americans he had reached the end of his tether regarding concessions.

He knew Carter's men were eavesdropping on his phone calls, so he called his deputy premier, Yigael Yadin, from Camp David, and reported to him the talks had run aground because of American stubbornness over the settlements and that he thought there was no more purpose in continuing to negotiate.

This was enough to panic the Americans into realizing there was no point in pressing Begin further.

There were many difficulties overcome - but the issue of the settlements continued to hold up the agreement. On the last night, the question of Jerusalem arose, which overshadowed the settlements issue. Begin announced decisively he would not sign any document in which Jerusalem was defined as occupied territory. Dramatically, he declaimed "May my right hand forget its cunning, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth {if I forget thee, Oh, Jerusalem}."

When the question of Jerusalem was solved by an exchange of letters in which all sides set out their positions on the subject, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and the signing ceremony took place.

Only on the morrow of the signing did the Americans remember that what remained unresolved was the issue of the settlements. Begin insisted that the freeze would not prevail during the entire negotiating period for autonomy, as Carter demanded, but for three months only, the time designated for negotiating the peace treaty with Egypt. He did not concede on this point.

Carter fumed. Begin had outsmarted him. But there was no choice except to acquiesce in Begin's legalistic arguments.

Carter's anger increased when the Academy in Oslo announced that Begin and Sadat were to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, while he felt sure he deserved the prize. Begin became impatient at being preached at by the president of the US and at the humiliation over the methods of punishment Carter employed against him.

When the Administration leaked a report that, in protest against the issue of the settlements, Carter would not meet with Begin when he came on a private visit to the US, Begin replied calmly, contemptuously. The leakers thought he would be insulted, but he wasn't; on the contrary, when he reached the airport at New York and was asked if he would be meeting with the president, he said quietly: "No, I wasn't invited, and we will not meet."

It was an election year for the governor of New York State, and the Democratic Party feared this would hurt it in the polls; go-betweens immediately went to Begin to arrange a meeting with Carter in the New York home of the movie mogul, Arthur Krim. When Begin got to the meeting, he discovered it was a gathering of Jewish contributors to the Democratic Party. He was extremely angry at the trap he fell into.

This was one of three occasions when a US Administration surprised Begin. The other two occurred in the time of president Reagan, whose personal friendship toward Israel Begin greatly appreciated.

On August 12, 1982, he received an urgent phone call from the White House. President Reagan asked him to stop the massive bombing of Beirut, which he was viewing on TV. He added: "On my desk is the photo of a little Lebanese girl, with arms and legs amputated, who was wounded in your bombings."

Begin was moved; only later did it become known that Reagan was looking at a faked photo distributed by a certain news agency. The child was not wounded at all by Israeli bombs. But when Begin was told of a wounded child, he was embarrassed and promised Reagan to stop all bombing of Beirut at once.

Only in the evening, when the chief of the general staff came to report on the day's events, it became clear to him there had been no massive bombing of Beirut that day. The smoke clouding the TV screens was from archive photos.

The third surprise for Begin was Reagan's note of August 31 1982, on the plan he was about to make public the next day for a settlement between Israel and Jordan. Begin asked him to delay it for a few days to permit a prior discussion between Israel and the US. Reagan refused. That hurt Begin deeply.

Even before that, Begin had not withheld criticism at certain steps taken by the Reagan Administration. "We are not a banana republic, nor a state of vassals," he asserted in a message to the president, a strong reaction to the third time within six months that the Reagan Administration applied punitive measures against Israel for defying Washington.

For bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the PLO arms dump in Beirut, Washington punished Israel by suspending shipments of planes to Israel; and in response to the Golan Law, by suspending the agreement on strategic cooperation.

"What kind of talk is this, of punishing Israel? Am I a boy of 14 who, if he doesn't behave properly, has his knuckles rapped?" said Begin in a message to Reagan in December 1981, through Ambassador Samuel Lewis. But his frankness did not push Reagan away; on the contrary, the friendship and strategic cooperation grew deeper when Reagan was convinced of the integrity of the prime minister.

Leonid Brezhnev also sent a secret emissary to Begin's home; he was Yevgeny Primakov, today head of Russian intelligence. Late one night in September 1977, he brought a proposal that the Soviet Union would restore diplomatic relations with Israel in return for Israeli agreement to PLO participation in the Geneva conference.

Begin totally spurned the Brezhnev proposal and asked that he be informed that Israel would lay down the conditions for diplomatic relations, and not Moscow. Israel's condition was the release of all Prisoners of Zion and opening the gates for Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.

If these two conditions were met, he told the emissary, he would be ready to go to Moscow to meet with the heads of the Soviet regime to discuss other matters at issue between the two countries. In this conversation with the Soviet envoy, as in his talks with Carter, Begin was meticulous in correcting the term "West Bank" whenever it was mentioned and stressing that the correct usage was Judea and Samaria.

There was much better personal chemistry between Begin and Sadat than between Begin and Carter: in the relations with Sadat, too, differences became apparent, but the relations remained correct. They both kept the rules of the game. They played well on the stage. The crises in their talks are well remembered, but few recall that on December 25, 1977, the two men closeted themselves in Ismailia, emerging with a joint declaration of a common effort to resolve all problems.

After Sadat read the statement, the Egyptian diplomat Ismet Abdel-Majjid (today the secretary-general of the Arab League) commented, "But Mr. President, this declaration is altogether not acceptable to us."

Silence ensued, and Sadat and Begin returned to their meeting room and re-formulated the announcement, establishing two joint committees: a military one which would meet in Alexandria, and a political one to meet in Jerusalem. The impression left by the "veto" of the first announcement deterred anyone from objecting to Sadat's stand on having one committee meet in Jerusalem.

But later, when the committee met in the Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem, Sadat looked for a way to retreat and bring his delegation back from Jerusalem. He felt Begin had "had" him and searched for a pretext to renege. From then on, Sadat's visits to Israel were only to Haifa, Beersheba, Ofira, not again to Jerusalem.

Begin also spoke frankly with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to the point where he was able to relate after a while to a member of the Indian Parliament some piquant remarks Mubarak had made to him about his talks with Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Mubarak once came to Saddam in his palace in Baghdad; Saddam drew his loaded pistol and laid it on the table. Mubarak wondered why he did this, and the Iraqi ruler replied: "That's our life ..."

Begin's direct style embarrassed many leaders of foreign countries. When at an official banquet in London Margaret Thatcher, then British premier, told him that if she had been prime minister during World War II, it was doubtful whether she would have ordered the bombing of the railway carriages on the way to Auschwitz, Begin did not let that pass. He voiced his grievance at the indifference of the Allied powers at the ovens of destruction at Auschwitz.

Only one head of state ever had Begin dumbfounded: Bashir Jemayel, the elected president of Lebanon, on the night of September 1, 1982, told the Israeli prime minister he would not sign a peace treaty with Israel. Begin felt betrayed. Soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces had spilled their blood to help Jemayel, but when he attained his goal, he violated his promise.

Begin knew how to argue with the great ones of the world. But that night, in a military camp near Nahariya, he lacked the words to rebuke adequately the man who had led Israel astray.

That pain was what led, less than a year later, to his retirement.
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