Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Begin's Modesty

In an article bemoaning Ehud Olmert's style of hedonism:

Enjoying himself to the very end

By Yoel Marcus

Look at the yellowing photos of the state's founders in the old albums on the library shelf. Look at how thin they were and how simply dressed. I still remember Menachem Begin's first speech at Mughrabi Square in Tel Aviv. As a Polish gentleman, he was wearing a suit and tie, of course, but only those standing close to the podium could see how threadbare they were. In the old days, Israel's national leaders lived in tiny apartments. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi refused to move out of his wooden shack when he became president.

They all lived humbly - Levi Eshkol and Pinhas Sapir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. The most critical decisions were made in Golda Meir's kitchen in her modest apartment in Ramat Aviv. Cognac medicinal, Matias herring and calves' foot jelly were served at the little Jewish restaurants where Mapai's leaders discussed the issues of the hour. The attack plans for the Sinai Campaign were sketched on a paper napkin from the cafeteria of the Prime Minister's Office at the government compound in Tel Aviv.

I remember how Moshe Dayan left me to pay the bill at a restaurant where he had invited me for a meal, and how Minister Gideon Patt explained that he was not allowed to pick up the tab unless his guest was from overseas.

Modesty (sincere or under duress) gave way to hedonism only in the next generation. Yigal Allon, commander of the Palmach, and Shimon Peres, director-general of the Defense Ministry, were the bright young things who introduced deluxe overseas travel - Peres to Paris, Allon to London and New York - where they enjoyed the good life at the state's expense. They stayed in suites at posh hotels whose names were not familiar to Israelis.

As foreign minister, Abba Eban outdid them all, tacking his private purchases onto the hotel bill. Still etched in my memory is the picture of Walter Eytan, the Israeli ambassador, tearing his hair out and sharing his woes with me: "How am I going to send a bill like this to Israel?"...
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