Right-Hand Man: The Biography of Yehiel Kadishai, Chief of Staff and Confidant of Menachem Begin by Menachem Michelson, translated by Jessica Setbon. Jerusalem: Geffen Publishing, 2016. 324 pages. $26.
Menachem Begin is not only one of Israel’s most compelling political figures, he is one of the most fascinating politicians anywhere during the past 75 years.
Before Israel’s independence, Begin was the leader of the Irgun, the Ze’ev Jabotinsky-inspired paramilitary organization. Beginning in 1948, he led his Herut (later, Likud) Party in opposition for 28 years — no, that’s not a typo, 28 years in the political wilderness, with the exception of two brief periods in the 1960s when Begin and his party were part of national unity governments headed by Labor — before finally becoming prime minister in 1977.
A right-winger, he became the first Israeli leader to sign a peace treaty with one of Israel’s Arab neighbors. And then, only six years after coming to power, Begin suddenly resigned and spent the last nine years of his life as a recluse.
So, when I saw this biography of his most-trusted aide, who died in 2013, my anticipation meter went off the charts. I couldn’t wait to see which secrets Yehiel Kadishai would reveal about his former boss.
I was to be disappointed.
But, of course, this is Kadishai’s book, and he also has led a full and absorbing life.
Kadishai was 3 months old in 1923 when his family made aliyah to then British Mandatory Palestine.
At 15, he joined Betar, Jabotinsky’s youth movement, drawn to it, he says, by his desire “to work toward the revival of the Jewish state that was not a dream, not a vision, but a reality. Many in the yishuv [the prestate Jewish community in Palestine] did not consider this a given.”
Two years later, spurred in part by an upsurge in Arab terrorism, Kadishai joined the Irgun. During World War II, he served in the Jewish Brigade, the British military group composed of Jews from Palestine that fought the Nazis.
After the war, he stayed in Europe, helping Jewish refugees get to the land of Israel and took part in some Irgun operations, including, in 1946, bombing the British Embassy in Rome (at night, when the embassy was closed) to protest the fact the British were not only trying to prevent Jews from arriving in Palestine but even were attempting to stop them from sailing from Europe.
In 1951, he and his wife, Bambi, opened a ticket agency in Tel Aviv for cultural events and in 1958 he became the Jewish Agency’s Betar representative in South Africa.
Back in Israel, in 1963 he became secretary of the Herut Party in the Knesset, beginning his association with Begin that would only end in 1992 with the Likud leader’s death.
Kadishai was discreet, author Menachem Michelson notes, never leaking party or state secrets to which he was privy. He was a man of simple needs and did not exploit his position of authority to gain political power or wealth. Even as Begin’s chief assistant, he often took the bus to work and lived in a small apartment in Tel Aviv. And he was known for helping many Israelis navigate the country’s truly Byzantine bureaucracy.
But as exemplary an individual as Kadishai is, it was his long, close relationship with Begin that will attract readers to Right-Hand Man.
Kadishai does reveal some aspects of his former boss’ character, for example, that Begin was almost obsessive when it came to his duties.
“No one answered his letters for him [Begin]; [n]o one ever wrote a speech for him,” according to Kadishai. The party leader would write his newspaper columns by hand and Kadishai would dictate them to typists at Herut headquarters. Then Begin would proofread the column, including the headline and send it to the paper. He rarely allowed any changes in his copy or the headline.
“The bond between Yehiel and Begin became tighter as they spent long hours together in shared work,” Michelson writes. “They grew to understand each other without words — and above all, they spoke the same exact ideological language,”
But it may be Kadishai’s discretion — and that close relationship he had with Begin (“For Yehiel, Begin was first and foremost a leader and a boss, and only after that a very close friend. Begin felt similarly toward Yehiel: he was his assistant and his friend.”) — that prevents the former aide from sharing his boss and friend’s secrets.
Nothing was so mysterious as was Begin’s exit from political life, and he refused to talk publicly about it until his death nine years later.
When Begin suddenly resigned without saying why, Israeli commentators speculated that maybe he was angry and frustrated that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had deceived him about the extent that he would prosecute the Lebanon war. Others pointed to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres, in which Lebanese Christian militiamen killed Palestinians but the world blamed Israel. Still other analysts noted that Begin had been devastated by the death of his wife.
Begin resigned in 1983, says Kadishai in the book, because he had pledged to retire at age 70 and “due to deep exhaustion, physical weakness, and heavy depression due to the death of his dear wife, Aliza, who died in November 1982.” It had nothing to do with Ariel Sharon or the war, Kadishai insists.
A few pages later, Kadishai seems to contradict himself. The author quotes Kadishai as saying that Begin’s departure was fueled by “the increasing burden on his narrow shoulders, the accumulation of disasters, the constant chain of grim events and the victims that Lebanon continued to demand.”
So, while Right-Hand Man didn’t provide more than a glimpse of the real Menachem Begin, it did confirm my earlier impressions — that he was a literal-minded, dot-every-i, cross-every-t, fanatical nationalist, in the words of his enemies, or to put the man in a positive light, someone who passionately devoted his entire life to maximizing the interests of the Jewish people.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.