By Alan Elsner
On a recent trip to Israel, I went into the gift shop operated by Moshav Yotfat near an archeological site in the Galilee and saw some socks emblazoned with the likenesses of Israeli historical figures, among them the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. My sister bought me a pair. It got me thinking about political leaders, their legacies and their memories.
As a young journalist in Israel, Begin was the first Israel leader I covered. Obviously, he had a long resume before becoming prime minister in 1977. In pre-independence Palestine, Begin had led the militant Irgun organization which carried out terror attacks, like the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in which 91 people were killed, and the 1948 massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem, in which around 240 people died. He had lost eight straight elections before winning the ninth.
Begin was a fascinating figure. Unfailingly courtly in private dealings, he was a fiery orator on the stump and had won fervent support from many Israelis who had come from Arab and North African countries, and who felt like second class citizens, discriminated against by a Labor elite that neither understood nor respected them. Begin was the first of three Israeli right-wing leaders to be hailed by their followers as “kings of Israel.” The others were Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s hard to imagine politicians in other democracies being hailed as kings. But there is apparently something deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche going all the way back to biblical times that longs for a ruler. “Give us a king,” the people cry in the first Book of Samuel. The prophet warns them they may not like what they get — but they are adamant. The results are not good.
As prime minister, Begin will be remembered chiefly for two things: the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and his decision in 1982 to invade Lebanon to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization.
When President Sadat of Egypt abruptly offered in 1977 to visit Jerusalem, Begin instantly accepted. And in subsequent negotiations, he made the difficult personal choice to withdraw Israeli forces from Sinai and dismantle Israeli settlements. That decision paved the way for a peace deal that still holds today and is a lynchpin of regional stability.
The other side of the coin is Begin’s 1982 decision to launch Israel’s first war of choice leading to thousands of Israelis being killed and wounded, not to speak of the deaths of Lebanese and Palestinians. Begin misled the Israeli public by declaring the Israeli forces would not penetrate further than 25 miles past the Lebanon border. They ended up occupying all of Beirut, paving the way for Christian Phalangist militias to massacre hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. An official commission of inquiry cited Begin for “not exercising greater involvement and awareness in the matter of introducing the Phalangists into the camps.” The war created a power vacuum in Lebanon, eventually filled by Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists.
Begin was plunged into depression by the results of the war he had launched. He abruptly resigned in 1983 and became a recluse for the final nine years of his life, rarely emerging from his Jerusalem home.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can clearly see that he was the godfather of the extreme nationalist-religious ideology that largely governs Israeli foreign policy today. A direct ideological line links Menachem Begin to Benjamin Netanyahu. In his favor, one can say that Begin deeply respected the forms and substance of democracy and was personally incorruptible. He and his wife lived modestly and had no interest in the trappings of personal wealth. Unlike his ideological heir, Netanyahu, Begin had a conscience.
It’s kind of weird to be wearing Begin socks. It makes him more benign and cuddly than he ever was in real life. I doubt he would be pleased to be reduced to such a state. But it reminds us that all leaders have their day and then pass into history. Perhaps one day, Benjamin Netanyahu will be memorialized by a piece of clothing. Far be it from me to suggest which article would best fit the man. ■
The author is a retired journalist who worked in Israel for the Jerusalem Post and Reuters and served in the Israeli Army in the 1982 war.