On a day in June 1977, in a Knesset buzzing with excitement — every seat taken, senior officials cramming reserved sections, and the galleries packed with ambassadors and other dignitaries — Menachem Begin, a picture of confidence and robustness, mounted the podium to present his newly elected government for parliamentary approval. He dryly outlined the democratic processes that led to the changing of the guard from Labor to Likud for the first time in Israel’s history, and then, with mounting passion, delivered the most ideological speech on the Jewish right to the whole of the Land of Israel the Knesset had ever heard.
“There are those who question our right to our ancient homeland, and even our right to exist within its sacred boundaries.” he said contemptuously. “How dare they? Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American to request recognition of its right to exist? Their existence per se is their right to exist!”
He paused to make a Norman arch out of the tips of his fingers as if to collect himself, and then, in thunderous peroration, declared: “Let the world know that we were granted our right to exist by the God of our fathers at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization 4,000 years ago. The Jewish people have a historic, eternal and inalienable right to the whole of the land of our forefathers. And for that right, which has been sanctified in Jewish blood from generation to generation, we have paid a price unprecedented in the annals of nations.” He pronounced these last words with the fervor of a patriarch, causing some of his disciples to jump to their feet in irrepressible ovation.
There was this something about Menachem Begin, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 16, that aroused mighty and conflicting passions. Admirers adored him irrationally, and detractors loathed him irrationally. He was so iron-cored that he was neutral in nothing.
All his predecessors had been illustrious, pioneering, Zionist socialist, secular diehards, while he perceived himself as a liberal democrat, very much in the mold of a Jewish traditionalist of the old school, with an infectious common touch that made Jews everywhere feel they really mattered. This goes some way in explaining why many still recall his name with affection — that and the peace he forged with Egypt, the largest and most powerful of all the Arab states.
A good many of his critics had branded him a war monger, chief among them President Carter. He never did like Begin, and it was only much later that Begin realized the innate prejudices that Carter harbored toward Israel. It was Begin, however, at Camp David in 1978, who, rising to the heights of Nobel Prize statesmanship, negotiated accords from which the peace treaty eventually emerged. To make it happen, Begin conceded the whole of the Sinai Peninsula (now a tinderbox of Islamic militants) and dismantled all its Jewish settlements there.
But there was nothing concessionary about him when dealing with “the Jewish people’s inalienable rights to the whole of the biblical homeland.” Once asked by The New York Times if he intended to actually annex the West Bank, he curtly replied: “You annex foreign territories, not your own country whose territories have been liberated. A Jew has every right to settle in the liberated territories of our Jewish homeland.”