Menachem Begin Was Israel Leader True to Convictions

On Centenary of Birth, Premier Still Icon of Hardliners

No Subtlety: Menachem Begin made no apologies for what he saw as his firm stand for Israel and the Jewish people. Like him or hate him, he was an open book.
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No Subtlety: Menachem Begin made no apologies for what he saw as his firm stand for Israel and the Jewish people. Like him or hate him, he was an open book.

By Yehuda Avner

Published August 16, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.

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And he meant every word he said. Nowadays some 400,000 Jews dwell on the mountain tops and slopes of Judea and Samaria.

Is it any wonder, then, that skepticism trumps hope as the parties, Israeli and Palestinian, gather under the gaze of Secretary of State John Kerry to salvage a contiguous and viable Palestinian state from the demographic and geographic mishmash that Begin deliberately set out to create? To him, the creation of a Palestinian state would pose a mortal danger to the Jewish state.

“There is no going back to the ’67 lines,” he told Presidents Carter and Reagan. “It would be suicidal. No nation in our region can be rendered so vulnerable and hope to survive. No nation can live on borrowed time.”

Which is why he would be appalled at the current policy of his disciple, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in acquiescing to a two-state solution. The furthest he was prepared to go was to grant the Palestinians autonomy, not sovereignty. “Peace for peace,” was his maxim, not “Land for peace.” And never, ever, would he negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization; it was his anathema. “Even if they declare they recognize Israel,” he said time and again, “I would not believe them. It would be a ruse to destroy us in phases.” So, in 1982 he pursued them into Lebanon to rid northern Israel of their rocket fire, but the cost in casualties became too high for the public to bear, and it all went sour on Washington and the rest of the world, and on him, too.

Thus it was that by the time he resigned from office, in 1983, he was but a shadow of his old self. Upon stepping down he made no public statement, no speech to the nation; he just walked away and disappeared into mysterious seclusion, a man of silence, distant and withdrawn, until his death nine years later.

World leaders readied to fly in to attend his funeral, but their governments were informed that, at the request of the deceased, the funeral was to be a traditional Jewish one: no lying in state, no military guard of honor, no official delegations, not even eulogies — just a shroud.

On the day, a dense throng of hundreds of thousands of mourners spilled into the streets in an unprecedented logjam of grief, the likes of which Jerusalem had never seen — of those who had loved him and those who had opposed him, the exalted and the humble. For much of his life Menachem Begin had been a figure of controversy, but he was buried with a nation’s veneration. Perhaps this was because he was possessed of that most elusive attribute of all true leadership — authenticity. Agree or disagree with the things he said and the things he did, everybody knew exactly who he was and what he stood for. Menachem Begin never wore a mask.

Yehuda Avner was a senior aide to Menachem Begin. He is the author of “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership” (The Toby Press, 2010).



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