If I were to concisely sum up Menachem Begin the man as I knew him - and our relationship was not particularly personal or intimate - I would describe him as a "moral person." It may well be that a prime minister, even a prime minister of Israel, should not be guided by a moral compass. Situations change, and certain developments may well contradict one's moral stance. The needle of the compass does not move according to the wind, or one's mood, or the latest public opinion poll; this is not what makes the instrument work. Yet if conscience, a moral compass, was indeed what guided Menachem Begin, it follows that he was above all a moral person. And that is how I see him.
It is worthwhile to note that he did not consider the premiership to be his most important role, but rather his tenure as commander of the National Military Organization (the pre-state underground known as Etzel in Hebrew ). But that role was naturally performed in secret, with the exception of the episode of the Altalena arms ship, in 1948, when Etzel commander-in-chief Begin operated overtly, in the light of day.
We do not need another 20 years to buttress the assessment that Menachem Begin as prime minister was first and foremost a moral individual, one who followed his conscience. When he emerged from his office at the end of his first day on the job, I asked him, "What will be your style as prime minister?" His reply: "A Jewish style." That was all. He added no more words to the three to which he confined his response on that occasion. Does anyone imagine that a prime minister of Israel, or a candidate for that post, would reply like that today to such a simple reporter's question?
The satirical program "A Wonderful Country" would slaughter him today - without an anesthetic - for saying "a Jewish style." But Begin's integrity was also a source of weakness, for it is difficult to assume that there can ever be - or ever was - a statesman who does everything he says he will do, or always fulfills every promise he makes.
But Begin, for one, was tormented, perhaps to the point of being ill, upon finding himself caught in an irresolvable contradiction between his conscience and concrete political life - in other words, reality. That torment was what led him in the end, finally, to say, "I cannot go on any longer" - words that were sheer truth and not a mountain of excuses or empty political babble. Those were his words, but still the secret of the years that followed, in which he closeted himself at home, has not yet been unlocked.
As a statesman, as prime minister, contradictions were Begin's lot from the moment he was elected to lead the country. In the first interview he gave after the results of the elections of May 17, 1977, were known, Begin told me he would implement Israeli law in Judea and Samaria. He gave that reply after I pointed out that the United States would continue to oppose any such move then, as it had since 1967. "We will explain to them," Begin responded. A few days later he promised that "many more Elon Morehs" would be established, referring to Jewish settlements in the territories.
Begin coped with the contradictions as a moral statesman of the highest order, and did so without inventing lame excuses. A case in point is the contradiction between the promise he made to himself and to the nation - that in his final years he would move to the settlement of Neot Sinai, in the Sinai Peninsula, and the fact that under him Israel withdrew from Sinai. He resolved this contradiction by means of an historic peace treaty, the first signed by Israel with an Arab neighbor.
It goes without saying that, with a few exceptions, no one blamed him for not keeping his word about retiring to an Israeli settlement in Sinai after the conclusion of his public career. He also was compelled to watch and listen as MK Geula Cohen - a longtime ideological ally - tore to shreds a copy of the Camp David accords during a Knesset debate about the peace treaty with Egypt, and voiced her furious objections to the plan for Palestinian self-government.
Begin, who chose Yitzhak Shamir, commander of the prestate Lehi underground, to be Knesset Speaker (to Shamir's chagrin, as he had set his hopes on becoming a cabinet minister ) found that Shamir was not with him and did not support the historic move with Egypt. Shamir could not abide the price that was entailed: the evacuation of the Israeli settlements from Sinai. Moshe Arens, another Herut stalwart, also objected, along with Ehud Olmert and others.
In other words, Begin, from the very outset of his term as prime minister, was fated to cope with circumstances which could not be resolved by means of small political compromises and were not amenable to feeble excuses.
Begin resolved the contradiction between reality and ideology, between life as an idea and life as a local and global reality, by means of dramatic, historic moves which dwarfed the contradictions. From his first day in office he behaved like a veteran, experienced prime minister - not like a leader of the opposition groping to find his way in a new situation.
'Get me Moshe'
I was in the Prime Minister's Bureau immediately after Begin took the reins of power. "Yehiel, get me Moshe, the foreign minister," he said to his loyal aide, Yehiel Kadishai. The request was made in a natural manner, as though it were routine, as though Begin always started his day by talking to the foreign minister, or to other ministers. And why did he wish to speak with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan in his very first hour as prime minister? He wanted to instruct Dayan to do all he could to rescue a boat carrying refugees from Vietnam, which was floundering on the high seas. The 200-plus refugees aboard were brought to Israel and settled here. That was Begin's first decision as prime minister.
As I recall, the newspapers Davar (the organ of the Labor movement ) and Al Hamishmar (the organ of the left-wing Mapam party ) were lying on his desk. The two papers were remnants of the government that had passed from the world, a kind of broth that had congealed. Begin was a newspaper junkie, and his favorite paper, perhaps even more than his own party's Herut, was the socialist Al Hamishmar. I can understand the reason for this peculiar fondness by the right-wing leader: Quite possibly riffling through Al Hamishmar stimulated him, and he liked to take issue - internally, silently, not from the speaker's podium - with the writers.
I was in his bureau on his first day as prime minister in my capacity as the political correspondent for "Mabat," the Israel Television nightly newscast. When I got back to the station I was told in no uncertain terms "to trim the report." Underlying this demand, in addition to editorial considerations, was the burning hatred for Begin that then pervaded the TV newsroom. Not revulsion, not unease about the election results, but sheer hatred of the new prime minister.
Begin entered his new bureau on June 21, 1977. It was "the morning after the night before" in the Knesset - an event which thrilled many of those who were in the public gallery: pious believers in Herut, the unique party Begin established in Israel. I could see the tears in their eyes as he was summoned to take the oath of allegiance as prime minister. Many of the visitors that day in the Knesset never believed that they would live to see this. For most of their lives they had been persecuted and victimized because they did not carry a "red notebook." That is, they did not believe that the day would come when the voters would kick out the despised Mapai, or its successor, the Labor Alignment. Yet, now it was happening. The end of days; mamlachtiyut, the primacy of the state, at its zenith. It was happening to them, it was happening to that hated man, the man "who sits next to MK [Yohanan] Bader," as David Ben-Gurion, his rival, called him, refusing even to utter the name "Menachem Begin."
So things transpired on June 21, 1977, as though this were perfectly routine, as though this were a change of leadership at 10 Downing Street. But Begin, who had been persecuted, was an able avenger. In his Knesset speeches he took aim at the leader of the opposition, MK Shimon Peres, rhetorically pulverizing him and ripping him apart with razor-sharp mockery.
The truth is that Begin was just as unsparing toward members of his movement who dared to argue with him. The torment of trying to resolve differences between conscience and reality may have been what drove him to disappear from public life after the first Lebanon war, a war of choice. His years as a recluse, whose cause is not definitively known, bore the air of self-inflicted punishment. A kind of self-imposed judgment that came with the realization of the outcome of the war and its price.
So it was that there was at least one promise Begin never kept - to write another book: "From Holocaust to Rebirth." He got only as far as the title. W
Ya'akov Ahimeir is a senior news journalist on Channel 1 and the 2005 winner of the Sokolov Prize for journalism
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