Prime Minister Menachem Begin addressing reporters in 1978, a time he was greeted with awe.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin addressing reporters in 1978, a time he was greeted with awe in world capitals. Photo by Moshe Milner / GPO
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Reuters
Ulpana, a settlement in the West Bank. Photo by Reuters

The Levy committee has brought back to life the legendary prime minister's ideas about allowing Jews to buy land in the West Bank.

In his new report on the outposts, former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy reached back all the way to the Balfour Declaration to conclude that Jews have the right to settle in the Land of Israel, and that this doesn't constitute an occupation. Levy didn't invent this claim; the right wing has been asserting it for years, though without much success abroad.

The man who waged a major diplomatic battle over the legality of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was Menachem Begin. In May 1979, when Levy, as Likud's representative in Ramle, worked under Begin, the prime minister arrived at 10 Downing Street for a historic meeting with his newly elected counterpart, Margaret Thatcher. The topic was the Middle East.

Secret documents published in London, including the minutes of the Begin-Thatcher conversation and letters from the ambassador, show that the meeting quickly turned into a historical debate, a la Benjamin Netanyahu nowadays. The Israeli claim to the land was supplemental to the missile threat to the coastal plain if the Palestinians gained control of the hills. And it was strengthened by the Jewish people's suffering during the Holocaust. After all, back before World War II, Britain claimed that it was possible to achieve stability by insisting on peace.

Begin arrived at the meeting only two months after signing the peace treaty with Egypt. In those days, he was greeted with awe in world capitals, whereas Thatcher was only three weeks into her first term as prime minister. Begin was one of the first guests at her official residence.

In addition to the peace treaty, this was also when the settlement movement was becoming an issue. Begin was bound by two promises. As part of the treaty with Egypt, he promised to promote Palestinian autonomy, but he also made a promise at home. After being elected prime minister, he hurried to visit the occupied territories and pledged that there would be "many more Elon Morehs," referring to an early settlement. But leaders abroad were starting to ask questions. A lot of questions.

Begin was accompanied to the London meeting by advisers Yehuda Avner and Dan Patir, as well as Israel's ambassador to Britain, Avraham Kidron. Thatcher was joined by Foreign Secretary Peter Carington. First they discussed the crisis in Lebanon and Syria's involvement there, but soon the settlements became the focus.

The need for higher standards

Carington didn't waste any time and said the construction of settlements in the West Bank was worrying Britain and represented a problem in negotiations with the Egyptians. Begin maintained that the settlements were legal, citing international law and Israel's need for security. He also handed Thatcher a copy of a Supreme Court ruling on Elon Moreh, translated into English, and read a few paragraphs out loud.

Israel and Britain are both small nations, which for various reasons are expected to behave by higher standards, said Thatcher. The minutes show that Thatcher thought comprehensive peace would be reached - something that was in the interest of both Israel and the West. She implored Begin to defend a way of life that Soviet ideology was endangering. As part of her argument to avoid war, she even said she was worried that many Jews from her district in north London would have to come to Israel to fight should the need arise.

But Begin ignored her and said his government would obey the Supreme Court. The transcript shows that this was not only a matter of law, but of geography. Begin said that if the PLO took control of the hills on the West Bank, Israel's densely populated coastal area would be threatened by artillery and missiles. To demonstrate the danger, Begin told Thatcher about a terrorist attack that had taken place in Petah Tikva that morning, killing a woman and her daughter. He said that if the PLO got the chance, bloodshed would become routine.

But Begin also presented an action plan: The Palestinians would get full autonomy and vote for local representatives, with security remaining with Israel. He stressed that Israel would never agree to a Palestinian state because it would be a Soviet base; after all, the PLO was made up of Soviet agents.

This is why U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Jordan's King Hussein both opposed a Palestinian state, he noted. According to Begin, the Arabs had the right to self-determination in 22 Arab countries. Why should the Jewish state be put in danger by the establishment of the 23rd Arab state? The next argument came from history: Britain's prime minister at the time of the Balfour Declaration, David Lloyd George, had assured that the land belonged to the Jewish people.

From the transcript, it's hard to be sure about the tone, but one can guess at the hosts' dismay. Carington told Begin he should forget about questions of legality: Continuing the settlement project in the West Bank would reduce the chances of reaching an agreement. Begin stuck to his stance; he said he knew that some people maintained that the settlements were illegal, but he was going to obey the Supreme Court rather than Ian Gilmour - a liberal Conservative who served for two years under Thatcher as lord privy seal.

Bringing up the Holocaust

Begin then started talking about the Holocaust and reminded his interlocutors of the Jews' suffering - and no one had acted to save them. We have to understand Israel's security perspective in this light, he said.

But Carington replied that one side's security could threaten another's. Thatcher tried to be conciliatory; she said she didn't know of any situation in which political autonomy was separate from territory. What would happen if Arab MKs gained a majority in the Knesset? Begin's answer was immigration. He said a stream of Jews was coming from the Soviet Union, Canada, the United States and Latin America.

Carington reminded Begin that Britain had experience with questions of independence, and that autonomy of the kind suggested by Begin would never work. Thatcher repeated her concerns about a Soviet hold on the Middle East, whereupon Begin pulled out the winning argument: The West had failed by not bombing the railway to Auschwitz during World War II. Israel had an army that would prevent the Holocaust from happening again.

Carington wasn't mollified. While he understood the emotions stemming from the past, he felt there was more than one way to reach the desired result. And it was possible to get there without hostility.

The meeting laid the foundation for the dislike Thatcher developed for Begin, even though Patir insists that the meeting was a good one. About a month later, Hosni Mubarak - Anwar Sadat's vice president - visited London. The minutes of that meeting show that Thatcher didn't hide her dislike of Begin.

When King Hussein came to 10 Downing Street, Thatcher told him that Begin had a special method. He would walk around with the Egyptian peace treaty in his pocket. That document defended him against a full attack by the Arab states, while he would do nothing in other channels. The Jordanians noted they had been saying this for years.

British documents show that at the beginning of her first term, Thatcher took a great deal of interest in the Jewish settlements and the Palestinians. The 230 pages in the Middle East file for May-September 1979 are stuffed with memos with the tiny handwritten note "For the Prime Minister."

One time, she solicited an opinion from the Foreign Office about the nature of the Palestinian people and the validity of their claim for a state. Carington answered that this was a political issue, not a legal one. In light of the growing international recognition of this right, it was pointless for Britain to take a position contrary to the one taken by Europe and the United Nations.

The British Embassy would send detailed reports to London about clashes with the hard-core Elon Moreh supporters, conversations with Moshe Dayan on the issue, and analyses of the balance of power in the government. In September 1979, it wrote a long memo about the Begin government's intention to allow Jews to buy land in the West Bank - the Jordanian law, still applicable there, forbids foreigners from buying land directly.

The embassy issued warnings about such a move, saying the government was taking steps to show that the country couldn't be cowed by external pressure. It also wanted to show the Gush Emunim settlement movement that the government's heart was still in the right place; this would make it easier for settlers to buy land.

In the end, the Begin government buried the initiative. Thirty-three years later, the Levy committee has brought it back to life. Among its recommendations: Abolish the Jordanian law and allow Jews to buy land in the West Bank.