Begin's Legacy / Longing and Mirage

Menachem Begin had a talent for upsetting the bucket that he himself had labored to fill. The mouth that spoke peace was the mouth that entangled us in war.

Years have gone by since he died and I still don't know what I really think of him, how I feel about him. The thoughts are in dispute and the feelings are mixed; his figure provokes thought and prompts emotion to this day. There is no profit in yearning for him, and not just because it is meaningless; yearnings are like mirages. After all, these days there is hardly a dead person or a might-as-well-be-dead person who is not touched with longing; even Good-Grandpa Ariel Sharon is missed by some of his orphans.

Do we miss Menachem Begin? Has a successor arisen? Does his legacy still have an impact, for good or for ill? This is the man who made peace and made war, and drowned his handwork with his own hands. This is the man who appears in my dreams, who appears in my nightmares, when I flee from the basement to the attic, and he waits for me there with a glazed look.

Begin - Rahamim Israeli - February 24, 2012
Rahamim Israeli

This is another story about "Yitzhak Ben Zvi and his young friend." I was 33-years-old the first time I was elected to the Knesset, and he was the lion in the pack, the righteous man who fell down seven times and managed to get back up; his strength gave out and he got a second wind. Nobody was more closely identified than he with Israeli parliamentarism at its best; nobody could deliver a speech like he could. I was very flattered when he happened to hear me speak in the Knesset plenum. It is worth listening to this young man, he explained, because of his Hebrew, but also thanks a little to the content, sometimes there is something in what he says. I harbored a youthful remembrance of his kindness, until that war boiled up and ripped everything to shreds.

We will always remember the great things that are to his credit: After he behaved wildly in the German reparations affair, and nearly uprooted the plantings of democracy here, he was reformed and swore allegiance to it; he became the guardian of its seal. He watched over the court as though it was the apple of his eye; not for nothing do people refer to him and his legacy whenever the Diadochi rise up against the High Court of Justice to destroy and disgorge it. He too found several of the verdicts as hard to take as psoriasis, but he humbly respected them.

He taught the Shin Bet security service a lesson in the rules of interrogation. The violent interrogator will not squeeze an iota of information from the interrogee; not by torture shall intelligence profit, nor save lives. The wise and sophisticated interrogator will be the one to get the job done.

We will not forget his consistent and prolonged battle on behalf of those who were uprooted from Ikrit and Biram, who were seduced into believing that they would soon return to their villages; the High Court also ruled in their favor at the time, but Ben- Gurion did not let them return, taking the name of security in vain. It is just a pity that as prime minister Begin did not make good on what he had admirably demanded for years. And we shall not forget his objection to military rule, to which Mapai held fast to the point of shame, until Levi Eshkol got up and wiped away the stain.

Begin was not a modest man; on the contrary, he was proud. But he led his private life in a modest manner and set an example; thus a prime minister makes things easier for an education minister in his government. When he retired, retaining his clean hands, there commenced the era of dirty hands that look out for their owners, that look out for their households.

In a moment of grace and desire, history played a joke, and it was Begin who brought us a first peace, contrary to all expectations of him. I myself could not believe it, and I was overcome with happiness when I was proved wrong. The Ma'arach (Labor Alignment ) - my party in those days - squirmed in agony. How did it fall to Begin's lot to do what did not fall to theirs; how is he forfeiting all of Sinai, uprooting all the settlements and destroying them, whereas they, the Ma'arachniks, are still licking the Yom Kippur War wounds, refusing to heal.

Golda, the mother of all sins, grimaced in disgust, but barely deigned to shake the hand of the president, Anwar Sadat. "To me he wouldn't have come, because I would not have been willing to pay this price," she told the members of her party at a special meeting held in honor of the visit; I heard this with my own ears. She and "our friends" walked around embarrassed then like shadows of themselves, like mourners among bridegrooms, but my heart belonged to Begin: What do I care who brings me the glad tidings, what do I care who the herald is and where his feet stand, just so long as the lingering peace arrives and gets going. It could have arrived earlier and spared us a terrible war, had Golda not stood in its way and kicked, like a mule that backs up against a wall and refuses to budge.

But Menachem Begin had a distinctive talent for upsetting the bucket that he himself had labored to fill. Did he get scared when he realized what he had actually signed? Did he have a change of heart and get cold feet on the way to the Palestinian state he founded with his signature? Yosef Burg, head of the National Religious Party, sent by Begin to conduct negotiations over the baseless autonomy in the territories; Ezer Weizman and Moshe Dayan, who slammed the door on the government in disappointment and anger - these are three witnesses to the absence of good faith and to belated remorse. Begin changes his mind, and the mountains are much taller on the way back, and they cast heavier shadows.

That is when Begin decided to show his strength of hand in Lebanon, the same hand that had just been extended toward Egypt. The mouth that spoke peace and undid it is the big mouth that will now bind us in a war: Do not see me as a wimpy peacenik, I am the good old Begin, who knows how to be bad. Thus the bucket was kicked over and the peace spilled out; thus, too, our paths parted, an eternal breach.

Obtaining my support for the First Lebanon War was important to him, because I ruined the chorus line that sang here in unison. Begin's emissaries tried to get me to have a change of heart, but the heart was elsewhere already because of the head. "A war of choice," that is how Begin termed his war; and if there is a choice, then I choose another way for myself.

Menachem Begin was a man of volatile mood swings: Displays of mania and depression frequently characterized his personality. Sometimes he was the great unifier and healer, and alternately he was no small agitator and divider. The exaltedness of the tribes-of-Israel-together was in his throat, but the loud, hot microphone drove him to lose his mind more than once. He incited and pitted one tribe against the other - Ashkenazim against Mizrahim, new immigrants against veterans, Jews against Arabs, left-wingers against right-wingers. He went out of his way to sic disadvantaged outlying towns on neighboring kibbutzim: These are the hedonistic kibbutzniks, who lounge in easy chairs and hammocks, dangle their feet in azure swimming pools to their delight, and live off the sweat of the unfortunate and downtrodden in the area. And these black clouds that came together above us rained down on him and his party an acid rain of ballots at the ballot box: may you have neither dew nor rain, a la Uri Zvi Greenberg, who doth make the evil wind to blow.

That is the Scruples that troubled him during the expensive and barren war, and later terrified him when boys fell, and later on pushed him to 1 Tzemach Street in Jerusalem, and shut the doors and windows of his house on him. For months he no longer functioned as prime minister; the cronies who ate from his bowl saw him in his incapacity and distress - crying for his soldier-sons - and covered up his weakness.

They betrayed a trust, and so did I. One day I was approached by an aide-adviser, who loved his master but decided to break free of the conspiracy. "You alone," he divulged a bitter secret, "can break the conspiracy of silence and silencing. The public must be told that there is no prime minister in Israel at a time of war, and people are exploiting the void, speaking and making decisions in his name, and benefiting from the forfeiture." I did not fulfill the confidant's wish at the time, to my shame and regret today. I was afraid they would ascribe to me malicious intentions: He is spouting lies about the prime minister, only because of a political rivalry, only because he is against the war in principle.

The war continued to terrify me, too; I could not find peace for my soul either. I must penetrate this dark secret, get to the bottom of it, and not only because of what happened, but mainly because of what might be another "war of choice," having a hand in yet another betrayal; Second Lebanon War was always looming on the horizon. I once asked Benny Begin to meet with his father. I promised that I would not publish anything from our conversation except with his consent. It is important to me to understand how it all happened, and not just to me, it is important to many: How did eyes not see and ears not hear, were they covered and sealed or did not want to see and hear? Did they lead him up the garden path or did the garden path lead him?

Our conversation never took place: Father is willing to speak with you, but not now, at another time perhaps. W