Begin's Legacy / 'Yehiel, It Ends Today'

The day that Menachem Begin announced he would resign as prime minister.

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"Menachem, why did you do it?"

- Yaakov Meridor to Menachem Begin

The party’s over: Begin’s leaving drinks with his staff, September 6, 1983. Credit: Nino Herman / GPO

It happened on Sunday, August 28, 1983. After a period of self-reflection, Menachem Begin came to an irrevocable conclusion. "Yehiel, it ends today," the prime minister said to his bureau chief Yehiel Kadishai that morning, when the latter placed a pile of papers on his desk, as he did every morning. Kadishai, who knew how to decipher Begin's unusual handwriting, could also read his intentions by the "music" of his speech. He knew now that the die was cast.

Until that day, Begin had on several occasions named his 70th birthday (he was born in 1913 ) as the date on which he would retire from office. He did not always raise the matter with joy, and Kadishai was the sole witness to the circumstances. Begin also made plans for what he would do after he retired. He wanted write his life story, or as he put it, "the story of the Holocaust and resurrection, in three volumes." The structure, the topics, the division into chapters - everything was already set in his mind. He had previously published quite a few riveting chapters in the daily Maariv, under the heading "chapters of a forthcoming book." But on his 70th birthday, the first Shabbat after Tisha B'Av in 1983, he made no reference to retirement. His announcement came five weeks later.

And thus it was that, a few minutes before 9 A.M. on that Sunday, Kadishai accompanied Begin to the second floor where the conference room is located. The director general of the Prime Minister's Bureau, Matty Shmuelevitz, was climbing the stairs at the same time and naively commented that it was going to be a long meeting. Kadishai retorted dryly that he believed the meeting would be brief. Shmuelevitz didn't take the comment seriously and only afterward, at the meeting itself, did the meaning of the bureau chief's laconic statement become clear. In that hall, which had logged so many "Begin hours" and had been the site of so many dramatic historic events, his final act as head of the governing pyramid which had been in place since 1977, was about to unfold.

At the entrance to the room, Kadishai chose to return to his office.

The final weeks were difficult for Begin. He fulfilled his duties as prime minister, but his body grew weak and frail, and in any case his authority had diminished as well. He was alone at home. His wife Aliza - "Alla," as he called her - who had provided him with so much psychological support, had died the year before, and her passing left a scar on his soul. His grief was poured into everything that happened later.

Sabra and Chatila

Operation Peace for Galilee in June 1982, which was designed to take all of the Galilee settlements out of the terrorists' range of fire (40 kilometers ), entailed destroying the PLO "state" that Yasser Arafat had set up in southern Lebanon. But the operation ran into trouble from the start: Contrary to the prime minister's scenario, which was in fact approved by the cabinet, the Israel Defense Forces did not stop at the 40th-kilometer line, to which Begin had committed in a missive sent to U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Likewise the fighting with the Syrians, whose army was stationed in Lebanon, had not been part of the agenda. The actions had been defined with deliberate intention as constituting an operation - not a war.

In August 1982, Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayal was elected president of Lebanon. Gemayal, a "protege" of the Israeli Mossad, had made the initial contact with the leaders of the Lebanese Christians back in the days of Yitzhak Rabin's first government and helped stroke their egos. But once he became president, thanks to the IDF, Gemayal was quick to shrug off his earlier commitment to making peace with Israel. The reason was his fear of the Syrians, a fear that proved to be justified: Gemayal was assassinated a short while after he was sworn in as president. In retaliation, the IDF entered West Beirut and permitted the Christian Phalanges to enter the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Chatila in Beirut. The Phalangists, hungry to avenge the assassination of their leader, perpetrated a massacre there.

Under serious pressure from President Yitzhak Navon, Minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party, and various components of public opinion, a judicial commission of inquiry was formed to investigate the events in the camps. Begin consented to this only after then IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan assured him that he had nothing to hide.

The commission, presided over by Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Kahan, attributed indirect personal responsibility to Defense Minister Ariel Sharon for what happened, and recommended sanctions against him. In addition, Military Intelligence head Yehoshua Saguy was stripped of his post. Chief of Staff Eitan was also criticized, but since his term was soon ending, the panel refrained from recommending personal sanctions in his case. The commander of the paratroops and ground forces, Brig. Gen. (and soon to become Maj. Gen. ) Amos Yaron, was moved to a noncommand post.

The Kahan Commission also criticized the functioning of Prime Minister Begin and the conduct of Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, without calling for them to be sanctioned personally.

When the commission's report came out in February 1983, Begin felt that the section referring to him was demanding his resignation, albeit indirectly. But Justice Minister Moshe Nissim and Cabinet Secretary Dan Meridor (who represented Begin before the commission of inquiry ), who sat beside the premier as he read the report, dissuaded him from taking such action.

For his part, Sharon hoped, in vain, that Begin would reject the recommendation to remove him from his post. To that end, the defense minister compared his situation to the historical betrayal of members of the Irgun underground to the British in the prestate days, when they were being persecuted by the existing Yishuv establishment and the Haganah militia. In his 2001 book "Warrior: An Autobiography" (in English ), Sharon depicted the prime minister as someone who had handed him over to the angry mobs which had branded them both "murderers" - as someone who had betrayed him.

The war in Lebanon put a damper on relations with the United States in general and with President Reagan in particular. Adding to this situation - although, in my eyes, the Lebanon issue was what ultimately led to Begin's resignation - were the so-called wars of the Jews being waged among the ministers. The prime minister had a hard time understanding how political figures who had reached the pinnacle of their dreams could allow certain urges to overtake them. They continued to throw a monkey wrench in the works and created situations in the government that Begin termed "malfunctions." In internal conversations in his bureau, his aides suggested taking drastic steps against senior ministers - even firing them. But Begin refused to judge them severely.

Now, too, in the cabinet meeting on the morning of his resignation, Begin was witness to a fierce attack by Sharon on the person who would replace him in the Defense Ministry: Moshe Arens. At the end of the meeting, at about 10:45, Arens stormed out and thus missed Begin's resignation announcement.

Kadishai recalls that whenever Begin saw ministers squabbling, he would compare them to a pedestrian who is innocently walking down the street when a passerby sprays him with mud. The reaction, in Begin's opinion, should not be to throw mud back at the attacker, but rather to clean oneself off. The moral: The passerby's act is not even worthy of a response.

Forgiveness and absolution

The next item on the cabinet meeting's agenda that fateful day was the addition of a new minister to the government. After that Begin asked for the floor, and began his speech:

"Gentlemen, members of the government, I wish to make an announcement, and I wish to note that it bears no connection whatsoever to the discussion that [just] took place in the cabinet - nor with other discussions that have taken place recently. The reason for which I am making [this announcement] is completely personal, but I cannot wait any longer, and therefore I am making it lawfully. From the start I ask your forgiveness, pardon and absolution. Whether these will be accorded to me - I do not know.

"Dear friends: I hereby inform the government of my intention to resign my post as prime minister. I cannot perform this function, and I have come to this meeting especially to make the announcement, because there is a special constitutional process connected with this, and so long as I have not made this announcement - that process will not commence."

Any description of this moment, even the most colorful one, cannot convey the shock that took hold of the ministers. Begin's words had been spoken in a tone lacking any excitement whatsoever. They were uttered quietly, as was typical of him right after a decision was made. The cabinet had 20 ministers at the time, and most endeavored to persuade him to reconsider. But they wasted their words on ears that heard but did not internalize.

Begin's reply made it clear that he had passed the point of no return:

"Dear gentlemen, my friends - I thank you all, each and every one of you, for the profound, kind and heartfelt things you have said at this meeting. I imagine that each of you knows I did not reach this decision lightly. The fact is that I did not consult the members sitting at this table, because this is a decision which I reached after much and deep consideration.

"There is a request from the members that I reconsider. And I ask you: Do those members who made such a request, whose value and inherent sensitivities I am aware of, presume for a moment that until I made the decision to announce it, at an official meeting - I had not [seriously] considered it? Today I can only reply with such an answer, and I have nothing to add.

"I wish to thank you, all of you, for the cooperation and understanding that were my lot, in sitting here with you. Yes, it is true, there were difficult periods and sometimes a man must reach a decision when he is cognizant of all of the difficult problems related to it. I reached this conclusion ... because I could not do otherwise."

"Will you be able to sit with us?" one of the ministers asked, referring to an unofficial meeting scheduled to take place later.

"Thank you very much," the prime minister said by way of an answer, and gathered up his papers.

'Historical stature'

Begin descended slowly to his office, and Kadishai went in to see him. The premier looked at him, and said: "I made good on what I told you in the morning."

Naturally the news spread like wildfire. Friends began streaming into his office. Others telephoned. International media outlets laid siege to the bureau as in those great days when Begin had entered it, or when world leaders and important guests came. Several ministers gathered in the small conference room adjacent to his office, and repeated the same reservations they had voiced at the cabinet meeting. Begin listened to what they had to say, but theirs was like a voice in the wilderness.

The person who kept the resignation from taking effect for a while was Finance Minister Yoram Aridor. Aridor, a jurist, asked permission to make arrangements to ensure that the prime ministerial post would remain in the hands of the Likud party. In other words, he asked Begin to hold off on tendering his resignation until a replacement could be chosen and a new government formed.

Begin went back to his office, asked Kadishai for the relevant book of legal statutes, and drafted a resignation letter to President Chaim Herzog: "On the basis of clause 23 (a ) of the Basic Law: The Government, I hereby respectfully submit to you my letter of resignation from the post of prime minister." However, Begin did agree to delay delivery of the letter to Herzog until his successor was chosen.

On September 1, the Likud chose Yitzhak Shamir for the job. Begin convened a cabinet meeting on September 4 - the last that he presided over. On the agenda were security matters. The new coalition, with Shamir at the helm, was already at the door.

Reporters were waiting for Begin to deliver the resignation letter to the president, but Dan Meridor appeared instead: An old skin disease had erupted over Begin's face and prevented him from shaving, and he was not willing to appear in public and before the president with a beard. After Meridor submitted the letter, the president spoke very warmly about Begin: "This is not the place to detail the litany of his great deeds," he said. "The things are written in our history books and they will not be erased."

Personally, I remember that after the resignation of Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan (1979 ), the Prime Minister's Bureau contemplated offering his post to Herzog, who had served until not long beforehand as ambassador to the United Nations. Begin liked him and remembered that Herzog had given a learned speech before the UN General Assembly in which the envoy said that the settlements in the territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza were permissible under international law - a speech which in essence captured the spirit of Begin. For his part, while still representing Israel at the UN, Herzog described Begin when speaking to foreign diplomats as "the best."

The diplomatic commentator for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Yeshayahu Ben Porat (whose professionalism Begin greatly appreciated ), summed up: "With Menachem Begin's retirement, the last of Israel's leaders of historic stature has disappeared from the political landscape."

Others had harsher thoughts, like those of the managing editor of Yedioth, Noah Mozes, who ordinarily wrote few articles, but this time, surprisingly, published a column in which he asked: "Are we a cruel people, that suffers from a father complex and devours the flesh of those who walk at the head of the camp?" He was referring directly to Moshe Dayan's statement in the bleak days following the Yom Kippur War, about the bitter fate of prime ministers in Israel until that point: "All of them were lowered into hell alive." He meant David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir.

I asked Begin once what was the most important public office he held over the years: Betar commissioner in Poland alongside Ze'ev Jabotinsky, commander of the Irgun, opposition leader, prime minister? He saw commanding the Irgun, in the British Mandate days, as his most important public mission. As he put it, nothing could compare to a war of liberation from a foreign, enslaving power.

And what did he consider his most important achievement as prime minister? Signing the peace treaty with Egypt (1979 )? Bombing the Osirak reactor in Iraq (1981 )? Initiating an urban renewal project (begun in 1977 ) that was part of Begin's drive to foster pride among Mizrahim? Settling Judea and Samaria (increasingly from 1977 )? Begin replied that each of those had its own merit. Contrary to comments that people later attributed to him, incidentally, he did not express any regret at signing the peace treaty with Egypt, despite the fact it meant giving up all of the Sinai Peninsula.

Begin thought that bombing the reactor did not take Iraq's nuclear plans off the agenda permanently, but merely postponed them for at least five years. He therefore drafted a doctrine that states that, "on the basis of the precedent we have created, any prime minister and any government in Israel will destroy the [new] reactor before it becomes operational." Although his comments were aimed at Iraq, the interpretation of this doctrine was expanded upon, especially by Begin's successor, Yitzhak Shamir, who declared: "Bombing the reactor underscored Israel's determination and the fact that when it comes to protecting its existence, there are no physical borders. In defending our safety it is impossible to act without taking risks. Not taking risks could be fatal to our security."

Shamir established a basic assumption that, "in the Middle East you cannot maintain a balance of terror according to the American-Soviet formula, and the reason for this is that you cannot rely on the rational judgment of a few of the Arab rulers."

Space race

There is another chapter in the period of Begin's tenure which for some reason has not made headlines: He was the one who enabled Israel's entry into the international "space club." Following the Yom Kippur War, a need arose for Israel to have satellite photographs that could allow accurate assessments of what was going on militarily in the Arab countries. The United States did not agree to help in this regard, which left no other choice but to put a "blue-and-white stamp" on achievement of this capability. The people who actually got this ball rolling were the head of research and development at Military Intelligence, Haim Eshed; MI chief Shlomo Gazit; and his successor, Maj. Yehoshua Saguy. Saguy, who headed MI during the preparations for bombing the Iraqi reactor, particularly stressed the need for satellite photos. He turned to the Americans, who once again denied the request. Saguy allocated $5 million of the corps' budget to ascertaining the viability of building a satellite.

Eshed (later head of the IDF's space program ) told me that he introduced the idea to Defense Minister Ezer Weizman back in 1979. Weizman referred him to the security establishment's chief scientist, Dr. Manes Pratt, under whose tutelage work began on designing a program for an Israeli satellite. Plans were presented to Prime Minister Begin in July 1981, about a month after the bombing of the Iraqi reactor - by Eshed, Pratt and other individuals. Begin, Eshed recollected, wanted to know how big a role the satellite would play in the security realm, and was delighted to hear that it would constitute a significant element. "This will be the realization of the Jewish genius, which has the ability to do wonderful things," Begin replied. "Get going."

Why did he go?

Menachem Begin's resignation naturally generated waves of speculation and conspiracy theories. Thereafter, leading Haaretz reporter and columnist Yoel Marcus addressed him, directly, in very blunt language: "It isn't like you to disappear from our lives just like that, like a thief in the night. We lack an explanation for why you are leaving: What dreadful thing became known to you on August 28?"

Marcus frequently attacked Begin, but the prime minister apparently read him with interest. Once, in response to a column that dealt with Begin's slipping in the bathtub and breaking his hip, he sent Marcus a handwritten letter describing the events in detail.

Dan Meridor recalls that Begin responded to another article by Marcus, which dealt with the pointlessness of continuing the war in Lebanon, with a statement along the order of: "Perhaps he's right." Begin was referring to the fact that the war was continuing after the IDF had already destroyed the state-within-a-state that Arafat had built in Lebanon. Begin, incidentally, prevented Arafat's assassination when he was caught in the crosshairs of an IDF sniper rifle. The rationale: At the time Arafat was boarding a vessel that would evacuate him and his remaining combatants from Lebanon, and eliminating him would have violated international agreements.

Still, why did Begin retire? His close friend from back in the Irgun era, and until his dying day, Yaakov Meridor, was given an apparently partial explanation. A few minutes after the resignation announcement on August 28, Meridor entered Begin's office and asked, "Menachem, why did you do it?" Begin, Meridor later told me, gave the following specific reasons: the difficulty of contending with the growing number of soldiers killed in Lebanon; physical weakness, which did not permit him to function properly; his lack of privacy; and the protest demonstrations that opponents to the war held across from his house 24 hours a day, which had made his life intolerable. He would in any event sleep for just a few hours and even these were denied him because of the noise.

The minister of police, Dr. Yosef Burg, had in fact offered to have the demonstrators removed, but Begin insisted on their right to demonstrate, though he felt bad about the neighbors' troubled sleep. In addition, there were the nightly reports by the aide to his military secretary Azriel Nevo on the number of casualties in Lebanon, which Begin insisted be brought to his attention regardless of the hour.

President Herzog also wrote (in "Living History: A Memoir" ) that at one of their meetings, Begin told him that every time his military secretary knocked on his door, his heart would race because of the concern that there would be an announcement that "another of our boys has fallen in Lebanon."

Begin did not share his thoughts publicly about the two men who led the war in Lebanon: Sharon and Eitan. Sharon began serving as defense minister in Begin's second government, in August 1981. All the signs indicated that Begin had mixed feelings about him. According to government secretary Aryeh Naor, in his book "Begin in Power: A Personal Testimony" (in Hebrew ), Begin felt he had to appoint Sharon defense minister first and foremost because of the certainty that Sharon could oversee the dismantling, without bloodshed, of the settlements in Sinai, as per the peace treaty with Egypt. The settlers, Begin knew, saw Sharon as the father of their widespread movement - in Sinai, too - and they would obey his command.

The second government led by Begin rested on a slim majority, as it numbered only 61 Knesset members. The opposition leader, Shimon Peres, warned Begin that, "Sharon could be this 'majority.' He will be under his own command." Indeed, the premier also feared as much and thus decided to extend Chief of Staff Eitan's tenure and to maintain ongoing, direct contact with him. His assumption was that Eitan would keep an eye on Sharon, on his behalf.

MK Avraham Melamed, the lily-white dove of the National Religious Party, expressed a complete lack of faith in Sharon and threatened a vote of no-confidence in a government in which Sharon served as defense minister, which he saw as extremely dangerous. Begin summoned Melamed for a conversation, and asked him why he opposed Sharon's appointment.

"The man is a liar," Melamed replied. According to him, Begin answered something like this: "I have thought about this and will continue to maintain direct contact with the chief of staff." As to the claim that the chief of staff would serve as the prime minister's watchful eye on the defense minister, "I had nothing to say," Melamed said later. I heard these things from Melamed in the Knesset, after his conversation with the prime minister.

Regarding the dismantling of the Sinai settlements, Begin was right: Sharon carried it out in a professional manner worthy of distinction. Regarding the war in Lebanon, Peres was right. Moreover, on the eve of the formation of Begin's second government in 1981, Moshe Dayan met with the prime minister, and warned him against appointing Sharon defense minister - because, Dayan warned, Sharon would trap Israel in a war in Lebanon. And indeed, Sharon was the war's uber-chief of staff, and bound Eitan to him tightly. And thus the operation scenario was overturned and developed into a war story.

Begin only learned for the first time that the IDF had entered Beirut and that its tanks were surrounding the Lebanese presidential palace in Baabda from the mouth of the U.S. special envoy, Philip Habib. Begin initially disregarded the information, because entering Beirut was not on his agenda; he ordered that the information be verified with Sharon and Eitan. Both of them, separately, denied it. Habib, in response to Begin, denied their denials. Begin insisted on knowing the truth, and military secretary Azriel Nevo simply turned to the General Staff operations room, and received confirmation of Habib's claim.

The entry into Beirut, which had never been approved by the cabinet, marked the beginning of the ministers' distrust of the defense minister. It may also have reconfirmed Begin's earlier doubts regarding Sharon's integrity.

Grave indictment

After he resigned, Begin withdrew into his home. Kadishai would visit him every day - first in Jerusalem and later in his apartment in Tel Aviv. The pair conversed a great deal, but Kadishai says he never heard a word of criticism from Begin about Sharon. However, there was someone else who did - Dan Meridor, whom the prime minister liked and valued for his integrity. Meridor visited Begin at home. They discussed a wide array of issues and Meridor kept notes.

On January 11, 1985, for example, they discussed the Lebanon war. Meridor reported that Begin said: "One of the things that were most problematic were the relations between Raful and Arik. [They] hated each other. I had to intervene. Raful gave me a description of Arik's character. There was no trust between them. It was very hard. Both of them presented us with faits accomplis. I once said that I knew [regarding Lebanon] everything, sometimes in retrospect, sometimes beforehand ... Both Arik and Raful wanted the war to go the way that it went, but fought between themselves."

And Begin added: "Raful appreciated the Phalanges. [MI chief] Saguy, a wise officer, did not believe them. Haka [Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi] didn't believe them either. They [the Phalanges] fawned over Raful."

That is a first indication by the prime minister of how he, ultimately, saw the war. These are, of course, only excerpts of reports that were never properly examined, and which make one regret that Menachem Begin never wrote a memoir about his term as the sixth prime minister of Israel. Because Begin, who is remembered for his honesty, would have written the absolute truth. And even these brief comments by him are enough to cast a heavy shadow over the two military leaders who, despite their enmity, essentially presented the prime minister with facts that he did not want to hear.

When he told Avraham Melamed that the chief of staff would keep an eye on the defense minister for him - Menachem Begin really believed it. But that is not what happened. Indeed, we still do not know exactly what happened in practice between the two men. The most pertinent part of Begin's comments is that, "both Arik and Raful wanted the war to go the way that it went" - which should be combined with the remark he made that, "both of them presented us with faits accomplis." To these must be appended various statements and written reports made over the years by Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Arye Naor. All of these constitute a grave indictment against Ariel Sharon, as well as against Rafael Eitan. W

Shlomo Nakdimon is an author and journalist who writes about the history of the State of Israel