Israel Needs a New Menachem Begin

As far back as 1956, Begin suggested that the Knesset 'not legislate any law that limits freedom of expression, orally or in writing.' It's horrifying to realize that after more than 50 years, even this self-evident principle of democracy is now held in doubt by the Knesset.

Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar
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Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

A few years before the killing of two Palestinians who had hijacked Bus No. 300, I wrote an article about a Palestinian jounalist from East Jerusalem who had complained that when he was in administrative detention, he had been tortured by Shin Bet security service interrogators.

They didn't kill him, nor did they break any bones. It was just the garden-variety shaking, humiliation and sleepless nights (the allegation, incidentally, was "membership of a hostile organization" - Fatah).

In contrast to Shimon Peres, a member of the "peace camp" who abetted the cover-up of the Bus 300 affair, the prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, the head of the "national camp," ordered a thorough investigation of the young Palestinian's claims. The investigation, carried out by then-State Prosecutor Gavriel Bach, ended with the dismissal of two Shin Bet investigators and strict directives that banned the use of torture in the questioning of security prisoners.

It would be easy to imagine what a tumult there would be in the Knesset if someone in the political or judicial echelons would dare today to touch a hair on the head of any security officer for hurting an Arab.

Actually, it's doubtful whether Menachem Begin would even be offered a place on the Likud benches today. Begin, the godfather of MK Yariv Levin (Likud) - who ridicules the Supreme Court and sponsored the bill to increase compensation in libel cases - probably wouldn't find his place anywhere in the 18th Knesset, whose winter session opens today.

He would be considered weird even by many members of Kadima, including party chairwoman Tzipi Livni and leadership contender Shaul Mofaz. Nor are the struggles Begin conducted to reinforce the rule of law, and to preserve human rights and freedom of expression, particularly attractive to Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich. She prefers to leave such "left-wing" agendas to Zahava Gal-On and Meretz.

Those who have sponsored anti-democratic laws - both those that have been enacted and those still pending - present their supporters as "patriots," while opponents are described as "bleeding hearts" who care nothing for state security.

A position paper published by Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and attorney Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute examines Begin's doctrines and demonstrates that one can have a broad perception of democracy while still remaining a patriot and committed to security. Although the quotes they bring are taken from Begin's Knesset addresses when he was leading the opposition, he was generally true to his principles even after rising to power.

No one can question Begin's concern for the safety and security of Israeli citizens. Yet here is Begin, during a debate in the Knesset plenum on February 20, 1962, on a bill to cancel the (Emergency ) Defense Regulations:

"The existence of these regulations raises a question about the basic rights of every Israeli citizen... We've heard the argument that the British did us a favor by leaving us these 1945 regulations when they left the country. This is a very strange argument... If it isn't fitting for the State of Israel to legislate such a law or something like it, is it fair for the State of Israel to maintain this law?"

During the same address, Begin rejected the argument that Israel's Arab citizens should not be given full and equal rights because they do not serve in the army.

"This is an unusual argument," he said. "We are the ones who decided not to obligate Arab residents, as opposed to the Druze, to serve in the army... We believe that in the Jewish state, there must be, and must always be, equal rights for all citizens, regardless of religion, nationality or ethnic origin."

Even earlier, in a Knesset speech in 1959, Begin said, "We don't accept the semi-official notion, which we heard during the third Knesset, that a state grants rights and thus a state is allowed to retract rights. We believe that there are human rights that predate the human way of life known as the state."

As far back as 1956, when Israel's democracy was still in diapers, Begin suggested that the Knesset "not legislate any law that limits freedom of expression, orally or in writing."

It's horrifying to realize that after more than 50 years, even this self-evident principle of democracy is now held in doubt by the Knesset.

Menachem Begin, where are you when we need you?

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