Analysis |

The Son of Israel's Legendary Leader Fought Netanyahu Over Four Decades, Until He Couldn't

This is the fourth time the lawmaker and son of former prime minister Menachem Begin retires from Israeli politics after spending most of his career going head-to-head with Netanyahu over his father's legacy

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Begin, in 2008.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Begin, in 2008.Credit: Alon Ron
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The upcoming election for the 25th Knesset will take place in three months, on November 1, exactly 34 years since the election for the 12th Knesset. Four of the lawmakers who were elected then, in 1988, are serving in the outgoing Knesset. Three of them, Moshe Gafni, Tzachi Hanegbi and Benjamin Netanyahu, are expected to serve in the next as well. But Benny Begin, the Knesset elder, announced on Thursday he is finally retiring from politics.

In interviews he explained that he turned 79 in March, and doesn’t think “that an 80-year-old should take upon himself a four-year mission in the Knesset.” He denied speculation that he was leaving politics because the party he currently represents, the right-wing New Hope, has merged with the centrist Kahol Lavan whose policies are too “left-wing” to his taste. Begin is the rare creature in politics who always speaks his mind clearly and there is no reason to think he is being any less than truthful. He was always something of a reluctant politician and this is the fourth time, almost certainly the last, he is leaving the Knesset.

Benny Begin, in 2008.Credit: Alon Ron

It is for all purposes a normal retirement. Begin could have probably had a viable spot on the Kahol Lavan-New Hope candidate slate and served another term. But his heart simply isn’t in it. It probably never was. He served in the Knesset for all these years out of a sense of duty. He had two missions in public life – to block any territorial concessions to the Palestinians and to safeguard Israel’s legal system. The first of those missions has been fulfilled by his political nemesis Netanyahu. The other mission is still ongoing but it is now up to his remaining colleagues in the dwindling ranks of that anti-Netanyahu right. Begin has left the building.

If someone had predicted back in 1988, when Begin was first elected to the Knesset, that he would end his career there as representative of a party sworn to keeping Likud out of power, they would have been laughed out of the country. The son of Menachem Begin – Likud’s founder and leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement from the days he took command of the Irgun underground in 1943 through the long years of opposition, to the first Likud victory in 1977 and his resignation in 1983, a broken and depressed man – was only ever going to be a member of one party. But Begin Junior took his time before entering politics.

Then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the first from Likud, returning from a diplomatic visit to the United States in 1980.Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO

In the 1970s, when Likud was on the cusp of winning power, a new generation of leaders was entering the fray in Menachem Begin’s shadow. They were the sons and daughters of Irgun commanders – “the fighting family,” who had grown up in the movement and believed in the words of Zeev Jabotinsky’s poem “God, you chose us to rule.”

Not everyone in Likud took kindly to their ascendancy. Other senior party figures, like David Levy, who represented the influx of Mizrahi activists into the party, and former generals like Ezer Weizman and Ariel Sharon – who had been brought up in Labor-supporting families and defected to Likud when they realized it was destined to replace the party that had founded the state – resented their air of privilege. Sharon dismissively called them “the princes” and the name stuck.

The senior princes were Ehud Olmert, Roni Milo and Dan Meridor, who were all in senior posts by their early thirties, but for years Likudniks awaited the “prince of princes.”

Benny Begin refused to allow even a hint of nepotism and preferred not to join the party while his father was leader. When he did finally join, at the age of 45, a ponderous and prematurely old geologist, he had his father’s name, his appearance, even his voice but, it seemed, none of the rhetorical skills of the great leader. Or perhaps the Begin style simply didn’t work in a new Israel which was belatedly entering the television age. Another anxiously anticipated newcomer, six years younger than Begin, was much better suited for television.

Long before Benjamin Netanyahu announced his resignation from the foreign service and candidacy for the Likud list, the princes had identified him as a threat. The slick and media-savvy ambassador to the United Nations had been courting and sounding out every Likud member who happened to be visiting New York. Netanyahu came from a staunchly Revisionist family, but he wasn’t a prince. His father had chosen not to join the Irgun, and while the princes’ fathers were risking their lives, evading the British police in Mandatory Palestine, Benzion Netanyahu was working on his doctorate and editing a Revisionist newspaper in the United States.

The party’s rank-and-file were eager for Netanyahu, who had already made his mark in both the international and American media, to return home and join the party’s leadership. The princes were determined to stymie his rise and since Likud was in a transitional phase, under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir, who wasn’t expected to remain for very long, they needed a younger champion. They chose Begin the Second.

It was a fateful mistake which would lead to their losing control of the party they were born to rule, and ultimately all the princes found themselves leaving Likud after breaking with Netanyahu.

Likud’s candidate list in 1988 was elected by the 3,000 members of the party’s Central Committee, who first elected the “panel” of 35 and then ranked them in “sevens” to decide their positions on the list. The princes put their weight behind Begin but he refused to take part in any horse-trading, traveling by bus from town to town to meet members in local branches. Usually, he discovered that Netanyahu had already been there, arriving in a convoy of rented cars and holding a lavish banquet for members.

When the Central Committee held its first round of voting on June 29, Begin won the third spot on the “panel,” an incredible victory for a first-time candidate that had been achieved solely due to his family name. But Netanyahu, who had run the first American-style campaign in Israeli politics, came out an unbelievable first. Begin and the princes should have realized by then that something had irrevocably changed in their party but they continued trying.

In 1993, after Shamir’s resignation, Likud held its first-ever party-wide primary for the new leader. Begin once again ran against Netanyahu, decrying what he called Netanyahu’s “yogurtization” of politics, yogurt then being seen as a fancy foreign dairy product for those too delicate to eat leben or eshel for breakfast. The result was the same. Begin came third, with just 16 percent of the vote while Netanyahu romped to victory with 52 percent.

For the next 29 years, Begin was to have a supporting role in right-wing politics. At times he was a junior minister under Netanyahu, agreeing reluctantly to adorn his cabinets. At other times he was a lone internal rebel calling for Netanyahu’s resignation. Twice he split with Likud to join new right-wing parties. For a decade in the middle he returned to his true love, studying the mysteries of the depths of the earth. Twice he returned to Likud, at Netanyahu’s behest.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Begin, in 2009.Credit: Ariel Jerozolimski

Begin was no longer a threat. Perhaps he never had been. But at times Netanyahu needed the principled, dutiful and unfailingly courteous Begin to boost Likud’s flagging image as the list became crowded with rabble-rousing populists. Begin never lasted for very long under Netanyahu. He yearned for the Likud his father built and couldn’t bear what it had become.

Begin has had one of the longest and most fruitless of political careers, but his trajectory, back and forth, between Likud, failed new right-wing parties and semi-retirement is instructive.

The first time Begin split with Likud was in October 1998. He had already resigned the previous year from his position as science minister in protest over Netanyahu’s signing the Hebron Agreement with Yasser Arafat. When Netanyahu, under pressure from Bill Clinton, also signed the Wye River Memorandum, transferring another tranche of the West Bank to Palestinian Authority control, he could no longer remain in the same party. Begin refused to accept Netanyahu’s explanation that he was committed by the Oslo Accords signed by the previous Labor government and that he had fought to keep Israel’s concessions to a minimum. Begin founded the Herut party (named for the forerunner of Likud once led by his father) but the new party failed to win enough seats in the 1999 election and Begin took a long break, until returning to Likud in 2008, having been promised by Netanyahu that things had changed.

They had changed. Netanyahu, upon returning in 2009 to the Prime Minister’s Office, this time withstood American pressure and refused any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians. But there was now another issue that pushed Begin to rebellion.

As Netanyahu’s rule gradually became more autocratic and populist, he refused to vote in favor of Likud-backed laws that he deemed undemocratic and discriminatory. This culminated in his abstention on Likud’s key piece of legislation, the Nation-State Law in 2018, which Begin lambasted as “defiling the principle of equality and the Jewish state.” He left Likud at the end of that Knesset and as Israel spiraled into a never-ending series of stalemated elections, announced he was no longer voting Likud. What would have once been unthinkable, a Begin against Likud, was by now just another banal detail.

In January 2021, when Gideon Sa’ar split with Likud and founded New Hope, the party for ex-Likudniks who opposed Netanyahu’s assault on the judiciary, Begin agreed to return once more to the Knesset, its oldest member at 78. New Hope claimed to be the true heir to the old values of Likud, to the Jabotinskean hadar – pride and decorum. New Hope won just six seats, enough for Begin in the sixth spot to become a lawmaker for the last time, but nowhere near enough to reclaiming the Israeli right from Netanyahu’s clutches.

Forty years after he first lost a race to Netanyahu, Benny Begin is finally calling time on 34 years of losing battles.

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