Israel's New Political Pastime: Missing Begin

Both the left and the right seem to be longing for the former Likud leader. But their nostalgia is badly misplaced.

Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon
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Benjamin Netanyahu taking part in a ceremony commemorating 20 years since the passing of Menachem Begin.
Benjamin Netanyahu taking part in a ceremony commemorating 20 years since the passing of Menachem Begin. Credit: Mark Israel Salem
Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon

One of the myths in current politics could be called “missing Menachem Begin’s Likud.” The reason for this development is, in addition to plain old nostalgia, the fact that this myth benefits both camps.

For the left, missing Begin’s Likud helps stick it to Likud in its current form. The right, whose place in Zionist historiography is weak and shaky, certainly has reasons to glorify the period of Begin’s leadership. Moshe Kahlon, the popular former Likud MK, has turned this longing for Begin’s Likud into the political alternative he is offering to Israelis of all stripes.

The longing focuses on Begin’s prominent characteristics: his modesty; his achieving peace with Egypt; his sensitivity to social issues; his respect for democracy; and the old-time glory that once surrounded Betar -- led by a young Begin -- which is so lacking in today’s Likud.

But the truth is that an honest look back at Begin’s premiership casts doubt on the view that this was a time marked by a kind of pan-Israeli consensus.

It is true that Begin helped establish democracy in Israel. Close to the time of the state’s founding, he chose to accept the rules of the game and break up the Irgun Tzvai Leumi, the pre-state underground he led, in favor of forming a political party, Herut. But he continued to run the underground in Jerusalem even after the Jewish state had been established, arguing that the state had not yet applied sovereignty there. Then, in 1952, as the conflict raged over German reparations payments, which Begin vehemently opposed, he even threatened to establish a new underground.

In terms of social issues, Begin favored the expansion of personal liberties to the maximum, opposed the policy of selective aliyah and opened membership in Herut and in Likud to Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern origin. But he expressed reservations about the Wadi Salib demonstrations and demonstrated no sympathy for the Black Panthers -- both popular movements of disgruntled Mizrahim. In this, he differed from Golda Meir. He feared any stance that might challenge the hegemony of the Zionist narrative.

Similarly, he was sympathetic toward the weak — in the days of Herut, he even expressed opinions that had a socialist bent — but as prime minister he was the one who instituted the plan that began the substantial change in Israel’s economy, doing so in the name of his party’s liberal ideology. Some components of his liberalization program were necessary, but others led to record inflation and widened the gaps in society, according to economist Milton Friedman, who was asked by Begin to serve as a government consultant, but resigned his position.

Begin courageously forged the peace process with Egypt, but that should not lead us to conclude that he left a legacy of moderateness. On the contrary: A major component of giving up Sinai had to do with the fact that he did not consider it part of the Greater Land of Israel. He gave the Palestinians autonomy, but referred only to administrative autonomy, and did not recognize them as a people. For him, they remained “Arabs of the Land of Israel” even in the few statements he made about this during the 1980s.

In some respects, one could say that if Likud has anyone who is continuing Begin’s legacy, certainly from his time in the opposition — and a complex man with many contradictions, as Begin was, has many representatives — it is Moshe Feiglin. The comparison is based on their theological justification of and insistence on a Greater Land of Israel, alongside a liberal approach regarding individual freedom. There is even an external similarity between Feiglin’s ascetic appearance and that of Begin as a young man.

The present-day Likud is different indeed from the original one. Benjamin Netanyahu — who does not emphasize the fact that his father belonged to the Jabotinsky movement that opposed Begin — is certainly different from Begin. But there is something ludicrous, not to say twisted, in the way the image of Begin, a colorful and fascinating leader, is being blurred for political needs.

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