At 7 P.M. on June 8, 1980, Prime Minister Menachem Begin met in his office in Jerusalem with the U.S. ambassador, Sam Lewis. Their hour-long conversation was preserved in an English-language protocol of the meeting classified as “top secret.”
The main topic of conversation was relations with Egypt, and Begin voiced his ire over Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s relationship with the PLO.
“This has come to us as a surprise and a shock,” Begin told Lewis. “I shall tell Sadat, what are you doing? We made peace with you and we negotiate with you and yet behind our backs you do this?”
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But just before the meeting ended, Lewis asked Begin whether he would consider allowing two Palestinian mayors living in the United States to return to the West Bank. The two had been deported because Israel said they were inciting to violence.
Begin was vehemently opposed to that idea. And to justify his position, he noted that Israel had also taken steps against Rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of the Kach party.
Though Kach was later outlawed as a terrorist organization, at that time, it was still legal. But just a few weeks earlier, acting in his capacity as defense minister, Begin had signed an administrative detention order against Kahane.
Under this order, Kahane was to be jailed without trial for six months, due to intelligence indicating that he and several other members of Kach had planned to put bombs on buses in Hebron. The order was approved by the Jerusalem District Court, and the High Court of Justice rejected Kahane’s appeal against it.
What makes this noteworthy is that Begin had hitherto been a vocal opponent of administrative detention, in which people are effectively jailed without ever being indicted or standing trial.
“Does a bad law become a good law just because Jews are using it?” he once asked of the administrative detention law, which was originally enacted by the British during the pre-state era but remained on the law books after Israel became a state. “I say this law is rotten to the core, and it doesn’t become good just because it’s in Jewish hands. ... We are opposed in principle to administrative detention. There’s no place for such detention.”
On a different occasion, he said, “Anyone who ought to be punished should be punished, but via a trial.” Even to arrest someone for 48 hours, police must suspect that an indictable offense has occurred, he noted, and if they want to hold someone longer, they must ask a court for permission. “That detention can be extended only by a judge, and to do so, it’s necessary to give the judge prima facie evidence,” he continued. “There is no other way.”
Begin then told Lewis why he nevertheless used a law he despised against Kahane.
“We undertook measures against Rabbi Kahane and his friends,” he said.
“Having agreed to his administrative detention I had no peace with myself for days. I believe in due process. The High Court eventually confirmed the legitimacy of our action. But still, it was not easy on my soul. I agreed because he could have brought disaster – not on our people but on Arabs. We had no choice. He is a crazy man. He could have brought on us disaster. He is a dangerous man.”
These remarks are worth recalling in light of the alliance recently forged between Begin’s heir as head of the Likud party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the heirs of the racist rabbi.
It’s also interesting to recall that in 1973, when several center-right parties merged to create Likud, Kahane held a press conference in which he offered to join the new political alliance led by Begin. That offer was duly rejected.
A few days after Begin’s meeting with Lewis, Kahane was convicted of having broken into the Hebrew University of Jerusalem even though he and his disciples had been forbidden to enter it. Given his criminal record, the court decided to invoke a suspended sentence from a previous conviction and jail him for seven months. This verdict enabled Begin to cancel the administrative detention order. He said there was no justification for administrative detention if Kahane could be jailed through a court-imposed sentence instead.