Menachem Begin was born 100 years ago this week in Brest-Litovsk, a town at the nexus of several east European cultures. It belonged to the newly independent Poland during his formative years and Begin absorbed its customs and manners. Begin’s formality contrasted dramatically with his couldn’t-care-less Labour opponents in later years.
Although he came from a Zionist family, Begin truly entered the nationalist camp following the killings of Jews in Jerusalem, Safed and Hebron in 1929.
In the eyes of Begin’s generation, the British government seemed to be rowing back from the Balfour Declaration and blaming the Jews for the Arab unrest. Begin joined Vladimir Jabotinsky’s youth movement, Betar, and soon became a commander for his region.
Yet Begin was not the unquestioning follower as is depicted popularly. Begin aligned himself with the maximalist wing of Jabotinsky’s movement. Betar, he believed, should be a fighting underground and not the nucleus of a Jewish army.
His advocacy of military Zionism and conquest of the land was in profound opposition to Jabotinsky, who still believed in negotiations with Britain and in “the conscience of the world”.
Begin famously labelled Jabotinsky as the “Father of the Revolt” against the British authorities in 1940. The maximalist leader, Abba Ahimeir, whom Begin greatly admired, could equally have earned that title. Ahimeir looked to the example of the IRA which had fought for Irish independence from Britain.
Begin also appreciated the Irgun Zvai Leumi, led by David Raziel and Avraham Stern, which refused to accept Ben-Gurion’s policy of havlaga —self-restraint — in response to Arab attacks. On Black Sunday, November 14 1937, the Irgun retaliated by placing bombs in market places and firing on buses. Jabotinsky was privately aghast, but Begin was clearly more sympathetic.
In his last years, Jabotinsky found his authority waning. He discovered many members of the Irgun were being trained by the Polish military — a scheme established by Avraham Stern without his knowledge. This declining influence was reflected when Begin was appointed head of Betar in Poland to replace the more moderate Aharon Propes.
Begin was deeply inspired by the persona of Jabotinsky. But he was also selective as to which of Jabotinsky’s teachings he would utilise. Israel Eldad, one of the great figures of the Zionist Right, knew Begin well and recalled: “Jabotinsky often closed his eyes to see more clearly and remained tight-lipped to think more deeply. His pupil, not so. The teacher exuded an inner beauty compared to his charge. But the reality of the situation overwhelmed both of them – and it was here where they were forced to act”.
The outbreak of war saw Jabotinsky and Raziel strongly supporting the British war effort. Stern, however, still viewed the British as the main enemy. In 1940, he saw the Nazis as persecutors and not exterminators. This precipitated a split – the Irgun, led by Raziel, which collaborated with the British — and Lehi (the Stern Gang) led by Stern, which tried to kill them.
Begin believed that Britain’s weak position in 1940 should be exploited. In a letter to a friend in Palestine, he wrote that “Zionist support for Great Britain was unrealistic...this war is not our war”. Yet unlike the pro-fascist Stern, he did not regard “the enemy of my enemy as automatically my friend”. The death of Jabotinsky in New York in August 1940 was a grievous blow to Begin, despite their political differences.
Having fled before Hitler’s armies, Begin was arrested by the Soviet NKVD and sentenced to eight years in the Gulag, vividly depicted in his book, White Nights. Rescued by Stalin’s agreement to allow Poles to join General Anders’ army and leave the USSR, Begin reached Palestine in early 1942, to be reunited with his wife. Almost 18 months later, he was made Irgun commander and soon proclaimed the revolt against the British.
Begin reasoned that even though the British were still fighting the Nazis, the war was coming to an end and this was an opportune time to strike. Ben-Gurion was no political wallflower and was prepared to hand over Irgun fighters to the British military. Ten years previously, he had told one of his negotiators: “These biryonim (gangsters) imitate the tactics of the Nazis. They are our sworn enemies... You should always remember that you talk to an enemy lacking a conscience”.
Begin was not captured by the British or by the Haganah. He left military decisions to his commanders but inspired his fighters with militant rhetoric. The Irgun were courageous and determined in their struggle and several went to the gallows.
In response to the flogging of the teenager, Benjamin Kimhi, the Irgun seized a British major from a Netanya hotel and administered 18 lashes. Begin believed that captured Irgun fighters should be considered as prisoners of war. The British military leadership, commanding 100,000 troops, regarded them as terrorists.
The breakout from Acre prison in May 1947 resulted in the hanging of three members of the Irgun, Nakar, Weiss and Haviv. Within hours, the Irgun hanged two British sergeants. A spate of attacks against Jewish premises took place in several British cities. In Tel Aviv British troops ran amok.
Yet unlike the Haganah, the Irgun could not reach its level of military discipline and efficiency. There were botched operations, which became the stuff of debate down the decades, and were often followed by Begin’s tortuous explanations afterwards.
Ben-Gurion always saw Begin as a pivotal political figure and an ideological threat. The Irgun, on the other hand was viewed as a military sideshow whose exploits could be utilised as an instrument of political pressure on the British. Ben-Gurion’s military preparations were not directed at the British, but at the Arab armies which would confront Israel on independence.
Following the declaration of the state in May 1948, Begin turned the Irgun into a political movement, Herut. Jabotinsky’s Revisionist party, however, still existed, and together they contested the first Israeli election in January 1949. Begin, claiming that it was the Irgun which had ousted the British from Palestine, won 14 seats and the Revisionists sank without trace.
His proclaimed mentor, Jabotinsky, and potential rivals, Raziel and Stern, were long dead and Begin emerged as the undisputed leader of the nationalist camp, a believer in the democratic system, but also a strong centraliser.
Many of Jabotinsky’s comrades and the right wing intelligentsia began to drift away. Unlike Jabotinsky, Begin was an astute political operator, outmanoeuvring his rivals within Herut. In 1948 all the Zionist parties accepted partition including the predecessors of today’s religious Zionist settlers on the West Bank.
Begin refused to compromise. Thirty years later he still believed that the East Bank — the state of Jordan — also belonged to Israel. He was perhaps the only Israeli prime minister who refused to meet King Hussein clandestinely. But he allowed Herut to join the Histadrut, something to which Jabotinsky was adamantly opposed.
Over the years Begin cultivated the General Zionists, the religious Zionists, the Sephardim and an excluded underclass. In 1973, Herut, the General Zionists and defectors from the labour movement, such as Ariel Sharon, established Likud. The debacle of the Yom Kippur War brought a new generation into Begin’s camp, a generation that knew little about Begin’s background and viewed him as a founding father of the state.
Labour politicians, such Moshe Dayan, drew close to Begin. As Labour disintegrated through indolence and corruption, Begin picked up the pieces and expanded his coalition of the disaffected. At his ninth attempt as party leader and at the age of 64, Begin saw his Likud party elected in 1977 and become the central party of government.
Begin’s greatest accomplishment was seen as the Camp David agreement with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt. Sinai in Begin’s eyes was never part of the historic land of Israel — it could be traded for peace with Israel’s strongest Arab neighbour. On the other hand, the West Bank — Judea and Samaria — with towns such as Hebron and Jericho which resonated with history, could never be given up. Although Begin often spoke in quasi-religious language, the land of Israel for him never extended beyond the borders of the British Mandate.
Yet the Camp David agreement fragmented this grand coalition that he had constructed.
Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizmann left disillusioned because of the Palestinian question, while the far Right departed because Begin had returned territory to the Arab foe. The divisive war in Lebanon and the death of his wife in 1982 contributed to his descent into the depths of depression and eventual decision to step down.
Even his political enemies saw the often abrasive Begin as incorruptible and ideologically principled — someone who lived frugally. The current incumbent of his office recently spent $127,000 of taxpayers’ money to construct a bed on an El Al flight to take him to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.
There is also a subtle ideological difference between Netanyahu and Begin. Netanyahu did not speak of the Jewish right to the land of Israel “in its entirety” as had Begin. During the Wye Plantation agreement in 1998, Netanyahu offered to give up 13 per cent of the West Bank. He also moved away from solely stressing ideological convictions towards an emphasis on security for Israel and reciprocity from the Palestinians.
Menachem Begin undoubtedly polarised Jewish opinion in this country. His odyssey, however, is both fascinating and remarkable. It is a tale which all students of contemporary Jewish history should acquaint themselves with without the accompanying blemishes of preconceived adulation or condemnation.