Thursday, March 08, 2007

Breaking Begin

Peace Now was created to give the impression
that Israel's first non-Labor prime minister
didn't have the nation behind him


This Friday marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Menachem Begin. He died of a broken heart on March 9, 1992, vilified as a warmonger by the Left and cast off by right-wing purists after he traded the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. The purists also berated Begin for his 1978 Camp David offer of five years of limited self-government to the Palestinian Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, to be followed by final-status negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team - a proposal the Arabs rejected.

Begin would have been my hero even if he had never become prime minister, never ordered the destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor, in June 1981, and never negotiated Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab neighbor.

I admired him for commanding the Irgun during the revolt against the British; and for navigating a course midway between the moderation of the Hagana and the militancy of the Stern group. Perhaps most of all, I respected his reaction to David Ben-Gurion's unforgivable order that the Hagana attack the Irgun arms-ship Altalena: Begin prevented the tragedy from deteriorating into a Jewish civil war.

After 1948, with the system stacked against him, Begin became leader of the loyal opposition. A principled ideologue and fiery orator, he campaigned forcefully in 1952 against Israeli acceptance of financial reparations from Germany - and lost. He had every reason to challenge the legitimacy of a political system in which the allocation of virtually all resources was monopolized by Mapai, but he didn't.

Granted, Begin was no saint. He didn't encourage opposition to his leadership inside Herut. But he was an honest politician, lived modestly and preserved the philosophy of Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

MOST OF THE world had never heard of Menachem Begin until May 1977, when he was elected as Israel's first non-Labor premier. But from that day until he resigned in September 1983, his spirit broken by IDF losses in the war in Lebanon and the 1982 death of his wife and life-long companion Aliza - and ultimately, I would argue, by an unparalleled five-year campaign spearheaded by Peace Now and its allies abroad to force his government to embrace dangerously accommodationist policies toward the Arabs - Begin wasn't given a moment's respite.

Never before had an Israeli premier been so beleaguered, so vilified, so undermined by an alliance of left-wing domestic opponents, the Jewish Diaspora establishment, an implacable White House led by Jimmy Carter and a spiteful international media.

His foes found him "too Jewish," and his idea of trading "peace for peace" a non-starter. Thomas L. Friedman, who reported for The New York Times, first from Beirut and then from Jerusalem during the Begin years, later thus encapsulated the left-wing attitude toward Begin: "What made Begin… dangerous was that his fantasies about power were combined with a self-perception of being a victim… Begin always reminded me of Bernhard Goetz, the white Manhattanite who shot four black youths he thought were about to mug him on the New York subway… [Begin] was Bernhard Goetz with an F-15."

Even mortal threats to Israel had to be belittled because the Left was determined that Israel withdraw from Judea, Samaria and Gaza, captured 10 years earlier in the Six Day War. Failure to do so, leftists convinced themselves, would obliterate the possibility of a rapprochement with the Arabs. No matter how blood-curdling Arab deeds were, the Left discerned intimations of Palestinian moderation which needed to be encouraged by substantive Israeli concessions.

For Begin, this was anathema. First off, he believed Jewish claims to the West Bank and Gaza were rock-solid - far superior to those of Palestinian Arab nationalists. To a media that wouldn't give him the time of day he sought to make the legal, historical and strategic case for calling the territories Jewish. And, anyway, he didn't think sacrificing the West Bank and Gaza would bring peace; he was convinced that the Arabs had not accepted the idea of a sovereign Jewish state anywhere in the land.

WHAT REALLY unified and outraged his opponents - at home and abroad - was Begin's heart-felt embrace of the settlement enterprise. By the time he took office, some 24 communities had been established under Labor governments, according to Lords of the Land by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar (though Gershom Gorenberg, in The Accidental Empire, claims there were nearly 80). Whatever the specifics, the first settlements included Kfar Etzion, Alon Shvut, Ma'aleh Adumim, Kiryat Arba, Elazar and Ofra. In fact, the first yishuv to be re-established after the Six Day War was in Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem, in September 1967.

For strategic reasons, as well as to solidify Israel's claim to the capital, Labor governments were eager to build in and around metropolitan Jerusalem and over the Green Line. But Labor only reluctantly allowed Gush Emunim's Orthodox settlers, who were inspired by a combination of theology, messianic zeal and nationalism, to build "non-strategic" settlements.

On May 19, 1977, just after his election, Begin (accompanied by Ariel Sharon) drove to Elon Moreh (Kaddum) outside Nablus. Here is the scene as described by Gorenberg:

"Begin, with a ring of thin black hair and heavy glasses that magnified his eyes, looked exhausted. His two bodyguards could not hold off the crowd. People kissed him, embraced him. Yeshiva students danced around him. After a brief tour, he stood in the square between the mobile homes and took the velvet-covered scroll in one arm, putting the other around Ariel Sharon's shoulder. Four men took the corners of [the] prayer shawl and held it over his head; a band prepared to play.

"Before the ceremony, Begin made a statement to the crowd. 'Soon,' he said, 'there will be many more Elon Morehs.'"

Begin was not going to "tolerate" settlements; he was going to make building them government policy. And this the US administration could not tolerate because it went against bedrock US policy: Israel would trade land for peace, and if there was no West Bank to trade - somewhere down the line when the Arabs would presumably be willing to take it - there would be no possibility of peace.

Nor would the Israeli Left tolerate settling the biblical Jewish heartland. It had a very different vision of Israel - a Western-oriented consumer society on the Mediterranean; the fewer Arabs, the better; the less traditional, the more cosmopolitan, the better.

For the Left it was inconceivable - simply beyond belief - that the Arab-Israel struggle would go on ad infinitum. As humanists, they couldn't abide the notion of an Israel ruling over hostile Arabs or settling land claimed by them. And, anyway, how were all these settlements going to be paid for, and at whose expense?

WHAT FOLLOWED was a scenario of political manipulation aimed at forcing Begin to change his policies or, better yet, returning the government to Labor. It was to be a multi-pronged effort: The White House would signal that the US-Israel relationship was jeopardized by Begin's election. The American Jewish leadership would radically "disassociate" its support for Israel from Begin's West Bank policies. And inside Israel, a campaign of street demonstrations and newspaper ads would create the impression that Begin's ideas were outside the mainstream.

The foreign press portrayed Begin as a former terrorist. Time magazine helpfully instructed its readers to pronounce Begin's name by rhyming it with the Dickens character Fagin. Newsweek labeled Begin a zealot and a fundamentalist.

Carter's White House immediately issued a "Notice to the Press" to set the "historical record" straight. Based on what we now know about Carter, his initial response to Begin's election is telling. You have to remember that in 1977 the Palestinian leadership wasn't even pretending to compromise. The possibility of cutting a West Bank deal with Jordan was still out there. No one was pushing a Palestinian state, and only the Arabs and the extreme Left embraced the "right of return."

But the White House engaged in a psychological campaign against Begin. If he had the hutzpa to claim that the West Bank was disputed, the White House would remind the world that Israel itself was disputed. And so it recalled: "UN General Assembly Resolution 181… [which] provided for the recognition of a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine, and UN GA Resolution 194… [which] endorsed the [Palestinian Arab] right to return to their homes or choose compensation for lost property…"

I'll leave a fuller description of the appalling treatment Begin received at the hands of Carter, the prestige media, and much of the American Jewish leadership for another time. Suffice it to say that the president routinely pressured US Jewish leaders (who anyway were hankering for the good old Labor days) to lobby Begin to change his West Bank policies. The insinuation was that if all they did was echo the Likud platform, the community might be open to regrettable charges of dual loyalty.

IT TOOK about two months, but in July 1977 the shock of Begin's victory galvanized a group of IDF reservists, many of whose leaders happened to be associated with Jerusalem's Van Leer Foundation, to issue an open letter to the new prime minister calling on him to pull Israel back to - what amounted to - the 1949 Armistice Lines.

No thanks to Jimmy Carter, just six months after Begin came to power, in November 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat accepted Begin's invitation to address the Knesset.

Peace Now took the Sadat visit as a call to arms. By January 1978, the group was pressing Begin for a more conciliatory Israeli negotiating approach.

On March 11, 1978, Fatah terrorists infiltrating by sea from Lebanon carried out what became known as the coastal road massacre. They murdered 35 Israelis and wounded another 100. Begin ordered Operation Litani to go after PLO strongholds in Fatah-controlled southern Lebanon.

None of this weakened Peace Now's resolve. By April 1, 1978, it was able to muster a rally of some 20,000 supporters in Tel Aviv. From then on, demonstrations - outside his office, home, and along the highway to the airport - would be coordinated every time Begin went to Washington to see Carter.

Peace Now took an increasingly confrontational approach to the settlement enterprise. Activists blocked roads to communities; one group marched on the Jewish enclave in Hebron. Yuval Neriya, one of Peace Now's founders, explained: "Our idea was to show the prime minister that he did not have the nation behind him when he refused to negotiate [with Sadat and Carter] over Judea and Samaria to get peace."

Tzali Reshef, another movement founder, reiterated that Peace Now opposed retention of the West Bank and Gaza; opposed the confiscation of West Bank land (whether private or not); and opposed "on moral grounds"… "colonization [which] would lead to apartheid."

Israel's resources, Reshef argued, should be invested inside the Green Line, not on settlements.

Meanwhile, in the Diaspora, in April 1978, Peace Now had captured the imagination of 37 famous American Jews, who signed a letter supporting the Israeli activists. They wanted the world to know that they too opposed a Jewish presence in the West Bank and Gaza, and urged Begin to show greater "flexibility" in negotiating with Sadat. The New York Times was instrumental in playing up the letter, putting the story on page one.

Signatories included the No. 2 man in the Reform movement, Albert Vorspan (No. 1 was Rabbi Alexander Schindler, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations); political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset; Ira Silverman of the American Jewish Committee; Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize laureate; literary editor Leon Wieseltier; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a former chair of the Presidents Conference; and professor Leonard Fein of Brandeis.

A LENGTHY and difficult negotiating process - complicated by Palestinian intransigence - between Cairo, Jerusalem and Washington finally culminated in the March 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

The signing of the treaty took some of the steam out of Peace Now, though it did manage a few big rallies. Behind the scenes, however, it was very much in operation. For instance, by 1981 activists Yuli Tamir and David Zucker broke new ground by meeting with Yasser Arafat's liaison to the Israeli peace camp, Issam Sartawi, in Austria.

But Peace Now didn't really take off again - and become the powerhouse it is today, openly funded by a host of foundations and foreign governments - until the outbreak of the June 1982 Lebanon War.

Operation Peace for Galilee, as that war was first called, was not a war of necessity, whatever its arguable merits. Janet Aviad, who had been a Peace Now leader, told me:

"There was an atmosphere in Israel that one does not dissent, especially during a war. We had to break those taboos, and it was our responsibility to do it. It was a very hard decision. Peace Now didn't go out during the first days of the war. It took three weeks to get people to realize that there was no choice."

The Left thus broke the taboo against holding anti-government rallies during wartime.

The media embraced the Peace Now complaint against Begin full-throttle. Leading the pack was The New York Times, which reported growing "dissent" within the US Jewish community. Meanwhile, its magazine fomented the "dissent" with, for instance, a cover story by Amos Oz entitled "Has Israel Altered its Vision?"

Nevertheless, the government managed to hold firm against extraordinary pressures until it expelled Arafat from Lebanon in September 1982.

AND THEN all hell broke loose. Israel's ally, the Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated on September 14, 1982, in a massive explosion at his Beirut headquarters. In bloody retribution, on September 16-17, his Christian Arab militia massacred many hundreds of Palestinian Arabs in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla.

No Israeli soldiers were involved, nor were any even aware of what was going on. Peace Now, however, argued that the slaughter could not have happened absent IDF "sponsorship" - after all, Israel was in military control of the area.

Of course, this begged the question of why Israeli "military control" hadn't saved Gemayel from assassination in the first place.

But it was Peace Now's big moment. It organized a gigantic Saturday-night rally on September 25, 1982, in Tel Aviv, which drew over 250,000 anguished Israelis. Begin's Lebanon policies were in shambles.

Peace Now harassed Begin without letup. Protesters stood outside his windows with signs calling him a killer; others hoisted the tally of IDF soldiers killed in action. Then, on February 11, 1983, as Peace Now was holding yet another march through a hostile Jerusalem heading for the government compound near the Knesset, where Begin's dispirited cabinet was meeting to agonize over the Kahan Commission report, tragedy struck again.

As the rally was breaking up, a troubled man, a right-winger named Yona Avrushmi, lobbed a grenade; it killed 33-year-old Emil Grunzweig, a Van Leer Foundation staffer.

In denouncing the killing, Begin was grief-stricken: "God forbid that we should go the way of heinous violence," he mourned. "God forbid."Begin would hold on just seven months longer.

LOOKING BACK all these years later, neither Begin nor Peace Now got the Israel they wanted. In the very year Emil Grunzweig was killed, and despite all of Peace Now's marches, all the newspaper ads and all the foreign support, construction began on the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev - over the Green Line. Renovation of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City was also completed.

Peace Now was never able to mainstream its contention that Israelis could live securely within the - more or less - 1949 armistice lines, or that the Palestinians had genuinely accepted the idea of Jewish sovereignty within a truncated Israel.

Begin, for his part, was never able to sell Israelis - especially the non-Orthodox majority - on the idea that the settlement enterprise was a practical answer to Israel's West Bank dilemma.

We'll never know how things would have played out had Begin's strategy of marginalizing the PLO's intransigent external leadership not been undermined.

What if Begin's idea for genuine Palestinian autonomy, tantamount to nation-building, had been widely embraced by Israel's Left and the international community? What if autonomy had been nurtured by the resources the US and EU subsequently channeled into the Palestinian Authority? Wouldn't West Bankers and Gazans have been better off? With a political infrastructure and a history of competent self-government, wouldn't Palestinian demands for statehood today be more viable?

Begin was never given a chance, so we'll never know.

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