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Begin and the Jews

Menachem Begin’s outburst denouncing the United States on December 20 is best understood as a scene from a bad marriage. “Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic?” Begin asked when the US suspended the strategic cooperation agreement with Israel following Begin’s de facto annexation of the Golan Heights. The explosion was inevitable: each of the partners had entered into their strategic pact two weeks before with contradictory expectations.

Twenty-four hours after Begin’s speech, officials in both Jerusalem and Washington leaked the news that the Pentagon had opposed the pact, but that Secretary Haig had prevailed by convincing the president that a formal alliance would guarantee that the Israeli government would not again do anything to surprise the United States, as it had twice in recent months, when it attacked the atomic reactor in Baghdad and the PLO headquarters in Beirut. And of course the pact would reassure Israel after the AWACS sale.

True, the strategic agreement of December 6 did not say the two countries had to consult each other before taking military action—except in the case of Soviet threats. But American officials created the impression that they were about to get precisely the kind of veto power over Israeli actions that the Israelis, during the AWACS fight, had demanded the Americans exercise over the Saudis. Certainly they expected at least to be told before the Israelis announced the de facto annexation of the Golan Heights on December 14.

For Begin and Ariel Sharon, the new defense minister who had triumphantly returned home with the pact two weeks before, the “strategic alliance” had quite a different meaning. For years the advocates of a hard-line policy in Israel have held that when America finally recognized that Israel is of prime strategic necessity to the US, such questions as sovereignty over the Golan Heights and the whole of the West Bank would become minor issues. That is, they would be settled in such a way as not to upset the Israeli government—once that government was a full partner in the anti-Soviet strategy of the US.

Since Begin’s speech, stories have appeared attributing its ferocity to his bad health—he was in great pain for several weeks before December 20; to jockeying with General Sharon for attention in Israel; to complicated domestic power plays in advance of the return of the northern Sinai to Egypt. Perhaps all the stories have some truth in them, for Begin is a master of political maneuver and uses public anger to serve a variety of purposes. But his harangue on December 20 was not primarily the outburst of an angry, tired man. It was a preemptive strike to neutralize his opponents, foreign and domestic, and it was effective.

When he drafted the statement Menachem Begin had not only heard protests from the American government about the Golan annexation. He also—as I was told in Jerusalem—had sharp messages of displeasure from some of his most ardent supporters among American Jews. That was something new for Begin. And what was new in his statement was his implication that he had taken over as spokesman for the American Jewish community. He assured Ambassador Lewis that American Jewry would fearlessly support him and would not be frightened by any implied threats of anti-Semitism from the Reagan administration. For Begin, this was an artful choice of ground on which to deal with Jewish opponents, especially in the Diaspora. Begin tried to suggest that while virtually all American Jews actually shared his moral and political concerns, some were, to quote an accusation he had made earlier at meetings in New York, “summer soldiers,” fearful for their own position in the United States and lacking in Jewish courage and dignity. He implied that he could denounce the US with complete support, even if some Jews were not forthright enough to make such statements themselves.

Begin’s speech must thus be seen as a confrontation with world opinion, and within world Jewry, over the most basic issues. What kind of Israel is now being defined? Will it continue to be dominated by the kind of hawkish strategy that led to the annexation of the Golan? Are there even tougher Israeli leaders in the wings who, when challenged, will ultimately defeat Begin and Sharon in the game of King of the Hill? Does Begin’s tough-mindedness define the true meaning of Zionism and will American Jews follow him?

In the short run, Begin will prevail, both against the Reagan administration and within Israel and world Jewry. In view of the divisions within the Reagan administration, it is hard to imagine that the American government will successfully oppose an Israeli leader who knows exactly what he wants—i.e., a “greater Israel,” including all the territory Israel now controls, with the exception, at most, of the northern Sinai after the Egyptians take it over on April 25.

After Begin’s outburst, the senior officials in the State Department, led by Haig, moved to cool the tempers of the Israelis. Begin worried them but they feared even more General Sharon, who hinted a few days later that Israel might take military action on its northern border against the PLO and its Syrian patrons. The State Department wanted to find a way of passing over the incident of December 20 rather than widen the breach.

On the other hand, several of the senior advisers in the White House have anonymously been leaking word to the press that they are very angry with the Israelis and would like to punish them. Some of these White House staff members, and others in the Reagan administration, are sensitive to the views of those sectors of American business that have for years been engaged in large deals with the Arab states, and especially the Saudis, for construction, industrial development, and arms sales. Their views were made evident in the controversy over the AWACS sale and in the promotion, by Reagan himself, of the Saudi Eight-Point peace plan, with its “now you see it, now you don’t” recognition of Israel. Begin’s open confrontation with the Reagan administration, by increasing the threat of war on Israel’s northern border, deterred those in the White House who would like to put an end to the “special relationship” with Israel. They dared not act right away, for Israel would then have had ample reason to throw off any remaining restraint.

So the State Department policy of patiently trying for an accommodation with Begin and Sharon has prevailed. If there is no preoccupying international crisis elsewhere, Secretary Haig can be expected to undertake shuttle diplomacy in February to infuse some life into the bogged-down discussions over Palestinian autonomy. These discussions are not likely to lead to an election on the West Bank before April 25. They will only serve for the time as a counterweight to Begin’s action on the Golan. The Americans will at least appear to be reasserting to the Arab world that their commitment to autonomy for the West Bank is unaltered and unalterable.

The outlook for mid-1982 is darker. The Begin government has defined autonomy as “personal”; that is, the Arabs of the West Bank will be offered the right to deal with their local affairs, but they will have to retain Jordanian citizenship. Begin will not allow autonomy to apply to the territory of the West Bank, which will remain under Israeli rule. It does not matter to Begin that this interpretation of the Camp David agreement was repeatedly denied by Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, who were the major negotiators; nor does he seem troubled that it has never been accepted by the Labor opposition in Israel or by Egypt or the United States. One cannot imagine the Begin government budging from its stand, for it is a fundamental principle of Begin’s Zionism that the land west of the Jordan is indivisibly and inalienably part of Israel.

The kind of pressure from the United States that it would take to change this position would be opposed even by most of Begin’s dovish opponents at home and abroad. An open threat to deprive Begin’s government of US support would, in their view, endanger the national morale and the very life of Israel. An Israel that could be delivered to a peace negotiation by such a US threat would be a weak vassal state indeed. The situation on the West Bank is therefore likely to continue to drag on. Of all the players in the game, Begin is the one who is most likely to succeed in the immediate future, for he is increasingly making the cost of breaking his resolve too high for even his critics to bear.

What is more, Begin’s attack on the American government was popular at home. Arriving in Israel just two hours after his statement was made public, I heard the same reaction again and again from the people I saw on my way to the hotel. “Hu gever: He is a man!” Among intellectuals, opinion was much more divided. Everyone agreed that Begin’s manners were deplorable, but most added that the Golan was vital to the defense of the Galilee. All were much concerned about the American reaction and about the possible loss of support for Israel in world public opinion.

By Tuesday, Begin was threatening to call a snap election, certain that he could win a clear majority. He would thus both end his dependence on his coalition partners and further weaken the opposition. This threat acted to keep everyone in line. The Labor Party opposition is not only weak and divided but unable to arrive at a clear policy toward the occupied territories. My academic friends seemed deeply troubled, estranged. They were still partisans of the Zionist revolution, a revolution based on a moral passion for a better Jewish people; but they were more removed from mass opinion than ever.

At the Knesset, whether I talked to members of the opposition or of the government, there was not the slightest doubt that Begin had the votes he needed—not only to back his stand against the United States and for de facto annexation but to pursue his vision of a “greater Israel” in the future. The imponderable was the American Jewish community. Begin had done his best to neutralize any possible criticism from American Jews, but my friends in the Knesset were not persuaded that he had succeeded. They knew that Begin’s Israel was near to passing the point of no return, to becoming a different country from the one its founders had intended. Would American Jewry support this different Israel?

The answer to this question is becoming clear: it is increasingly negative, but in a very complicated way. It seems evident that a majority of organized American Jews is opposed to Begin and the number is growing; but this opposition tends to be more silent than ever.

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