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 …

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Letters

Begin and the Jews: An Exchange April 29, 1982