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.

Three groups among American Jews continue in varying ways to support. Begin’s tough-mindedness. The Jewish organizations have not been unanimous, even in public, in applauding Begin’s recent actions, but they have found a principle on which to base Jewish unity, the defense of Israel against the Reagan White House. During the AWACS fight, Reagan criticized Israel, and by implication American Jews, for excessive meddling in American politics. That still rankles. In Begin’s show of anger on December 20, he referred to the Spanish Inquisition, a code word for persecution of Jews in general and the Holocaust in particular. Anti-anti-Semitism and resentment at the memory of powerlessness are very nearly the lowest common denominators of organized Jewish life in America. Witness the proliferation in recent years of academic and other centers to study the Holocaust. When the organized community feels it is being assaulted, it can rally and disregard its divisions over the substance of the argument being made against it—and against Israel.

Meanwhile, the small number of oldline Jewish Republicans who campaigned hard for Reagan’s election have angrily moved away from him. So have the even more vocal Jewish neoconservatives whose views are often reflected in Commentary. During the fall of 1980 it was hardly a secret that many of these supporters of Reagan were also among Begin’s major supporters in America. The long-standing Republicans in the Jewish community, however, lined up against Reagan in the fight over the AWACS. The neoconservatives were becoming disenchanted earlier, when Reagan, under pressure from the agricultural lobby, agreed to sell grain to the Soviets, thus bringing into question the hardness of his anticommunism. And Reagan continued, in their view, to bow to big-business interests and to prefer commerce with the Saudis over a policy that would promote Israel as the principal anticommunist bastion in the Middle East.

The distance between the neoconservatives and the Reagan administration has been widened by the Polish crisis, for the neoconservatives think much harsher action could and should have been taken against the Soviet Union to support Solidarity. Begin therefore remains for the neoconservatives the only purist politician of their kind left on the scene, and he is being supported against the White House policy makers, who for all their anti-communism have turned out to be compromising big-business Republicans when major American economic interests are in question.

Most of the American Jewish community, as various recent soundings have shown, is now opposed to Reagan. At the same time, Jewish leaders I have talked to are convinced that a majority of American Jews are also upset by Begin—a view more widely shared and expressed the further one moves from the offices of national organizations in New York. But many leading Jews with liberal and moderate views are reluctant to criticize Begin at a time when the White House seems capable of being rough not only on Israel but on its supporters in the US as well.

Fundamentally, Begin has been attempting to enforce within world Jewry the revisionist Zionism to which he is the heir. The great mission of a Jewish state for him—as for Revisionism’s founder, Vladimir Jabotinsky—is to bring the Jews into the world of real power, thus denying the Gentiles the historic pleasures of mistreating them. It is this definition of the Zionist state that American Jewry is not buying, however muted their dissent from it.

The American Jewish community as a whole was persuaded to support Zionism after 1945 by the vision of a Jewish state that would redeem the victims of Hitler and build a benign society that could be “a light unto the nations.” That this new state had to survive Arab attacks before it was created and that the Arab world refused to accept it made defensive military strength a necessity, and even a source of some pride, but the basic commitment to Israel remained, and remains, a commitment to the liberal dreams of Weizmann and Ben-Gurion. In their last days, Weizmann in his Research Institute at Rehovoth and Ben-Gurion in a kibbutz in the Negev tried to suggest to the next generation that it hold fast to the earlier dream of Israel as a place of scientific and social pioneering. In their declining years, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion both thought that the looming danger to Israel was its increasing embourgeoisement, the rise of a new class which would soon become addicted to privilege. Neither of them expected that the countervision of an Israel that is respected above all for its military and strategic power would actually be installed in office and reflect the mood of a new majority.

When the King David Hotel was blown up by the Irgun in 1946 the Zionist leaders presented it not as a great act in the cause of liberation, but as the deed of a small faction—led by Begin—which stood against the main principles of Zionism. The notion that it was the destiny of a “Jewish liberation movement” to regain the Biblical borders of Israel and to assert its might in the world, thus recapturing Judaism’s ancient dignity, was not the basis of the United Jewish Appeal, which asked American Jews to contribute to draining swamps and making the desert bloom, or of the Jewish lobby in Washington, which has traditionally argued that Israel is a moral cause, consonant with America’s highest ideals—helping people to rebuild their lives and creative communities to flourish. The American Jewish community was led to Zionism primarily through the progressivism of Louis Brandeis and Henrietta Szold.

The countertradition, for which Begin now speaks, follows the confrontationist definition of Zionism. It claims that it will improve the position of Jews in the political world because it would base relationships on the facts of power rather than on vague humanitarian emotions. In its earliest versions, as far back as the writings of Theodor Herzl, this hardheaded school of Zionism has insisted, with far greater vehemence than most other Zionists, that it was confronting every individual Jew with a fateful choice: either come to the Jewish state and be part of the nation, or leave the Jewish community. In some later versions of this demand, the leaders in the Jewish state are charged not merely with creating conditions in Israel to receive many more Jews but also with managing Israel’s policy so that the choice to settle in Israel would become more likely throughout the Diaspora. So, for example, after years of debate, Israeli leaders have finally persuaded the international Jewish relief organizations to limit severely the help extended to those Russian Jewish émigrés who do not choose to go to Israel.

Confrontation in the name of Zion—with the non-Jewish world and within Jewry—thus becomes not only just but a historic necessity because it is part of the process of restructuring the Jewish people. Enough, says this school of thought, of this strange anomaly, a scattered people which has reconstituted part of itself in the land of its ancestors, maintaining a peculiar combination of particularist feelings and universalist ideals, and which is thus always inhibited by tensions and anxieties.

Last summer in Israel, this clash of ideals was being discussed night after night by audiences that went to see a play staged dramatically in a subterranean stone chamber near the Jaffa Gate to the Old City. Words taken largely from Josephus, with a bit of Talmud added, were used to reconstruct a debate over the destruction of the Second Temple between AD 67 and 70 at the time of the Roman War. Who was to blame? The antagonists were the Zealots who kept insisting that Jewish dignity demanded Jewish armed revolt against the Romans, for Jewish power would somehow prevail, and Jochanan Ben Zakkai, the leading rabbi, who counseled political prudence and insisted that the cost of war with the Romans would be strife among the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem. The American Jewish visitors in the audience were clearly against the Zealots; the ushers and some of the Israelis seemed to be rooting for them.

Traveling in the two countries, I have been struck by a converging sense of fear on the part of the more cosmopolitan minority of Jews in Israel and what clearly seems the majority of American Jewry. Such people fear for Begin’s Israel. The lesser part of their concern is that Israel’s great friend, America, may tire of its alliance. The far greater dangers, for them, are that Begin and Sharon may really get what they seem to want, that Israel will become America’s only ally in the Middle East, that its current borders will be the place where the boundary is firmly drawn against Soviet power and influence, that Israel will become a co-guarantor of America’s interest in the Persian Gulf.

Anyone who loves Israel should fear for its very life if this were to come about. Contrary to the grand strategists in Jerusalem, an untidy region, increasingly neutralized—in which some progress was made toward separating the West Bank from Israel—would be a far safer place for Israel itself. The seemingly valorous image of Israel and America marching hand in hand to-hold the line in the Middle East against tens of millions of enemies, both Arab and Soviet, risks becoming a modern version of Zealotry and promises similarly disastrous results.

During the last five years, there has been a perceptible weakening of support within the world Jewish community for Begin’s Israel. In the United States, of the funds raised by major Jewish appeals the proportion going to Israel has fallen from about 60 percent to less than 50. Polls have consistently shown that most American Jews do not support the policy of continuing occupation of the West Bank. The facts are there for all to see: American Jews try to support the present government as best they can, fearing that Israel as a whole might be damaged; but they keep demonstrating privately and sometimes publicly that they wish this Israeli government were not in power.

My own fear is not that Begin will fail but that he will succeed. Since December 20 his foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir, has made it clear again that Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank is not negotiable, and that only personal autonomy for its Arabs can be considered. No matter what else happens in the autonomy negotiations, Begin’s government will insist on having control over land and water on the West Bank—and land and water are the central issues.

In a few years, therefore, Israel will consist, internally, of three main groups. First, a strong electoral majority for the Likud, made up largely of Jews of North African origin; second, a minority, consisting of most of the Jews of European origin, increasingly fragmented across a wide spectrum of political and social beliefs; and third, a growing minority of Arabs who will be increasingly sullen and perhaps mutinous, and who will have the support, however hedged, of every Arab state.

If the Begin government succeeds, and Israel becomes America’s principal strategic ally in a turbulent region, it will have to be accommodated in any changes of American strategy, or in some possible global deal with the Russians, while ruling over more than a million Palestinians. Begin’s brilliance as a politician is that he has made it difficult for the United States or for the opposition in Israel to stop his progress toward such a prospect, which cheers him while it frightens the majority of American Jews.

Whatever may happen in the immediate future, the Jews of the world can no longer choose to be silent. The Israelis who see themselves as the architects of Israel’s grand strategic power are risking its existence. The Israelis who are bringing about confrontation between Jews and Gentiles, and between Jews and Jews, are risking its soul.


Begin and the Jews: An Exchange April 29, 1982