During the six years when Menachem Begin was prime minister, his world view and style seemed so divergent from those of his Israeli opponents and of the prevailing political culture in the West that he was perceived as an aberration. Begin’s mentality was shaped by Central Europe between two great wars. He was haunted by the nightmare of the Holocaust, was convinced of the power of grand gestures and the boldly spoken word. The mystical lawyer and populist orator was such a departure from the socialist, humanist, and pragmatic leadership of the opposing Israeli political culture that many Israelis and American Jews have wished to dismiss his regime as a mere episode in Israel’s history.
But the liberals who opposed him while he was prime minister may find it even more difficult now to fight his legacy. What his political rivals and outsiders have failed to realize is that Begin’s extremist ideology, his vision of a greater Israel, have turned into a solid structure in which second generation Israelis from both political camps have found shelter.
This vision, permeated with the conviction of the moral superiority of the Jewish national claim and a deep mistrust of the gentile world, has finally gained legitimacy. Begin has triumphed, not because of the acuity of his perceptions or his historic vision but because his political opponents became enmeshed in their own irreconcilable contradictions; their behavior as elites estranged them from the Sephardi masses who became drawn to Begin.
One can only understand the Begin era by viewing it in the setting of Zionist history. In the early part of the century, the vociferous disputes over the goals of Zionism created rivalries and even enmities among the Zionist factions, but these masked an agreement in principle on national objectives: the establishment of an independent national entity based on a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel. All the Zionist groups joined together to create concrete political, military, social, and economic realities that led to the establishment of the state of Israel and the consolidation of its strength. The subjective hopes and ideological proclivities of many Zionists were in contradiction to what actually took place, but their views were submerged. The constraints with which Zionism had to contend, the reaction of its enemies, domestic and external political coalitions, global politics—all of those led to the realization of the maximum aims of Zionism.
This result was not predetermined. At every stage in the progress of Zionism there were clear choices; but they were either passed up or remained “theoretical”—principally because of the enemies of the Zionist enterprise. The position of the Palestinians forced the Zionists to try to achieve their maximum goals—and this position was, from the Palestinians’ point of view, unavoidable. They refused to compromise with Zionism because they saw it as an unjust intrusion. Their uncompromising approach, and their view of the conflict as a game only one side could win, obliged even those Zionist groups that hoped for a compromise to adopt a practical policy of military confrontation.
“Defense activism” existed alongside the sincere aspiration for brotherhood between the nations and a socialist-humanist ideology. The prolongation of the struggle exacerbated the elements of Zionist ideology that emphasized power at the expense of those that emphasized humanitarian concerns. As military force grew, it was increasingly seen as the only solution to the problem. Thus many Israelis became the mirror image of the Palestinians. Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, and Raphael Eitan are the legitimate sons of the pioneers of the Israel Labor movement no less than the members of Peace Now. Many of the disciples of Ben-Gurion’s “activism” find themselves following the same path as the disciples of Menachem Begin, who has always viewed the conflict as one that could not be subject to compromise.
Begin was always immersed in his own inner world of abstract concepts and mystical beliefs. He had no need to keep in touch with ordinary reality, to test his theories or ponder their consequences. His aides and subordinates carried out his grand designs. He allowed them a free hand as long as their actions seemed to him in conformity with his philosophy.
He could allow himself to go along with the Camp David Accords only because the prospect of peace with Egypt agreed with his single-minded struggle for a Greater Israel. During his term in office he went only once to visit his beloved Gush Emunim settlers on the West Bank; he met West Bank Palestinians only once, at their request; he traded the whole of Sinai—including the Yamit settlement—for a free hand on the West Bank, in order to establish the sanctity of the borders of Mandatory Palestine. He never visited the Yamit settlers before their evacuation; he visited the troops in Lebanon only once, briefly, and on the third day of the war. Time and again his detachment from reality was exposed when his lieutenants took his aggressive attitudes literally, dragging him into rash actions.
Begin’s last grand design, the Lebanon War, followed this pattern. He allowed Ariel Sharon to wage “Operation Peace” in Galilee because he perceived the invasion as a war for the land of Greater Israel. The true objective of the war was not the destruction of the military potential of the PLO in southern Lebanon or the establishment of a Christian regime in Beirut; it was the destruction of the powerful political and intellectual center of Palestinian nationalism that had developed over the years in Beirut. Menachem Begin believed that by destroying the quasi-sovereign Palestinians in Lebanon, he would achieve ultimate victory over Palestinian nationalism, the one force that might prevent the consolidation of Greater Israel.
The disastrous consequences of his last grand design were so obvious and immediate that reality penetrated even Begin’s well-guarded world. Five hundred Israeli soldiers died for the sake of imperial aspirations, while in Lebanon itself, Syria is now more powerful than before. Begin could no longer bear the tenuous role of being at the same time a prophet and a priest, a mystic and a statesman. After long and agonizing months of brooding, exacerbated by a painful personal loss, he finally announced he would withdraw.
The departure of Menachem Begin marks the transfer of power to the second and third generation of Israeli leaders who now face the task of molding their nation’s destiny to their own image. Among those Israelis who considered Menachem Begin an aberration and his era an episode one now finds pervasive hopes that the end of the Begin era also marks the end of Zionist extremism and that Begin’s political culture will be replaced by a more pragmatic and conciliatory approach, in which realistic compromise will be possible.
However, we can doubt that a man imbued with so deep a sense of historic mission would have left office without feeling that his life’s goal, the control of the entire area of Palestine or Greater Israel, had been attained. There are strong indications that this conclusion is indeed correct; that we can now say with some assurance that we have begun a new chapter in the history of Palestine. In the 101st year since the beginning of the Zionist enterprise, in the thirty-sixth year since the establishment of the state of Israel, the Zionist movement has achieved its maximum territorial goal: control over the entire area of Mandatory Palestine.
Less dramatically, we might define the situation in the following fashion: the political, military, socioeconomic, and psychological processes now working toward the total annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip outweigh those that work against it. The gap between the contending forces will ultimately permit the complete integration of the occupied territories. Looked at statistically, those processes do not yet appear to have reached the point of no return. However, when we consider the dynamics of all the forces as well as the time element, we can see that the critical point has passed.
The 1948 war gave birth to the state of Israel; however, the continuing war of liberation, in the sense of establishing borders reflecting national aspirations, has only now been concluded. That perception is not limited to the hyper-nationalist groups advocating “Greater Israel.” It is shared by more moderate elements within the Israeli body politic. For a short period after the end of the war in 1967 Israeli leaders were in doubt about what to do with the territories and even offered to withdraw from them in return for peace. However, very quickly a new conception took over, which interpreted the Six Day War as a direct extension of the war of liberation, taking care of “unfinished business.” The Israeli national consensus, explicitly or implicitly, views the nineteen years during which Palestine was divided as a stage in the realization of national aspirations; what has been called “creeping annexation” can be seen as an extension of pre-state Zionist activity.
The significance of that ultimate achievement of Zionist aspirations is more than territorial. It means that the Palestinian problem has now been internalized. It means that henceforth the major responsibility for the fate of the Palestinians falls upon Israel. One may, of course, cling to the accepted view that the Palestinian problem is an external matter to be dealt with by the “Arab states,” an approach which might have been suitable with regard to the refugees of 1948 and the small Israeli-Arab minority. Now, however, more than 2 million Arabs live under Israeli rule—half of all the people who identify themselves as members of the Palestinian nation—and they cannot be ignored. If in fact the territorial goals of Zionism have been achieved, then the Palestinians have become a permanent minority, 38 percent of the population of the territorial entity ruled by Israel. In other words, what political scientists call a dual society, or in (inappropriate) political jargon, a “binational state,” is no longer a vision of the future, but an actuality.
These far-reaching conclusions are based upon an examination of the three principal circles of influence affecting the process: the Israelis, the Americans, and the Arabs and Palestinians.
For many outsiders the term “settlement” conjures an image of huts strewn on a wind-swept barren hill with a group of bearded religious zealots gathered around an Israeli flag. However, the settlement phase initiated by ideologically motivated groups mobilized by Gush Emunim is now over. The typical settler of the 1980s is a figure well known throughout the Western world: the suburbanite. The man who wants to escape his cramped apartment in the stifling, polluted center city, and to make his dreams of a home of his own with a bit of lawn come true, is not guided by nationalistic ideology. In his social and economic characteristics, he is similar to the average Labor voter. The main demand of these settlers is not to be more than a half-hour’s drive from their places of work and entertainment centers.