Almost sixteen years ago, in the summer of 1977, I brought Menachem Begin, who had just been elected prime minister of Israel, an informal message from a friend in Jimmy Carter’s White House. The Americans, the message went, wanted Israel to feel secure from attack, but they could not possibly accept Likud’s ideological claim to the undivided land of Israel. If the new prime minister held to this claim, there could only be trouble between Washington and Jerusalem.
When I delivered this message Begin became somewhat agitated. Of course, he insisted, Israel’s security was his central concern, but he had to carry out the program of the Likud. He added that he was going to give the Jews of the Diaspora a better Zionist education than they had received from the Labor governments that had preceded his own. He would make them understand, and help make the American government understand, that Jews had the right to all the land west of the Jordan River, notwithstanding the Arabs who were living in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza district.
I believed that Begin meant what he said, but most of the leaders of the American Jewish organizations preferred to think that he and his Likud Party were simply hard bargainers who would lower the price when a deal had to be made. Many American Jews remember an uncle who sold goods from a pushcart, shouting high prices while ready to bargain down to get more than his customers would otherwise have paid. Begin and his successor, Yitzhak Shamir, looked and spoke as if they were part of the generation of Jewish immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side, who knew when to be tough in business, but also when to be pliant. But I had read Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Likud’s founder, and I had known Begin from his years in opposition. I had no doubt that he and Shamir were not to be confused with my uncle on the Lower East Side. They were ideologues, uncompromising believers in Jewish nationalism. When they said, as they repeatedly did, that not one inch of the land they claimed to have inherited from their Biblical ancestors could be given away, they were not speaking from a bargaining position; it was a principle at least as sacred to them as the Ten Commandments.
For the last fifteen years, policy makers in the US and, even more, the members of the American Jewish community, have clung to the hope that the Likud would ultimately turn out to be “reasonable.” This illusion was easy to maintain so long as the Palestinians refused to enter any negotiations unless they were, at the very least, promised a Palestinian state. But when the Palestinians said they were willing to talk about autonomy, and no longer insisted on a firm public promise of independence, that illusion ended.
It soon became clear to the American government that the Likud did not really want to talk about the peace …