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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.