by Moshe Fuksman-Sha'al
Thursday is the 21st anniversary of Menachem Begin's death. He was the sixth prime minister of Israel, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a commander of the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in Mandate Palestine between 1931 and 1948 and was later absorbed into the Israel Defense Forces. This summer, we will commemorate 30 years since Begin retired from the prime minister's post and withdrew from the public eye.
Begin had a decisive influence on Israeli society and history. In one of his final cabinet meetings, Begin said he hoped to be remembered after his death as a leader who prevented civil war.
"This is more important to me than my command of the underground [Irgun], my premiership in the government, the peace treaty or the Golan Heights law," he said.
Indeed Begin is remembered today for this, as well as other, actions. The Likud party he founded more than 60 years ago, as a party combining nationalist and liberalist ideals, is still struggling with the contrasts of its identity. The peace treaty he signed with Egypt more than 30 years ago is facing new challenges in light of recent changes in the Middle East.
Although many years have passed since Begin left this world, and three decades separate us from his retirement, it is surprising how relevant his legacy still is today. The "Begin Doctrine" could be positioned against the Iranian nuclear threat; Begin ordered the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. Begin's philosophy was that Israel will prevent, at all costs, the development of nuclear weapons by an enemy state that open declares its desire to destroy the Jewish state.
In the face of racism towards the Arab sector, we recall Begin's voracious struggle against the military government imposed over Israeli Arabs and, at the same time, his demand for equal rights for Arab citizens in this country.
Even with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Begin presented a clear outline for the construction of dozens of settlements in parts of Judea and Samaria, despite his recognition of the Palestinians' legitimate rights and proposals that an autonomous Palestinian legislative counsel and police force deal with their internal matters.
In response to the social protests, Begin set a socio-economic model to "benefit the people." On the one hand, he developed a free market economy based on private initiative. On the other hand, he worked hard to eradicate poverty, via the most massive social project in Israel to date, Project Renewal, which focused on the renewal of impoverished neighborhoods via far-reaching social reforms and legislation, such as the Free High School Act and the Income Security Act.
In other areas as well, Begin set the bar with clear positions representing landmarks on various agenda issues. He struggled for the supremacy and rule of law; he granted Israeli citizenship to Vietnamese refugees gathered by an Israeli trade ship in the China sea; he instructed the Mossad to bring our "Ethiopian Jewish brothers" to Israel. Begin's legacy is characterized by his personal example; As head of the opposition and as a senior minister of the government, he continued to live in the same rented one and a half bedroom apartment that had served as his refuge when he commanded the Irgun.
In light of the rampant shifting of political loyalties in Israeli politics for personal gain, rather than ideology, which began already in Begin's era, he presented an alternative, displaying personal and ideological integrity. Begin preferred loyalty to the principles in which he believed, even if it meant that he accepted decades of being in the opposition. Even when he joined the government in times of crisis, the moment he felt that he was working against his principles, he would not hesitate to return to "serving the people in the opposition."
Above all, Menachem Begin left behind a model of leadership driven by ideological consideration of values, one that believes it is possible not only to lead the state of Israel through its domestic and international political reality, but also to exercise courage and make groundbreaking decisions that can shift reality on its foundation.
Moshe Fuksman-Sha’al is the deputy director of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem and a Ph.D. candidate in history at Tel Aviv University.
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