Nobody is perfect, especially in Israeli politics, and Begin was no exception in this respect. Israel’s economy deteriorated under his government, he was led by other ministers like an innocent lamb into the Lebanon adventure of 1982 which spawned the Hezbollah terror organisation, and in his final days as Prime Minister he was detached and in deep depression. With that, and in addition to the fact that he was a man of uncompromising principals, materially modest and spotlessly clean of corruption, there are a few other things that are worth remembering and mentioning when looking at his life and achievements and comparing them to what is taking place these days in the Prime Minister’s office and in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Let us start with the fact that Begin was a true Zionist in every cell of his body. He witnessed the horrors of war in Europe during which his parents and brother were murdered by the Nazis. He also understood deeply the importance of a national home for the Jewish people and the duty to prevent a second holocaust at all cost.
On the eve of the 1967 Six Days War, Begin, who was then leader of the opposition, joined a national unity government led by Levi Eshkol as a minister without portfolio. Facing a national existential threat, he put aside his sharp disagreements with the Labour party. He even asked Eshkol to recall David Ben Gurion, the man who coined the coalition forming term “No Herut (Begin’s party) or Communists” and who refused to address Begin by his name, referring to him in Parliament as “The man who sits beside Bader”, in order to appoint him Prime Minister.
In 1977, after long years in the desert of opposition, Begin’s extended party Gahal won the general election and he was appointed Israel’s sixth Prime Minister. And it is here that we arrive at three crucial decisions he took in this role.
In 1981 Begin initiated the Law of the Golan Heights which in practice annexed the Golan to Israel. Begin understood what several Prime Ministers that came after him preferred to forget – that the Syrian regime in its current form is no partner for peace nor is it a worthy recipient for such significant and weighty security and territorial concessions.
In spring 1981, after the Israeli Air Force shot down a couple of Syrian helicopters over Lebanon, the Syrians began advancing in stages anti-aircraft missile batteries to the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. Begin ordered an attack on the batteries, an action that was postponed several times because of bad weather and external political pressures. A year later, with the breakout of the 1982 Lebanon war, Begin ordered again an attack on the Syrian missiles. 19 batteries were either destroyed or severely damaged, and around 80 Syrian fighter planes were shot down in dogfights with IAF planes. Begin understood the significance of a creeping devaluation of deterrence and a slow ‘boiling of the frog’ and put a swift and brutal end to Syria’s provocative aggression. It is interesting to speculate how he would have dealt with today’s serious breaches of the laughable Security Council resolution 1701.
But the most critical moment of Begin’s leadership, in which he proved that he could fearlessly make brave and destiny shaping decisions and for which his whole life to that point had prepared him, came in summer 1981. As the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak was nearing completion near Baghdad, Menachem Begin ordered the Israeli Air Force to attack and destroy it. The then opposition leader Shimon Peres fiercely objected to the action and Begin was accused of attempting to influence the results of the upcoming elections, but one sentence from the statement he made after the attack is etched in memory and should be studied every day, especially by some retired heads of Mossad. “No nation can live on borrowed time”.