Sunday, September 10, 2006

Menachem The Mench

Menachem Begin: The Mench

Through the prism of time Israel’s late Prime Minister Menachem Begin looms larger than life. He was definitely a political animal, an ideologue. But most of all, in hindsight, especially compared to those who followed him, he was a “Mench.”

Begin lived modestly. Most of his life was spent in a small apartment in Tel Aviv. He was definitely a firebrand, and a radical, in his youth. He was an active member of the underground, and his militant Irgun movement competed with the pre-state Palmach for membership.

Still when the Irgun brought in a shipload of illegal weapons he ordered his men not to fight with the Palmach who were opposed to the arms reaching Palestine. Begin was not interested in a civil war. Reportedly he detested Jews fighting with Jews.

Fast-forward to the first Lebanon War in 1982 and his mettle was again obvious. Though never proven, Begin allegedly blamed then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon for planning a full-scale invasion of Lebanon without government permission. Once the war was over, and Begin reportedly realized the extent to which Sharon had duped him, Begin resigned as Prime Minister, and retired to a quiet private life, rarely coming out in public again.

In an interview during that war, while touring the wards of wounded soldiers at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. He was touring the wards, visiting the wounded soldiers., Begin was asked questions by the press corps standing no more than 30-feet away. He head to ask his aides to repeat the questions because he could hardly hear them even at that relatively close distance. By the end of the war he was sick, and aging rapidly..

When he did answer, he answered well, but had a microphone not been only inches from his lips it would have been impossible to know what he said. Only through the electronic magnification of his voice could he be understood.

Later that evening then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon held a press conference at the King David Hotel. The room was packed. It wasn’t especially warm inside but Sharon was sweating profusely, speaking in his clipped cadence, avoiding questions he didn’t like, and striding out quickly when he’d said what he had to say.

Then Begin joked that he’d hesitated appointing Sharon as Defense Minister for fear that one day he’d come to the Knesset and find it surrounded by tanks, with the barrels pointed in, at the building.

Begin was the founder of the Likud party, representing the “amcha” the working classes and the middle-class businessmen, as opposed to the “socialist” Labor party with its ruling elite. The Likud was the party of the people, like the Democrats in the USA. The Labor party was the party of the privileged, even though the party claimed socialist beliefs.

In truth Begin’s party was much more geared to the poor and the needy. It was these elements that voted for him. Who kept him in power. The Sephardim, Oriental Jews, those born in Arab countries, were his power base. These were the disaffected, the cast-aside, the over-looked. Not until the Moroccan-born politicians of the Shas party came to power was there a party that competed with the Begin’s Likud for power.

Begin attracted not only the disaffected voter, but also the politicians on the make. Ariel Sharon had been a Ben Gurion Laborite, but not only joined the Likud, but took over the party. Not until Sharon saw that his power was slipping in the Likud did he break away and start his own Kadima party. He took with him some from the Likud, like Meir Shitrit, and Ehud Olmert.

Olmert was no longer a popular Likud leader. He’d fallen so far down on the Likud’s Knesset list it was likely he’d be passed over for a Knesset seat. When Sharon started Kadmia Olmert went with. Sharon also drew in those from Labor, like Chaim Ramon, who had been passed over for party leadership.

Unlike his successors, there was never a hint of scandal about Begin. He seemed disinterested in party favors, in personal aggrandizement, in patronage. His goal was the good of the country. The good of his people. A man who barely escaped the Holocaust Begin was deeply distrustful of his Arab enemies, but still was wise enough to see Peace when it came calling. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for his efforts.

Under Ariel Sharon, who is forgotten, but not gone, political chicanery was rampant. Like Moshe Dayan, another war hero turned Defense Minister; Sharon carved out a nice piece of the pie for himself. Dayan was infamous not only for his philandering, but for pilfering the archeological treasures he found, using the Israeli Army as his diggers, and Israeli Army and Air force vehicles and helicopters to transport his loot. The glitter and glitz of his heroism rubbed off quickly.

Historians also now criticize Dayan for arrogantly ignoring intelligence that clearly indicated the Egyptians were about to strike Israeli forces in the Sinai on the eve of Yom Kippur 1973. The also blame him for not returning the West Bank after the 1967 Six-Day war, forcing Israel to occupy land and police an Arab public.

Most of all they criticize him for his inherent anti-Religious feelings that resulted in him turning over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the Arabs. Had he established a synagogue on the site rather than turn control over to the Wakf, the Moslem Religious Council set up to control the Temple Mount, there would be no question of Jewish sovereignty over that area. The site of the first and second Temples, essentially the center of Jewish Religious life for nearly a thousand years.

In the 11th Century the Mamalukes tore down the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem to prevent Crusaders from ever again laying siege to the city. Without walls, they reasoned, no one would ever again have to attack. All would be welcome. When Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the land four hundred years later he had the walls rebuilt.

Nearly a thousand years later Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben Gurion proposed tearing down the walls of the Old City, just as the Mamalukes had done, creating one large unfettered city from edge to edge, mixing Jews and Arabs. His proposal was voted down in the Knesset,

To Menachem Begin Jerusalem was the center of the earth. Israel sat on Holy Land. He was the protector of the legacy Jewish History and the Jewish People. He was a gentleman. He was a fiery orator who could bring a crowd to their feet. This little Polish-born Jew was the prince of the Sephardim. He was the hero of the masses.

Today Ehud Olmert runs the country. Scandals surround him. Critics believe he is most of all interested in his own position, in his own power, in his own survival, and then the country, and then the people.

Menachem Begin began a populist program called Project Renewal, meant to lift the lower classes out of poverty, to bring them into the middle-class. Meant to provide equal opportunities. One is hard put to wonder what Begin would have done with the Katyushas raining down on the country while hundreds of thousands of citizens were homeless, or in bomb shelters. Once the bombs stopped would he have started another Project Renewal?

Israel isn’t alone in self-serving politicians. They are found all over the world. But when the going gets tough men like Churchill, FDR, and Ben Gurion are needed. Or men like Begin, who gave the okay to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor, in spite of the opposition of Laborite Shimon Peres. Still, Churchill came out on the wrong side of Maynard Keynes supply-side economics after WWII and was politely shown the door as Attlee was appointed Prime Minister. The new economics worked for England, even if they were socialistic. They worked for FDR. Great men who had a role to play in war but not in Peace.

Today in Israel we have no great men. Maybe Shimon Peres, just because he’s been around so long. But his visions for Peace have lead to foggy thinking, resulting in the dreams that gave the late Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat enough power to launch one intifada after another. It was Ariel Sharon who stood up to the challenge of war with the Palestinians and defeated them. But in Peace he was shortsighted. In power he was given to sweetheart deals that even spread to his children. Sharon was a giant as a warrior, as was Churchill, but out of his league as a peacemaker.

Olmert squeaked through the war, even though Hezbollah now claims they may have 70,000 missiles left, not the 10,000 Israel estimates. He is trying to appoint cronies to review his management of the war. Slick political games are being played. Personal power and influence are at stake. And in his shadow the Labor party is talking about a new triumvirate. Ami Ayalon, once head of the Navy and briefly the Shin Bet security services, as the PM, with Ishai Braverman, a respected economist as the Finance Minister, and former PM Ehud Barak as Defense Minister. The problem is, not one of them is a real honest to goodness, Menachem Begin like Mench. And that’s what’s needed.