Menachem Begin’s election over Shimon Peres was a pivotal point in Israeli politics, the first time the Labor Party faced defeat. From his days with the Irgun, Begin was deemed an intransigent radical. To many he was an obstacle to peace. Given Jimmy Carter’s commitment to the peace process, many expected his staff to be more hostile toward Begin and his party when they arrived in Washington to begin peace negotiations with Carter.
Carter was exceptionally hospitable, serving the first kosher meal at a state dinner. The next morning at the Blair House Begin was to meet with Zbigniew Brzezinski who was even more skeptical of Begin than Carter. Begin presented Zbigniew a dossier showing that his father, Tadeusz Brzezinski, had served as a Polish diplomat and had worked to rescue Jews from concentration camps. Zbigniew was grateful and impressed, having fought accusations of being anti-Semitic.
The two were to work on a joint statement to be issued later in the day.
The national security adviser had brought with him a draft for the prime minister’s approval, and after analyzing each phrase with his eagle eye, Begin said, “Totally acceptable but for two sentences.”
“And what are they?”
“Please delete “The United States affirms Israel’s inherent right to exist.”
“Because the United States’ affirmation of Israel’s right to exist is not a favor, nor is it a negotiable concession. I shall not negotiate my existence with anybody, and I need nobody’s affirmation of it.”
Brzezinski’s expression was one of surprise. “But to the best of my knowledge every Israeli prime minister has asked for such a pledge.”
“ I sincerely appreciate the president’s sentiment,” said Begin, “but our Hebrew Bible made that pledge and established our right over our land millennia ago. Never, throughout the centuries, did we ever abandon or forfeit that right. Therefore, it would be incompatible with my responsibilities as a prime minister of Israel were I not to ask you to erase this sentence.“ And then, without pause, “Please delete, too, the language regarding the U.S. commitment to Israel’s survival.”
“And in what sense do you find that objectionable?”
“In the sense that we, the Jewish people alone, are responsible for our country’s survival, no one else.”
Wordlessly, and seemingly perplexed, the national security advisor deleted the offensive sentences, upon which the prime minister expressed himself totally satisfied.
From The Prime Ministers by Yehuda Avner
What would we give to have such clarity of leadership. The intelligence, wisdom, and leadership qualities of so many of Israel’s leaders is stunning to read about. Avner served many of them directly and his book is filled with insights that bring much to the modern history of Israel.
Imagine the United States finding it necessary to ‘affirm’ the existence of any other member of the UN.
Begin who was considered such an obstacle to peace surprised his critics by ultimately signing the peace agreement with Egypt’s Sadat, the most important peace treaty since Israel’s independence.