Foreign Policy Blogs

Netanyahu and Begin

On Wednesday, at a memorial service for former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decried the settlers “price tag” policy, a nebulous strategy which seeks to inflict violence and/or damage to neighboring Palestinians and their property.

“I am certain Begin would have expressed grief and shock regarding this same small and marginal minority,” Netanyahu said. “The State of Israel will not tolerate or accept the harassment of Arabs as a method of protest against the government. It is a completely distorted sense of civil protest, of human value and the Jewish spirit of justice.”

Netanyahu’s statements are puzzling for two reasons. First, it seems odd that he would go out of his way to condemn settlers, who are hardly his most vicious critics these days.  Second, Netanyahu’s reference to Begin’s theoretical “grief and shock” strains credulity.  Menachem Begin, as most Israeli high school students could tell you, was the leader of the pre-independence militant group Irgun, who believed that guerilla attacks against British government officials were justified in order to effect Israel’s creation. Moreover, he adamantly refused to accept the authority of the Jewish Agency, which most Jews accepted as the representative body of the Jewish community before 1948, and unilaterally declared a revolt against the British Mandate in 1944. Begin is thought to have significantly contributed to the most famous Jewish act of non-state violence in recent history-the 1946 bombing of the British administrative headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, in which 91 people were killed.  Finally, in 1952, as the leader of the right-wing opposition group Herut, he spearheaded a violent protest against the Israeli government’s reparations agreement with West Germany in which demonstrators threw stones and injured dozens of Israeli policeman and several parliament members.

However, Netanyahu’s assertion is more plausible if it’s interpreted as a reference to the older, more diplomatic Menachem Begin who signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and returned the Sinai desert to Egypt, a vast tract of land that Israel had conquered during the 1967 war.  This version of Begin withstood fierce criticism and eventual abandonment by the right-wing contingent of his Likud party and garnered a Nobel Peace Prize for his achievement.

Netanyahu’s reference is all the more intriguing in light of the political quagmire he faces today. The Arab world has been invigorated by a youthful energy that has resulted in seismic shifts in its political landscape. It seems fair to surmise that the Israeli government is extremely nervous about the rise of a more anti-Israel, Islamist contingent in several Arab countries.  The UN’s attempt to condemn Israel’s settlement policy was thwarted by a reluctant United States, who made clear that they too opposed Israel’s stance but did not think that a resolution would expedite an agreement.  The Palestinian Authority has successfully petitioned a growing number of countries to recognize its statehood. Given this context, the Israeli government must tread carefully in its policy on Palestinian statehood.  Thus far, Netanyahu’s only apparent response is a multi-phased approach that would involve interim agreements and temporary borders. Predictably, this has been dismissed by Palestinian leadership as an anemic gesture designed to stall resolution of the core issues.

However, Netanyahu’s apparent proposal, along with his recent statements, may signal the onset of his own political migration.  Conventional wisdom in Israel is that territorial concessions are more feasible when granted by right-wing governments who are perceived as unflinchingly committed to Israel’s national security.  This notion is based on the Israeli public’s support for the evacuation of the Sinai desert by Begin, as well as the disengagement from the Gaza Strip by Arial Sharon in 2004.  A recent study by Tel Aviv University supports this premise-it found that while a majority of Israelis believed that the 1967 borders should be the basis for an eventual Palestinian state, it preferred that a right-wing government enter into this agreement.

This raises the possibility that Netanyahu, like his Likud predecessors Begin and Sharon, senses the urgency of the moment, and is willing to reassess his long-held convictions in the interest of Israel’s long-term security.  If this theory is ultimately proved correct, then one day Netanyahu might be commemorated for his “Second Act” as well.



Zev Wexler

Zev Wexler is an associate at the law firm of Vinson & Elkins LLP, where he represents investment managers. In 2009, he took a sabbatical year and volunteered as a strategic consultant in Malawi for Millennium Promise, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Zev is a board member of American Jewish Committee's ACCESS young leadership program, and serves on the Committee's International Relations Commission. Zev is also a board member of the Microfinance Club of New York. Prior to working at Vinson & Elkins LLP, Zev worked at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, and at the asset manager BlackRock Financial Management. He received a BA in Public Policy from Princeton University and a JD from New York University School of Law, and is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). Zev currently lives in New York.

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