On 15 May 1948, Menachem Begin, then leader of the Irgun, proclaimed on the radio:
“Whoever fails to recognize our right to the entire homeland, does not recognize our right to any of its territories.”
A splendid example of Israeli imperiousness, demanding total support on Israeli terms, and “We’ll tell you what you think.”
It didn’t quite work out that way. Begin wanted the entire Palestine Mandate, which originally included the West Bank and what is now Jordan (then Transjordan, illegally donated by the British to their disgruntled protégé, King Abdullah). Whether Mr. Begin ever invoked the divine land grants mentioned in Genesis and Exodus – from the Med to the Euphrates – I know not.
I doubt it. Menachem Begin was neither a religious extremist nor a rampaging conqueror. He was a cultivated and humane Old World gentleman as well as one tough macaroon. He was a good man, a great and ultimately tragic man, done in by more demons than his own.
And so I got to wondering. What would Menachem Begin, the Israeli statesman I most admire, make of the world today?
What would Begin do?
Specifically, would he stick to the “We demand it all and if you’re not with us, you’re against us, and Israel and the Jews are my only concerns”? Or might he take a more expansive view of what Israel’s place in the world, and contribution to that world, might be? Would he be the Jewish fighter or the Israeli peacemaker? Or both? Or maybe something else entirely?
So I set about asking him. Having learned during my decades in Washington, DC, that interviewing the dead can be less frustrating and more rewarding than interviewing the living, I cadged an appointment.
“Good morning, Mr. Prime Minister. I’m going to give you a quick précis of the situation and then . . . that? Oh, that’s called Power Point. Yes, sir, I agree with you. It is indeed an instrument of the Devil. OK, I’ll turn it off and we’ll just talk.
“As I said, first I’ll . . . you don’t need the whole megillah? Ha’Olam Ha’Ba has Wi-Fi? That’s gonna be news to some folks. Very well, I’ll make like a good TV talking head and lead with my conclusions.
“Over the last few months, certainly over the last few years, it has become impossible to avoid the conclusion that civilization now faces a clear and present danger, worldwide. Violent aggressive extremist Islamism. Whether this violence is an intrinsic part of Islamic faith, I’ll leave to others who’ve studied the matter, noting only that Judaism and Christianity have had some out-of-control moments of their own. However, whatever the religious aspect, it grows ever more clear that, politically, the Islamic world is (with a few bright exceptions) a failed civilization.
“You know from failed civilizations, Mr. Prime Minister. During much of your lifetime, Europe was such. You lived it. The First World War. The virulent anti-Semitism. The Nazis. Your years in Soviet prisons and labor camps. Your fight against the British. Then the never-ending struggle against the Arabs . . .
“Never-ending, you say? But also changing? Constant but not immutable? I think you’re ahead of me on this one. I see. You read the papers. The Times of Israel, especially. Excellent choice.
“Well, then, sir, as you know, the Islamic world, from Turkey to Afghanistan and Iran and Pakistan is fracturing. There is an Islamic civil war in progress, a war that is spreading around the world, waged by those who dream of nothing less than Islamic world domination. Their brand. There are no safe havens.
“If you follow the news, then you know that President Obama – yes, sir, I too despair of understanding what, if anything, goes on in that man’s skull – has neither the political strength nor the moral courage to deal with the situation. He spends his time assembling coalitions of the willing, of the not-so-willing, of the-yes-we’re-willing-but . . . and puts the rest of his hope in “degrading” the enemy and touting pointless UN resolutions.
“It’s been a long time coming. The mess the Americans made by unnecessarily invading Iraq? “Democracy Dominos,” their neocons called it then. What’s a neocon? A neocon is someone who never admits he was wrong or says he’s sorry. You know the homegrown type? I doubt it not.
“Anyway, the “Democracy Domino” theory made about as much sense as fast-rising matzoh dough. Then everybody got all hyper about “Arab Spring” and how social media were going to save the day. Of course, the bad people have their social media, too, and . . . no, sir, you don’t see a lot of wall posters nowadays . . . I know, nostalgia. I feel the same way about typewriters. Well, the bad people sure know how to use their social media. They also know how to use their guns.
“So, sir, given all this, my question is:
“What would you do?
“I see. You’ll think on it and tell me next Monday. Very well, then. And Shana Tova to you, too.”
Next: “What Would Begin Do?” Part 2. “What’s Peace Got to Do with It? and “What’s War Got to Do with It?” will follow.