In my “Modern Israel” class in school, we discussed the Camp David Accords of 1978 which resulted in a peace treaty between the Egyptians and Israelis. This treaty had always been the most intriguing part of Israeli history to me. Not because I believe it greatly affected world history or because it was the defining moment of the conflict, but because it highlighted the qualities of who I believe to be, one of the greatest leaders in world history.
Winston Churchill and Alexander the Great were amazing leaders and I’m not here to say Begin was exactly like them but to show you why Menachem Begin, a simple man who did not even greatly affect world history, is among them.
The obvious question is what makes a great leader? Principles and sacrifice.
A great leader doesn’t necessarily have to hold principles I agree with, but a leader is someone who has strong principles and is willing to go to great lengths and sacrifice whatever is needed to protect their principles. Menachem Begin managed to break down any barrier that had come his way to protect his principles and his country.
It had started with the Irgun, Begin’s paramilitary force before the establishment of Israel, where he had faced insurmountable pressure from all parties and his clock was running out. Begin strongly believed that the State of Israel had to be established and he was willing to go to great lengths to accomplish that despite objections from outside parties and the Haganah, another paramilitary force led by David Ben-Gurion. A great leader has to make tough decisions and be willing to take the hate for it. He did so with the King David Hotel Bombing and during the Altalena Affair, where he refused to fight against the Haganah because he would never raise a gun against another Jew. With all odds against him, Begin led the Irgun and helped in establishing Israel.
Due to Begin’s strong principles, he never gave up. Despite the Labor Party controlling the government of Israel since its establishment, Begin persisted. This resulted in him breaking one of the biggest barriers in Israel’s modern history by becoming the first right-wing prime minister and destroying the Labor hold on the government that had persisted since the founding of the state. It was now his job to break the barrier that many Israelis had felt would never come down, which was peace.
With the country on his shoulders, Begin had enormous shoes to fill. Not because his predecessor happened to change Israeli history drastically, but because neither Yitzchak Rabin nor Golda Meir was able to and the country was failing to recover from the monstrosity that was the Yom Kippur War. Only five months after taking office Anwar Sadat, the leader of Israel’s greatest enemy at the time addressed his parliament and said that he would make peace with Israel if it meant that the blood of Egyptian soldiers would no longer spill.
Begin had every right not to believe Sadat or to reject his offer because Sadat had launched a war on Israel with the intent of destroying her only four years before. Instead, Begin went against all odds and invited his biggest enemy to his country. Sadat came to Israel and met Begin, Golda Meir, and several Israeli leaders before addressing the parliament with his conditions for peace which included giving up the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, and Judea and Samaria.
Every inch of Begin rejected this idea. He firmly believed that Gaza and Judea and Samaria belonged to the state of Israel and Begin was not willing to waiver. When things started to fall into place for a peace plan or, at the very least, an agreement to meet and talk about the possibility of peace, Begin began facing political implications.
Unlike today, where the topic of settlements or Judea and Samaria is controversial and partisan, in 1974 the consensus among Israelis was that Judea and Samaria belonged to Israel. Not only did it have biblical significance, but it had given Israel defensible borders. It was important to Begin, to the Jewish people, to the citizens of Israel, and especially to members of Begin’s coalition.
Begin was heading into a minefield where it seemed unlikely he would survive. Not only was he going into an agreement with strong principles that differed tremendously from Sadat, but United States President Jimmy Carter had a friendship with Anwar Sadat and didn’t seem to have many favorable things to say about Begin. It was quite obvious, especially to Begin, that Carter was not in the position to grant Begin favors.
Begin displayed the highest levels of leadership because he was forced into a position where he could never truly win. He would either lose the support of his people, his country, his party, the United States, or the entire world. One of those losses was inevitable and he was forced to minimize the casualties of an explosion he would be causing. Begin had believed in his principles his entire life and despite growing pressure from the United States and other countries, he was not going to neglect these principles for a peace treaty that could potentially fail. To add to his stress, Begin was facing a heart problem that had hospitalized him twice before. Begin was racing against a political clock as well as a health clock and time was running out for both.
The Camp David talks began unsuccessfully. Sadat had demanded Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai, Gaza, and Judea and Samaria as well as the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Begin refused this on all grounds and Carter had to conduct the talks with Begin and Sadat separately. Sadat essentially reneges on his promise on the Palestinians and agrees to sign a treaty if Israel would agree to a withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.
Begin knew that certain right-wing Jews and Zionists within Israel would be furious if Israel dismantled its settlements in the Sinai. Begin decided to reject this offer but then left it up to the Knesset to vote on withdrawal from the Sinai. Begin wanted a withdrawal and to sign this treaty and knew that if he left it up to the Knesset they would vote on a withdrawal which they did.
Despite all these odds and multiple roadblocks between Begin and Sadat, Begin succeeded in reaching an agreement with his biggest enemy. Although he would have to evict Jewish settlers in the Sinai, he had made peace with Israel’s most powerful enemy and returned to Israel more popular than ever.
Begin managed to turn a war failure, a broken country, and a powerful enemy into a success. No, he wasn’t a military master like Alexander or a political giant like Churchill, but he was without a doubt, among them. Alexander was an egotistical genius who was able to conquer most of the known world today because he didn’t give up. Churchill was a politician and military expert who was able to win WWII for Britain despite challenge after challenge being thrown at him because he didn’t give up.
Menachem Begin didn’t have it easy, but he didn’t give up. He didn’t give up when he was arrested by the NKVD or when people called the Irgun a terrorist organization. He didn’t give up when Reagan threatened to withdraw support for Israel when he bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. He didn’t give up when he had to face his greatest enemy and no one was on his side. He held onto his principles for dear life and sacrificed whatever was needed because he believed so strongly in the State of Israel.