When I first visited the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, I left depressed and despondent. This was not a reflection on the Center itself – it is an outstanding experiential museum and a must for anyone interested in Israeli history and politics. No, I left depressed and despondent, because I couldn’t help thinking that Israel has no one left like Menachem Begin, or David Ben-Gurion, or Golda Meir – Jewish, Zionist, and democratic giants, who forged the re-establishment of the Jewish state after two millennia of dispossession and dispersion. Begin’s life and political philosophy in particular – from law graduate, to Zionist militant, to the longest-serving Israeli Opposition Leader, and then, ultimately, to Prime Minister of the State of Israel – embodies what is meant by the unique concept of a “Jewish and democratic state”, referred to in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Particularly in the current democratic and constitutional crisis enveloping Israel, Begin’s extraordinary life and legacy provide valuable lessons for both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.
Begin offers lessons for Netanyahu, because he was the founder and leader, for some three and a half decades, of the right/center-right political parties Herut (1948), Gahal (1963) and Likud (1973), and he lead the so-called mahapakh (“upheaval”) on 17 May 1977, when the Likud became the largest political party in the Knesset and was able to form the first non-Alignment/Mapai/Labor government in the history of the State of Israel. You would think that the current leader of the Likud and Prime Minister would take note of the lessons of the founder of his party, who by force of his personality, persistence, and sense of historic purpose, brought the party out of the Israeli political wilderness and ended the left’s political hegemony over the state. What, then, are those lessons? What would Begin do, Mr Netanyahu?
I think it is very clear that Begin would not lead a narrow right-wing government attempting to undermine the independence of the judiciary. Although in 1977, Begin would have been able to form a Knesset majority (of 61) with the religious parties alone, he also sought support from centrist elements in the Knesset, so that his government would reflect more of a national consensus. Furthermore, Begin believed in “the supremacy of law”, meaning that the judiciary must be completely independent of the executive and legislative branches of government and that the High Court of Justice should be able to invalidate Knesset legislation which is inconsistent with civic rights and freedoms conferred by Basic Laws. Begin remained true to these principles, even when they were politically inconvenient. For example, when several cabinet members demanded that the government should ignore the High Court of Justice’s ruling declaring the Elon Moreh settlement to be illegal, Begin silenced them with the words “the courts in Israel have made their decision and the government is obligated to honor and carry out whatever they decided” (Begin’s words are often popularly, although slightly mistakenly, recalled as “There are judges in Jerusalem”). Begin respected court rulings against his government’s policies (and did not seek to legislate against them), precisely because he understood that an independent judiciary, which is able to strike down Knesset laws that are contrary to civic rights and freedoms conferred by Basic Laws, is essential to the protection of those rights and freedoms, and thus essential for democracy. Begin’s belief in “the supremacy of law” also lead him to the view, as he said in an address to the Knesset on 9 July 1956, that it is the enduring duty of the Knesset to “provide the people with a constitution and issue legislative guarantees of civil liberties and national liberty”.
Begin’s words and actions show that, ironically, not only would the Likud he established never have contemplated the government’s proposed judicial reforms, but he would also be leading the mass protests against them. He would also embrace what President Isaac Herzog aptly described on 1 March 2023 as a “constitutional watershed moment”, which provides an opportunity to strengthen democratic institutions and enhance public trust in the judiciary.
Begin also provides important lessons for the current Opposition Leader. What would Begin do, Mr Lapid?
I think it is very clear that Begin would not simply seek to use the massive community opposition to the proposed judicial reforms to seek to bring down the government, but rather would use the soft power of opposition (bolstered by the hundreds of thousands protesting) to reach a broad political consensus on how to achieve the generally accepted need for reasonable judicial reform. Begin considered engagement in the political process from opposition to be an essential element of democracy. For 18 and a half years, during much of which he was so maligned by the ruling establishment that Ben-Gurion refused to even speak his name, Begin was the very embodiment of the Westminster model of the leader of the “loyal opposition”. He believed that “without an opposition, there can be no democracy; without it, the essence of human liberty is in danger”. Thus, while bitterly politically opposed to fundamental tenets of the Alignment/Mapai/Labor governments, on the very day the Six Day War began in June 1967, Begin’s party Gahal joined the national unity government under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol of the Alignment, and Begin served as a Minister for the first time. At a moment of national crisis, Begin walked into the tent of his political opponents, many of whom reviled him, and, for the good of the country, contributed to critical decisions. Among other things, while they were in a fortified room under the Knesset during Jordanian bombing, Begin famously persuaded the cabinet to order the IDF to liberate the Old City and the rest of occupied Jerusalem.
Unlike the current Opposition Leader, Begin would recognize that the people have spoken on who they want to lead them for the next four years, and not seek to impose conditions on engaging in discussions, but instead would proactively propose reasonable checks and balances and engage in good faith negotiations when the opportunity for compromise is still available.
Thankfully, this is not an existential moment for Israel, like in June 1967. Nevertheless, it is a moment of tremendous significance for Israeli democracy and society. It is therefore time for Israel’s current political leaders to learn from a giant on whose shoulders they are privileged to stand.