The most popular figure in Israel’s 2019 election cycle is not even running. In fact, he has been dead for 27 years, and for significant periods in his life, he was ostracized politically and considered a radical provocateur. In this election season, the mythological head of the Likud, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, has become a model of leadership, morality and values. His popularity crosses party lines, with both left and right seeking to appropriate his memory. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals are even using Begin against him.
One cannot escape Begin these days. Social media is awash in his photos, quotes and clips of his speeches as if he were a leading candidate in the April 9 elections. Millions of Israelis never knew him; they were born or immigrated to Israel after his death. Some were unaware of his existence until now and are being exposed to him for the first time.
This riveting phenomenon points to a yearning for a different kind of politics, for a modest and courageous leadership striving for peace. In his first term in office, Begin led the peace negotiations and 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. On the other hand, he also led the first Lebanon War in 1982, known as a “war of choice,” which resulted in hundreds of deaths and earned him the label of a “murderer” in left-wing protests.
For years, Israel’s founding father, and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion was considered the ultimate symbol of leadership, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was seen as the model of a leader who paid with his life for a courageous, principled move. This current nostalgia for Begin is different — if for no other reason than the fact that the left wing, too, has appropriated him years after dubbing him a dangerous warmonger.
So bitter was sentiment toward Begin in the 1950s and '60s that Ben-Gurion refused to even refer to him by name, calling him “the man sitting next to Knesset member Bader.” Ben-Gurion vowed that he would never form a government with Begin’s Herut party [forerunner of the Likud] or with the communist Maki party. Today he would be accused of “delegitimizing” Begin and his associates. Ben-Gurion was not the only one. In recent days, a clip from the 1981 election campaign has been making the rounds on social media showing then-Labor party leader Shimon Peres accusing Begin of stirring up incitement and sowing discord among the people in his speeches.
These days, Begin is starring in the campaigns of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is chair of the center-right Kulanu party, and of the center-left Blue and White party. Begin even has been used in a tweet by Peace Now. Judging by his popularity these days, Begin is a far greater electoral asset three decades after his death than he ever was in his lifetime.
Kahlon, for example, has declared himself the successor of Begin’s revolution [Begin became prime minister in 1977, after four decades of Labor Party rule, in what was dubbed “the revolution”]. Kahlon has flooded major intersections with portraits of himself alongside Begin, and he keeps mentioning the Begin legacy and noting that he was one of the late leader’s disciples. The slogan he has minted for his party is designed to convey the same message: The Kulanu party is “the sane right.” To Kahlon’s credit, Begin served as his source of inspiration from the start of his career in the Likud. With polls indicating his party may not be re-elected to the Knesset, Kahlon is mobilizing Begin in full force to attract Likud voters.
The broad use of Begin was far less expected from Yair Lapid, a major partner in the Blue and White party. Still, even before Lapid and his Yesh Atid party joined Blue and White, he already understood Begin’s electoral potential. In various interviews, he mentions growing up in a family of Likud supporters. In his 2015 election campaign, Lapid tried to appeal to right-wing voters by tweeting: “Menachem Begin would never have been elected in Likud primaries these days, with his integrity and humility.” Lapid also makes liberal mention of Begin’s championing of equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, and has even had his photo taken alongside those of Begin and Ben-Gurion.
But it was the new Blue and White party that really took Begin a few steps forward in a bid to draw votes away from the Likud. One of its ad campaigns, designed to appeal to the sentiments of Likud voters, features the Likud’s greatest lasting icon: Begin. With the 27th anniversary of Begin’s death on March 11 coinciding with the height of the campaign, the link is natural.
The head of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, was chosen to hammer home the message. “Under Begin, Netanyahu would have been deposed from the Likud long ago,” Gantz tweeted. “As a young soldier, I had the honor of protecting the cavalcade of (Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat in Israel, during days that inspired hope in a whole generation.” Gantz went on to tweet, “The truth must be told, Menachem Begin would not have been accepted into Netanyahu’s Likud. He would have been considered an Israel hater …”
The idea of the “Begin campaign” is to get Likud supporters to distance themselves from Netanyahu while he, Gantz, draws closer to the memory of the revered leader. This could be regarded as a type of flip-flop, given that at the start of his political career not so long ago, Gantz was being molded as a Rabin-type figure: a former army chief-of-staff, handsome, able to restore the center-left to power. Then it turned out that Rabin was not such a good model for taking away votes from the Likud, especially since Rabin was the one who signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians and is much reviled by the political right.
Peace Now takes the top prize for the most cynical and strident use of Begin’s memory. Responding to a tweet by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a prominent member of the Likud, about his longing for Begin, Peace Now tweeted: “Who are you kidding!? You and your friends stopped being his successors a long time ago …” A brief reminder: Peace Now led massive protests against Begin in 1983, with some participants waving placards saying “Begin is a Murderer.”
Begin’s legacy is fodder for various candidates running this year. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but it behooves those making use of his memory to be truthful. Begin was the commander of the pre-state, anti-British Irgun underground. He went into politics after the establishment of the state in 1948 and founded the Herut (Hebrew for “freedom”) party. His speeches from the opposition benches of the Knesset were not necessarily paragons of unity and statesmanship. He led the 1950s protests against accepting German compensation for the sins of the Nazis and labeled the Ben-Gurion government a “Judenrat” government, referring to the collaborationist Nazi administration forced on residents of the ghettos. Begin’s rivals called him a fascist and compared him to Hitler. Being a gifted orator and skilled at manipulating the anger of immigrants from Arab countries against the largely European-origin establishment of those days, he would probably have been considered a populist these days. Still, it should be noted that the politician Begin was and remained until his very last day a modest and honest person.
Begin’s star is rising now because both right and left see him as an instrument to undermine Netanyahu’s leadership. Paradoxically, Begin has become the weapon of choice to defeat the party he led.
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