The Rise and Revenge of Israel’s Political Right
We will be nobody’s cowering Jew. . . . Those days are over. . . . Without readiness for self-sacrifice, there will be another Auschwitz. And if we have to pay a price for the sake of our self-defense, then we will have to pay it.
—Prime Minister Menachem Begin1
In the 1970s, the Israeli music scene—like much of political, cultural, and public life in Israel—was dominated by Ashkenazim, white Jews of European extraction, as it had been ever since long before the beginning of the modern aliyot and independence. Naomi Shemer’s parents had immigrated from Vilna. Arik Einstein, the uncontested king of Israeli rock in the 1960s, was born in the Yishuv in 1939, also to parents from Europe. When the first Eurovision competition was staged in 1973, Israel was represented by one of the country’s most popular singers—Ilanit. Her parents had immigrated to Palestine from Poland. In 1974, the band representing Israel at Eurovision and that sang “Natati Lah Chayai” (“I Gave Her My Life”)—an Israeli hit to this very day—was the enormously popular Kaveret (Beehive), a playful comedic group of five white (Ashkenazi) men.
Israeli radio stations mostly ignored music written and performed by Mizrachim, and record companies had little interest in them. To the music establishment, the Middle Eastern timbre of Mizrachi music sounded strange, foreign, almost Arab. Nothing about the way these Mizrachim looked, sounded, or expressed their Jewishness was what Bialik, Alterman, and others had imagined when they thought of the new Jew who would emerge in the Jewish state. The music scene was but one representation of a much wider phenomenon—Mizrachim were relegated to the periphery of Israeli society in almost every way.
It was the invention of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous audiocassette that helped bring about a dramatic change. In the early 1970s, Mizrachi musicians, ignored by recording studios, began to disseminate their music on cassettes, first in Tel Aviv and later in other areas, as well. This North African, Middle Eastern, somewhat renegade music was soon called muzikat ha-kasetot—“the cassette music.”* Soon, it began to change the Israeli music scene. Mizrachi music burrowed its way into Israeli life. Musicians like Zohar Argov (whose parents had come not from Europe, but from Yemen) got their first breaks with the cassette music revolution2 and eventually became national stars.
THE MIZRACHI “REVOLUTION,” JUST beginning in the 1970s, would affect much more than the music industry. Israeli political life, too, was about to undergo a seismic shift. The Mizrachim had long lived under the thumb of Arab majorities. They came to Israel when their host countries pressured or forced them to leave. Often expelled without most of their assets, many of them quickly became a subset of Israeli society largely locked in poverty. Yet the Israel to which they came was itself confronting withering economic pressures, and it had meager resources to expend as these Mizrachim made Israel their new country.
The Jewish state took them all in, made them all citizens, gave them an education and basic housing. But the government had placed them in far-flung ma’abarot. The government’s decision to place these immigrants far from the center of the country was in some ways motivated by national considerations. Years earlier, placing the kibbutzim—with their deeply entrenched tradition of military training—near Israel’s borders had contributed to the country’s defense. Similarly, situating the ma’abarot far from the center of the country was a conscious decision to populate the state’s periphery lest Israel’s possession of those areas ever be contested in the future.
Yet for the Mizrachim, understandably, the decision to place the ma’abarot so far from the country’s center created a sense that they had literally been relegated to the periphery of Israeli society, and that unless they took action, nothing would change. Much of the immigrant generation remained docile in the face of government decisions, but for their children, a sense of injustice became a central pillar of their identity. They began to organize in the early 1970s. One group, the Black Panthers (named for the American group with the same name), arranged a meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1971 in which they expressed their frustration. After the meeting, all Meir had to say about them was “they’re not nice.”3 The leadership of Mapai was utterly out of touch; the country was ripe for revolution. The Agranat Commission and Golda Meir’s subsequent resignation only reinforced that sense.
Yitzhak Rabin, who succeeded Meir, did not last long either. In 1977, the Israeli press revealed that Rabin’s wife, Leah, maintained a small overseas bank account (left over from their years when he had served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States), a practice then prohibited by Israeli law. An angry, exasperated, and depressed Israeli public had had enough of Labor leaders who seemed incompetent, corrupt, or out of touch when the rest of the country was struggling financially and Rabin, like Meir before him, resigned.
Israel was ready for change.
RELEGATED TO THE POLITICAL opposition since Israel’s first elections in 1949 (except for the brief period of the unity government beginning with the Six-Day War), Menachem Begin had by 1977 spent twenty-nine years failing to make much political headway. A disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Begin had mostly established his reputation—for better and for worse—in the latter part of the prestate era and during the first decade of independence.
After he was appointed to lead the Irgun, he had declared the revolt against the British. He had masterminded the attack on the King David Hotel building, which proved critical to the British decision to leave Palestine. Begin also had played a critical role in ensuring that the fighting after the Altalena did not become a full-fledged civil war. Though he lost his political battle against taking German reparations, the fight earned him the reputation among many Israelis as the watchman for the Jewishness of Israel’s soul.
David Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, had continually cast Begin as a fascist, a label that stuck even with American Jews. In advance of Begin’s trip to the United States in 1948, leading American Jewish figures—Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt among them—wrote a letter to the New York Times in which they also called him a fascist, noting that Begin “preached an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority.”4
By 1977, Begin had not shaken the accusation entirely, but many Israelis had come to intuit that he was much more complex than his enemies suggested. It was Begin who had been one of the most impassioned voices pushing for the end of military rule over Israeli Arabs,5 and after a 1965 Knesset reinvestigation of the Altalena affair in which some people alleged Ben-Gurion had tried to have Begin killed,6 it was Begin who emerged largely vindicated.
Throughout his years as head of the opposition, Begin had cultivated a relationship with Mizrachi Jews. He reminded them, time and again, that when he ran the Irgun, his fighters came from Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Argentina, South Africa, Iraq, Persia, and other non-European Jewish communities:
[I]n all the divisions of the Irgun we had members who came from all Jewish communities and of all classes. . . . We were the melting-pot of the Jewish nation in miniature. We never asked about origins: we demanded only loyalty and ability. Our comrades from the eastern communities felt happy and at home in the Irgun. Nobody ever displayed stupid airs of superiority toward them and they were thus helped to free themselves of any unjustified sense of inferiority they may have harbored.7
In the Irgun, unlike the Knesset, he noted, Mizrachi men attained the highest positions of power.
One might have expected that the Mizrachim would see Begin, a suit-wearing, “proper,” and gentlemanly Polish Jew, as highly European—and therefore part of the same problem that Labor represented. Ironically, Begin’s Polish background served him well with Israel’s North African immigrants. In the early 1950s, as he visited the ma’abarot (and called the Mizrachim living there “my brothers and sisters”), residents of the transit camps took note of his formal attire, the dark suits that seemed so out of place among the Yishuv leaders. They saw his dress as a form of respect for them; to the Mizrachim, the T-shirts and shorts that Ben-Gurion favored when he visited them seemed dismissive, not respectful. Begin capitalized on their simmering anger. As early as 1959, he told a largely Mizrachi audience that Ben-Gurion had turned Israel into a divided country of “Ashkenazim and non-Ashkenazim.”8
THE COMBINATION OF THE Yom Kippur War, Meir’s resignation after the Agranat Commission, Rabin’s resignation under a cloud of financial scandal, and the abiding frustrations of the Mizrachi population was Begin’s perfect storm. On Election Day in May 1977, exit polls (the first in Israel’s history) stunned the nation. Begin’s Likud won 43 seats, while voters gave the Alignment (Ben-Gurion’s reconfigured Mapai Party) only 32 seats (a decrease of more than a third of its previous number). Menachem Begin became the only leader in history to have lost eight consecutive elections only to win the ninth.9
The victory was dubbed the “Mahapach” or “Reversal,” by Israeli newscaster Chaim Yavin. (That word was related to mahapeicha, the Hebrew word for “revolution.”) Many Israelis, especially Mizrachi voters, took to the streets, chanting with jubilation, “Begin! Begin!” Israel had a new crowned prince. It was not only Begin’s day; the Mizrachim felt that it was theirs, too. Finally, they felt, they had played a central role in charting the nation’s course.
The Ashkenazi elite was in shock. Those Israelis who had grown up under Ben-Gurion and had revered him could not imagine a country led by any other party. As one keen observer noted, “they could not comprehend how one could hate the party that had built the state and absorbed millions of Mizrachim, and they were stunned by its defeat.”10
On Election Day, as the results came in, reporters shoved microphones at Begin waiting to hear what he would say. Though not punctiliously observant, Begin always carried a kippah with him, and now, he donned it and recited the shehecheyanu, the traditional blessing to mark an achievement and good fortune. Israelis had never witnessed such an act by a high-ranking politician. Ben-Gurion had not even donned a kippah during the Declaration of the State in 1948. When another reporter, in the midst of an exuberant crowd, asked him what style prime minister he would be, Begin paused for a moment at the odd question, and then responded, “In the style of a good Jew.”11
Israelis are still divided about what Begin meant when he said that, but Israel was already rethinking what it meant to be a “good Jew.” That year, a wildly popular comedian, actor, and director of the Israeli stage, Uri Zohar, put on a kippah for the first time on the television game show he hosted.12 That was but one instance of a wider phenomenon; religion was reentering Israeli life, in both politics and culture.
IN AN IMPRESSIVE DEMONSTRATION of Israelis’ deep commitment to their democracy, the transition from Mapai to Likud, after almost three decades of Mapai rule, was entirely uncontested. Begin assumed leadership of the government.
The first major development during his administration focused not on the Mizrachim, but on peace. For years, Henry Kissinger had been engaging in shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Egypt and had succeeded in getting both sides to agree to two disengagement agreements, disentangling their forces after the Yom Kippur War. But those ended a previous conflict—they did little to avert the likelihood of a future one.
Just months after Begin’s election, however, after a series of secret back-channel communications (some of them through Romania’s president Nicolae Ceauşescu), Egyptian president Anwar Sadat departed from his prepared remarks to the Egyptian Parliament on November 9, 1977. Israel “will be stunned to hear me tell you,” he announced, “that I am ready to go to the ends of the earth, and even to their home, to the Knesset itself, to argue with them, in order to prevent one Egyptian soldier from being wounded.”13
In an almost immediate response to Sadat’s gambit, Begin issued his own radio broadcast—aimed directly at the Egyptians—in which he invited Sadat to Jerusalem. Eight days later, to many Israelis’ disbelief, Sadat’s plane landed in Tel Aviv. Begin met Sadat at the bottom of the steps leading from the plane, and the two men embraced on the red carpet laid out for Sadat and his procession. Israeli and Egyptian flags fluttered in the breeze. In the minutes that followed, Sadat met a veritable “who’s who” of Israeli leadership. The man who had waged war on Israel was now standing on Israeli soil, meeting the country’s leaders and being shown a warm welcome. He was introduced to Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, who had led Israel’s stunning victory in 1967, and to Golda Meir, who had defeated him in 1973.
Rabin later recalled being immediately impressed with Sadat: “Here he was meeting all his former arch-enemies, one after another, in the space of seconds, and he nonetheless found a way to start off his visit by saying exactly the right thing to each and every one of them.”14 He also made a deep impression on the citizens of Israel, who watched on television with rapt attention. “The citizens of Israel were ecstatic. If Sadat wanted to persuade them of his peaceful intentions, he had won them over in a single dramatic gesture.”15
The following day, Sadat became the first Arab leader to address the Knesset. He laid out five conditions for peace: Israel’s complete return to the 1967 borders, independence for the Palestinians, the right for all to live in peace and security, a commitment not to resort to arms in the future, and the end of belligerency in the Middle East.
Sadat’s demands were steep, and the negotiations were painstaking, acrimonious, and slow going. The United States, under President Jimmy Carter, joined the negotiations as intermediaries. Begin and Sadat developed a mutual respect (though their relationship, too, had ups as well as many downs), but relations between Begin and Carter were toxic. Carter invited Begin and Sadat to Camp David, where he thought the bucolic setting might help move matters forward. Even there, though, negotiations almost collapsed. Begin and Sadat locked horns and hardly saw each other. Carter called Begin a “psycho,”16 while Begin thought Carter was purposely and callously ignoring the enormity of the concessions the president was asking the prime minister to make. Begin was inclined to depart.
Eventually, the sides were able to narrow their differences. Begin sacrificed the Sinai but kept the West Bank. He resisted Sadat’s demands that land from the West Bank be given to the Palestinians, stating that he did not intend to sign an agreement with one enemy while creating a state for another. The Egyptian president got the Sinai back by being the first Arab head of state to make peace with Israel and by selling out the Palestinians.
On September 28, 1978, at roughly three A.M., after hours of acrimonious debate, the Knesset voted 84 in favor, 19 opposed, and 17 abstentions; the Camp David peace agreement was approved. Begin had the beginning of his peace with Egypt. The man the British had once called terrorist number one had made peace with Israel’s most powerful enemy. For the sake of peace, Israel was agreeing to withdraw from land it had captured in a war it had not started and in which it had lost thousands of its sons. To those who recalled that Meir’s left-leaning government had refused to take Sadat up on his ostensible offers to negotiate, it was a stunning move.
It would also not be the last time Israel made the choice to cede land in the hopes of peace.
Israelis took note of the fact that it was a right-wing prime minister—in fact, the country’s first right-wing prime minister—who had agreed to withdraw from territory. Part of the reason was parliamentary politics. If the Left sought to withdraw, the Right would try to block the move. But when the Right advocated giving up territory, the Left (which always claimed to be more inclined to compromise for peace) would obviously have to support the move. The Right, it ironically seemed, might be the key to peace in the future, as well. A significant part of the formula in this case, though, was Begin himself. Much more decisive than many of his predecessors, when he saw opportunities, he rarely hesitated to act.
Shortly thereafter, the Nobel Committee decided to award the Peace Prize to both Begin and Sadat. Sadat’s willingness to make peace with Israel, however, had made him the most reviled leader in the Arab world. (The Arab League ostracized and expelled Egypt, closing its headquarters in Cairo. Egyptian students studying abroad were expelled from other Arab states.) Fearful for his life (and perhaps not wishing to be seen with Begin at this stage, with negotiations still unfolding), Sadat chose not to attend the Nobel ceremony on December 10, 1978, and sent his son-inlaw instead.
In Israel, too, old party animosities endured. Golda Meir, embittered and an heir to Ben-Gurion’s instinctive resentment of Begin, remarked—with her characteristic wit still intact—that Begin deserved not a Nobel, but an Oscar.17 She died while he was in Oslo receiving the prize.
Sadat’s precautions and his decision not to attend the Nobel ceremony did not save him, however. Attitudes toward the Egyptian president only worsened when Israel passed the 1980 Jerusalem Law, which stated that all of Jerusalem was Israel’s capital, and was interpreted as Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. On October 6, 1981, in a moment eerily evocative of the 1951 murder of Jordan’s King Abdullah I after rumors spread that he was considering peace talks with Israel, Anwar Sadat was assassinated by soldiers in his own army (who were affiliated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad) while attending the annual parade in Cairo commemorating the Egyptian crossing of the Suez during the October War (the Egyptians’ term for the Yom Kippur War).18
THERE WAS ACRIMONY and resentment inside Israel, too. As early as the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978, Jewish residents of the Sinai protested the Knesset’s decision to withdraw. The largest standoff took place at Yamit, a smallish secular town near the border with Gaza, where the withdrawal began in earnest in April 1982—shortly after Sadat’s assassination. Though many left peacefully in exchange for compensation, some of the residents refused to abandon their homes.19 They clung to rooftops, and IDF soldiers had to use powerful water hoses to dislodge them. One extreme group locked itself in a bunker in Yamit and said they would blow themselves up if the army sought to dislodge them. Begin refused to back down. Ultimately, Israeli authorities destroyed the settlement entirely. They dismantled its greenhouses and uprooted orchards. What had been transformed into fertile land almost immediately became, once again, desert.
Though there were no significant injuries in the withdrawal, the sight of Israeli citizens scuffling with Israeli soldiers cast a pall over the country. Israelis would witness similar scenes of anguish almost a quarter of a century later when Israel left Gaza in 2005. Yet both of the withdrawals were actually remarkable displays of Israeli democracy at work, as well as restraint by the settlers and by the military. There were no serious injuries in either, despite great sadness and gloomy predictions of violence.
At the same time, Israelis intuited that were Israel ever to leave the West Bank, scenes infinitely more violent were likely to unfold.
THOUGH THE LIKUD WAS not a religious political party, most of its leadership and many of its voters felt a natural kinship to Gush Emunim, the religious-nationalist movement that had spearheaded settlement growth. These settlers were passionate and unabashed Zionists in an era in which many Israelis had started to grow cynical about the ideological fervor of previous generations. The Gush Emunim pioneers saw themselves as doing what the early pioneers had done—continuing to build on land that was the Jewish ancestral homeland that Israel had now captured in a defensive war it had not sought.
Begin’s identification with the settler movement had begun years earlier. In 1974, Gush Emunim members had sought permission to build one of the first settlements, Elon Moreh. As was the case in the beginnings of many settlements (including that in Hebron), when permission was refused, settlers went anyway. Eventually, after numerous requests, the (left-wing government) acquiesced and approved what the settlers had already started.
The issue of settlements in the newly occupied territory was perhaps the most divisive political question of the time, and largely in hopes of dodging it, Labor governments waffled. That indecisiveness allowed the settlers to create their facts on the ground. Begin, in contrast, was committed to continuing that policy, as a matter of principle and not only political expediency. In May 1977, two days after the elections, Begin and Ariel Sharon visited the temporary Elon Moreh site. “Soon,” Begin said, “there will be many more Elon Morehs.”20
When reporters following the prime minister-elect asked whether Begin’s firm commitment to the settlements implied a future annexation of the West Bank, they got a tongue-lashing in return:
We don’t use the word “annexation.” You annex foreign land, not your own country. Besides, what was this term “West Bank”? From now on, the world must get used to the area’s real—biblical—name, “Judea and Samaria.” . . . [I]s it so difficult for you to use these words?21
A different Israeli ethos had come to power. During the course of Begin’s tenure as prime minister, the number of settlements doubled. Given that this number would later increase under right-wing Israeli governments and that the Right was always much more unabashed about defending the legitimacy of the settlement movement, the international community would later speak of settlements as the creation of the Israeli political Right, but that was incorrect. When Begin took office, there were already seventy-five settlements—and they had been created under the governments of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Settling land—whether purchased or captured in conflicts that Israel did not seek—was not a policy of the political Right or Left. It was a central pillar of Zionism’s ethos from the very outset.
That was how the Jews had built their state. Many Israelis saw no reason to give up on the very ideology that had made their country possible in the first place. What was different about the Right was that it made that claim entirely unapologetically.
WHILE ISRAEL HAD PEACE (even if a “cool” peace) with Egypt, new threats continued to emerge. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was threatening to “drown” the Jewish state “with rivers of blood.”22 Toward that end, Iraq—with the active assistance of the French—was building a nuclear reactor. The French, who had once helped Israel build its own reactor in Dimona, had now decided to assist a country committed to destroying the Jewish state. Upon his election, Begin began to insist that under no circumstances could Hussein, who was intent on destroying the Jewish state, be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.
In August 1978, Begin convened the first of dozens of secret cabinet meetings to determine the appropriate course of action. Any military action was fraught with danger. On the diplomatic front, Israelis knew that the United States, interested in protecting its broader interests in the Arab Middle East, might well condemn and isolate Israel following an attack, especially since the U.S. State Department continued to claim as late as 1980 that there was “no hard evidence that Iraq has decided to acquire nuclear explosives.”23 Militarily, the mission to destroy Iraq’s reactor would be no less treacherous. The pilots would be flying twelve hundred miles across enemy territory, dangerously low and close to the ground to avoid radar (in fact, several pilots were killed in training for the mission).
Yet for Begin, there was no question that the mission was critical. The Jewish people had not reestablished its national home after two thousand years only to live once again under the threat of extinction.
On June 7, 1981, eight Israeli fighter jets streaked east toward Iraq. Arriving undetected, they dropped their bombs; the Iraqi reactor at Osirak was completely destroyed, and all the planes returned safely to Israel. While the attack was a glorious moment for Israel’s military, international reaction was immediate and unremittingly critical. The French were incensed as expected, but the Israeli government encountered a blanket of criticism even in the United States. Two days after the strike, the New York Times published an editorial lambasting the strike as “an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression.”24 With a hint at Begin’s past, the paper declared that the prime minister “embraces the code of his weakest enemies, the code of terror. He justifies aggression by his profound sense of victimhood.”25 Joseph Kraft of the Los Angeles Times likened the attacks to Arafat’s terrorism, insisting that “Americans need not be afraid to point out that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, looks no more prone to terrorist tactics than does Menachem Begin.”26
The United States initially condemned Israel’s actions, even supporting the unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 487, which depicted the attack as a “clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct.”27 A decade later, in 1991, while at war with Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, the United States essentially recanted. U.S. secretary of defense Dick Cheney gave the Israelis a satellite photograph of the Osirak reactor remnants, on which he wrote:
For General David Ivri, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm!
Dick Cheney, U.S. Sec. Def.28
The peace treaty with Egypt also survived the attack on Iraq. No Arab armies responded. The reactor was gone, the peace treaty survived, and everyone understood that even U.S. president Ronald Reagan was not as incensed as he had pretended. The attack was an unmitigated success.
Israel now had a policy known as the “Begin Doctrine,” which would endure long after Begin himself was gone from the political arena. It held that Israel would not countenance any of its mortal enemies seeking to develop or acquire a weapon of mass destruction.29
THOUGH ISRAEL HAD PROVEN that it could make peace with nations willing to accept its existence and take on those who planned its destruction, the Jewish state’s new challenge was not standing armies, but terrorism—most notably the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Since September 1970, when Jordan’s King Hussein expelled Yasser Arafat and the PLO from his kingdom, the PLO had begun using Lebanon (on Israel’s northern border) as a new base of activities against Israel. (See Map 8.) Lebanon, once a thriving Middle Eastern country, was now in the grips of an increasingly bitter civil war between numerous factions, which included the entrenched Maronite Christians and the country’s Muslim populations, Syrians, and Druze. Lebanon was a country with deeply embedded rivalries; the country’s disintegration and chaos made it a perfect launching pad for terrorist activity into Israel.
Terrorism, of course, was nothing new to Israel. Initially, the PLO opted for high-visibility attacks, many of which became iconic moments in Israeli history. Most infamous, perhaps, was the attack on the Munich Olympics in September 1972. Terrorists from the Black September Organization stormed the Israeli accommodation block in the Olympic Village and took Israeli athletes hostage. A German Special Forces team failed in its attempt to rescue the hostages, and by the end of the shooting, eleven Israelis were dead.* It was lost on very few Israelis that thirty years after the Holocaust, it was Germany—of all places—where Jewish blood was being spilled as the entire world watched the unfolding horror on television.
Four years later, in the summer of 1976, Palestinian and German terrorists hijacked an Air France plane and took it to Entebbe, Uganda, where they held more than a hundred hostages, most of them Jews and, of those, many Israeli. In a daring mission that became the stuff of Israeli legend, an Israeli Special Forces team flew to Entebbe on July 4 and rescued all the hostages (save for three who were killed in the fighting). The team’s commander, Yonatan Netanyahu (brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, who would later become prime minister), was the only Israeli commando killed in the attack, and almost instantly—given the audaciousness of the successful rescue and his own bravery—was transformed into an Israeli hero.
THERE WAS UNREST ON the home front, too. Over the years, Israeli Arabs had begun to organize and to demand better social and economic conditions. In March 1976, the Israeli government announced plans to appropriate a large swath of land, some of it Arab owned, and to assign it to several Jewish cities, including Carmiel (an Israeli town approximately midway between Haifa and the Sea of Galilee). To Israeli Arabs, the continuous erosion of their control over lands that had long been theirs was symbolic of their general second-class status. On March 30, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs began to protest. The land appropriation was the immediate trigger, but the huge turnout suggested that the protests were also about long-term simmering resentment. The protests grew violent; Arabs burned tires in the streets, blocked roads, and threw rocks (and some say, Molotov cocktails) at security forces. In the mayhem that followed, accounts of which remained highly contested, six Israeli Arabs—who were not armed—were killed by Israeli forces. In the minds of many of Israel’s Arabs, it was a replay of the 1956 Kafr Kassem massacre and it became a turning point in Israeli Arabs’ sense of self. Israeli Jews protested against the government regularly, the Arabs noticed. But Jews did not end up shot by soldiers and police. Land Day 1976, as it became known, was transformed into a defining and painful milestone in the Israeli Arab narrative.
While Israeli Arabs had protested mostly unarmed, Palestinian extremists outside of Israel turned ever more violent. Arafat changed tactics, and using southern Lebanon as his base, began firing rockets at Israeli civilians, hoping to make Israeli life unbearable. Cross-border assaults and rocket fire into northern Israel grew increasingly common; for Israel’s citizens, bomb shelters were becoming a regular part of life, and a sense of siege descended on the northern portion of the country. By 1982, over fifteen thousand Palestinian guerrillas were operating in southern Lebanon, from Beirut down to the area increasingly called “Fatah-land.”30
On March 11, 1978, early in Begin’s tenure as prime minister, an eleven-man terror cell infiltrated Israel from the sea, hijacked a bus traveling Israel’s coastal road en route to Tel Aviv, and killed thirty-eight Israelis and injured seventy-one. It was, Time magazine noted, “the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history.31 An Israeli response, Operation Litani, forced a hasty PLO retreat to Beirut, but the PLO remained ensconced in Lebanon. It was an early indication that Israel would not easily win its war against terror by military means.
The threat against the north continued, as did shelling. Israelis in the north had to flee to bomb shelters as rockets from Lebanon struck their towns and cities. Israeli children were spending many nights belowground, terrified. Then—just as the coastal road attack had unleashed Israel’s first foray into Lebanon—an attack in London by a Palestinian splinter terror group precipitated the second.
On June 3, 1982, Palestinian terrorists shot Israel’s ambassador to England, Shlomo Argov, in London.* The attack on Argov was the final straw, but tensions had been rising. For Begin, a disciple of Jabotinsky who had inherited a passionate commitment to hadar (the notion that the core of Jewish life should be dignity), the image of Israeli children cowering in fear night after night was an outrage he would not abide. It was an image of what Jewish life in Europe had been like, and the opposite of the purpose of Jewish sovereignty. Evoking a bewilderment that had echoes of Bialik’s “The City of Slaughter,” Begin asked why the Jews should accept being attacked without being willing to defend themselves:
We will be nobody’s cowering Jew. We won’t wait for the Americans or the United Nations to save us. Those days are over. We have to defend ourselves. Without readiness for self-sacrifice, there will be another Auschwitz. And if we have to pay a price for the sake of our self-defense, then we will have to pay it. Yes, war means bloodshed, bereavement, orphans—and that is a terrible thing to contemplate. But when an imperative arises to protect our people from being bled, as they are being bled now in Galilee, how can any one of us doubt what we have to do?32
Begin’s plan was risky. The Israelis hoped that if the Christians could take control of Lebanon, rocket fire into Israel would cease. Furthermore, Begin hoped that in return for supporting Bashir Gemayel, the head of Lebanon’s Christian Phalangist Party (the Phalangists were a Lebanese Christian paramilitary organization founded in 1936), in his ongoing battle against Lebanon’s Muslims, Israel might be rewarded with a peace treaty. The entire plan, however, depended on Gemayel’s success—over which Israel had virtually no control.
Operation Peace for the Galilee was launched on June 6, 1982. Despite some initial successes at ridding southern Lebanon of PLO fighters, Israel’s plans quickly unraveled. Ariel Sharon took Israeli troops far beyond the forty-kilometer line to which the cabinet had agreed and that Begin had committed to Reagan he would observe. Not long thereafter, the IDF had Beirut under siege; Israel, it was clear, had invaded another country. Israeli casualties were also heavy—more than two hundred soldiers had been killed and a thousand more had been wounded. For the first time, many Israelis felt that they were fighting a war that Israel had chosen to start, not one that had been forced on them.
Lebanon was becoming Israel’s Vietnam.
Israel’s international image also suffered. Despite his own losses, Arafat refused to leave Beirut. He appeared on Western television regularly, showing pictures of maimed Palestinian children and still-smoldering Palestinian homes. As a result of Israel’s attack on Beirut, to many millions of international viewers, Arafat was suddenly a hero, the redeemer of the Palestinian people.
Militarily, though, Arafat and the PLO were no match for Israel’s massive firepower. Israel bombed Palestinian refugee camps in southwest Beirut, home to significant PLO positions, relentlessly—and successfully. By August 12, 1982, Arafat conceded. Forced out of Jordan in 1971, the PLO now had to leave Lebanon, too. Between August 21 and 30, some nine thousand PLO fighters (and another six thousand Syrian troops) were escorted out of the city. Arafat, in the company of some of his fighters, set sail for Tunisia.
From its outset, though, nothing about the Lebanese operation had gone as expected, and its end was no exception. On September 14, 1982, less than a month after Arafat’s departure from Beirut, the Christian Phalangist headquarters in Beirut was bombed by a Syrian operative. Twenty-seven people were killed, among them Bashir Gemayel. Israel had lost its “Great Lebanese Hope” for peace, and the Christians had lost a leader many revered. The Israeli government’s entire strategy was disintegrating.
Matters quickly grew infinitely worse. The bedlam following Gemayel’s murder, Ariel Sharon believed, afforded Israel an opportunity to capture the overcrowded Palestinian refugee camps on the southwest edge of the city, which he said were serving as home to those PLO fighters who had not departed Lebanon.
Sharon told the cabinet that he planned to secure the Sabra refugee camp. He did not mention a second camp, Shatila, and emphasized that the Christian Phalangists “would be left to operate ‘with their own methods.’”33 Israelis, he promised, would not be doing the fighting.
On the evening of September 16, IDF divisions secured the perimeters of both the Sabra and Shatila camps. Under IDF watch, the Christian Phalangist forces, seeking revenge for the murder of Gemayel, entered the camps and encountered fierce resistance from Muslim PLO fighters. The Christians quickly overwhelmed them, and—enraged by the murder of Gemayel and fueled by long-standing hatred for their Muslim rivals—then began to open fire on civilians. For three days, the Christian Phalangists indiscriminately massacred Palestinian Muslims. By the time it was over, “groups of young men in their twenties and thirties had been lined up against walls, tied by their hands and feet, and then mowed down gangland-style with fusillades of machine-gun fire.”34 An estimated seven hundred to eight hundred men, women, and children had been killed.
On September 26, 1982, hundreds of thousands protested in Tel Aviv against the government, demanding a judicial inquiry into the massacre, and calling for the resignations of both “Sharon the Murderer” and “Begin the Murderer.” It was a profound national crisis; Begin established the Kahan Commission to determine whether Israel was responsible for the massacre.
In the United States, the massacre had a profound impact on the attitudes of young Jews to Israel. Gone was the wall-to-wall support for Israel that had emerged after 1967. As one leading American Jewish social activist put it, “It was a shameful moment. . . . I think also we lost a lot of young people. . . . You can’t behave that way as a nation and expect to spark in young, idealistic Jews a passion for Israel unless you’re dealing with fanatics.”35 That tear in the fabric of relations between Israel and young American Jews would become even more pronounced in years to come.
After four months of deliberations, the commission announced its findings. It determined that while no Israelis were directly responsible for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, Ariel Sharon, above all others, bore “personal responsibility” for the affair:
It is impossible to justify the Defense Minister’s disregard of the danger of a massacre. . . . His involvement in the war was deep, and the connection with the Phalangists was under his constant care. If in fact the Defense Minister, when he decided that the Phalangists would enter the camps without the IDF’s taking part in the operation, did not think that the decision could bring about the very disaster that in fact occurred, the only possible explanation for this is that he disregarded any apprehensions about what was to be expected.36
The cabinet accepted the recommendations of the Kahan Commission. Embittered, Sharon agreed to step down as defense minister, but he remained in the government as a “minister without portfolio,” not responsible for any particular ministry. Humiliated and widely detested, it would have been difficult to imagine then that just two decades later, that same pugnacious Ariel Sharon would become prime minister and would be the architect of one of Israel’s most significant territorial withdrawals.
ISRAEL MAINTAINED a military presence in Lebanon, along the border, until Prime Minister Ehud Barak pulled Israel’s troops out in 2000. At the time of the pullout, many Israelis felt that Israel had little to show for almost two decades in Lebanon, other than many hundreds of casualties. The drawn-out foray into Lebanon left much of the country permanently embittered, and—because of Sabra and Shatila—plagued by guilt. The country’s mood was captured beautifully by Matti Friedman, an Israeli who served in Lebanon at the very end of Israel’s presence there and who then went on to become an internationally recognized journalist and author:
The Israel that arrived in Lebanon in 1982 was still imaginative and light on its feet, however unwise its ideas and however wretched their execution. . . . [W]e thought we could make things happen. The invasion [of Lebanon] was supposed to effect a dramatic change in our surroundings. . . . Underlying [everything] was the same sentiment—our fate was malleable, and it was ours to shape. But most of us came to understand . . . that we were wrong. . . . The Middle East doesn’t bend to our dictates or our hopes. It won’t change for us.37
Israel’s film industry also captured the competing feelings of the country. Two Fingers from Sidon (1986) traced the daily life of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon shortly before Israel’s withdrawal, pointing to the dangers there and the ethnic and moral complexities of the IDF being in Lebanon. Beaufort, a 2007 film named for an Israeli outpost on a Lebanese mountain of the same name, was more critical, portraying a group of soldiers stationed there toward the end of Israel’s years in Lebanon. The movie captured their fears at being there and the moral conundrums they faced on the eve of Israel’s withdrawal, while conveying a deep sense of the endlessness and utter futility of war.
But nothing captured the sensibilities of Israel’s ongoing reckoning with the legacy of Lebanon better than Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli film produced in 2008. The film tells the story of Ari Folman, who in 1982 was a nineteen-year-old infantry soldier. In 2006, a friend from the period of his army service recounts his nightmares from the war, but Folman surprisingly remembers nothing. After meeting with others who served, Folman eventually recalls that he was among the soldiers who had fired flares into the sky to illuminate the refugee camp for the Lebanese Christian Phalange militia perpetrating the massacre inside,38 and he confronts his sense that he had blocked the memories because he felt that he was no less guilty of the massacre than those who had actually committed it firsthand.
Here was a continuation of the self-examination and self-criticism that had characterized Israeli society since its inception. Just as Khirbet Khizeh had become a bestseller when it questioned the behavior of some Israeli troops during the War of Independence and was then made part of the country’s high school curriculum, Waltz with Bashir was viewed by thousands of Israelis. In a society long wrestling with its role in the war and in Sabra and Shatila, it was the subject of seemingly endless debate and analysis, part of an Israeli discourse about whether—in a conflict they could not end—Israelis were nonetheless losing their way.
The film was banned in Lebanon.39
MONTHS AFTER THE KAHAN Commission report, Menachem Begin—in poor health, depressed by the war, and profoundly alone in the wake of his wife’s death—resigned and retreated to his home. For the next decade, until his death in 1992, he did not exit his apartment except for memorial ceremonies for his wife and medical appointments. Yitzhak Shamir, who had headed the Lechi during the British Mandate, succeeded the former head of the Irgun as prime minister.
While Begin had transformed Israel’s political map, he had also brought new religious sensibilities to the fore of Israeli discourse. By no means scrupulously observant, he nonetheless unabashedly loved and honored Jewish tradition. As Minister Dan Meridor put it, “He spoke Jewish.”40In the decades to come, Israeli society would begin to “speak Jewish” again, in ways that even Begin himself could not have imagined.
Yet Menachem Begin’s legacy was also colored deeply by Lebanon. Begin had good reasons for invading, but the war had turned into a quagmire. Eventually, Lebanon would essentially cease to exist as a functioning state. The power vacuum that resulted from the violence there—violence in which Israel was deeply involved—would turn the erstwhile country into a base for Hezbollah, which would become an even more fearsome terrorist threat to Israel. Could that have been prevented? It is obviously hard to know. Did Begin make critical decisions, or did Ariel Sharon mislead him? That, too, is still hotly debated even among people who were in Begin’s government at the time.
THE BEGIN YEARS HAD not been easy ones for Israel, but they had been important. Israel had made peace with its once most potent enemy, Egypt. It had made clear that it would not tolerate weapons of mass destruction in the hands of its sworn enemies. It had shown that it would go to war—even a war that many Israelis eventually opposed—to protect the rights of its citizens and children to live normal lives and not to sleep in bomb shelters.
On the social front, the Likud had ushered in an era of freer capitalism, but that, too, had gone awry. Annual inflation reached 450 percent.41 The Mizrachim were among the hardest hit by the economic downturn.42 Yet by acknowledging the injustices of the past and the mistreatment of some of Israel’s immigrants, Israelis had in some ways emerged more unified.
Perhaps most significant, the hegemony of a single party that had ruled Israel for decades had been broken. The Right, long relegated to the political desert, had ended Labor’s grip on the nation’s politics and policies. Israelis now had options as they charted their nation’s future. More often than not, what would determine how they voted was how supported or isolated they felt. As the international community abandoned Israel in the decades to come, Israelis would seek security in toughness. Israelis who felt safe could attend to social issues and take greater risks for peace; when they felt threatened, they instinctively elected those they thought could protect them. That simple fact would change the destiny of the Middle East in the years to come.