The Legacy Of A 'Fighting Jew'

In a speech at a West Bank settlement in 1975, Menachem Begin described a new kind of human being. " The fighting Jew," he said, "loves books, loves liberty and hates war. But he is prepared to fight for liberty." Two years later, after losing eight consecutive elections, Begin's hard-line conservatives finally overwhelmed their adversaries. The fighting Jews took power. When Begin died of heart trouble early last week at the age of 78, after more than eight years of hermitic retirement, they were still in control. His dour successor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, promised to "continue the struggle" for the right of the Jewish people to retain "our entire homeland, from the sea to the river."

The Polish-born Begin once said he wanted to be remembered "as the man who set the borders of the Land of Israel for eternity." Those borders still stretch from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan, in fact if not in international law. Begin did not conquer the Arab territories currently occupied by Israel, nor did his Likud bloc establish the first Jewish settlements there. But he spurred the settlement movement, even after the Camp David accords and a treaty with Egypt moved his country toward peace with the Arabs. His legacy has less to do with territory than with the transformation of Israeli politics. He moved the whole country to the right and pinned it there, establishing an intransigent militancy that prevails to this day.

Critics say he brought out the worst in Israel, a truculence that goes beyond the needs of self-defense. "Begin let many genies out of the bottle, creating a populistic nationalism based on incitement of the masses," says Yaron Ezrachi, a political scientist at Hebrew University. Many of Begin's supporters were Sephardim, the downtrodden Jews from Arab countries who were largely ignored by the Labor Party, which governed modern Israel for its first three decades. Begin fanned the flames of ethnic and religious passions. A fiery speaker and a charismatic leader, despite his old-fashioned manners and mousy appearance, he personified a country with a chip perpetually on its shoulder. The Holocaust, in which his own parents perished, was rarely far from his mind or absent from his speech, and he used it to justify almost everything he did. "In Beginism," says Ezrachi, "the dominant concept of the Jew is the victim fighting to restore his dignity and honor."

Opinion polls say there is at least a chance that the Likud's hold on power will be broken in the elections scheduled for June 23. But that's largely because the opposition Laborites have moved to the right. Although their newly chosen leader, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, favors some territorial concessions to the Arabs, he wants to retain many Jewish settlements for security purposes. And as defense minister in an earlier coalition government, he dealt harshly with the Palestinian intifada (uprising) in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Over the long term, a massive influx of mostly secular Jews from the former Soviet Union might move the country back toward the left. But largely because jobs are scarce, Soviet immigration has dropped sharply, from 10,000 people last December to 4,500 in February. Israel may have to decide, in effect, between immigration and settlement. The Bush administration wants a no-settlements pledge in return for the $ 10 billion loan guarantee that Shamir has requested to pay for absorbing the Soviet Jews. The prime minister hasn't finally committed himself on the issue, but his more hard-line supporters want to tell Washington to forget about the guarantee. "I would announce, 'Thank you very much,' and make a very big effort to raise these funds from other sources," Ariel Sharon, the belligerent housing minister, said recently.

Shamir and many other Likud leaders lack Begins charisma. They have all of his rigidity but little of his flexibility. Begin's greatest accomplishment was to prove that a fighting Jew could make peace, almost despite himself, with one of Israel's Arab neighbors. In 1978 he and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shared a Nobel Peace Prize for their moves toward settling the Arab-Israeli conflict. The progress came mainly from Sadat's breakthrough trip to Jerusalem in 1977 and from Jimmy Carter's moral midwifery at Camp David. But Begin didn't just go along with them; acting entirely on his own at times, he encouraged Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and drew up a plan for Palestinian autonomy, presenting it to Carter before he so much as showed it to his own cabinet. Then he lost his taste for peacemaking and finally retired, dispirited, after his 1982 invasion of Lebanon bogged down in military stalemate and the moral squalor of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. He will be remembered as a hawk who picked up an olive branch. Begin's successors have inherited his capacity for struggle but not, so far, his surprising ability to rise to a different kind of occasion.