Home / Articles / Menachem Begin and His Lasting Contribution to Israeli Foreign Policy and National Security
Many aspects of Israel’s national security situation today, which is almost the best it has ever been, began taking shape at the time of Menachem Begin. Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister of Israel in 1977, one year after Alan Luxenberg joined the Foreign Policy Research Institute: Alan saw Begin’s rise, and observed his continued effects on Israel long after his departure. In a multitude of areas, we in Israel today are enjoying (or, alternatively, trying to digest) the fruits of the trees which Begin planted, and of the gutsy (or problematical) decisions he made. Begin also serves as a “distant mirror,” and a touchstone, to society, and especially to leadership, in Israel today, especially in the party he founded. It is sometimes difficult to get a glimpse of him since he never published a memoir or provided extensive interviews.
The Peace Treaty with Egypt
One of Israel’s greatest strategic assets today is its peace treaty with Egypt, which recently reached 40 years of existence. From the moment he came to power, Begin was interested in a separate peace with Egypt and gave this issue his highest priority: since 1967, he had been willing to return the Sinai (and the Golan) in exchange for a full and formal peace treaty, achieved through direct negotiations. The opening to Egypt—and talks with Nicolae Ceausescu and the Hofi/Dayan-Toamey talks in Rabat, which led to Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem—were the brainchild of Begin and his foreign minister, Moshe Dayan. Begin apparently never believed that Sinai and the Golan were a part of the Land of Israel, the way the West Bank (and indeed, the East Bank) was; the withdrawal from Sinai was to a large extent intended to ensure the continued presence in the West Bank and Gaza. Begin was not a “reluctant peacemaker” as the American participants portrayed him, but was very clear about what kind of peace he wanted.
The peace treaty with Egypt has been one of Israel’s great strategic assets: the most powerful Arab country and military—which had been the main threat and opponent for the first 40 years of the state—was effectively removed from the strategic military equation; Israel’s greatest fear, a coalition of the surrounding Arab states, no longer existed. Since 1948, Israel’s main enemy was Egypt; after 1979, its main military rival was Syria, a much smaller and less powerful state. The peace treaty with Egypt has remained robust throughout Israeli engagements with other actors (most notably in the 1982 Lebanon War). Israel was able over time to lessen the defense burden on its economy (from one third of gross domestic product in 1974 to just over 5 percent in 2017) and to concentrate its military force on other missions and challenges. For over 30 years between 1979 and 2011, Israel took the reasonable risk that it could safely put Egypt on the back-burner and concentrate on more immediate threats. It assessed, correctly, that while Egypt could change, it could not do so from today to tomorrow—due to its military and economic reliance on the United States—and that there would be strategic warning.
Events since the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime have borne this risk management out: while Israel—like Mubarak himself—was surprised, the Egyptian peace treaty survived the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood government of the late Muhammad Morsi continued cooperation with Israel, and despite prophecies of doom, never seriously considered suspending the peace treaty. His security services personnel faithfully adhered to the logic of covert and discreet strategic cooperation with Israel: even his close relationship with Hamas did not severely impair the two sides’ willingness to do what needed to be done. In fact, Morsi’s government played an important mediating role in Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. Today, there is especially deep and significant cooperation in at least two fields: Israeli assistance to Egypt engaging jihadi forces in Sinai, and Egyptian willingness to serve as middlemen and interlocutors in Israel’s ongoing war of attrition and non-negotiations with Hamas. Relations have been so stable that Israel has over the years permitted the Egyptians to increase their forces in Sinai significantly beyond those allowed under the military appendices of the peace treaty, in order to better prosecute their war in Sinai, and control the entrances to the Gaza Strip.
Diplomatically, the peace with Egypt transformed Israel’s relations in the region. Once Egypt broke the psychological and political barrier to negotiating and reaching formal agreements with Israel—with a lag of several years during which Egypt was isolated in the Muslim world, but cemented its strategic turn towards the United States—other states and the Palestinians could begin to consider it.
But there is another, deeply political aspect of the peace with Egypt. Begin was the first Israeli leader to pass (or “return”) conquered territory to a neighboring entity in exchange for political normalization and relations (“land for peace”), and subsequently ordered the evacuation and destruction of Yamit and the other Sinai settlements. He spent much of his career as Prime Minister as an isolated figure: he was viewed by many in his own camp as a traitor. His agreement to evacuate the Sinai settlements created the enduring Israeli political phenomenon of parties to the right of Likud. The negotiations on autonomy for the Palestinians in the territories that accompanied the peace treaty also indicated the beginning of legitimacy and acceptance among moderates in Likud. These individuals began to recognize the internal and external political necessity for separation/partition from the Palestinians and of the creation of an Arab political entity in the West Bank. The Oslo Accords, and the withdrawal from Gaza, could not have happened without the First Camp David Accords.
Increased Cooperation with the United States
Begin was also crucial to another element of Israel’s national security concept: the strategic alliance with the United States. Yehuda Aviner describes in his book about the Prime Ministers of Israel how Begin broached the idea of a document on strategic cooperation to President Ronald Reagan at the two leaders’ first meeting in 1981, saying Israel was not only a strategic asset for the U.S., but also a strategic ally.
On November 30, 1981, after several weeks of discussions, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger signed a Memorandum of Understanding on strategic cooperation, which included joint military exercises, cooperation for the establishment and maintenance of joint readiness activities, cooperation in research and development, cooperation in defense trade, and “other areas within the basic scope and purpose of this agreement, as may be jointly agreed”; it also dictated the establishment of joint working teams to deal with various issues.
The agreement, while the first formal agreement on military and security cooperation between the two countries, was not perfect. Aviner writes that the Begin government felt that Secretary Weinberger, who opposed the idea, blocked most of the concrete proposals raised by the Israelis, and left it a vague, brief document with little that was new or substantive. Some, including his own Foreign Minister, Yitzchak Shamir, questioned the advisability of mentioning the Soviet Union by name as the party against which the agreement was aimed.
The original MOU led over the years to a cascade of increasingly more detailed and intimate agreements. In 1983, the two sides formed a Joint Political Military Group to implement provisions of the MOU. After the Begin years, the cooperation continued apace. Joint air and sea military exercises began in 1984, and the United States has constructed facilities to stockpile military equipment in Israel. Israel was designated in 1987 a “major non-NATO ally” by the Reagan administration, a status codified by Congress in 1996. The U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act (P.L. 113-296) of 2014 encouraged continued and expanded U.S.-Israel cooperation in a number of areas, including defense, homeland security, cyber issues, energy, and trade, and designated Israel as a “major strategic partner” of the United States.
U.S. military aid has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world. The United States has undertaken to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME) over other militaries in the region since Israel must rely on better equipment and training to compensate for being much smaller in land area and population than its potential adversaries. In addition, Israel being a de-facto ally of the United States has contributed mightily in the past 35 years to its deterrence posture.
The Bombing of the Iraq Reactor, and the Begin Doctrine
But another of Begin’s legacies is the understanding that even with a strategic alignment and intimate relationship with the United States, in the end, some things Israel will have to do for itself, and cannot always be deterred by diplomatic considerations. Begin decided in 1978 immediately after hearing about the Iraqi nuclear reactor program—built with French assistance—that it needed to be disrupted and stopped. But he did not hurry to impose this decision: the discussions with the heads of the security establishment and Cabinet, and the subsequent planning, lasted more than two years, with Begin making great efforts to recruit a majority among the ministers and informing the leaders of the opposition in order to achieve as wide an internal consensus as possible. On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-16s, covered by F-15s, destroyed the almost-completed Iraqi reactor. Begin was willing to hazard a crisis with the United States, which in the event was furious, supported the United Nations condemnation of the Israeli action, and froze arms shipments for a time.
A decade later, after the 1991 Gulf War, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney thanked David Ivri—who had commanded the Israeli Air Force during the raid—“for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.” If Begin had not made his decision, and taken a calculated risk, then Iraq would probably have had nuclear weapons within a few years, and the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars most probably never have taken place. Saddam might well still be in power—and far more dangerous and daring—than he was at the time.
The so-called “Begin Doctrine” was invoked again regarding Syria in 2007, and again Israel acted when the United States counseled caution. And the decade-long discussion of military and non-military options for preventing Iran getting a nuclear weapon builds both on the philosophical basis set by Begin—that countries that are hostile to Israel and call for its destruction must not be allowed to develop a nuclear military capability that could be used against Israel—and his practical precedent that it could be done, at bearable political cost, and without necessarily opening an all-out war.
The First War in Lebanon and Its Influence Today
The Lebanon war was Israel’s first “war of choice,” or “war of policy.” Until that time, even in the two wars that Israel started, in 1956 and 1967, it did so to preempt what was seen as an imminent enemy onslaught, which could only be countered by the inventively named “preventive counterattack.” The First Lebanese War was different. It was a war already planned, and waiting for a pretext; it was approved by the Cabinet on December 20, 1981, over six months before its ostensible trigger, the attempted assassination of Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom Shlomo Argov. Its goal was to reshape the Middle East by pushing the Syrians out of Lebanon, dismantling the Palestinian Liberation Organization mini-state in Lebanon, and helping install a friendly government in Beirut that would sign a peace treaty with Israel. But some claim persuasively that part of the greater plan was to pressure the Palestinian refugees out of Lebanon—causing them to go to Jordan to create a demographic unbalance that would bring down the Hashemite Kingdom and allow the creation of a Palestinian state on the Eastern bank of the Jordan River.
Begin apparently did not know all of these hidden agendas. In this, his belief in division of powers between the civilian and military leadership, his personalized decision-making, his tendency to accept the staff work done in the various organizations (especially the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry) as impartial and not create his own staff, and his almost blind faith in his ministers led him deeply astray. The war led to the end of the Begin era: Begin resigned and withdrew from public life in August 1983, embittered and broken by the human cost of the Lebanon adventure, the death of his wife, and apparently by the understanding that he had been misled and manipulated by Sharon and Rafael Eitan.
The war split Israel in a way that it had never been split before, and even led to the political murder of Emile Greenzweig in February 1983 at an anti-war rally, which foreshadowed the eventual murder of an Israeli Prime Minister for political disagreements. This lesson has remained, and the impact of 1982 can be seen in the insistence by the political, and especially the military, leadership that any use of ground forces in combat be backed by the broadest possible public consensus, and the fear of becoming militarily embroiled in a long-term military commitment. It can be argued that the 18-year military presence in Southern Lebanon, and the public, moral, and political debates it engendered, led not only to the eventual precipitous withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, but to the large-scale military disengagement from the West Bank cities in December 1995 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005. It can also be seen in the ongoing aversion to using ground forces in Gaza since 2007, except in cases like Protective Edge in 2014, which was judged to have overwhelming popular support.
Personal Example and Respect for Law and State Institutions
Begin’s foreign policy achievements were not the only thing that he did that left a legacy for today. So did his personality and approach to public service and executive power. Begin had great respect for state institutions, constitutional procedures and legal niceties, and was a firm believer in the primacy of rule of law. He supported for the first two decades of the state’s existence the lifting of military administration from Israel’s Arab citizens, finally implemented in 1966, on equal rights grounds. Upon coming to power in 1977, he wanted to codify the Israeli constitution, including a Bill of Rights, though he soon understood this move was impossible due to the positions of his religious coalition partners. After many years as an opposition parliamentarian, he had great respect for the Knesset.
He is well known in Israel by his famous quote, “There are judges in Jerusalem!” with which he meant the Supreme Court’s decisions on the legality of using privately owned Palestinian land, nationalized for security purposes, to create settlements in the West Bank. In one case, the Court upheld the legality of the settlement, while in another, it did not. As former Supreme Court Justice Hanan Meltzer noted, “Then Prime Minister Begin’s greatness was in that he said ‘there are judges in Jerusalem’, despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled against his position.” He was a standard-bearer of the supremacy of the judiciary. In 1952, he wrote, “An independent legal system is actually the last fortress of human liberty. . . . If the fortress falls, there is no longer a savior for a person who ground between the millstones of arbitrary authority.” He noted that despite the idea of separation of powers, the majority in parliament could become an instrument of the executive and a disguise for tyranny, and that an independent and powerful judiciary is therefore needed to review government actions and to uphold the peoples’ rights even when a majority seeks to suspend these rights. In April 1979, Begin, in his summary of a meeting of the government, noted that it “supports the principle of supremacy of the law over all agencies of the executive branch, including the government itself. I request of all ministers to make sure that all agencies fully fulfill orders of the Court, and implement them faithfully.”
Begin was personally abstemious and modest, almost monastic, in his habits. He always wore a dark suit and tie, as part of the Zhabotinsky concept of Hadar (Dignity). He was also a politician who identified himself totally with the State and with the Jewish People, and saw his political role as an historic one and as a sacred mission of service. His resignation when he perceived himself as having failed—a step almost unparalleled in Israeli politics—is a clear indication of this aspect of his personality. On the issue of respect for the law and the courts—and maybe the importance of personal example and probity—his political heirs in the party he founded, who name-check him daily and who have been in power for 33 of the past 42 years, are not necessarily Beginists.
 Gerald Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz. Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019), p. 15.
 Yehuda Ben-Meir, National Security Decisionmaking: The Israeli Case (Boulder: Westview, 1986), p. 112.
 Dan Korn and Yehiel Gutman, Israeli Cabinets: Wise Decisions, Stupid Decisions [in Hebrew] (Rishon Lezion, Miskal-Yediot Aharonot, 2017), p. 157.
 “Egyptian Army in Sinai Peninsula Doubles in a Year, With Israel’s Blessing,” Times of Israel, March 1, 2018; and “Egyptian forces to enter Sinai,” Israel Defense [in Hebrew], August 14, 2011.
 Jonathan Rynhold and Dov Waxman, “Ideological Change and Israel’s Disengagement from Gaza,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 123, no. 1 (2008).
 Steinberg and Rubinovitz, p. 57; and Yehuda Aviner, The Prime Ministers (London: Toby, 2010), pp. 569-571.
 Ben-Meir, p. 116. Years later, Shamir told me in a private interview that the anti-Communism of the Israeli government in the 1980s was not authentic, but a way to engage with the Reagan administration and display value on an issue it considered important.
 Jim Zanotti, Israel: Background and U.S. Relations, Congressional Research Service Report, July 31, 2018.
 Another contrast to the present day: from 1977 to 1979, Begin personally ordered that about 360 Vietnamese boat people be granted citizenship, full rights, and government-subsidized apartments (about half are still in Israel): compare that to the attitude in his party today regarding non-Jewish foreign asylum seekers.