Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)
A Tragic Tale
Menachem Begin: The Absent Leader, by Ofer Grosbard, Strategic Research and Policy Center, National Defense College, IDF, 2007, 384 pp.
Reviewed by Sarah Schmidt
Dr. Ofer Grosbard, an Israeli-born and trained clinical psychologist who also holds a doctorate from the Institute for Conflict Management and Resolution at George Mason College in Virginia, is a research associate at the Strategic Research and Policy Center, National Defense College of the IDF. In addition he lectures at the Academic Arab College for Education in Haifa, as well as at Oranim College, a reflection of his multiple interests.
This biography of Menachem Begin has two sides. On the one hand it presents a sympathetic, almost hagiographic account of Begin’s life; on the other, it provides a psychoanalytic analysis of Begin’s successes and the personal and political defeats, which ultimately caused him to leave office reduced to a state of depression and isolation. As befits a book that began as a doctoral thesis, Grosbard heavily documents his factual information; in fact the book’s most valuable contribution lies in the numerous lengthy quotes from Begin’s speeches, Zionist Congresses and Israeli and American government protocols, and the recollections of those who knew or worked with him. This volume also contains an extensive bibliography to which Grosbard frequently refers, as well as a list of 32 interviews upon which he draws, and documents housed mainly at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center Archives.
Yet, while worshipful and seemingly supportive of numerous decisions Begin made during his life, Grosbard complicates his narrative by inserting lengthy, often repetitive, “diagnoses” of these decisions, relating to them as though Begin were on his psychoanalytic couch. Contributing to the hagiographic tone, Grosbard bases his first several chapters on Begin’s two autobiographies, White Night and The Revolt, as well as the other sources which reflect the views of Begin’s friends and confidantes. The exceptions are the observations of Americans involved in the negotiation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. This group tended to see Begin from a different perspective, one that reflected a pro-Arab bias and the personal friendship between Anwar Sadat and then American President Jimmy Carter and his associates.
Begin has been the subject of several biographies and reappraisals. His roles as leader of an underground movement that defined him as a terrorist during the 1940s and as a highly controversial leader of the opposition Herut and later Likud parties until 1977; his acceptance of the terms for peace with Egypt when he became Prime Minister, including his agreement to withdraw from the Sinai and evacuate settlements and settlers there; even his last years as a self-isolated leader who refused to lead — all have been analyzed exhaustively. Grosbard, however, emphasizes four basic themes which affected Begin’s life: the trauma of the Holocaust; his possibly abnormal attachment to his mother and other “mother figures,” such as his wife, Aliza; his dependence on love and acceptance from a father figure (Ben-Gurion, Carter); his need to build a “family” to replace the one he lost in the Holocaust, and thus his focus on the collective unity (“Likud”) of the Jewish people.
These themes are valid, but Grosbard’s constant reference to them is redundant and often distracts from the more factual narrative embodied in Begin’s life story. Nevertheless, Grosbard does an excellent job in using his biography of Begin to portray the history of Jewish life in Poland, the Irgun and its struggle during the 1940s against the British and Ben-Gurion, as well as the span of Israeli history until the time of Begin’s death in 1992.
Behind The Scenes
Though most of the details of Begin’s life are well known, including basic facts about the 1978 Camp David meeting with Sadat, one of the most enlightening sections of the book deals with the negotiations leading to Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. Grosbard quotes extensively from the recollections of the participants and provides an almost blow-by-blow account of the numerous ups and downs of the negotiation process. At times, Begin appeared to be suffering from bi-polar mood swings that made him dysfunctional, and Israeli insiders who were aware of his condition, such as then President Yitzhak Navon and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, considered going public and calling for Begin’s resignation.
As his doctors predicted, however, Begin’s ability to function returned. According to Grosbard, this resulted from his adopting tougher negotiating positions. In light of Carter’s recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, it is interesting to note Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brezinski’s explanation of Carter’s pro-Egyptian bias: he simply couldn’t relate to Begin’s persona and negotiating strategy. Grosbard suggests that Begin was aware of Carter’s partiality and used his numerous changes of mind, which others interpreted as “paralysis,” as a counter-balancing tactic.
It was Ariel Sharon who convinced Begin to evacuate the Israeli settlements in the Sinai. Sharon telephoned him from Israel, “authorizing” the evacuation if that meant securing a peace agreement. Though Begin was aware that the principle of evacuating settlements would set a precedent for the West Bank and Golan Heights, and strongly resisted linking the Sinai withdrawal to one from Gaza and the West Bank, he trusted Sharon and followed his advice but established a precedent which could be evoked in the future.
The Absent Leader
Grosbard terms the years after 1979 and the cabinet approval of the peace treaty Begin’s “not so good years” and, finally, his “bad years.” Throughout his life Begin had experienced periods of depression and withdrawal, but now they became more frequent and pronounced. Between 1979 and 1992, the year he died, Begin experienced his third heart attack, a mild stroke, and a serious fall that left him with permanent hip damage. These were also the years when his wife’s health deteriorated to the point where she frequently was attached to a respirator and, finally could no longer speak. Aliza had been Begin’s closest confidante and advisor since their days in the Polish underground at the beginning of World War II, and in 1982 she urged him to go to the United States for a scheduled meeting with President Reagan. Begin was in California when Aliza died. Describing his state of mind, Grosbard cites another biographer, H. Z. Hurwitz: “He never forgave himself for having left her and from then onward…was enveloped in profound sadness.” This was exacerbated by the mounting number of casualties during the first Lebanese War.
When Begin was called to testify before the Kahan Commission investigating the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, reporters noted that his testimony was disorganized and frequently contradictory, reinforcing the impression that, almost from the beginning of the war, Begin had been an “absent leader,” unaware of the details of the invasion, whom Sharon ignored and bypassed. After the Commission’s report he became even more “absent.” Indeed, one of the cabinet ministers likened cabinet meetings to that of “a ship without a captain.”
Grosbard’s conclusion reflects his dual perspective. He claims that the Lebanese War was not the reason for Begin’s depression. On the contrary, Begin’s mental deterioration resulted in an overreliance on Sharon which made him unwilling and unable to restrain Sharon’s initiatives that disregarded government sanctioned policy. The book ends on a sad note, describing a tragic ending to a heroic life. Grosbard, the author of this “revisionist” biography has thus succeeded in giving the reader a sense of the complexity and the tragedy which have characterized much of Israeli history.
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 H.Z. Horowitz, Begin, His Life, Words and Deeds (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing , 2004): 225.
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Dr Sarah Schmidt is senior lecturer in modern Jewish history and Zionist history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem