- Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism by Gerald M. Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz
This volume provides a comprehensive but somewhat incomplete review, as well as a fairly deep but controversial analysis, of the political career of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (1913–92). It focuses on Begin's role in producing the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, a treaty that authors Gerald Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz identify as Begin's most significant political achievement and even as a model for future peace settlements in the Middle East and beyond. All in all, the authors have engaged in this scholarly effort for over 15 years and read numerous documents and reports (particularly in newly released Israeli archives). In general, they adopt a sympathetic attitude toward Begin and his political accomplishments, an attitude that many other scholars in the field have found greatly problematic. I would argue that the material included in the book itself and, even more so, the material not included in the book substantiate the doubts in regard to the quality of Begin's leadership.
The main strength of the book is in conveying the complexities surrounding Begin as the Right's political leader and as the primary diplomatic negotiator with Egypt, Israel's most powerful Arab opponent. In dealing with the notoriously ideological Begin, the authors try mightily, but not always successfully, to minimize the impact of their subject's psychological makeup. More seriously, they depict Menachem Begin as a "realist," while it seems that it might be more accurate to describe him as an "idealist," a leader who acted on the basis of his ideas and values, not the immediate (let alone long-term) interests of his country.
The authors declare in the opening of their book: "We are not revisionists." But, arguing that "previous narratives [of Begin's foreign policy] are shown to be incomplete" (p. xiii), they proceed to advance a revisionist thesis: Begin was not an inflexible negotiator obsessively focused on the Holocaust, he did not abandon his previous ideological positions, and other points that have been promoted for 40 years by both American and Israeli scholars and practitioners. In other words, this book offers a revisionist history of the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations and Begin's role in them; this is the book's importance and, on occasion, its problem.
The book itself and other sources refute the argument about Begin's alleged flexibility. It establishes Begin's uncompromising [End Page 664] "territoriality" (rooted in Ze'ev Jabotinsky's right-wing Revisionist Zionism since the 1920s), Begin's tendency to reject pragmatic compromises and favor ideological purity (p. 2), and specifically his complete rejection of any political deal in relation to the West Bank or "Judea and Samaria" (p. 3). Under the subtitle "Begin as a Pragmatic Leader" (p. 4), the authors proceed to describe his autonomy plan for the West Bank Palestinians—a stillborn plan condemned by the vast majority of the international community as a sham—as "an acceptable compromise," an "attempt to mediate between core ideological principles" (i.e., Greater Israel) and a pragmatic approach. To add insult to injury, the authors argue that Begin's approach followed the approach of the Israeli left. In fact, however, Begin's territoriality was the exact opposite of the center-left's territorial compromise, and as prime minister of Israel during a critical period, he used all of his power as the recognized leader of the hard right to prevent any reasonable political deal from materializing. In fact, the Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement was a major and critical tool for sabotaging any possible solution to the Palestinian problem.
In many ways, this volume is insightful and valuable, adding to the existing literature on Menachem Begin and his rightist, nationalist government. For example, the authors are correct in pointing out that there has been overemphasis on the Camp David summit of 1978 (p. 226) at the expense of other processes leading to...