View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Sunday, June 01, 2003

When Yitzchak Rabin was killed, one of the well-reported highlights of his career as a military officer was the Altalena incident. In 1948, Israel had just survived the first attempted murder by its neighbors, andthe Jews found themselves with a state. At the time, though, there wasn't just one military outfit loose in the country. There was the Haganah, but there was also the Irgun, headed by Menachem Begin. It's best-known for Deir Yassin, although even then, it's best known for things it didn't actually do, rather than things it did. But it was more aggressive than the Haganah, and commanded its own set of loyalties.

It was clear at the time that a country, a real country, can't tolerate the presence of independent military organizations operating within its borders (a fact that many Arabists don't seem to have grasped). Ben-Gurion certainly understood this. When a ship called the Altalena reached the Israeli coast, laden with arms for the Irgun, he ordered it sunk. Rabin was the one who actually gave the order to fire. Begin, called on by some firebrands to respond, spoke up in the Knesset to denounce the action, and then to order the integration of the Irgun units into the Haganah, to form the Israel Defense Forces.

In 1995, stress was laid on Rabin's role, but it was probably the least significant of the three. Ben-Gurion was the towering Israeli political figure for over 30 years, but he was not invincible. He lost the argument to accept the 1937 British proposal, which would have provided a state, tiny though it was, to accept refugees from Europe. Eventually, he was defeated politically in the early 1960s. He risked a tremendous amount by ordering Jewish soldiers to fire on fellow Jews, and he risked civilwar had Begin decided to resist.

Begin deserves no less credit. Given an opportunity to behave like Jefferson Davis, he instead was Lee at Appomattox. He also understood the importance of a united military, and, though it would take 30 years for his Likud party to gain power, the benefits of working through a political system.

Why is this important now? Compare the situation and the actions of the Israelis in 1948 to those of the Palestinians now. Not only the survival of Israel, but the survival of a normal Palestinian state depends on Mohammad Abbas defanging the terrorist militias. Not merely getting them to a cease-fire, but disarming them. They cannot be safely integrated into a Palestinian military. The Irgun may have been more radical in its means, but it essentially shared Labour's notion of what Israel should become - a non-theocratic, democratic Jewish state. There is no such common ground between sane Palestinians and the Islamists in question.

So far, neither Abbas nor Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or the various incarnations of PLO death squads show any willingness to subsume their ambitions for the greater good. Abbas is unwilling to invoke force, and the Islamists are unwilling to stand down. For peace to work in the region, the Palestinians will have to produce both a Ben-Gurion and Begin. There are no signs so far that they're capable of it.

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