A Duel in the Knesset - Begin PM to Peres
the parliamentary challenge he was about to present. He moved the page closer to his eyes, adjusted his spectacles and, glancing toward the press gallery to make sure the pack was in place, exclaimed in a faintly theatrical tone: "It is a fallacy to believe that the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict depends on our willingness to grant territorial concessions."
"Well?" snickered Begin in Peres' direction, flourishing the page. "Who do you think wrote that?"
Letting the question hang, he scanned the Chamber from end to end, jaw jutting, his expression derisive, his gaze finally settling back on the object of his scorn, who sat bristling in the number one seat of the opposition front bench, looking daggers back at him.
"Knesset Member Shimon Peres, you wrote that did you not? And who wrote" - again he peered at the page: "'I know that no territorial concession proposed by us will meet with a positive Arab response. To think otherwise is futile.' Who wrote that, Mr. Peres?"
A buzz began to drone around the packed chamber. Members sat grinning, grimacing or glowering, according to their allegiances.
"I ask again, who wrote that?" goaded Begin.
The buzz in the chamber rose. "Quiet!" bellowed the Speaker. "Order!"
"I'll tell you who wrote it," snarled Begin. "Knesset Member Shimon Peres wrote it! And who wrote: 'How can anybody believe that if we just settled East Shomron the Arabs would be more amenable to peace than were we to settle West Shomron?' Who wrote that?"
The glowerers and gloaters now began to heckle one another. Not a one heeded the frantic gaveling of the Speaker.
"Knesset Member Shimon Peres wrote that," teased Begin, above the tumult. "And who said, 'Everybody agrees we must hold on to the Golan Heights because they are the strategic high ground. But there is also strategic high ground in Judea and Samaria, at the foot of which lies Israel's most densely populated center, the coastal plain.' Who said that?"
The gavel of the Speaker of the House rose and fell as if it were some ineffectual, noiseless thing. Slowly, he got to his feet, his face distorted with frustration. In vast contrast, the prime minister seemed amused. He was leaning nonchalantly against the podium, fingers steepled, a smug smile hovering over his lips. Once the uproar began to subside, he rearranged his expression into a frown, straightened himself up, and pointing a grim finger at the leader of the opposition, nettled him like a faultfinding referee to an outmatched contestant: "Now listen well to what I'm about to add, Mr.
Peres. It is important that the nation hear the facts. It is important they know what kind of a leader advocates one policy one day and another the next."
Caustic and contemptuous, Peres shot back: "I always listen well to your Knesset routines, Mr. Prime Minister. But don't think you can mislead the nation today. Everybody here knows those statements you attribute to me were made at a different time under different circumstances."
Upon extracting this admission of authorship, the prime minister stroked his chin with great satisfaction. "Really!" he said, in feigned surprise. "I've heard you speak many times and you always stated your conviction that it was fallacious to think that territorial compromise would bring peace. Those quotations I just cited expressed your earnest and honest political beliefs - until recently, that is. So, what suddenly made you change your mind, Mr. Peres? What happened between the time you made those statements I've just quoted, and the dovish views you express these days? Tell us Mr. Peres."
You could sense by the sudden razor bite in his voice that he was readying for the kill, but Peres forestalled him. "Conditions change, positions change. Only fools don't change," he retorted. "Only fools cling to fantasies and to obsolete dreams."
Every syllable was annunciated sharply; clearly he had steeled himself for this duel. His devotees rallied around him with vigorous applause, while he leaned back with the confident ease of a swordsman who has just parried a tricky play.
Begin responded with a cheeky little grin. "Only fools, you say? Was it not Winston Churchill who said that the greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes? Well, Knesset Member Shimon Peres, tonight I am right!"
"And wasn't it Churchill who said T'd rather be right than consistent'?" shot back Peres, causing everyone present, government and opposition, to shout with laughter.
Begin cut in, "Well he might have, but I shall now tell the House exactly what turned you from a hawk to a dove, Mr. Peres - what brought about your change of mind. You decided you wanted to seize the leadership of your Labor Party from Yitzhak Rabin. You wanted to position yourself to become prime minister. But to remove Rabin, you first had to win the support of your party's left-wingers. And the only way you could do that was to trade in your ideological colors, to reinvent yourself from hawk to dove. And that's exactly what you did. Am I not right, Knesset Member Peres?"
Peres was on his feet, shaking his head violently, chopping the air
A Duel in the Knesset
with balled fists, shooting looks at his opponent that could freeze water. After all, Shimon Peres was no pushover. Whatever ill-will existed between himself and Rabin, he had an illustrious career to his credit. He had initiated Israel's nuclear Dimona project. He had essentially built the nation's aerospace industry. And now he had inherited a disillusioned party who lost the last elections, but was rebuilding it bit by bit with skill and patience. No wonder his usually rumbling, melancholy voice was strident with wrath as he shouted back at Begin that never in his life had he "sacrificed principle for expediency," or "sold his soul for a mess of political pottage." He had always been "a pragmatist and a realist, yet guided by moral imperatives." Israel was engaged in "a struggle for its very existence," and had to constantly "be alive to new circumstances." He, therefore, refused "to remain a prisoner of outmoded doctrines." Indeed, his "sheer integrity compelled him to reappraise and reassess the situation." Never once had he misled the people as the prime minister was doing now.
"Never did I promise the nation that I would bring them instant and total peace wrapped up in a peace treaty, without concessions," he raged. "That is not a policy; it is an irresponsible flight of the imagination!"
This hit home.
Motionless, arms folded, lips pressed, his face blanched and his eyes granite, Menachem Begin said quietly, stubbornly, grimly, "Never did I make such a promise in my life, Mr. Peres. You have plucked this spurious charge out of thin air. It is a fiction! I challenge you to prove otherwise."
But his opponent was not to be cowed. Knowing how his words had the power to wound, he hurled more: "Repeatedly, you insinuate that we stand at the threshold of peace as defined in a peace treaty. You said as much again today."
Anger hung in the air between them like an invisible knife, their eyes locked in open warfare.
"Knesset Member Shimon Peres," seethed Begin, "I have just quoted to this House words you spoke and wrote yourself. I quoted them word for word. Now, I challenge you to bring to this podium quotes from me, in my own words, asserting that we stand at the threshold of peace. I have never said it. The members of this House know I have never said it. They are well informed. You can't pull wool over their eyes."
"Indeed you can't," countered Peres. "That is why most people here see right through your whimsical flights of fancy. You're so enamored with your own words that you think they can move mountains. Well they can't. You think a good speech is all that it takes to get things done. Well it can't.
You think that you can run a government by oratory. Well you can't. You think that just because you've prepared a draft of a peace treaty it's as good as done. Well it isn't."
Begin responded in a tone that evoked high purpose and responsibility. "Let me assure you, and the whole House," he said solemnly, "I have no illusions about the obstacles awaiting us at a Geneva peace conference, if one will take place. I have left in the hands of the American president a proposal as to how we believe such a conference should be structured and who should participate, no more. Indeed, if anything, it is your party Mr. Peres, the Labor Party, that has been deceiving our nation for years, tellingus tales about territorial compromises in exchange for peace. For years you have been proposing to our Arab neighbors enormous concessions, and their answer has always been universally the same: 'Totally unacceptable!'"
He stopped for a moment and straightened up, and with an expression both teasing and taunting, said, "So at least have the grace to be a good loser, Mr. Peres. You lost the elections, remember. Take it like a man. Stop sulking. Criticize us if you will. This is a free, democratic parliament. But why resort to such excessive rancor? Why the uncontrolled fury? Why the baseless allegations? What's gotten into you, Mr. Peres? Get a grip on yourself." And with that he stepped down from the podium into the wellof the Chamber, his mouth curved into the impish smile of one satisfied that he had had the last word.67
What he did not know, could not possibly know, as he took his seat at the head of the horseshoe cabinet table amid a cacophony of boos and hurrahs, was that his model peace treaty would not gather dust for all that long. Seemingly out of the blue, an event occurred soon after of such mind-boggling proportions it would change the course of history and render Jimmy Carter's Geneva exertions obsolete.
Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, decided to travel to Jerusalem to speak to Menachem Begin about peace.