When Menachem Begin was prime minister, there were no dull moments. Great milestone events swept past our incredulous eyes in swift succession and, breathless, we rarely stopped to take them all in, delve skeptically beneath the surface hoopla or even marvel at what we were witnessing. For the reporters among us, the dramatic march of history was often reduced to hectic daily chores that had to be done before deadline.
So it was on December 17, 1978 when the watching world expected the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt to be signed (in actuality it only happened in March, 1979).
On September 18, a breakthrough settlement was reached at Camp David in which Begin and Anwar Sadat had committed their two countries to negotiate and sign a full peace treaty within three months. The buzz was that it would all happen on the last prescribed date. That made the December 17 Likud central committee session an absolute no-miss event for the press.
So I was dutifully there, my little orange-covered KOH-I-NOR notebook in hand, ready and poised to jot down every detail. High expectations made the experience all the more exasperating. Nothing was happening. To be sure, there was plenty of yelling and bickering between Camp David proponents and opponents, but the excited commotion and heated oratory by non-headliners, heartfelt as it was, wasn’t front-page material.
I grew edgy and started to bug Yehiel Kadishai, the ever-genial chief of the prime minister’s bureau – better known to all and sundry as “Begin’s right-hand man.” And that he was since 1964, when he was appointed secretary of the Herut Knesset faction. The unlikely connection between Kadishai and Begin was made, it clicked and it lasted till the last day of each of them.
It was an unlikely connection because Begin was the grave ideologue with a long history of personal suffering, determined struggle and leadership. Kadishai looked like a lightweight – invariably buoyant, ever-optimistic, jovial and always with a sincerely friendly smile. He liked people and they liked him back. He lived in Tel Aviv since the ripe age of two-months and many describe him as a typical product of what came to be known in local folklore as “Little Tel Aviv” of the 1920s and 1930s.
Eventually, as the raucous committee proceedings went on and on, yet were clearly going nowhere, Kadishai came over and sat next to me in the row of rickety chairs reserved for the press. As was his habit, he cracked a string of corny jokes, but then suddenly grabbed my notebook, pulled out his own pen from his front shirt pocket and started to scribble something down.
When he was through, he tore out the page and handed it to me with the broad grin of a schoolboy who had just pulled off a prank. With eyes that twinkled with merriment, he watched me as I read:
To Madame Sarah Honig (Milk and Honey),
I hereby certify that you are the prettiest among all the pretty ones attending this central committee meeting taking place today, 17 Kislev 5739, 17.XII.78. Likewise I hereby confirm that apparently the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel will not be signed by midnight of this day. See you at the next central committee session,
P.S. The prime minister will not request the floor.
The aforementioned, K
Kadishai was mindful of my earlier deadline (the Jerusalem Post was published in Jerusalem whereas all the Hebrews came out in Tel Aviv, yet all were distributed together) but, irrepressibly jocular, he didn’t one bit mind keeping my fellow reporters on tenterhooks for a while longer. He almost seemed to enjoy tormenting them.
I kept that little note among other such whimsical messages from him. I don’t know why, perhaps they became part of my personal hoard of trivial testaments to significant episodes, all stored away in a small cardboard box in an old desk drawer.
I remembered it after receiving news of Kadishai’s death. He was over 90-years-old when his heart stopped and it was just one month and one day short of the 35th anniversary of that frustrating central committee session. Instinctively I pulled out my long-forgotten stash. Its contents made Kadishai reappear in his full boyish good-humored charm.
Another note therein advised me to show up for an elections rally that would take place in Petach Tikva on June 11, 1981 because “there will be fireworks.” Kadishai pushed his folded note into my hand, seemingly on the sly, when I visited the prime minister’s office on that June 11 morning. It was three days after Israel had announced that its air force had on June 7destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, 18 miles south of Baghdad, on the orders of the prime minister.
On the strength of that note, I made sure to arrive at the Petach Tikva city hall square an hour early and things were every bit as riveting as Kadishai had promised. It was Begin’s first public appearance after the Iraqi operation. Addressing an ecstatic throng of over 20,000, he unequivocally accused America’s then-secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, of being “the culprit who attempted to deny Israel all military aid,” in retaliation for the bombing of the reactor.
“In this, he was aided by the Labor Party and especially its chairman Shimon Peres… How can Labor accuse us of using the destruction of the nuclear reactor as an election ploy? Would I ever – if it were not absolutely necessary – send Jewish pilots to a possible death or to a fate worse than death, which captivity and torture would be?”
The audience roared back: “No!”
On a roll, Begin continued: “The chief of staff, the air force commander and the military intelligence chief are not Likud members. Would they endorse and embark on such a risky venture to help us win an election?”
“I accuse Shimon Peres, Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gur of helping Weinberger push through the decision to postpone the delivery of four fighter jets to the IAF,” Begin thundered. “Labor has behaved in an inconceivably anti-national and anti-patriotic manner, for which alone they deserve to be punished at the polls.”
But Begin’s worst tongue-lashing was reserved for Weinberger, “who was not satisfied with postponing the delivery of four F-16s, but wanted all military supplies to Israel halted.”
“What kind of morality do you operate under, Mr. Secretary?” hammered Begin. “They wanted to drop nuclear bombs on us. They wanted to annihilate our children, as a million and a half Jewish children had been slaughtered in the Holocaust.”
“You Mr. Secretary are punishing the side which protected itself and you are rewarding the murderous dictatorial aggressor. If anyone tries to manufacture instruments of mass destruction against us, we shall destroy them… Justice shall prevail and not the morality of Sodom and Gomorrah, whereby the righteous are punished for their acts of self-defense while the wicked are protected.”
Strong stuff. And since history is inclined to repeat itself in modified guises every so often, Begin’s words, of course, are as pertinent today as they were then.
In this region, dangers, if not preempted, reappear with cyclical ferocity – in no small part because of the failure of fellow democracies to retain lessons they should have learned from the past. Less than ten years after raking Israel over the coals for demolishing Iraq’s nuclear project, the US itself was at war with “the murderous dictatorial aggressor,” Saddam Hussein. Presumably, it owes Israel an apology and a debt of gratitude that Saddam didn’t have atomic weaponry.
But this sad truth of our existence wasn’t uppermost in my mind as I looked over Kadishai’s note –folded over and over till it was formed a five-centimeter square. What perturbed me most all these years later was why he at all resorted to what seemed like a furtive communication.
I have no idea. There was nothing on that June morning at the prime minister’s office that prevented him from delivering the same message out loud and openly predicting that the upcoming Petach Tikva rally would be as “interesting and full of action,” as his note promised.
Perhaps it was just playfulness, but that’s a moot point now. Already by the time the note was thrust into my hand, I wasn’t trying to figure Kadishai out any more. He was a character and that was that.
Indeed, as I entered his office that day, he was busy cheerfully juggling three oranges – hardly an image one would readily associate with the country’s top executive nerve center, especially soon after an audacious aerial raid that earned Israel searing universal condemnation.
Begin, himself, could never by any stretch of the imagination be described as flippant. If anything, he forever appeared formal and serious, even at his folksiest and most affable. It was Kadishai’s levity and mischief that incongruously lent the prime minister’s complex an air of near frivolity at given moments but, then again, it could in part have been an act the chief of bureau occasionally put on for given visitors.
Moreover, that wasn’t the only atypical aspect of the sort of domain Kadishai ran. There was no telling who you’d find in what are assumed to be the country’s foremost corridors of power.
Above all, Kadishai was a kind man who never grew haughty and who could never turn away an old acquaintance in trouble. And so, as the international community seethed with fury over the obliteration of Iraq’s nuclear capacity, Kadishai found time for Yehudit Hadad, who had fallen on hard times.
She was blinded in early 1948 while on active service with the IZL underground. He invited her over to the state’s most prestigious inner sanctum, served her tea and cookies and helped her financially at his insistence and at his own expense.
Surreally, right there, in that important office, they together sang the Betar song, which Kadishai held sacred. She left after a hug and a kiss on the forehead. No such scene could be expected at these premises before Kadishai ruled the roost nor after he left.