The Silence That Was a Thunderbolt


by Yehuda Avner, An adviser to four Israeli prime ministers, including Menachem Begin

Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer, ran an austere White House. Consonant with his innate Calvinistic intuitions, he cast himself in the role of citizen-president. He banned Hail to the Chief, slashed the entertainment budget, sold the presidential yacht, pruned the limousine fleet, and generally rid his mansion of foppery, artifice, and pretentiousness. He even carried his own bag. So, when he welcomed prime minister Menachem Begin to the White House in July 1977 with a flamboyant ceremony fit for a king, replete with a 19-gun salute, a march-past of all the armed services, and a choreographed parade of the Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps in the white livery of the Revolutionary War, the media rightly conjectured whether this was a token of high esteem or of pure flattery. U.S. ambassador Samuel Lewis confided that it was a bit of both: "The president was persuaded that in dealing with Begin honey would get him a lot further than vinegar," he said.

And, indeed, the talks did get off to a decent start. The two leaders and their advisers exchanged views on such sensitive topics as an Israel-Arab peace parley in Geneva, the Soviet mischief in the Horn of Africa, and the PLO menace from Southern Lebanon. Then came a pause, and when coffee was served the president and the premier sipped in silence, each sizing the other up as if by mutual consent in preparation for what was next to come.

And what came next was an amazingly detailed presentation of the Likud creed on the inalienable rights of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael. This being the first summit between a Likud premier and an American president, Menachem Begin was determined that Jimmy Carter hear first-hand what he stood for. Secretary of state Cyrus Vance, an unruffled man as a rule, became quite agitated upon hearing that Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip were not to be relinquished. He contended that this would put pay to any plan for a Geneva peace conference. The president thought so, too. Mr. Carter wore a mask of politeness as he peered at his notes written in his neat penmanship on heavy bond White House stationary, but one could tell by his clenched jaw that irritation lurked beneath. He said in his reedy Georgian accent: "Mr. Prime Minister, my impression is that your insistence on your rights over the West Bank and Gaza would be regarded as an indication of bad faith. It would be a signal of your apparent intention to make the military occupation of these areas permanent. It will close off all hopes of negotiations. It would be incompatible with my responsibilities as President of the United States if I did not put this to you as bluntly and as candidly as I possibly can. Mr. Begin," he railed, exasperation flaring in his steely, pale-blue eyes, "there can be no permanent military occupation of those conquered territories."

We Israeli officials around the conference table in the Cabinet Room where the meeting was held eyed each other with sideways squints. But Begin had readied himself for this encounter with this post-Watergate president of moral renewal, Carter the preacher with a penchant for self-righteousness. So he leaned back and gazed with deceptively mild eyes above the president’s head at the old brass chandelier hanging over the grand oak table. He was not going to be rushed. He knew that he and the president were on vastly different trajectories, a no-exit confrontation on the settlement of the biblical heartland. Carter was as cast iron as himself. He would not bend. Nevertheless, he had to somehow persuade this judgmental man who wanted to be a healer, this energetic doer with the empirical mind of an engineer, that he honestly and truly wanted peace, and that the territories were not only a matter of historic rights but also of vital security.

So when he returned Carter’s stare he did so with a look that was grave and commanding. "Mr. President," he said, "I wish to tell you something personal, not about me, but about my generation. What you have just heard about the Jewish people’s inherent rights to the Land of Israel may seem academic to you, theoretical, even moot. But not to my generation. To my generation of Jews these eternal bonds are indisputable and incontrovertible truths, as old as recorded time. They touch upon the very core of our national being. For we are an ancient homecoming nation. Ours is an almost biblical generation of suffering and courage. Ours is the generation of Destruction and Redemption. Ours is the generation that rose up from the bottomless pit of Hell."

His voice was mesmeric, his tone deeply reflective, as if reaching down into generations of memory. The sheer ardor of his language nudged the table to intense attention. "We were a helpless people, Mr. President. We were bled white, not once, not twice, but century after century, over and over again. We lost a third of our people in one generation — mine. One-and-a-half million of them were children — ours. No one came to our rescue. We suffered and died alone. We could do nothing about it. But now we can. Now we can defend ourselves."

Suddenly he rose to his feet, his face as tough as steel. "I have a map," he said, intrepidly. An aide snappishly unrolled a 3×5 chart between the two men. "There is nothing remarkable about this map," Begin went on. "It is quite a standard one of our country, displaying the old armistice line as it existed until the 1967 Six Day War, the so-called Green Line." He ran his finger along the defunct frontier, which meandered down the center of the country. "And as you see, our military cartographers have simply marked the infinitesimal mileages of defensive depth we had in that war." He leaned across the table and pointed to the deep brown-colored mountainous area which covered the northern sector of the map. "The Syrians sat on top of these mountains, Mr. President. We were at the bottom." His finger marked the Golan Heights, and then rested on the green panhandle below. "This is the Hula Valley. It is hardly 10 miles wide. They shelled our towns and villages from the tops of those mountains, day and night."

Carter gazed, his hands clamped under his chin. The prime minister’s finger now moved southwards, to Haifa: "The armistice line is hardly 20 miles away from our major port city," he said. And then it rested on Netanya: "Our country here was reduced to a narrow waist nine miles wide." The president nodded. "I understand," he said. But Begin was not sure that he did. His finger trembled and his voice rumbled: "Nine miles, Mr. President. Inconceivable!Indefensible! Carter made no comment. The finger now hovered over Tel Aviv, and then it drummed the map: "Here live a million Jews, 12 miles from that indefensible armistice line. And here, between Haifa in the North and Ashkelon in the South" — his finger ran up and down the coastal plain — "live two-thirds of our total population. And this coastal plain is so narrow that a surprise thrust by a column of tanks could cut the country in two in a matter of minutes. For whosoever sits in these mountains" — his fingertips tapped the tops of Judea and Samaria — "holds the jugular vein of Israel in his hands." His dark, watchful eyes swept the stone-faced features of the powerful men sitting opposite him, and with the conviction of one who had fought for everything he had ever gotten, tersely declared:

"Gentlemen, there is no going back to those lines. No nation in our merciless and unforgiving neighborhood can be rendered so vulnerable and survive." Carter bent his head forward, the better to inspect the map, but still said nothing. His eyes were as indecipherable as water. "Mr. President," continued Begin in a tone that brooked no indifference, "This is our map of national security, and I use that term in its most unembellished sense. It is our map of survival. And the distinction between the past and the present is just that: survival. Today, our menfolk can defend their women and children. In the past they could not. Indeed, they had to deliver them to their Nazi executioners. We were tertiated, Mr. President." Jimmy Carter lifted his head. "What was that word, Mr. Prime Minister?" "Tertiated, not decimated. The origin of the word ‘decimation’ is one in ten. When a Roman legion was found guilty of insubordination one in ten was put to the sword. In our case it was one in three, tertiated!"

And now, with moistening eyes, and in a voice that was deliberate, stubborn, his every word weighed, he declared, "Sir, I take an oath before you in the name of the Jewish people — this will never ever happen again."

And then he broke down. He compressed his lips which began to tremble. Unseeingly, he stared at the map, struggling to blink back the tears. He clenched his fists and pressed them so tightly against the tabletop, his knuckles went white. He stood there, head bent, heart broke, dignified. A hush, as silent as a vault, settled on the room. Seized by his private, infernal Shoa reverie, he peered past Jimmy Carter with a strange reserve in his eyes, a remote stare. It were as if he was looking through this born-again, Southern Baptist president from way inside himself, from that deep, Jewish intimate place of infinite lament and eternal faith — the place of long, long memory. And hidden down there, in that place, he was standing with Moses and the Maccabees.

President Carter bowed his head and remained in an attitude of respectful frozen stillness. Others looked away. The tick of the antique clock on the marble mantelpiece suddenly grew audible. An eternity seemed to hang between each tick. The silence was deafening. It was a thunderbolt of national resolve never to go back to those lines. By degrees, in slow motion, the prime minister raised himself to his full height and the room came back to life. Mr. Carter considerately suggested a recess, but Mr. Begin said it wasn’t necessary. He had made his point.