Behind the Headlines Beigin and Britain

When Menachem Beigin next visits Britain, it should prove a unique test of the friendship between this country and Israel. For years, the former commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi has occupied a unique place in Britain’s popular demonology.

Of all who fought the British Empire, Beigin has been least successful in winning the respect which the British are so want to extend to her former enemies–Eamon de Valera, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jomo Kenyatta, and even Anwar Sadat–who challenged Britain’s imperial might. But once these rebels turned into rulers, their past “misdeeds” were largely forgotten by the easy-going British people. Some even earned their affection and respect.

If Beigin still stirs embers of hatred here, it is not–as he himself may perhaps think–because he is a Jew. It is because, unlike so many others, he did not emerge to lead his people once the British yoke had been thrown off.

Thus, instead of being exposed to the healing processes of public explanation and discussion, actions like the dynamiting of the King David Hotel in which about 90 people died and the retaliatory hanging of two British sergeants have remained suppurating wounds. The ruling Labor leaders of Israel either disclaimed responsibility for them or shifted it to their right-wing political rivals.

A REVEALING ENCOUNTER AHEAD

Now, at last, the British will be able to meet the leader of the Irgun as equals, and it will be a very revealing encounter. There will be plenty of trouble-makers here–indeed the rumbles have already started. But, by and large, these are supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization or perhaps plain anti-Semites. Guesstimates are that a visit by Beigin will be an occasion for hatchet-burying and thus for the further strengthening rather than the weakening of Anglo-Israeli relations.

When Beigin came here with his wife five years ago, that did not happen. The Sunday Express raked up all the old grievances and said Beigin should not be allowed into the country. A London hotel refused to allow him to address a dinner after receiving a bomb threat and pro-Arab MP Christopher Mayhew raised the matter in Parliament.

Above all, he received only a cool reception from the Anglo-Jewish community. Gerald Kaufman now a leading minister in the Labor government, openly attacked the visit in the columns of The Jewish Chronicle. But even amid the uproar, there were signs of reconciliation. Gen. Sir Eric Bols, one-time Commander of the Sixth Airborne Division in Palestine, would have attended the hotel dinner had it not been cancelled.

In addition, many British politicians have met Beigin in Israel and have never failed to break the ice with him there. Now that the former Irgun leader is likely to become Israel’s next Premier, the stage is set for an overdue reconciliation with the country with which he was once at war.

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