JERUSALEM (Oct. 16)
First-term Likud Knesset member Binyamin Begin surprised the public and politicians alike by announcing Tuesday night that he would be a candidate for prime minister whenever Yitzhak Shamir decides to retire.
His television statement sent shockwaves through the Likud bloc, where older, better-known politicians are engaged in a power struggle to succeed the incumbent.
Begin, the 48-year-old only son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is acknowledged to be one of the most promising members of Likud’s rising younger generation. But his bid for leadership of the party is considered premature.
The younger Begin, who holds a doctorate in geology, was elected to the Knesset in 1988 and has never held a Cabinet or even sub-Cabinet post, normally a prerequisite for advancement to the highest office.
Many observers linked Begin’s announcement to the latest statement by Ariel Sharon, who, unlike Begin, indicated that he might challenge the 75-year-old Shamir in next year’s elections.
Sharon’s drive for the Likud leadership has split the party into competing camps.
Begin is openly hostile to the housing minister. He blames Sharon for misleading his father about plans for the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when Sharon was defense minister. The invasion, which originally was planned to accomplish limited security objectives, ultimately embroiled Israel in its longest, costliest and most divisive war.
A SIGNAL TO WASHINGTON?
But the younger Begin’s opposition to Sharon has not heartened other political foes of the outspoken hawk. In fact, they fear Begin’s candidacy will further split the anti-Sharon camp.
At the moment, that camp consists of two factions, one led by Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens, and the other led by Foreign Minister David Levy.
Until now, Begin belonged to the Shamir-Arens bloc. Arens’ only comment about Begin’s announcement was that he “has the right to run.”
Begin denied that the timing of his bid has any significance. But some observers said he was signaling the United States that if Shamir wavers or steps down under U.S. pressure during this stage of the peace process, there are others in Likud of like mind, ready to take up his mantle.
Begin, in fact, has taken increasingly tough positions recently against what some right-wing circles in Israel perceive to be a lessening of Washington’s concern for Israel’s security.
Menachem Begin’s name is associated with Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
The older Begin took office in 1977, ending 30 years of Labor Party government in Israel. He resigned suddenly in 1984, in deep depression over the death of his wife, Aliza, and the unresolved issues of the Lebanon war.
Now 78 and in poor health, Menachem Begin has been a semi-recluse for the last eight years, though he is said to keep abreast of national and world politics through close associates, including his son.