The Emerging Candidates: Seen As ‘honest Abe’ of Politics, Begin Forges Principled Campaign
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The Emerging Candidates: Seen As ‘honest Abe’ of Politics, Begin Forges Principled Campaign

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THE EMERGING CANDIDATES: Seen as `honest Abe’ of politics, Begin forges principled campaign

He looks like his father and sounds like his father, but Ze’ev “Benny” Begin knows his chances of getting elected Israel’s next prime minister are slim.

Just the same, the decision by the only son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin to compete against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the May national elections is a matter of principle.

While he is hardly a favorite in the polls, Begin’s announcement last week that he was quitting the Likud Party to spearhead a right-wing challenge to Netanyahu reinforced his image as the “honest Abe” of Israeli politics who refuses to compromise his beliefs.

This is perhaps his biggest electoral asset at a time when Israelis are increasingly losing confidence in their leaders.

Begin, 55, the stalwart ideologue of Likud, uncompromisingly defends the fundamental party doctrine that all of the biblical Land of Israel, including the West Bank, is the birthright of the modern State of Israel.

But like the tie that sat awkwardly on his usually open-collared neck last week, politics never fit Begin quite right.

Although Begin has been politically active since his days as a student in the 1960s, he is a geologist by training.

When first elected to the Knesset in 1988, he was shocked by the horse-trading and backroom deal-making that is the stock in trade of most politicians.

“The period that I devoted to politics was the most miserable of my life,” Begin said several years ago.

Despite his disdain for politics, Begin has steadfastly pursued his ideological aims.

Throughout the years, Begin collected facts to bolster his ideological convictions with strategic “proofs” that the Palestinians are still intent on destroying Israel.

In 1991, he said the land-for-peace formula was a “hereditary disease.”

The message was not much different last week, when he said Israel was in a “vicious cycle of despair and weakness,” characterized by an over-willingness among Israeli politicians of all stripes to hand territory over to the Palestinians.

“Capitulation has become a value in and of itself, even when it is clear that it does not lead to any achievements,” he said at a news conference announcing the launch of his campaign.

The Wye agreement signed in late October is the “illegitimate child” of the Oslo accords, he said, adding that neither peace nor security could result from the notion of territorial compromise shared by Likud, Labor and the political center.

Begin said his candidacy is the “only alternative today to a way that would most certainly lead to the establishment of a PLO-and-Hamas state, which will bring neither peace nor security.”

Begin, whose father forged Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, a move that included Israel’s return of the Sinai, warned that going down “Wye River” would only lead to ceding more land to “those hoodlums” — a reference to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

But he offered no concrete solutions for peace or security, nor did he advocate annexing the West Bank.

For Begin, one thing is clear: Ideology takes precedence above everything else.

During Netanyahu’s tenure as premier, many Cabinet members made idle threats to leave the coalition if votes on crucial issues did not go their way.

But in January 1997, Begin did more than threaten. He resigned as science minister after Netanyahu agreed to transfer most of the West Bank town of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority.

By leaving the government at that time — and the party last week — Begin dealt a severe blow to Netanyahu’s claims to represent the traditional party line.

But leaders of Jewish settler groups, who might be expected to flock to Begin and his emerging party, remain divided.

They fear his candidacy could split the right wing.

Recent polls show Begin does not pose a real electoral threat to Netanyahu. Polls indicate he would receive at most 9 percent of the vote in a four-way race with Netanyahu, opposition leader Ehud Barak and Amnon-Lipkin Shahak. Shahak, a former army chief of staff, was expected to launch his campaign officially as head of a new centrist party this week.

Begin, proud of the fact that he rides the bus to work, has never shown any of the personal ambition that characterizes other politicians. This was true even when he vied for the party leadership in 1993, when he came in third with 15 percent of the vote after Netanyahu and David Levy.

In addition, he has never courted the news media and has always steered clear of muckraking and mudslinging.

Even when he kicked off his campaign last week, he did not mention Netanyahu by name.

Early in Begin’s career, some party members accused him of taking a free ride on his father’s name. But after 10 years in politics, he encounters that criticism far less frequently.

“I am trying very hard to restrain myself from speaking in his name,” he said with characteristic modesty when asked what his father would think of his leaving Likud.

“It is possible that I would make a mistake, and if I did, he wouldn’t be here to correct it.”

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