Benjamin Netanyahu chooses his words carefully. Which is why it’s clear he intended to send a message to the Israeli public and its supporters in the U.S. when he responded to President Biden’s threat to suspend certain arms transfers to Israel. “We are not a vassal state of the United States,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on Thursday, Axios reports.

This was surely an intentional invocation of the time Menachem Begin said these words to President Reagan’s ambassador to Israel, Sam Lewis. Both the context and the speaker are important here, but the latter may be more so: The Menachem Begin renaissance is now undeniable and in full bloom. It has been building for several years, but these days we see Begin’s words and spirit summoned daily. There’s good reason for that—Begin is the right beacon for these times, and not just because of the parallels between the current Bibi-Biden row and Begin’s rough early road with Reagan.

First, the context for the remarks echoed by Netanyahu. The story begins in 1981, with Begin’s visit to the White House. Although Secretary of State Alexander Haig admired Menachem Begin, the relationship between the two administrations didn’t fully take off until Haig’s successor, George Shultz, took the reins at Foggy Bottom. The president’s Cabinet was lukewarm on Begin, and they keenly disliked Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who was also present.

Begin’s purpose at this meeting was to secure an upgrading of the U.S.-Israel relationship; he felt Israel was too often treated as a loved but wayward child. Reagan called Israel a strategic asset; Begin suggested “ally” would be a better term. “Mr. President,” Begin said, “I sometimes get the impression that our relationship is a little like Heinrich Heine’s famous couplet about the bourgeois gentleman from Berlin who implores his mistress not to acknowledge him while walking in that city’s most fashionable boulevard, begging her, ‘Greet me not Unter den Linden.’ I fear there are some who would say much the same to Israel today.”

Reagan responded, “I’d be proud to acknowledge you in public anywhere, any time.”

Pleased, Begin argued for a signed memorandum to acknowledge the fact that Israel, while certainly in America’s debt, was no mere dependent. Reagan was open to it, and while Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was able to significantly water down the final document, he and Sharon did sign a memo of strategic cooperation. While Begin and Reagan had gotten off to a rocky start with Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor that surprised and shocked the president, amends clearly had been made.

Later that year, in response to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s declaration that his country would never recognize Israel under any circumstances, Begin nudged the Knesset to pass the Golan Heights Law, which would formally annex the area Israel had governed since capturing it from Syria in 1967. The law passed the Knesset easily.

Reagan was angered by the move and by the fact that his administration hadn’t been consulted beforehand.

Back when Israel attacked the Iraqi reactor, Reagan had suspended the delivery of fighter jets to Israel. This time, he announced he would suspend the memorandum of strategic cooperation.

Begin was apoplectic. He called in Sam Lewis and read him the riot act. America has punished Israel three times in the past six months, Begin declared, recalled his close aide Yehuda Avner. First after the Osirak raid, then again after Israel bombed PLO headquarters in Beirut in retaliation for a terror attack, and now this. “Are we a vassal state? Are we a banana republic? Are we fourteen-year-old boys that have to have our knuckles slapped if we misbehave?”

Begin declared that the Jewish state would not be made hostage to the memorandum of cooperation. “We shall not allow a sword of Damocles to hang over our heads. The people of Israel have lived for three thousand seven hundred years without a memorandum of understanding with America, and it will continue to live without it for another three thousand seven hundred years!”

Netanyahu surely did not have to explain to the others in the room his particular choice of words. The parallels here are clear. In fact, there are two other parallels worth noting. One is what Begin said to Lewis about the White House’s complaints of civilian casualties in the Beirut bombing: “By what right do you lecture us on civilian casualties, Mr. Ambassador? We rack our brains to avoid civilian casualties. We sometimes risk the lives of our soldiers to avoid civilian casualties. We’ve read the history of the Second World War, Mr. Ambassador. We know what happened to civilians when you carried out your military operations against the enemy. We’ve also read the history of the Vietnam War, and we know all about what you called the ‘body counts.’”

The recent row between Biden and Netanyahu over civilian casualties is highly reminiscent of this. The closest American forces have come to the IDF’s task in fighting Hamas is the campaign against ISIS in Iraq. And even with slightly more favorable conditions there, the U.S. did not best the IDF’s civilian-to-combatant ratio thus far in Gaza. The hypocrisy of punishing Israel now is a bit galling to the Israelis, especially considering the U.S. is justifying its move by relying on Hamas’s obviously incorrect casualty reports.

Another, lesser-known similarity between the situations in 1981 and 2024 is the tense public debate in the United States. Then as now, American Jews were often accused of dual loyalty when they disagree with the U.S. president on Israel policy. Begin was furious about such insinuations: “No one will frighten the great and free Jewish community of the United States. No one will succeed in intimidating them with anti-Semitic propaganda.”

That is a point worth reiterating today. Menachem Begin, perhaps more than any other single figure in modern Jewish history, embodied in word and deed the concept of Jewish unity in the face of adversity.

In June 1948, as a weapons-delivery ship with Begin and his followers came to shore off Tel Aviv, Israeli leader and founding father David Ben-Gurion—Begin’s rival—reportedly told his soldiers that if they had a clear shot at Begin they should take it. Five months later, at a reception for Begin at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, someone in the audience proposed a toast to Ben-Gurion. Begin lifted his glass and responded that it would be a “great pleasure” to honor a man who had done so much for the Jewish people.

That is, a few months after Ben-Gurion’s men tried to shoot him, Begin led a thousand people in a toast to Ben-Gurion.

American Jews don’t have to go as far as Begin went in the name of achdus, of communal unity, but they ought to remember his faith in them and his staunch defense of their right to disagree with a president without having their patriotism called into question.

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