Begin, the Son, Sees Hope on the Horizon


Israelis who don't believe that President Barack Obama is a friend of the Jewish state have got it wrong, according to Benny Begin, a Likud member of Knesset and son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

An Aug. 28 Jerusalem Post survey found that just 4 percent of Israeli Jews believe Obama's policies are pro-Israel; a similar poll released a week earlier by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that 12 percent of Israelis held a comparable view.

"Many Israelis maybe are not cognizant of the fact that President Obama — especially in a private meeting in the confines of his office with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu months ago — emphatically reiterated the long-term, strategic commitment to the well-being, security and qualitative edge of Israel over its enemies," said Begin during an interview last week here in Philadelphia.

Begin, 66, spent several days in the region traveling with Israel's Consul General Daniel Kutner. The two met with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell. According to Begin, Nutter restated his desire to travel to Israel, while Markell discussed opportunities for exchanges on green initiatives. Begin would not reveal the topic of his conversation with Specter.

The Israeli lawmaker also spoke at local events hosted by the Foreign Policy Research Institute and State of Israel Bonds.

Kutner said that Begin's tour of the region was part of a national effort under way by consulates to have well-known Israeli figures present the Jewish state's positions concerning the Palestinians, settlements and the Iranian threat.

At the moment, the message from the premier on down seems to be: Minimize the differences between Jerusalem and Washington, even though media reports have described a growing rift between the two parties over the issue of settlements, as well as how much time to give Iran before upping diplomatic and economic pressure.

Last week, Netanyahu announced plans for construction of hundreds of new housing units in the West Bank. Obama has called for a total freeze on Israeli settlement construction.

"It came as no surprise to the American administration; that doesn't mean they will agree with it," explained Begin. "Between friends, sometimes there are misunderstandings. The last three months we have been in a process of deliberations, trying to distill and understand each other."

Begin, the son of one of the most well-known and controversial political figures in Israeli history, was trained as a geologist. He served as a minister during Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, but in 1997 left in protest after Netanyahu signed the Hebron Accords, which facilitated Israeli troop withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.

He sought the top job himself in 1999 under the banner of the far-right Herut party, but abandoned politics for nearly a decade after his party only garnered four seats. In 2008, Netanyahu recruited him back into Likud.

Begin said that he and Netanyahu had long ago patched up their policy differences.

The scion of the Israeli right also expressed some hope, if not optimism, that a two-state solution might be reached. Begin said that while chances might not seem good, it's crucial to keep in mind that before Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat made a surprise visit to Israel in 1977, nobody thought peace with Israel's largest neighbor was possible.

It's been 30 years since Israel and Egypt sealed a treaty.