Issues and Answers – Barbara Walters

TV Interviews
posted on:
1 In apr 1980
Individuals - Anwar Sadat. Israeli-Palestinian Conflict - Arabs of Israel, Palestinians, PLO. autonomy plan , Political Parties - Betar. Miscellaneous - childhood/family history. Foreign Policy - Cold War, Fundamentals of Foreign Policy, Israel-U.S. Relationship. Ideologies - Communism. Constitution , Democracy , States - Egypt, Soviet Union (Russia). Election System , Elections , Security - Fundamentals of Israeli Security. Jewish Heritage - Holocaust. Liberty of Men - Individual Liberty. Interim Agreements , Human Rights - Military Government. Narrowing the Gaps , Opposition , Parliamentarism , peace process with Egypt , Social Reform
Barbara Walters interviews Prime Minister Begin on "ABC" about the progress of the peace process with Egypt, the meaning of Palestinian Arab autonomy, reactions to the Iranian hostage crisis and the Olympic Games in Moscow. He closes with how he wishes to be remembered.
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Umatic 57 Transcript

[Interview starts at 1:51]

Welcome, Mr. Prime Minister, to our program.

Thank you, Barbara.

We know this is the only television interview you're doing while in the country and we're very grateful to you. We'll try to cover as much as possible.

It's a pleasure.

While you were here, your own defense minister, Ezer Weizmann, has called for new elections in Israel. He said the sooner, the better, and he offered himself as the new prime minister. Then Shimon Peres said he was courageous and patriotic. What's your view?

Everybody's entitled to his opinion. This is democracy. However, I'd like to tell you, Barbara, it wouldn't be proper for a prime minister to comment on any statement made, if they were made, by a member of the government whilst I am abroad and not in the country itself. I'll be leaving soon, home, and when I come home I will read all the newspaper stories in their original, I will know what was said, and then I shall have to decide whether I should react [unclear 2:55] and perhaps not.

By the time this is aired, you will be home. Do you think that you now have to fire Ezer Weizmann from the cabinet or ask for his resignation? How can you keep him with you?

Under our system, the prime minister is not entitled to fire a minister at all. Not at all, by the constitution.

Can you ask for his resignation?

Well, that can do only a British prime minister. He asks for a letter of resignation, and then the letter must be sent. An Israeli prime minister can resign and reform the government without the minister whom he doesn't want in the government, but then the resignation of the prime minister means the resignation of the whole cabinet. Why should I bring down the cabinet because of a certain radio interview…

[Video and audio cut out at 3:50; Begin starts at 4:04]

And reform the government without the minister whom he doesn't want in the government, but then the resignation of the prime minister means the resignation of the whole cabinet. Why should I bring down the cabinet because of a certain radio interview…

[Video and audio cut out at 4:20; interview starts at 4:34]

Can you ask for his resignation?

Well, that can do only a British prime minister. He asks for a letter of resignation, and then the letter must be sent. An Israeli prime minister can resign and reform the government without the minister whom he doesn't want in the government, but then the resignation of the prime minister means the resignation of the whole cabinet. Why should I bring down the cabinet because of a certain radio interview? Well, I'm patient. I'll wait until I go home. And then, as I said…

[Video and audio cut out at 5:06; interview starts at 5:28]

I beg your pardon?

As things stand now, even though he has criticized you, Ezer Weizmann, you're stuck with him.

[Begin chuckles]

Unless you want to resign yourself, right?

I'm not about to give out his resignation. Everyone is entitled to his opinion. It's one, the opinion of a man. It's not a question of being stuck with anybody. I read, in The Washington Post, New York Times, of course, some quotations, but I have to read the whole interview in total to understand what was meant.

Did Ezer Weizmann ever express to you his intense disapproval? I mean, you leave the country and boom, this happens.

He didn't.

He did not. It has been reported that you are at your lowest, your government right now, the lowest in popularity, and recent polls say that, if elections were held now, the Labor Party would win. Do you think this is so?

Well, I don't rely on polls. We have our own experience, besides what I read about experience in the United States and in other countries. But I remember, three years ago, all the polls said the Labor Party will win, although they shall lose several seats, and we will still go on being in opposition. Only at the last minute there was one poll which predicted our victory. All other polls predicted our failure again. The fact is that we came out for the first party and the Labor Party came out with the lowest number for their parliamentary representation and we formed the government. So polls, I pay them all due tribute, but this is not a base for any estimation of the real political situation.

You've always been very frank with us.

I am.

The impression in this country is that you're very unpopular in your country. Are you?

Well, why should I speak about my own popularity? I don't know. I only can say that I read figures about premiership, and there I precede Mr. Peres and all the other candidates, although not with a massive vote, but still I came out first. That doesn't also mean much to me. It is not an election.

That's interesting…

Whatever impression, it is based on polls. So I think that is not a sound basis at all. My friend, in politics, so-called popularity or unpopularity shouldn't matter with a man who believes that he fulfils his duty. I was elected prime minister, almost directly, because the whole propaganda, by the by, conducted by Ezer Weizmann personally, was that I should become prime minister. So I got the confidence of the people even personally, not only as a leader of a party, and as long as the party, and I included, have the confidence of the elected parliament, we shall fulfill our duty.

Do you think that your government will last until fall of 1981, when your term is up?

I hope so, but that depends on parliament. If there is a majority which will express and rouse non-confidence, I will go to the president and tender my resignation. It is so simple as that.

Will you…

A parliamentary regime.

But will you feel…Look how long it's taken you to achieve this. You do have personal feelings. You're a sensitive man. Will you feel that it's unfair? Will you feel that it shouldn't have happened?

I will never regret it. I did my duty. I did my best. I worked in accordance with my conscience and I will have no recriminations whatsoever. I served my people since the age of 16. In other words, more than 50 years. I am now an old man. In any case, I published it already that, at the age of 70, I will completely leave politics, whatever the results, whatever post I have, and I will write my books about the generation of the Holocaust and redemption. So I won't have any recriminations whatsoever. I, for the last three years, worked very hard as prime minister of Israel and it is a very difficult, but very interesting, job. In my opinion, my colleagues and I in the cabinet served the people to the best of our ability.

How old are you now, Mr. Prime Minister?

How old I am?

Yes. You said you're going to leave politics at 70.

I will be 67 in August.

So we're talking about three more years.

So it's not long. It's not too long a wait. And, if it happens earlier, no tragedy.

What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?

In the government? There is no doubt whatsoever. The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

What has been your greatest mistake?

Greatest mistake, I cannot say. I've surely made mistakes, as everybody does when he's acting and every government makes mistakes and we have collective responsibility. But, on the spot, I cannot tell you about my smallest or greatest mistake. I can tell you…

What about…

I can say, clearly and consciously, we did serious things for the benefit of our people and we made our mistakes, no doubt.

What about greatest frustration?

I have no frustration whatsoever. Why should I be frustrated? My dear friend, remember, I was in a prison, a concentration camp. I escaped the Nazis. I was, for five years, in the Underground. A hunted man. If the British would have come into my home, they would have opened fire on the spot. I was in permanent danger for so many years. I was in parliamentary opposition for 29 years. It was not so easy to keep a party together and serve and go on and spreading the faith that the day will come and we will form a government. So I think what should I complain of? I have a good family. By the by, did you see my wife on ABC television?


I saw her.

She's the star.

I would like to tell you that you all make a mistake. You should put her, all her on TV, not me instead. If I were a younger man, after I look at her on television, I would again fall in love with her.

Mr. Prime Minister, there are reports now of the progress that you made with President Carter. You said you made real progress, but can you tell us specifically what things were decided? There have been talks about security commissions and committees. There has been conversation about giving autonomy without actually having the approval of the Palestinians. What was discussed?

Well, during the two days, we discussed many topics in the White House with the president and his advisors. I think I can say they were good talks. My friends and I took part. Before we reached Washington, there were rumors that there will be pressure, there was already an agreement between the Egyptians and the Americans and we shall be asked just to sign it and approve of it, if not that there will be a confrontation. Nothing came true of all this prophecies. It was a free discussion. We made proposals. They were discussed. The Americans made proposals. I want to correct one mistake made today on the media and in the press about the so-called continuing committee.


And it was published that that was a kind of a tricky arrangement to make it possible to have the autonomy without having the elected administrative council, self-governing authority, and then pass all the outstanding issues to that continuing committee. It is not true. The continuing committee should be established only after the self-governing authority or administrative council is inaugurated and established. In other words, after the elections. Only we widened the scope of its work. We added, for instance, development of water resources for the benefit of all concerned, economic cooperation. We invited the United States to participate, but we repeated, clearly, what was said in the Camp David agreement, namely, during the transitional period, the continuing committee will exist, and the transitional period will start with the inauguration and establishment of the self-governing authority or the administrative council, not before. So, it is all mistaken information. Unwilling, of course, unwittingly, but it is a mistake.

Well, there were two reports. One, that you have agreed to have a self-governing authority of the occupied territories, even if full agreement has not been reached on the power of this authority. That's not so.

Not so.

  1. The other report was, concerns one of the major impediments in the autonomy talks and that's the security arrangements. I understand that there will now be a committee set up to deal with examining or finding a solution to the security problem.

No, we did not speak about establishing the committee, but on the issue of security, we did have a discussion. I cannot go now, even with you, into details because I was asked by the president to wait for a period of time until he gets in touch with President Sadat, which, as he should do. But I can only say yes, issues of security were discussed and we brought also a very concrete proposal. Again, the contents, I cannot divulge today, but when the president of the United States gets Sadat's reply, I suppose it will be possible also to make it public.

President Sadat told us that he did want a committee dealing with security. Is that going to happen?

I don't know, we didn't speak about the committee.

Can you tell us, then, specifically, what next…

Security issues.

Yes. What next came out? What's the most important thing that came out? What's the most important thing that came out of these 40 days of intensive talks?

Well, there are many problems to recite. One of the most decisive issues is, one, the essence of the autonomy. What is the autonomy? Because I think it is made clear by the Camp David agreement, but there are many proposals. For instance, there is an Egyptian proposal to have an assembly, an executive, a judiciary. I call it a Palestinian state all but in name. It would be a mortal danger to Israel. We shall never accept it and it is in contradiction to the Camp David agreement. There, we promised autonomy, not sovereignty. Autonomy, not a state. Completely different concepts. So, we have to decide what is the essence of the autonomy. We made a proposal, now we wait for a reply. Then is the question of security, which is, again, perhaps the soul of the problem. There is the so-called PLO on the rampage. If they should take over, if we are not responsible for security, if we do not reserve security, there will be permanent bloodshed. Peace will be killed. Not only people will be killed. Peace itself will be murdered and there will be a danger to the free world because there will be a Soviet base established in the heart of the Middle East. These are all very important. These are actually the decisive issues we are needing to solve. And perhaps we will solve them during the next 40 days, when we deal with them in Egypt and in Israel. Not in Washington, as it was…

Yes. Why not? Why don't you want Washington?

Decided by President Sadat and President Carter. Well, I explained it to the president. We are, of course, very grateful for the invitation, but I explained that it is very far from the seats of the governments. Our negotiating teams would like to consult the governments. If it takes palace in Alexandria and in Tel Aviv, if the Egyptian head of delegation wants to go home to consult President Sadat, we shall put a plane at his disposal, 45 minutes and he is in Cairo. And vice versa. So President Carter accepted our point of view. He consulted President Sadat, who also accepted it. The president said he doesn't have any preference. He was prepared to offer to us American hospitality, for which we are grateful. But I think it's much more practical to have the proposal as we suggested, and it was adopted.

We'll be back in just a moment, Mr. Prime Minister.

[Commercials at 18:50; interview starts at 19:56]

We're back with the prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin. Mr. Prime Minister, when we talked last week by satellite, you said that you would address the Egyptian parliament if a formal invitation were issued to you by President Sadat. And I said at that time that President Sadat told me that oh, you are welcome. And you told me yes but fine, a formal invitation is what would be protocol and necessary. Have you received such an invitation from President Sadat?

Not yet, but it's not a question of formality. What happened was like this, and we must remember the history. President Sadat made a statement to his parliament in which he said he's ready to go to Jerusalem and address the Knesset. So I invited him immediately to come and I said, "We do not accept your ideas, but you will have a perfect right to speak from the platform of our Knesset to the people of Israel" and nearly everyone listened to his speech, as to mine. However, I got from the American ambassador, who was a go-between in those days, an announcement that President Sadat wants a written, formal invitation. I immediately wrote the letter. He liked it very much. I promised him that, if he comes, he will be received cordially and respectfully, as he was received, and he told me so. He promised reciprocity, so everything should happen the same way.

Yes, but it hasn't happened.

Well, until now, it doesn't happen. It may happen.

You think it will?

Well, it hasn't happened. I have a hope, my friend.

Do you think it will, or do you think that was just kind of talk?

It may. I don't know. President Sadat invited me already to Cairo. I was in Alexandria. I was very cordially received by him and by the people. I was also in Aswan. I was in Ismailia. I was already four times in Egypt. I'm going to go a fifth time. And also address the parliament. I will do it with joy and I will speak to them sincerely, and also to the Egyptian people from the rostrum of the parliament. Naturally so.

I'd like, if we can, to clear up some of the major things that are said about you and if they're not quite true we can clear them up today. It's been said that your idea of full autonomy is limited to such matters as municipal affairs and education and that President Sadat wants the broad legislative powers, that you are really limiting it so that there is really no authority.

No, I don't think so. On the contrary. Wherefrom stems the expression, in the Camp David agreement, full autonomy? From me.

Yes, but it's what you mean by full autonomy.

Excuse me. From me. You know why I said full autonomy, and I repeat it? Because, since we suggested autonomy – you'll remember it's our idea, not an Egyptian idea, neither an American idea, our initiative – people used to write in the newspapers or speak on the media and say that we suggest restricted, limited autonomy.


I had to correct it. It's not true. We suggest full autonomy. What does that mean?

Yeah, what does it mean?

On the basis of the Camp David agreement, that the Arabs living in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district will go to the polls and by secret ballot, in a democratic way, elect their own self-governing authority which is called, in the Camp David agreement, administrative council, and we stand by it.

Although what powers will they have?

Just a moment. This is a question which is now being debated between the working committees. And then, when it is elected, we shall withdraw our military government. This will be an historic change and its civilian administration. And the administrative council will deal with all the daily affairs of the population without any interference by us. We shall only reserve security because, as I already told you, without it, there will be permanent bloodshed and taking-over by the so-called PLO terrorists. So this is the full autonomy. For the first time in history, the Arabs in Judea and Samaria would enjoy such a situation. They didn't have it under Jordanian or Egyptian rule in Judea, Samaria or in the Gaza Strip. We took the initiative to suggest autonomy. It's a novel human idea. And it was accepted, but it cannot be widened into a Palestinian state because we excluded it in advance. We never misled anybody. We said an independent Palestinian state would be a mortal danger to Israel and a Soviet base and a peril to the whole world in the heart of the Middle East from which you can go to the north, to east, to the south. In our situation, with the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, with Ethiopia being under Soviet control, with southern Yemen, with the Russians and the Cubans there, with Angola and Mozambique being ruled by pro-Soviet governments, does the free world really need such a Soviet base in the middle, in the center of the Middle East? I think it would be the greatest folly of the free world. It would weaken, it would endanger the existence of the state of Israel. It would be another Munich if the rest would agree to it and we would never accept it, of course, but we said to openly at Camp David. Hence the idea of autonomy. Not a state. Autonomy.

I want to talk to you also about the most controversial question that has come up in terms of your government. Let us say that the Jews have a right to live anywhere, including the West Bank.

Let us say? It is so.

Fine, but let me go on from there. The feeling is that you planned these settlements during these most sensitive negotiations, almost in spite of the negotiations, and that your timing was so wrong, embarrassing the president. Did you have to do it now?

I deny that. I don't want to embarrass the president at all. We don't want to do so and we don't want to embarrass anybody, but to stand by our…I will tell you something. This whole thing is absolutely misinterpreted and overplayed. I will give you the clearest example, because I know the outcry.

Well, it's the timing, the timing…

Hebron. What did we do? Hebron is one of our most ancient cities. There was a thriving Jewish community. It was destroyed by a massacre. Should that massacre prevail? A Jew mustn't live in Hebron?

But why do it now?

Excuse me, please. You almost raised your voice, speaking to me. Should I be reprimanded, even by you, Barbara? So it is just incomprehensible that a government, a Jewish government, or a government composed of my friends, in which I am a member or a prime minister, should say to Jews, "You remember, in Hebron, you mustn't live." You know, I would call it a kind of racism. It would be a shame. So this question came up. We couldn't give any other answer. "You want to build a biblical school there? You have a right to live in Hebron, as the Arabs have a right to live in Haifa." I remember, President Sadat was in Haifa, he was enthusiastic about seeing Arabs and Jews living together. Why cannot they live together in Judea and Samaria? Now, you asked me why to do it now. When to do it? I gave a commitment to President Carter. I kept it, completely, for three months. At Camp David I gave that commitment, not to establish new settlements. It was not a freeze, because I said we shall strengthen the existing settlements. This is our right. But yesterday, I spoke to a group of very friendly senators and they told me, "We understand the right." Now, the president said, also, "The Israelis have a right to live in the West Bank." So then I have to explain, "Of course, we have a right. It's inherent. But we never do it individually." We don't send an individual Jew, let me say, to Jericho. Why? Because if he buys a house there and lives there, he will be killed. For 100 years, we go in groups because they can defend themselves. I explain this question because it is an integral part also, also, of our national security. From the mountains going down to the valley to kill our children, perhaps somebody who lives in one of those settlements – you can call them also villages or outposts, whatever you wish – sees them and then he can stop them, then he can inform the authorities, they can be stopped, and then you can save human lives, for God's sake. So it is an integral part of our national security, of all our affairs. How can we give it up, with the rampage of the PLO? You know that we discovered, for the past year, 138 cells of the PLO. You imagine how many hundreds of people they would have killed were it not for prevention. So, this is one of the forms of prevention. Therefore, it is so vital. And I was in Congress yesterday – I was in the House of Representatives and I was in the Senate – and I met scores of them. One question was asked about it. I answered, and no more. I think this is all overplayed, and absolutely unjustly.

If I raised my voice to you, it is not…

A necessity. You may raise it. You have such a beautiful voice, I don't mind even if you shout, but I don't think it will come out well on television.

If I do it – well, we will each worry about our own image. If I do raise my voice, I am really trying to express what, whether you think it's exaggerated or not, what the feeling is in much of this country, which is outrage, which is, perhaps, a raised voice, and I was trying to express that feeling to you. And you have expressed your opinion on it. I'd like to turn to Iran, if we may, and the whole question of hostages. It has always been Israel's plan not to give in to hostages. I know it's difficult for you to comment, but when President Sadat was here, he said that, although he praised President Carter, he didn't think he himself could have used such restraint. What do you think Israel would have done?

That's a very difficult question to answer and I will explain why. Yes, we just, two weeks ago, had a case of taking hostages, and they were children, babies. And our soldiers saved four of them – one got bludgeoned to death during the night – at the expense of their own blood. There were 11 soldiers wounded, several of them very severely, one got killed, and we saved the four children. And we have many more experience about citizens being taken hostage, men, women and child. Therefore, we feel so deeply for the American people, for the president, for the families in the United States. Perhaps we understand better than any other nation. I understand the American people wants the 50 men, their loving mothers and wives, to be back home. I understand it perfectly well. If force is used, it may be that the majority of them, maybe all of them, will be killed. The Russians wouldn't have minded. They would have marched on Tehran and captured it, because the Khomeini army is no match to any other army at all. It's a mob. An armed mob, but still a mob. But there is a difference between Russia and America, as far as human lives are concerned. Therefore, I wouldn't give an advice to use force at the price of the lives of the hostages. I would not give such an advice. But I would like to enlarge the issue, because it's not only a matter of the 50 hostages which is so important to every man of good will, preserve the lives and see them safely come to their families, but what is going to happen to free mankind? You know, you should see the map. Now the Soviet Union is in Afghanistan, and, through Balochistan, they can reach the Indian Ocean in no time and there is no force that can stop them. Iran itself can become a communist state, with the [unclear 32:09], the best organized group, waiting for what is called the revolutionary situation, since the days of Lenin, the famous saying, "Power is on the street, go and take it." And with the long border between Russia and Iran. And now, all the stockpiles of atomic weapons and the big ships, they are completely irrelevant to such a situation. I think the United States must now consider very seriously to have conventional forces on the spot, not to bring them from afar in a time of crisis, so to be ready in case, when it is necessary, to stop this expansionism. This is now the gravest issue for the United States, in my opinion, and for all free peoples.

Have conventional forces in the Middle East.

In every region where there is a possibility of Soviet expansionism. Because to bring them from California, even by planes, would take days, and by ships it will take weeks. And I suppose, now, the Tudeh party supports Khomeini because he humiliates the United States and every day of humiliation costs prestige of the United States and it is the mightiest Western power. It is a great pity that it so happens.

What about US forces in Israel? Based in Israel.

Well, I said always to my American friends, "We are allies, if you want facilities in our country we shall put them at your disposal." I would recommend it to the government. I can speak only on my own behalf, I cannot speak now on behalf of the government. Such a decision was not taken.


I will give you an example about the Olympic Games.


I invited the Olympic Israeli committee and I told them, "My opinion is that you shouldn't go to Moscow" because that theory of "business as usual, whatever happens," we remember it from the year 1936 in Berlin. The Jews already were persecuted and actually the Holocaust was prepared. All the free nations came to Berlin and that embodiment of all evil in mankind, as Churchill called him, was honored with the opening of the Olympic Games. How, after such an invasion into Afghanistan, business as usual, everybody goes to Moscow, plays, gets a golden medal, a silver medal…Unthinkable, as far as I'm concerned. Others don't think so. You have some reluctant allies, as I said, in the White House.

Will Israel send an Olympic team to Moscow?

This is the question. I will speak again to the Olympic Committee. It's up to them to decide. I already expressed my opinion.

But you're against it.

I already told them my opinion, that you shouldn't go.

Mr. Prime Minister, at this period in your history, perhaps in Israel's history, how would you like to be remembered?

As a decent man. I don't ask for more. But you prepare me for death? That depends only…

I haven't put you away yet.

Only on God.

I haven't put you away yet.

Oh, I believe in divine providence. Everybody of us depends on divine providence with his life. I can go tomorrow. I can still live a few years. But if you ask me how I should be remembered by posterity, then I say simply, as a decent man.

When this interview is being aired, it will be Sunday, which is a very particular day in your country.

Yes. A remembrance day for our fallen heroes we lost during all the wars for liberation and to sustain our independence. 14,000 of our best men, 30,000 wounded invalids. In terms of the United States, it would mean millions of casualties. And, therefore, we pay tribute to our fallen heroes. Thanks to them and their self-sacrifice, we have a country of our own. With difficulties, but it is still our own. And we have an army. We have a wonderful young generation. We have economic difficulties as well. We try to improve the lot of our people. We shall overcome the difficulties. The following day there will be Independence Day, the 32nd anniversary. That will be a day of rejoicing. There is a Jewish state for the first time after 1900 years of humiliation and dispersion and ultimately physical destruction. We have to thank God what we achieved in our generation. And nobody gave us this as a present. We had to fight for it. We had to give sacrifice in life. But, with God's help, we achieved that great, indeed, human victory. And now, we have to preserve for generations to come and we shall do our best to preserve it. There is an organization bent on our destruction. They will never succeed. We have to make sure that Israel lives forever and that our children and children's children are free men living in an independent country. And, may I tell you, as long as I breathe, I will fulfill that duty and so will do my friends and colleagues.

Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.

Thank you.