WHAT AN EXTRAORDINARY statement by Menachem Begin, responding to steps taken by the United States after Israel annexed the Syrian Golan Heights. What an extraordinary evocation of the pride and paranoia of his people, determined as they are never to be intimidated by a hostile world again. What an extraordinary misreading of the purpose of those steps taken by the Reagan administration, and of the temper of opinion in the United States.
Mr. Begin compares the demand that Israel rescind the law annexing Golan to the demand of the Inquisition that Jews "rescind" their faith. There is no answering that kind of fevered reach into the Jewish historical psyche. It is possible only to wait until the fever passes, until it is possible for the Israeli government to understand what we think most Americans would have it understand: that the United States will remain true to Israel but that it expects Israel to yield, for peace--only for peace-- the territory it acquired in 1967. The United States has not always been skillful and consistent in stating this purpose, but no one in Israel or elsewhere should doubt it is there.
Israel, says Mr. Begin, is no "vassal state," no "banana republic." His words carry the hint that he might go to lengths as yet unforeseen to prove the point. His very intensity, however, betrays an awareness of what is for Israel a reality terrible to contemplate. Zionism is the Jewish people's assertion of control over their own destiny. Yet some of Israel's policies, and especially some of Mr. Begin's, have worked to make Israel ever more dependent on the outside power, the United States. This is happening, moreover, precisely as the United States is being drawn into deeper relations with states traditionally hostile to Israel.
There are in the United States certain elements, sure to be encouraged by some Arab and European voices, ready to push this crisis toward a final political confrontation between the United States and Israel. Mr. Begin's own overwrought words are likely to be cited to propel the crisis along. But who needs this sort of showdown? Who can wish either one of these profoundly friendly and compatible countries to humiliate the other? Mr. Begin, by annexing the Golan, put the United States in an impossible position with respect to its Arab interests; he undercut a whole basis of American support for Israel. The United States' faults, as Mr. Begin enumerates them, are by contrast faults of tone and style, worth reflecting on and responding to, but not of ultimate substance.
Mr. Begin pronounces himself still open to "rational arguments" by which he presumably means he is open to some kind of careful mutual withdrawal to the pre-Golan status quo. Surely he sees no good purpose for his citizens in allowing Israel's relations with its one true friend to be kept hostage to this misunderstanding.