JERUSALEM (Mar. 9)
Menachem Begin, son of a Jewish timber merchant in czarist Russia who became Israel’s sixth prime minister 15 years ago, was a man driven to feats of court age and the depths of despair. His vision was forged from the Holocaust and love for the Jewish people.
Begin, who died here early Monday at 78 embodied the history of Jews in this century particularly those whose lot was interwoven with the birth and continuance of the State of Israel.
He will likely be remembered most for signing Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab neighbor. But Begin also will go down in history as the prime minister who led Israel into its first war that did not have the universal backing of the Israeli people.
A native of Brest-Litovsk, he lived to learn that his parents and brother had perished in the flames of the Holocaust.
Begin, who was born Aug. 16, 1913, first joined the Socialist Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. At the age of 16, though, he embraced the ideas of the Revisionist Zionist Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and became a member of the Betar Zionist youth movement in Poland.
Begin turned out even more militant than Jabotinsky. He clashed with Jabotinsky at the 1938 Betar convention, demanding its reorientation with the goal of “conquest of the homeland by force.”
He received a law degree in 1935 from the University of Warsaw and took over the leadership of Betar.
In 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Begin fled to the Soviet Union. He was arrested in September 1940 and charged with espionage. He was taken to a concentration camp in Siberia, where he was sentenced to eight years.
But Soviet authorities freed him in 1941 as part of an accord with the Polish government in exile that allowed for the freeing of some 1.5 million Polish citizens.
Begin then found his sister, the only other survivor from their family. He was active in the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine.
He soon joined the Free Polish Army. The stint took him to Iran and then Palestine. He learned English from listening to BBC Radio. He then served in the British Army in Palestine as an interpreter until 1943.
WANTED BY BRITISH AS TERRORIST
At that time, he became the leader of the liberation movement Irgun Tzvai Leumi, Etzel, whose means were more violent than the mainstream Haganah, with which he disagreed over how to push the British out of Palestine.
Under his leadership, the Irgun in 1946 blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem where the British were headquartered. Some 90 people were killed in that bombing. There were Jews and Arabs among the dead as well as British.
Begin’s picture, that of a wanted terrorist, was posted in all British prisons and offices in Palestine. The British conducted an extensive manhunt for Begin, who had a price on his head that began at $8,000 but was raised to $50,000.
He escaped the British dragnet by disguising as a bearded Orthodox rabbi.
Begin helped found the Herut party in 1948 and was from then to 1967 leader of the opposition in the Knesset. In 1969, he was named minister without portfolio in the post-war national unity Cabinet.
In 1977, after Israel had lived under the exclusive domain of the Labor Party for nearly three decades, Begin’s Likud bloc managed, in a stunning election upset, to unseat the veteran party, which was then riddled by dissension and tainted by economic scandal.
Begin’s tenure as prime minister was different than all those that preceded. He was the first prime minister to refer not to the West Bank but to Judea and Samaria, considering them an integral part of the Land of Israel.
No sooner had he been elected than he went off to visit an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Elon Moreh, and declared it part of “liberated Israel.” It was under his tenure that Jewish settlement in the territories picked up momentum.
Begin viewed the Arab states with utmost suspicion over their designs on the Jewish state.
In June 1981, Begin asked the Cabinet to approve the bombing of the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. On the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, Israeli planes destroyed the facility, which Israel later claimed had been primed to start up.
VALUED FRIENDSHIP WITH SADAT
But Begin also came to cherish the role of peacemaker. It was after several visits to the United States and Romania, which was then playing the role of go-between, that Begin decided to extend an invitation to Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat to come to Jerusalem.
The Egyptian leader accepted and made his historic visit in November 1977, the first and only Arab ruler to do so publicly.
The path from Sadat’s Knesset podium to the signing of the peace treaty on the White House lawn in March 1979 was a bumpy one.
Begin — as well as many Laborites — resisted Egypt’s initial demands for the return of the entire Sinai and for a promise of autonomy to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In 1978, Begin and Sadat were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. Only Begin went to Oslo that December to accept the prize.
Begin deeply valued his friendship with Sadat. When the Egyptian leader was assassinated by Moslem fundamentalists in October 1981, Begin went to Cairo and walked to the funeral, which was held on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
But Begin’s name has also become synonymous with the invasion of Lebanon, beginning a war that would cause a sharp rift in the country.
The war was begun to rake out Palestinian terrorists in southern Lebanon who had been shelling Israel’s north. But it soon escalated to an invasion of Beirut itself, Israel’s first incursion into an Arab capital.
TROUBLED BY WAR’S DEATH TOLL
In 1983, as the Israeli public was experiencing a deep division over the war, Begin called on Israelis to “show tolerance, rid themselves of hatred and show understanding of each other.”
He said that “differences of opinion were legitimate and should not lead to physical confrontation.”
His statement was the closest he came to denouncing violence that led to the killing, by right-wing Jewish demonstrators, of Emil Grunzweig, a Peace Now protester of the Lebanon war.
Begin was deeply troubled by the high death toll from the war. He suffered a further crushing blow when his beloved wife, Aliza, died in November 1982.
In September 1983, Begin stepped down as prime minister, saying he could go on no longer. He spent the final decade of his life a near total recluse, living with his daughter and visited only by a close circle of friends and his longtime friend and colleague Yehiel Kadishai.
Thereafter, the few times that Begin presented himself in public, he looked pale and frail. It was a sharp contrast from the image of the fiery Likud leader who called out, during the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt: “No more war. No more bloodshed. No more bereavement. Peace unto you. Shalom. Salam.”