Menachem Begin

Menachem Begin (1913-1992) was active in the movement to establish an independent Jewish state in Palestine and in the early Israeli government. After serving many years in the Knesset, Begin became Israel's first non-Socialist prime minister in 1977.

Menachem Begin was born the son of Zeev-Dov and Hassia Begin in Brest-Litovsk, White Russia (later Poland), on August 16, 1913. He was educated in Brest-Litovsk at the Mizrachi Hebrew School and later studied and graduated in law at the University of Warsaw. After a short association with Hashomer Hatzair, he became a devoted follower of Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist Movement, and joined Betar (Revisionist Zionist Youth Movement). He became active in the organization, joined its leadership, and in 1932 became head of the Organization Department of Betar in Poland. Later, after a period of service as head of Betar in Czechoslovakia, he returned to Poland and, in 1939, became head of the movement there.

Earlier, during the Palestine riots of 1936-1938, Begin organized a mass demonstration near the British Embassy in Warsaw and was imprisoned by the Polish police. He was also active in organizing illegal immigration to Palestine during this period. In 1939 he married Aliza Arnold (who died in 1982), with whom he had three children—one son (Benjamin) and two daughters (Chasia and Leah). When the Germans occupied Warsaw, Begin escaped to Vilna, where he was arrested in 1940 by the Soviet authorities for Zionist activity and sentenced to eight years of hard labor. He was held in Siberia in 1940-1941, but was released because he was a Polish citizen. In 1942 Begin arrived in Palestine with the Polish army formed in the former U.S.S.R.

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Active in Palestine

Toward the end of 1943, after having been released from the Polish ranks, Begin became commander of the Irgun Tzevai Leumi. This militant underground organization worked for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine by opposing the British rule through various means, including violence. He declared "armed warfare" against the Mandatory government in Palestine at the beginning of 1944 and led a determined underground struggle against the British, who offered a reward for his apprehension. He tried, at the same time, to avert violent clashes within the Jewish community in Palestine. But he was not always successful as a peace maker among Jewish factions. Begin was on board the Irgun ship Altalena when it approached Tel Aviv with a consignment of arms during the Arab-Israel ceasefire of June 1948 and was shelled by order of the new Israel government of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

With the independence of the State of Israel in 1948 and the dissolution of the Irgun, Begin founded the Herut (Freedom) Party and represented it in the Knesset (parliament) of Israel starting with its first meetings in 1949. He became Herut's leader, retaining that position for more than 30 years. Herut was known for its right-wing, strongly nationalistic views, and Begin led the party's protest campaign against the reparations agreement with West Germany in 1952. He was instrumental in establishing the Gahal faction (a merger of Herut and the Liberal Party) in the Knesset in 1965. He also developed a reputation as a gifted orator, writer, and political leader.

He remained in opposition in parliament until the eve of the Six Day War of June 1967, when he joined the Government of National Unity as minister without portfolio. He and his Gahal colleagues resigned from the government in August 1970 over opposition to its acceptance of the peace initiative of U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers, which implied the evacuation by Israel of territories occupied in the course of the Six Day War. Later, Gahal joined in forming the Likud bloc in opposition to the governing Labor Alignment, and Begin became its leader.

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As Prime Minister

In May 1977 Begin became Israel's first non-Socialist prime minister when the Likud bloc secured the mandate to form the government after the parliamentary elections. He also became the first Israeli prime minister to meet officially and publicly with an Arab head of state when he welcomed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977. He led Israel's delegations to the ensuing peace negotiations and signed, with Sadat and U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the Camp David accords in September 1978.

In March 1979 he and Sadat signed the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, with Carter witnessing the event, on the White House lawn in Washington. Begin and Sadat shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. For Begin, and for Israel, it was a momentous but difficult accomplishment. It brought peace with Israel's most populous adversary and significantly reduced the military danger to the existence of Israel by neutralizing the largest Arab army, with whom Israel had fought five wars. But, it was also traumatic given the extensive tangible concessions required of Israel, especially the uprooting of Jewish settlements in Sinai.

The Knesset elections of June 30, 1981, returned a Likud-led coalition government to power in Israel, contrary to early predictions which projected a significant Labor Alignment victory. Menachem Begin again became prime minister, and his reestablished government coalition contained many of the same personalities as the outgoing group and reflected similar perspectives of Israel's situation and of appropriate government policies.

"Operation Peace for Galilee"—the War in Lebanon—beginning in June 1982 occasioned debate and demonstrations within Israel. It resulted in substantial casualties and led, at least initially, to Israel's increased international isolation and major clashes with the United States. Many of these results were muted over time, but the war left a legacy that continued to be debated long after Begin retired from public life. It was also a factor in Begin's decision to step down from the prime minister's office.

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A Strong Leader

Within Israel, Begin's tenure was marked by prosperity for the average citizen, although there were indications (such as rising debt and inflation levels) that ultimately this might prove costly. The standard of living rose, as did the level of expectations. The religious parties enhanced their political power and secured important concessions to their demands from a coalition which recognized their increased role in maintaining the political balance and from a prime minister who was, on the whole, sympathetic to their positions.

The major external relationship continued to be the one with the United States, and this underwent significant change during Begin's tenure. The ties were often tempestuous, as the two states disagreed on various aspects of the regional situation and the issues associated with resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nevertheless, United States economic and military assistance as well as political and diplomatic support rose to all-time high levels.

Begin's political skills were considerable and apparent. Despite his European origins and courtly manner, he was able to secure a substantial margin of popularity over other major political figures, particularly the opposition leaders. At the time of his resignation, he was the most popular and highly regarded of Israeli politicians, as the public opinion polls regularly indicated.

Later Years

Begin's decision to resign as prime minister of Israel on September 16, 1983, brought to an end a major era in Israeli politics. It was a shock to Israelis, notwithstanding Begin's earlier statements that he would retire from politics at age 70. Although no formal reason for his resignation was forthcoming, Begin apparently believed that he could no longer perform his tasks as he felt he ought to and he seemed to be severely affected by the death of his wife the previous year and by the continuing casualties suffered by Israeli forces in Lebanon.

Begin literally became a recluse, spending most of his remaining years secluded in his apartment. He was seldom seen in public; often he only left his sanctuary to attend memorial services for his wife or to visit the hospital. He died of complications from a heart attack on March 9, 1992, in Ichilov Hospital, in Jerusalem.

Ironically, less than three months after his death, Likud, the party created by Begin, under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir, lost the parliamentary elections to Yitzhak Rabin's Labor party. According to Rabin, Begin was the best of the last "of a special generation in the life of the Jewish people, characterized by the Holocaust and the resurrection." In the form of nationhood in 1948, and even in death, he maintained a significant influence on his nation's politics.

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Further Reading on Menachem Begin

Begin wrote numerous articles and several books which include reminiscences and provide insight into his views of history. They include Ha-Mered (The Revolt), which describes the struggle of the Irgun and other Zionist organizations against the British and the Arabs in Palestine and constitutes memoirs of his years as head of the Irgun, and Be-Leilot Levanim (White Nights), reminiscences of his imprisonment in the Soviet Union. Two books in English about Begin provide sympathetic and detailed examinations: Eitan Haber, Menachem Begin: The Legend and the Man (1979), and Eric Silver, Begin: The Haunted Prophet (1984). Sasson Sofer's Begin: An Anatomy of Leadership (1988) is also a good resource.