Menachem Begin

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Menachem Begin on the front cover of TIME 1982.
Menachem Begin on the front cover of TIME 1982.

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Menachem Wolfovitch Begin (August 16, 1913March 9, 1992) ( name in Hebrew: ) became the 6th Prime Minister of Israel in May 1977. With the mediation of US President Jimmy Carter, Begin negotiated the Camp David Accords with President Sadat of Egypt, agreeing on the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the Sinai Peninsula and its return to Egypt. Begin and Sadat were awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for this implementation of "Land for peace".

The negotiations soon culminated in his greatest contribution to the State of Israel, the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty and the end of a threat from the Military of Egypt.


Early life

Begin was born to Ashkenazi Jews in Brest-Litovsk ("Brisk"), a town famous for its Talmudical scholars such as Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918) who was the town's leading rabbi when Begin was born, (see also Brisk yeshivas.) Begin received a combined traditional Torah and secular primary education. He retained a life-long private commitment to Jewish observance and Torah study and always had the best relations with Haredi Judaism rabbis; adopting the guise of a religious Jew and using the alias "Rabbi Chaim Sussover", years later when hiding from the British in Palestine as leader of the Irgun. Brisk was then still in the Russian empire, (it was also connected to Lithuania at one time), which became part of Poland from 1919 to 1939 and is today a part of Belarus and known simply as Brest. His father was a community leader, an ardent Zionist, and an admirer of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) the founder of modern political Zionism. Both of Begin's parents perished in the Holocaust.

During the 1930s Menachem Begin trained as a lawyer in Warsaw and became a key disciple of Zeev Jabotinsky (1880-1940) founder of the anti-socialist Revisionist Zionism movement and its Betar youth wing. From 1939 Begin was the leader of Betar. He escaped the Nazis, but from 1940-1941 he was arrested by the NKVD and imprisoned by the Soviet Union, being sent to Siberia. Begin recorded his experiences in great detail in the autobiographical books that he later wrote and published. In 1941, following his release under the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, he joined the Polish army of Anders, and deserted it along with many other Jewish soldiers while stationed in Palestine.

In British Palestine

See related article: Irgun.

Forcing the British out of Palestine

Begin then moved to the British Mandate of Palestine, where he quickly made a name for himself as a fierce critic of the socialist-oriented Zionist groups led by David Ben-Gurion for being too co-operative with the "colonial" British. Begin was a proponent of a militant Revisionist Zionism. In 1942 he joined the Irgun (Etzel) and in 1947 assumed its leadership. He was determined to force the British government to remove its troops entirely from Palestine. He believed that the British had reneged on their original promise of the Balfour Declaration, 1917, and that the White Paper of 1939 restricting Jewish immigration was a travesty.

Armed rebellion against the British

Even after the Holocaust (1939-1945) the British refused to open the borders of Palestine to Jewish refugees and survivors of Hitler's extermination camps. Begin was outraged at the policies of the British which he deemed to be outright pro-Arab. He issued a call to arms and from 1945-1948 the Irgun launched an all-out armed rebellion, attacking British installations and posts. He planned the bombing of the British administrative and military headquarters (at the luxurious King David Hotel) in Jerusalem that killed 91 people, including many British officers and troops.

Secret commander eludes capture

Somehow, he managed to elude both the British and the members of the Jewish Agency who wanted to capture him. From his places of hiding, he directed the unconventional warfare of thousands of fighters who plagued the British forces. Tens of thousands of British troops were called in to quell this Jewish uprising, but Begin and his Irgun continuously harassed the British until the day they pulled out of Palestine in 1948.

The Altalena affair

In 1948 Begin was at the center of the shipping of Irgun arms to Israel, ending in the sinking of the Altalena by gunfire ordered by David Ben-Gurion. Begin was onboard the ship, and a number of Irgun men were killed. It was assumed that Ben-Gurion was hoping that Begin would be killed too, but that did not happen. The leader of the troops firing on the Altalena was none other than the young Yitzhak Rabin.

The Deir Yassin episode

Begin has been accused of being responsible for what transpired on the April 9, 1948, when commandos of the Irgun and the Lehi attacked Deir Yassin, an Arab village of about 750 residents located on high ground in the corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and according to Plan Dalet, it was to be destroyed and the residents evacuated. Yet over 100 people were killed. Soon after the indicent, Being stated: "Accept my congratulations on this splendid act of conquest. Convey my regards to all the commanders and soldiers. We shake your hands. We are all proud of the excellent leadership and the fighting spirit in this great attack ... Tell the soldiers: you have made history in Israel with your attack and your conquest. Continue this until victory. As in Deir Yassin, so everywhere, we will attack and smite the enemy. God, God, Thou has chosen us for conquest."

Calls for Irgun to stop fighting

Within days of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 Begin broadcast a speech on radio calling on his men to put down their weapons. It was the first time that the public had ever heard his voice. He reviewed some of his forces at a few public parades and repeated his command that they lay down their arms and join with the Haganah to form the newly established Israel Defense Forces. People were surpised at his slight build and mild demeanor, the formality of the way he dressed and his "old world" manners and attention to detail and appearance.

The Irgun, together with the underground Lehi militia (also known as "The Stern Gang"), were widely denounced by left-wing Israelis, particularly Ben-Gurion, as "terrorist" organisations. Shortly after the founding of the state of Israel the Irgun and Lehi chose to disband, with Begin renouncing any thought of civil war even though he would be in the political wilderness for almost thirty years.

Sephardi political support

Begin's voice was not quelled and he continued to have an appeal to those who felt that they were "second class" citizens in Israel, particularly the newly arrived Sephardim, who had fled from Arab countries and resented the dominance of the secular Ashkenazi elites many of whom were atheists and even communists more sympathetic to the USSR than they were to the Sephardim whom they deemed to be "primitive". Therefore Begin's anti-socialist and anti-elitist messages of Jewish pride with his open embrace of Judaism and the appeal to strength attracted them, and the Sephardic Jews of Israel became his political base that gave him their votes as a block, and when he was finally elected as Prime Mnister in 1977 many of them chanted Begin melekh Yisrael ("Begin king [of] Israel"), (a reference to a traditional Jewish song celebrating the biblical King David).

Enters Israeli politics

In 1948 Begin founded the right-wing political party Herut ("Freedom"), which eventually became the much-larger Likud party. This was a move that countered the old Revisionist Party founded by his late mentor Vladimir Jabotinsky, but which had become a weak institution. Nevertheless, Revisionist "purists" alleged that Begin was out to steal Jabotinsky's mantle and ran against him with the old party. In the first elections 1949, Herut won 18 seats, while the Revisionist Party failed to break the threshold and disbanded shortly thereafter. This provided Begin with legitimacy as the leader of the Revisionist stream of Zionism.

Between 1948 and 1977, under Begin, it formed the main opposition to the dominant Labour party in the Knesset (Israel's parliament), and was often derided by Ben-Gurion who refused to either speak to or refer to Begin by name, but Begin took it all in stride. Begin was trained as a lawyer in Poland, and he preferred the formal suit and tie and the dry demeanor of a legislator to the more "Bolshevik" informality of Israel's socialists. He was confident that he would be vindicated with the passage of time.

In 1973, Begin agreed to a plan by Gen. Ariel Sharon (res.) to form a larger bloc of opposition parties from Herut, and partner with the Liberals, the Free Center Party, and other smaller groups. They came through with a tenuous alliance called the Likud ("Consolidation") that lasts to this day.

Prime Minister of Israel

See: Prime Minister of Israel.

1977: Negotiating a majority for the Knesset

(Note: Israel has a system of proportional representation, meaning that in the national elections the voting is for a political party, and not for a candidate. Each party submits its list of candidates, and based on the number of votes it receives in each national election, a "proportional" number of seats for its candidates are alloted, and they then become members of the 120 seat Knesset -- the parliament of Israel. The candidate at the top of the largest party's list is then entitled to negotiate a majority government any way he can with other parties, and then becomes the government's Prime Minister when he finally has an agreed upon majority behind him and is able to form a cabinet.)

In 1977 Likud obtained the largest number of votes becoming the largest party, but still far from the more than 60 seats needed to form a majority government in the Knesset chamber which seats 120 members only. At the same time former Israeli Chief of Staff (1949-1952) General Yigael Yadin launched a new political party the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC), known by its Hebrew acronym DASH, together with Professor Amnon Rubenstein, Shmuel Tamir, Meir Amit, and many other prominent Israeli public figures. In the 1977 elections, the new party did remarkably well for its first attempt to enter the Knesset, winning 15 of the 120 seats. As a result of the election, Menachem Begin as the Likud party leader was able to form a coalition with the DMC, thereby excluding the Labor Party for the first time in Israel's history. As the new Deputy Prime Minister, Yadin played a pivotal role in many events that took place, particularly the contacts with Egypt, which eventually led to the signing of the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty between Israel and its neighbor.

After forming a political alliance with Yigael Yadin's DMC that had obtained 15 seats, and with former IDF Chief of Staff (1955-1958) and former Minister of Defense (1967-1973) General Moshe Dayan defecting from Labor taking on the position of Likud Foreign Minister, and with the final agreement with the Haredi rabbis of the Agudat Israel party to allow their faction of 5 Knesset members to join Begin's coalition, Begin had his Knesset majority lined up behind him and was finally able to become the sixth Prime Minister of Israel, leading Israel's first non-Labour, "center-right" government.

1978: Camp David Accords

See: Camp David Accords (1978) and Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty.
Celebrating the signing of the Camp David Accords (1978) in the White House Rose Garden: Menachem Begin (right, back to camera), Jimmy Carter (center), Anwar Sadat (left)
Celebrating the signing of the Camp David Accords (1978) in the White House Rose Garden: Menachem Begin (right, back to camera), Jimmy Carter (center), Anwar Sadat (left)

In 1978 Begin, aided by retired General Moshe Dayan as Foreign Minister, negotiated the Camp David Accords and in 1979 Begin signed the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty with Anwar Sadat. Under the terms of the treaty, Israel handed over the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, which had been its most important Arab foe

This was a partial fulfilment of UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 which came in the wake of the Six-Day War and called for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" (see semantic dispute) in exchange for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The "territories" here refer to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The United States provided additional political guarantees and financial assistance to relocate Israeli military bases in the Sinai to Israel's Negev desert.

Moving out of the Sinai also involved demolition of Israeli civilian settlements there (including the town of Yamit), bringing about internal opposition to Begin's policies, eventually leading to a split in his own Likud party.

1981:Bombing Iraq's nuclear reactor

See: Osiraq.

Begin took the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic threats of Saddam Hussein very seriously and therefore took aim at Iraq. Israel attempted to negotiate with France so as to not provide Iraq with the nuclear reactor at Osiraq, but to no avail. In 1981 Begin ordered the bombing and destruction of Iraq's Tammuz nuclear reactor by the Israeli Air Force in a successful long-range operation. Soon after, Begin enunciated what came to be known as the Begin doctrine: "On no account shall we permit an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against the people of Israel." Many foreign governments, including the Unites States, condemned the operation, and the United Nations Security Council passed a unanimous resolution 487 condemning it. The Israeli left-wing opposition criticized it also at the time, but mainly for its timing relative to elections only three weeks later.

1982:Lebanon invasion

See 1982 Invasion of Lebanon.

In 1982, Begin authorized the Israel Defense Forces' invasion of Lebanon, citing the need to put the PLO out of rocket range of Israel's northern border. This began the Israeli engagement in southern Lebanon which lasted for three years (with limited Israeli presence in Lebanon continuing until 2000). According to Haaretz reporter Uzi Benziman, the then Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon may have "deceived" Begin as to the purpose of the war, and extended it without authorization. Sharon sued Haaretz and Benziman in 1991. The trial lasted 11 years, with one of the highlights being the deposition of Benny Begin, Menachem Begin's son, in favor of the defendants. Sharon lost the case [1].

1983:Retirement from public life

Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978
Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978

Begin himself retired from politics in August 1983 and handed over the reins of the office of Prime Minister to his old friend-in-arms who had been the leader of the Lehi resistance to the British, Yitzhak Shamir. Begin had become deeply disappointed and depressed by the war in Lebanon because he had hoped to establish peace with Bashir Gemayel who was assassinated. Instead there were mounting Israeli casualties which he deeply regretted. The death of his devoted and beloved wife Aliza Begin in Israel while he was away on an official visit to Washington DC, added to his own mounting depression.

Final years in seclusion: Dies in 1992

Begin would rarely leave his apartment, and then usually to visit his wife's grave-site to say the traditional Jewish Kaddish Jewish prayer for the departed. His seclusion was watched over by his children and his lifetime personal secretary Yechiel Kadishai who monitored all official requests for meetings.

Begin died in Jerusalem in 1992, followed by a simple ceremony and burial at the Mount of Olives.

2005 post-script: Begin voted the greatest Israeli leader

On February 2005 Begin was voted as "The Greatest Israeli Leader" with 32.8% of the votes.


Menachem Begin, the day after the UN vote on the 1947 UN Partition Plan:

The Partition of Palestine is illegal. It will never be recognized .... Jerusalem was and will for ever be our capital. Eretz Israel will be restored to the people of Israel. All of it. And for ever.

Soon after Menachem Begin and the Likud party won the Israeli election in 1977, the government's foreign policy was stated as follows:

The Jewish people have unchallengeable, eternal, historic right to the Land of Israel including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the inheritance of their forefathers (and he pledged to build rural and urban exclusive Jewish colonies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (Iron Wall, p. 354-355)

Menachem Begin, Broadcast to the Egyptian People, November 11, 1977.

No more wars, no more bloodshed, and no more threats.

Menachem Begin, Nobel Lecture, December 10, 1978:

Free women and men everywhere must wage an incessant campaign so that these human values become a generally recognized and practised reality. We must regretfully admit that in various parts of the world this is not yet the case. Without those values and human rights the real peace of which we dream is jeopardized.

When President Ronald Reagan sent a letter to Menachem Begin condemning the attack on the Iraqi civilian nuclear reactor in June 1981, Begin responded with a letter, he wrote:

A million and half children were poisoned by the Zyklon gas during the Holocaust. Now Israel's children were about to be poisoned by radioactivity. For two years we have lived in the shadow of the danger awaiting Israel from nuclear reactor in Iraq. This would have been a new Holocaust. It was prevented by the heroism of our pilots to whom we owe so much. (Iron Wall, p. 387)

As a justification for the invasion of Lebanon. On June 5, 1982 he told the Israeli cabinet:

The hour of decision has arrived. You know what I have done, and what all of us have done. To prevent war and bereavement. But our fate is that in the Land of Israel there is no escape from fighting in the spirit of self-sacrifice. Believe me, the alternative to fighting is Treblinka, and we have resolved that there would be no Treblinkas. This is the moment in which courageous choice has to be made. The criminal terrorists and the world must know that the Jewish people have a right to self-defense, just like any other people. (Iron Wall, p. 404-405).

Books by Menachem Begin

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Preceded by:
Yitzhak Rabin
Prime Minister of Israel
Succeeded by:
Yitzhak Shamir
Preceded by:
Ezer Weizman
Minister of Defense of the State of Israel
Succeeded by:
Ariel Sharon
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