15 Aug From Immigrant to Prime Minister: The Man Who Rallied Israel
Menachem Begin was a man of many faces to different people. To some, he was an admired leader whose passionate words inspired thousands of devoted followers. To others, he was a fiery and even dangerous populist demagogue deserving of total rejection. To the objective observer, he was a key figure in Israel’s pre-independence history and its early decades.
Born on Aug. 16, 1913, in Best Litovsk, Russia (now part of Belarus), Begin led a life full of Zionist activity, much of it in an underground capacity during Israel’s pre-state emergence, and later in many years of political opposition leadership before finally achieving the post of prime minister of Israel.
Early in his youth Begin became a Zionist leader in Poland in the right-wing Betar youth movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. He and his young wife Aliza fled the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and eventually made their way to Palestine in 1942, where Begin served as a cadet officer in the Free Polish (Anders) Army. Begin remained in Palestine, where, before the creation of the state of Israel, he was the leader of the Zionist militant group Irgun, the Revisionist breakaway from the larger Jewish paramilitary organization Haganah. He proclaimed a revolt on Feb. 1, 1944, against the British mandatory government, and his followers carried out a series of attacks on British military and civilian installations. The British placed a price on his head but failed to capture him. Later, the Irgun fought the Arabs during the 1947–48 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine.
After the creation of the state in May 1948, Begin was elected to the first Knesset (parliament) as head of Herut, the party he founded and that was at first on the political fringe, embodying the opposition to the Labor-led government and Israeli establishment. He remained in opposition – eventually heading the Likud Party of today — in eight consecutive elections (except for a national unity government around the Six-Day War), but became more acceptable to the political center. His 1977 electoral victory (referred to as the “upheaval”) and premiership ended three decades of Labor Party political dominance. During Begin’s premiership many social and economic reforms were instituted to try and promote socioeconomic equality and free competition, not always with universal success.
Begin’s most significant achievement as prime minister was the signing of a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, for which he and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shared the Nobel Prize for Peace. In the wake of the Camp David Accords, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, which was captured from Egypt in the Six-Day War. Later, Begin’s government promoted the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Begin authorized the bombing of the Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq in 1981and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to fight PLO strongholds there, igniting the 1982 Lebanon War. As Israeli military involvement in Lebanon deepened, and the Sabra and Shatila massacre, carried out by Christian Phalangist militia allies of the Israelis, shocked world public opinion, Begin grew increasingly isolated. As IDF forces remained mired in Lebanon and the economy suffered from hyperinflation, the public pressure on Begin mounted. Depressed by the death of his wife Aliza in November 1982, he gradually withdrew from public life, until his resignation in October 1983. On March 9, 1992, Begin died as the consequence of a heart attack.
A man who lived modestly his whole life, Begin was buried at his specific request on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem, near his beloved Aliza, rather than on Mt. Herzl, where Israel’s leaders are generally buried. Masses of mourners accompanied the funeral procession.
Today, the world can see the seeds of Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s actions in the eyes of the Israeli people, the Israeli soldier, and the generations of young Jews whom are following in the footsteps of this great Jewish visionary.