Menachem Begin

From New World Encyclopedia

Menachem Begin
מנחם בגין
Menachem Begin

6th Prime Minister of Israel
In office
June 21, 1977 – October 10, 1983
Preceded by Yitzhak Rabin
Succeeded by Yitzhak Shamir

Born August 16, 1913
Brest, Russian Empire
Died March 9, 1992
Tel Aviv, Israel
Political party Likud

(Hebrew: מְנַחֵם בְּגִין, (August 16, 1913 - March 9, 1992) was head of the Zionist underground group the Irgun, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the first Likud Prime Minister of Israel. Though revered by many Israelis, Begin’s legacy remains controversial. As the leader of the Irgun, Begin played a central role in Jewish military resistance to the British Mandate of Palestine, but was strongly deplored and consequently sidelined by the mainstream Zionist leadership. Suffering eight consecutive defeats in the years preceding his premiership, Begin came to embody the opposition to the Ashkenazi Mapai-led establishment. His electoral victory, in 1977, not only brought to an end three decades of Labor Party political hegemony, but also symbolized a new social realignment in which previously marginalized communities gained public recognition.

Despite having established himself as a fervent conservative ideologue, Begin’s first significant achievement as prime minister—and in the view of many, his singular accomplishment—was to negotiate the Camp David Accords with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, agreeing on the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai Peninsula (occupied since the 1967 Six Day War) and its return to Egypt. He, thus, became the first Israeli prime minister to establish peace with an Arab state. Yet, in the years to follow, especially during his second term in office from 1981, Begin’s government was to reclaim a nationalist agenda, promoting the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Israeli Occupied Territories. As retaliation to attacks from the north, in 1982, he authorized a limited invasion into southern Lebanon, which quickly escalated into full-fledged war. As Israeli military involvement in Lebanon deepened, Begin grew increasingly depressed and reticent, losing grip on the military's operation in Lebanon. Mounting public pressure, exacerbated by the death of his wife, increased his withdrawal from public life, until his resignation in September 1983.

Begin's life would appear contradictory. In the 1940s, he was on the most wanted list for terrorism against the British, yet he would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He used violence when, for him, direct action seemed the only means by which Jews could pressure the British to meet the terms of the 1922 League of Nations mandate to create a Jewish homeland. Begin's willingness to enter peace talks with Sadat showed his inclination to negotiate and find ways of coexisting in preference to confrontation. In his Nobel Lecture, he said that when Sadat came to Jerusalem, "In the spirit of the Nobel Prize tradition we gave to each other the most momentous pledge: No more war. No more bloodshed. We shall negotiate and reach agreement."[1] But his 1981 attack upon an Iraqi nuclear reactor and 1982 invasion of Lebanon led some to question the depth of his commitment to peace.

Early life

Begin was born to a Lithuanian Ashkenazi Jewish family in Brest-Litovsk ("Brisk"), a town famous for Talmudic scholars, including Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik. Brisk was still a part of the Russian empire. In between the two world wars, the town was located in the Eastern Borderlands of the Second Polish Republic. It currently lies within the western boundary of Belarus. Begin received a combined traditional Yeshivah education, along with instruction in secular subjects. (He retained a life-long private commitment to Jewish observance and Torah study and maintained consistently good relations with Haredi rabbis, going so far as to adopt Haredi guise under the alias "Rabbi Yisrael Sassover" when hiding from the British in Palestine as leader of the Irgun.) His father was a community leader, an ardent Zionist, and an admirer of Theodor Herzl. Both of Begin's parents perished in the Holocaust.

Family Picture of Menachem Begin with sister Rachel and brother Herzl with their parents in Poland, in 1932

During the 1930s, Begin trained as a lawyer in Warsaw and became a key disciple of Vladimir "Ze'ev" Jabotinsky, the founder of the militant, nationalist Revisionist Zionism movement and its Betar youth wing. In 1937, he was the active head of Betar in Czechoslovakia and Poland, leaving just prior to the German invasion of that country. In early 1939, Begin became the leader of Betar, leaving Poland just before the German invasion. He managed to escape the Nazi round-up of Polish Jews by crossing into the Soviet Union. On September 20, 1940, he was arrested by the NKVD. Ironically, he was accused of being an "agent of British imperialism" and sentenced for eight years of gulag camps. On June 1, 1941, he was sent to the Pechora labor camps, where he labored until May 1942. Much later in life, Begin would record and reflect upon his experiences in Siberia in great detail in a series of autobiographical works.

In 1941, just after the German offensive started against the Soviet Union, following his release under the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, Begin joined the Polish Army of Anders. He was later sent with the army to Palestine via the Persian Corridor, just as the Germans were advancing into the heart of Russia. Upon arrival, he deserted and joined the Jewish national movement in the British Mandate of Palestine.

In the British Mandate of Palestine

Insurgency against the British in Palestine

Begin quickly made a name for himself as a fierce critic of mainstream Zionist leadership for being too cooperative with British colonialism. He was a proponent of guerrilla tactics against the British as a necessary means to achieve independence. In 1942, he joined the Irgun (Etzel), an underground militant Zionist group which had split from the Jewish military organization, the Haganah, in 1931. In 1944, Begin assumed the organization's leadership, determined to force the British government to remove its troops entirely from Palestine. Claiming that the British had reneged on their original promise in the Balfour Declaration, and that the White Paper of 1939 restricting Jewish immigration was an escalation of their pro-Arab policy, he decided to break with the Haganah, which continued to cooperate militarily with the British as long as they were fighting Nazi Germany. Soon after he assumed command, a formal Declaration of Revolt was publicized, and armed attacks against British forces were initiated.

Begin with Irgun members, 1948

Begin issued a call to arms and from 1945-1948, the Irgun launched an all-out armed rebellion, perpetrating hundreds of attacks against British installations and posts. For several months in 1945-1946, the Irgun’s activities were coordinated within the framework of the Hebrew Resistance Movement under the direction of the Haganah, however, this fragile partnership collapsed following the Irgun’s bombing of the British administrative headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people, including British officers and troops as well as Arab and Jewish civilians. The Irgun under Begin’s leadership continued to carry out military operations such as the break-in to Acre Prison, and the hanging of two British sergeants, causing the British to suspend any further executions of Irgun prisoners. Growing numbers of British forces were deployed to quell the Jewish uprising, yet Begin managed to elude captivity, at times disguised as a Rabbi. The British Security Service MI5 placed a dead-or-alive bounty of £10,000 on his head after Irgun threatened a campaign of terror against British officials, saying they would kill Sir John Shaw, Britain's Chief Secretary in Palestine. An MI5 agent codenamed "Snuffbox" also warned that Irgun had sleeper cells in London trying to kill members of British Prime Minister Clement Attlee's Cabinet.[2]

The Jewish Agency, headed by David Ben-Gurion, did not take kindly to the Irgun’s independent agenda, regarding it a defiance of the Agency’s authority as the representative body of the Jewish community in Palestine. Ben-Gurion openly denounced the Irgun as the “enemy of the Jewish People,” accusing it of sabotaging the political campaign for independence. In 1944, and again in 1947, the Haganah actively persecuted and handed over Irgun members to the British authorities in what is known as the "Hunting Season;" Begin’s instruction to his men to refrain from violent resistance prevented it from deteriorating into an armed intra-Jewish conflict. In November 1947, the UN adopted the Partition Plan for Palestine, and Britain announced its plans to fully withdraw from Palestine by May 1948. Begin, once again in opposition to mainstream Zionist leadership, rejected the plan. In the years following the establishment of the State of Israel, the Irgun’s contribution to precipitating British withdrawal became a contested historic debate, as different factions were vying for predominance over the forming narrative of Israeli independence.[3] Begin resented his portrayal as a belligerent dissident and what he perceived to be a politically motivated belittlement of the Irgun’s vital role in Israel’s struggle for independence.

Altalena and the War of Independence

As the Israeli War of Independence broke, Irgun fighters joined forces with the Haganah and Lehi militia in fighting the Arab forces. Notable operations in which they took part were the battles of Jaffa, Haifa, and the Jordanian siege on the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. One such operation in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin in April 1948, which resulted in the death of more than a hundred Palestinian civilians, remains a source of controversy. Some have accused the Jewish forces of committing war crimes, while others hold those were legitimate acts of warfare. However, it is generally accepted that the Irgun and Lehi forces who took part in the attack carried out a brutal assault upon what was predominantly a civilian population. As the Irgun’s leader, Begin has been accused of being responsible for the atrocities that had allegedly taken place, even though he did not partake in them.

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.

Shortly after the founding of the state of Israel, the Irgun formally disbanded. However tensions with the IDF persisted over Ben-Gurion’s uncompromising insistence on the Irgun’s total surrender to the provisional government which he headed. These culminated in the confrontation over the Altalena cargo ship, which secretly delivered weapons to the Irgun in June 1948. The government demanded that the cargo be handed over to it unconditionally, but Begin refused to comply. Rather than negotiating, Ben-Gurion was determined to make this event an exemplary demonstration of the state’s authority. He eventually ordered the IDF to take the ship by gunfire, and it sank off the shore of Tel Aviv. Begin, who was on board as the ship was being shelled, ordered his men not to retaliate in an attempt to prevent the crisis from spiraling into civil war. The Altalena affair established Ben-Gurion as Israel’s indisputable leader, condemning Begin to the political wilderness for almost thirty years.

Enters Israeli politics

The Herut opposition years

In 1948, Begin founded the right-wing political party Herut, which would eventually evolve into the present-day 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 in 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, Herut formed the main opposition to the dominant Labour party in the Knesset (Israel's parliament), adopting a radical nationalistic agenda committed to the irredentist idea of Greater Israel. During those years, Begin was systematically de-legitimized by the ruling Labor party, and was often personally derided by Ben-Gurion who refused to either speak to or refer to him by name. Ben-Gurion famously coined the disparaging phrase “without Herut and Maki (the Israeli Communist Party),” effectively pushing both parties and their voters beyond the margins of political consensus.

The personal animosity between Ben-Gurion and Begin, tracing back to the hostilities over the Altalena affair, underpinned the political dichotomy between Mapai and Herut. Begin was a keen critic of Mapai, and what he perceived to be its coercive Bolshevism and deep-rooted institutional corruption. Drawing on his training as a lawyer in Poland, he preferred wearing a formal suit and tie and the dry demeanor of a legislator to the Socialist informality of Mapai, as a means of accentuating their dissimilarity.

One of the most energetic confrontations between Begin and Ben-Gurion centered on the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany, signed in 1952. Begin vehemently opposed the agreement, claiming that it was tantamount to a pardon of Nazi crimes against the Jewish people. While the agreement was being debated in the Knesset in January 1952, he led a passionate demonstration in Jerusalem, in which he scathingly attacked the government, calling for civil disobedience. Incited by his speech, the crowd marched towards the parliament, throwing stones into the general assembly and injuring dozens of policemen and several Knesset members. Begin was held by many as responsible for the violence, and was consequently barred from the Knesset for several months. The testimony of Eliezer Sudit links Begin to the failed assassination attempt of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer the same year, which was another effort to sabotage the agreement. His belligerent behavior was strongly condemned in mainstream public discourse, reinforcing his image as an irresponsible provocateur. Laden with pathos and evocations of the Holocaust, Begin’s trademark impassioned rhetoric appealed to many, while being denounced by his critics as inflammatory tactics of a demagogue.

Gahal and the Six Day War unity government

During the following years, Begin failed to gain electoral momentum, and Herut remained far behind Labor with no more than 17 seats in the four elections held up until 1961. In 1965, Herut and the Liberal Party united to form the Gahal party under Begin’s leadership, but was once again unsuccessful in increasing its share of parliament seats in the election held that year. Begin was increasingly seen as incapable of sweeping the public, though his authority was never seriously contested. In 1966, during Gahal’s party convention, he was challenged by the young Ehud Olmert, who called for his resignation (Olmert later became prime minister in 2006). Begin announced that he would retire from party leadership, but soon reversed his decision when the crowd emotionally pleaded him to stay. At the outbreak of the Six Day War in June 1967, Gahal joined a "national unity" government under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol of the Labour Party, resulting in Begin serving in the Cabinet for the first time, as a Minister Without Portfolio. The arrangement lasted until 1970, when Begin and Gahal left the government (by this time led by Golda Meir) due to disagreements over policy.

Likud and Mizrahi support

In 1973, Begin agreed to a plan by Ariel Sharon to form a larger bloc of opposition parties, made up from Gahal, the Free Center Party, and other smaller groups. They came through with a tenuous alliance called the Likud ("Consolidation"). In the elections held later that year, the Likud won a considerable share of votes, though with 39 seats still remained in opposition. Held only two months after the Yom Kippur War, this election was too close to the war’s events to allow its devastating consequences to be translated into political transformation.

Yet, the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War saw ensuing public disenchantment with the Labor Party. Voices of criticism about the government’s misconduct of the war gave rise to growing public resentment toward the dominant Ashkenazi elite. Personifying the antithesis to Mapai’s socialist ethos, Begin appealed to many Mizrahi Israelis, mostly first and second generation Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, who felt they were continuously being treated by the establishment as second-class citizens. His open embrace of Judaism stood in stark contrast to Labor’s secularism, which alienated Mizrahi voters. Labor’s failure to address the protest about its institutional discrimination of Mizrahi Jews drew many of them to support Begin, becoming his burgeoning political base. Numerous corruption scandals which mired Yitzhak Rabin’s government signaled that Begin was finally poised to capture the center stage of Israeli politics.

Prime Minister of Israel

1977 Electoral Victory

On May 17, 1977, the Likud, headed by Begin, won the parliamentary election by a landslide, becoming the biggest party in the Knesset. Popularly known as the Mahapach (colloquial Hebrew for "cataclysmic changeover"), the election results had seismic ramifications as for the first time in Israeli history a party other than Labor was in a position to form a government, effectively ending Labor’s hitherto unrivaled domination over Israeli politics. The Likud’s electoral victory signified a fundamental restructuring of Israeli society in which the founding socialist Ashkenazi elite was being replaced by a coalition representing marginalized Mizrahi and Jewish-religious communities, promoting a politically conservative and economically liberal agenda.

The Likud campaign leading up to the election centered on Begin’s personality. While demonized by Labor’s propaganda as totalitarian and extremist, his portrayal as a humble and pious leader struck a chord with many who felt abandoned by Labor’s ideology. In the predominantly Jewish Mizrahi working class urban neighborhoods and peripheral towns, the Likud won with overwhelming majorities, whereas disillusionment with Labor’s corruption prompted many middle and upper class voters to support the newly founded centrist Democratic Movement for Change (also known as Dash), headed by Yigal Yadin. Dash won 15 seats out of 120, largely at the expense of the Labor Party, led by Shimon Peres, and had shrunk from 51 to 32 seats. Well aware of his momentous achievement and employing his trademark sense for drama, when speaking that night in the Likud headquarters Begin quoted from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Old Testament, referring to his victory as a "turning point in the history of the Jewish people."

Begin in January, 1978

With 43 seats, the Likud still required the support of other parties in order to reach a parliamentary majority that would enable it to form a government under Israel's proportionate representation parliamentary system. Though able to form a narrow coalition with smaller Jewish religious and Haredi parties, Begin also sought support from centrist elements in the Knesset to provide his government with greater public legitimacy. He controversially offered the foreign affairs portfolio to Moshe Dayan, a former IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister, and a prominent Labor politician identified with the old establishment. Begin was sworn in as prime minister of Israel on June 20, 1977. Dash eventually joined his government several months later, thus providing it with the broad support of almost two thirds of the Knesset.

Camp David Accords

Celebrating the signing of the Camp David Accords (1978): Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat.

In 1978, Begin, aided by Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, negotiated the Camp David Accords, and in 1979, signed the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Under the terms of the treaty, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, Israel was to hand over the Sinai Peninsula in its entirety to Egypt. The peace treaty with Egypt was a watershed moment in Middle Eastern history, as it was the first time an Arab state recognized Israel’s legitimacy whereas Israel effectively accepted the land for peace principle as blueprint for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Given Egypt’s prominent position within the Arab World, especially as Israel’s biggest and most powerful enemy, the treaty had far-reaching strategic and geopolitical implications.

Did you know?
Despite having been a wanted terrorist, Menachem Begin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with Anwar Sadat for jointly negotiating peace between Egypt and Israel

For Begin, peace with Egypt was a moment of personal vindication. Labeled throughout his career a bellicose and militant zealot by his opponents, this was an opportunity to prove his commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as ascertain his legitimacy and leadership as the first Likud Prime Minister. Almost overnight, Begin’s public image of an irresponsible nationalist radical was transformed into that of a statesman of historic proportions. This image was reinforced by international recognition which culminated with him being awarded, together with Sadat, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. In his Nobel Lecture, he stated that Israel not only wanted peace with her neighbors but that peace would benefit the whole of the Middle East, as peace would also bring prosperity:

Throughout its lands there will be freedom of movement of people, of ideas, of goods. Cooperation and development in agriculture will make the deserts blossom. Industry will bring the promise of a better life. Sources of water will be developed and the almost year-long sunshine will yet be harnessed for the common needs of all the nations. Yes, indeed, the Middle East, standing at the crossroads of the world, will become a peaceful center of international communication between East and West, North and South—a center of human advancement in every sphere of creative endeavor. This and more is what peace will bring to our region.[1]

The Jews, he said, "gave the world the vision of eternal peace, of universal disarmament, of abolishing the teaching and learning of war."

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin meet at Camp David in September, 1978.

Yet, while establishing Begin as a leader with broad public appeal, the peace treaty with Egypt was met with fierce criticism within his own Likud party. His devout followers found it difficult to reconcile Begin’s history as a keen promoter of the Greater Israel agenda with his willingness to relinquish occupied territory. Agreeing to the removal of Israeli settlements from the Sinai was perceived by many as a clear departure from Likud’s Revisionist ideology. Several prominent Likud members, most notably Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, objected to the treaty and abstained when it was ratified with an overwhelming majority in the Knesset, achieved only thanks to support from the opposition. A small group of hardliners within Likud, associated with the Gush Emunim Jewish settlement movement, eventually decided to split and form the Tehiya party in 1979. They led the Movement for Stopping the Withdrawal from Sinai, violently clashing with IDF soldiers during the forceful eviction of the Yamit settlement in April 1982. Despite the traumatic scenes from Yamit, political support for the treaty did not diminish and the Sinai was finally handed over to Egypt in 1982.

However, Begin was far less resolute in implementing the section of the Camp David Accord which defined a framework for establishing autonomous Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He appointed then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon to implement a large-scale expansion of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories, a policy intended to make future territorial concessions in these areas effectively impossible. Begin refocused Israeli settlement strategy from populating peripheral areas in accordance with the Allon Plan, to building Jewish settlements in Palestinian populated areas. When the settlement of Elon Moreh was established on the outskirts of Nablus in 1979, following years of campaigning by Gush Emunim, Begin declared that there are "many more Elon Morehs to come." Indeed during his term as Prime Minister dozens of new settlements were built, and Jewish population in the West Bank and Gaza more than quadrupled.

Bombing Iraq's nuclear reactor

Begin took the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic threats of Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, very seriously. Israel attempted to negotiate to no avail with France to not provide Iraq with a nuclear reactor at Osiraq. Begin became alarmed at Iraq's growing potential to launch a nuclear warhead at Israel. In 1981, he ordered the bombing and destruction of Iraq's Tammuz nuclear reactor by the Israeli Air Force in a successful long-range operation called Operation Opera (it was not the first time Israel had attacked an enemy first; the Six Day War in June 1967, was also preemptive). In some respects, this foreshadowed later military actions against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, by the U.S. and its allies.

Soon after the Osiraq strike, 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 U.S., 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. Although the U.S. formally objected, the Reagan administration was empathetic with Israel's decision. This strike, however, also set a precedent for future preemptive strikes to be launched, by Israel or even the U.S., against a state such as Iran.

Lebanon invasion

On June 6, 1982, Begin’s government authorized the Israel Defense Forces' invasion of Lebanon, in response to the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov. Operation Peace for Galilee’s stated objective was to force the PLO out of rocket range of Israel's northern border. Begin was hoping for a short and limited Israeli involvement that would destroy the PLO’s political and military infrastructure in southern Lebanon, effectively reshaping the balance of Lebanese power in favor of the Christian militias who were allied with Israel. Nevertheless, fighting soon escalated into war with Palestinian and Lebanese militias, as well as the Syrian military, and the IDF progressed as far as Beirut, well beyond the 40 km limit initially authorized by the government. Israeli forces were successful in driving the PLO out of Lebanon and forcing its leadership to relocate to Tunisia, however the war ultimately failed in achieving security for Israel’s northern border, or imposing stability in Lebanon. Israeli entanglement in Lebanon intensified throughout Begin’s term, leading to a partial unilateral withdrawal in 1985, and finally ending only in 2000.

Like Begin, the Israeli public was expecting quick and decisive victory. Yet, as this failed to arrive, disillusionment with the war, and concomitantly with his government, was growing. Begin continuously referred to the invasion as an inevitable act of survival, often comparing Yasser Arafat to Hitler, however, its image as a war of necessity was gradually eroding. Within a matter of weeks into the war it emerged that for the first time in Israeli history, there was no consensus over the IDF’s activity. Public criticism reached its peak following the Sabra and Shatila Massacre in September 1982, when tens of thousands gathered to protest in Tel Aviv in what was one of the biggest public demonstrations in Israeli history. The Kahan Commission, appointed to investigate the events, found the government indirectly responsible for the massacre, accusing Defense Minister Ariel Sharon of gross negligence. The commission’s report, published in February 1983, severely damaged Begin’s government, forcing Sharon to resign. As the Israeli quagmire in Lebanon seemed to grow deeper, public pressure on Begin to resign increased.

Begin’s disoriented appearance on national television while visiting the Beaufort battle site raised concerns that he was being misinformed about the war’s progress. Asking Sharon whether PLO fighters had machine guns, Begin seemed worryingly out of touch with the nature and scale of the military campaign he had authorized.

Retirement from public life

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin engages Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in a game of chess at Camp David

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, in Israel while he was away on an official visit to Washington DC, added to his own mounting depression.

Final years in seclusion

Begin would rarely leave his apartment, and then usually to visit his wife's gravesite to say the traditional Kaddish 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 Tel Aviv in 1992, followed by a simple ceremony and burial at the Mount of Olives. Begin explained his request, as it appears in his will, to be buried at the Mount of Olives instead of Mount Herzl, the traditional burial ground for great Israeli leaders, with the reason that Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, with whom Begin was very emotionally influenced by, were buried there. Feinstein and Barazani were two of the Olei Hagardom. They killed themselves with grenades, awaiting execution by the British, and since Begin approved the operation, he felt personally responsible.

Contested Legacy

The importance of Menachem Begin in Israel's national identity cannot be contested. In 2005, a poll showed him gaining the highest result as the leader that Israelis missed the most, outpolling even the first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

However, the inheritance of his mantle became a subject of conjecture during the debate over the 2005 Gaza withdrawal that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon implemented. Opponents of the withdrawal in the Likud, led by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Uzi Landau, called it a dangerous departure from the Likud platform, especially after Sharon ran against the same policy in 2003. They viewed themselves as the natural successors of Menachem Begin, who in 1975 congratulated the first Jewish settler group when they founded Elon Moreh. Sharon's supporters pointed to Begin's exchange of the Sinai with Egypt that ended in 1982 as an historical justification for the painful step.

When Sharon left the Likud in November 2005 to form Kadima, an internal purge of the party of symbols of the departed leader was performed in many party branches. Photographs of Sharon were ripped from the walls, and with the absence of a clear successor, they were replaced almost always with photos of Begin. Those who remain faithful to the Likud after Sharon left point to Begin's long struggle until 1977, in the political opposition, and the fact that he never abandoned his party, even when they were reduced to a minuscule eight seats in the Knesset in 1952. The battle over who really has inherited the legacy of Begin, Rabin, and Ben-Gurion are a characteristic of today's volatile changes in Israel's political spectrum.


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[4]

In his Broadcast to the Egyptian People, November 11, 1977:

"No more wars, no more bloodshed, and no more threats."[5]

In his Nobel Prize Lecture, December 10, 1978:

Free women and men everywhere must wage an incessant campaign so that these human values become a generally recognized and practiced 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.[1]

When President Ronald Reagan sent a letter to Menachem Begin condemning the attack on the Iraqi Osirak 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.[6]

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.[7]

Response to a question by an Israeli reporter about the official stand of the Israeli government regarding the war in the Persian gulf between Iran and Iraq:

"We wish both sides great success!"[8]

Books by Menachem Begin


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Menachem Begin, Nobel Lecture December 10, 1978. Retrieved March 11, 2022.
  2. "Agent Snuffbox and an Israeli threat to kill Cabinet," Mail on Sunday (London), March 5, 2006, p. 40.
  3. Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000, ISBN 0316648590), 490.
  4. Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 354-355).
  5. Broadcast by Prime Minister Begin to the Egyptian People—November 11, 1977 Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Retrieved March 11, 2022.
  6. Shlaim, 387.
  7. Shlaim, 404-405.
  8. Israel’s villa in the jungle The Economist, May 14, 2016. Retrieved March 17, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Peleg, Ilan. Begin’s Foreign Policy, 1977-1983: Israel’s Move to the Right. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. ISBN 9780313249389
  • Schiff, Ze'ev, and Ehud Ya'ari. Israel's Lebanon War. New York: Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, 1985. ISBN 9780671479916
  • Segev, Tom. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000. ISBN 0316648590
  • Shindler, Colin. The Land Beyond Promise: Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream. London: I.B.Tauris, 2002. ISBN 9781860647741
  • Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
  • Silver, Eric. Begin: A Biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984. ISBN 9780297783992
  • Sofer, Saason. Begin: An Anatomy of Leadership. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988. ISBN 978-0631163633

External links

All links retrieved March 11, 2022.


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