Menachem Begin, 1913-1992

MENACHEM BEGIN (1913–1992) led the Irgun during the revolt against British rule in Palestine, founded the Likud Party, and served as the sixth Prime Minister of the State of Israel (1977–1983)*.

In Europe
Prior to World War II, Begin was the chairman of Polish Betar, the youth branch of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's Revisionist Zionist movement.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Begin escaped to Lithuania, but in 1940 he was arrested by the Soviet Union's NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) for being a Zionist and thus an "agent of British imperialism." The Soviets sent Begin to the Pechora labor camp (part of the Gulag system). Begin described this experience in his memoir White Nights.

In 1942, Begin was released when the Russians agreed to allow Polish prisoners to join the Free Polish Army. Begin and the other freed prisoners had to wonder through Russia to find the army. In White Nights, Begin dedicates a chapter to a description of the terrible communist Russian society he encountered on his search for the Polish army. After finding and joining the army, Begin went with it to Palestine, arriving there later that year.

In Eretz Israel
In Palestine, Begin soon became the head of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization), the Revisionist-Zionist underground Jewish army, which had split from the Haganah.

In February 1944, under Begin's leadership the Irgun declared a “revolt” against British rule. Begin's strategy was not to terrorize the local population, but to strike at British prestige with daring attacks and force the British to leave Palestine. Thus the Irgun struck the British military headquarters in the King David Hotel (an operation that was approved by the Haganah and about which the British were warned by the Irgun in advance); successfully attacked the fortress of Acre Prison, once thought impregnable, and freeing Irgun prisoners there (the press headlines declared it the "world's greatest prison break"); whipped British officers when Irgun fighters were whipped; etc. By 1947, the British, unable to quash the revolt handed over the question of Palestine to the United Nations. The Irgun’s revolt thus successfully paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel.

Begin's leadership of the Irgun was also marked by his unwillingness to engage in civil war with the Haganah, both during the "Saison" — when the Hagannah informed on, hunted down and even tortured Irgun members — and during the Altalena affair. The Altalena was an Irgun's weapons ship named after the pen-name of Ze'ev Jabotinsky. The ship had set out in radio silence prior to a U.N. arranged ceasefire, under an agreement between the Irgun and the provisional Israeli government led by David Ben Gurion, who hated the Irgun and the Revisionist movement. Under the agreement the I.D.F. was to receive 80% of the weapons, but 20% would go toward the Irgun's units in Jerusalem. During the ship's voyage a cease fire had been agreed to. When it landed, the provisional government decided that the ship constituted a "rebellion" even though there was no evidence that the Irgun intended any overthrow of the government. The Palmach surrounded the beach front and demand that the ship be surrendered.  The Irgun refused but attempted to negotiate with the provisional government.  In the meantime, the Palmach opened fire on the ship wounding and killing those on board and other in the water. Eventually the ship was sunk, though much of its weaponry was brought to land beforehand. Fearful that the attack might start a civil war, Begin gave strict orders against any retaliation whatsoever.

Despite the Altalena affair, the Irgun merged with the newly established IDF. 
After the war, with the British gone and the State of Israel established, Begin and his co-Irgunists formed the Herut party, which became the successor to Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement. For the next several decades, Herut continued to face a campaign of delegitimization which had begun long before the establishment of the State of Israel. (The socialist parties reviled Jabotinsky for his anti-socialist policies, such as calling for a national arbitration board which would enable the building of the Jewish community to continue despite labor strikes, and his declarations against class warfare and for Jewish national unity across all classes. Ben-Gurion for instance, called Jabotinsky “Valdimir Hitler” and refused to order Jabotinsky's remains to be buried in the State of Israel – though his successor and internal political opponent Levi Eshkol did.).


Herut positioned itself as an opposition party and sought to replace the ruling Mapai party as leading the government. Having been sidelined and deligitmized, Begin realized that to create a viable alternative to Mapai, Herut would need to form a union with another center-right party. Several times, Begin initiated negotiations with the General Zionists and then the Liberal party which wound up replacing the General Zionists, but these parties refused. Finally, before the 1965 elections, the Liberals agreed to a union and the two parties formed the united list of Gahal (Gush Herut-Liberalim - Herut Liberal Bloc). 
In 1967, just before the Six-Day War, Begin formed a national unity government with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, joining the government as a Minister without Portfolio.

In 1970, Begin quit the government when it endorsed an interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242 that required Israel to give Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) to Jordan.

Over the next several years Begin made overtures to other smaller parties to join with Herut and the Liberals to form the Likud. In 1977, the Likud won elections and Begin became the Prime Minister of Israel. The victory has been called a political "earthquake" because it upended the Labor Party’s domination of Jewish politics in Israel which had predated the establishment of the State.

As Prime Minister
Begin is known as the most Jewish Israeli Prime Minister. After his election he recited the "Shehechiyanu" blessing, which thanks God for bringing one to a milestone in life.

As Prime Minister, Begin promoted Jewish settlement in Gaza as well as in Judea and Samaria, the the heart of the Land of Israel. He reversed the previous policy, which had anticipated at least some significant withdrawals from the disputed territories, and instead invested heavily in infrastructure there.

In 1979, Begin concluded a peace treaty with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In accordance with the treaty, the Sinai desert was returned to Egyptian sovereignty and the Jewish settlers of Yamit were expelled, many settling in Gaza. The treaty also recognized a Palestinian-Arab right to "autonomy."

In return for withdrawing from Sinai, Israel received aid guarantees from the United States and the right to purchase oil originating in Sinai. Begin received a Nobel Prize for the treaty. As a precedent for Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the treaty enabled Jordan to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

Begin's stubbornness and outmaneuvering of Presidents Sadat and Carter on key issues, especially regarding the disputed territories and the Palestinians, earned him praise as a master tactician, though it incurred disdain from frustrated American officials, including President Carter, who sought the creation of a "Palestinian homeland" within Israel.

Many followers of Jabotinsky, however, felt that in signing the treaty Begin was giving in to U.S. pressure and squandering the opportunity to implement Jabotinsky's vision. Shmuel Katz, Begin's Minister of Information, resigned for this reason. Yitzchak Shamir, the Speaker of the Knesset who would succeed Begin as Prime Minister, also voted against the treaty.

In 1980, Begin saw the passage of Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, which states that "Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel." As a Basic Law, the legislation has quasi-constitutional status.

In 1981, Begin ordered the IDF attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak and signed the Golan Heights Law, which extended the law, administration, and jurisdiction of the State of Israel to the Golan Heights. In response, an angry United States suspended a Memorandum of Understanding that had recently been concluded between the U.S. and Israel. Begin responded by calling the U.S. Ambassador to Israel into his office and lecturing him on how the U.S. had not right to "punish" Israel as if it were a "14 year old." Israel was not a "banana republic" and had existed for 3,000 years without a Memorandum of Understanding. Begin released a transcript of his lecture to Israel radio.

In 1982, in response to terrorist attacks on Israel perpetrated by the PLO from Southern Lebanon, which Israelis had taken to calling “Fatahland,” Begin ordered the IDF to push the terrorists out of rocket range in Operation Peace for Galilee. Despite Yassir Arafat's telling Begin in a letter "Do not try to break me in Lebanon. You will not succeed," the IDF succeeded in expelling the PLO from Lebanon.

In September 1983, amidst slander and protest against Israel's operations in Lebanon by Peace Now and by the Labor Party under Shimon Peres, whom Begin had defeated to become Prime Minister in 1977, and just after the devastating death of his wife, Begin resigned as Prime Minister. Members of the Cabinet, rabbis, loyalists, and settlement activists asked him to reconsider, but he refused.

Begin died at the age of 79 in Tel Aviv, March 1992. He was buried not at Mount Herzl, but at the Mount of Olives in a simple religious ceremony, according to his wishes, near Irgun fighter Meir Feinstein and LEHI fighter Moshe Barzanni. During the Revolt, the two were captured by the British and committed suicide in jail while awaiting execution.


*Not counting David Ben-Gurion's second term in office.