Menachem Begin was born on August 16, 1913, in Brest-Litovsk, Poland (now Russia). He was prime minister of Israel from 1977 to 1983 and the co-recipient, with Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat, of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace. Begin mounted an invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to oust the Palestine Liberation Organization. Civilian deaths during this conflict turned world opinion against Israel. Begin resigned office in 1983. He died in 1992.
One of the most recognizable Israeli prime ministers, Menachem Wolfovitch Begin was born in Brest-Litovsk, Poland (now Russia), on August 16, 1913, although it was then part of czarist Russia. During the two world wars, official rule of the region was often in a state of flux.
Begin was the youngest of three children born to Hassia and Ze'ev Dov Begin, a timber merchant and devoted Zionist. The boy's early schooling in the movement impelled him to make his first speech at age 10. As a teenager he joined the Zionist Revisionists' youth movement, Betar, becoming the organization's head by 25, after earning a law degree from the University of Warsaw.
During World War II, he fled Warsaw, obtaining a visa to go to Palestine. But he gave it to a friend whom he thought would have more difficulty. His wife, Aliza, carried on to Palestine, but Begin was arrested by the Russians and sent to a Siberian labor camp for being a Zionist and perhaps a spy.
He was released in 1941 via an agreement between the Soviet Union and the Polish government-in-exile, which freed 1.5 million Poles. His father had been killed by the Nazis, but Begin was able to locate his sister, and from there joined the Free Polish Army, which took him to Palestine. Once there, he was conscripted by the British army as an interpreter, having learned English listening to the BBC radio broadcasts.
But after 1943, he became commander of the Irgun underground, determined to establish a Jewish homeland on both sides of the Jordan River.
The militant group's goal was to gain their independence, often purchasing weapons and explosives from the Arabs. This led British authorities to put a $50,000 bounty on the "grim-faced, bespectacled Menachem Begin['s]" head. After Israel was established in 1948, Begin transformed his group into the Freedom (Herut) Party, which mostly held last place in Parliamentary elections. But by the 1956 war with Egypt, Begin's party was in second place.
By 1967, Begin joined the National Unity government and in 1970 became joint chairman of the "Unity" (Likud) coalition. When the Likud Party won a national election in May 1977, Begin formed a government.
Begin was adamant about retaining occupied territories and in 1975 balked at U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's "telling us to trade territory for legitimacy."
Although he began his prime ministry with a militant stance, Begin learned to compromise, including appointing opponents like Moshe Dayan to his Cabinet. In time, he did give up the Sinai Peninsula and other Jewish settlements in return for peace with Egypt, making a distinction between territories within biblical Israel and those outside it, such as Sinai.
Begin is perhaps best known for negotiating a Middle East peace with Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat, in the Camp David Accords brokered by President Jimmy Carter. The terms of the treaty, signed on March 26, 1979, included Israel gaining full diplomatic recognition in return for ceding the Sinai Peninsula, which it had occupied since the 1967 war, to Egypt. For this, Begin and Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 1978.
After the 1981 general election, Begin formed another coalition government. His territorial surrender had nothing to do, however, with his firm belief that the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was out of the question. An invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, ostensibly to break the military power of the Palestine Liberation Organization there, led to the deaths of numerous Palestinian civilians. In addition, the underlying motive of his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was to install a right-wing pro-Israeli regime in Beirut. This turned world opinion against Israel.
That, and the death of his wife in November of that year when he was on a diplomatic trip to Washington, D.C., were likely factors in Begin stepping down in October 1983.
Death and Legacy
Menachem Begin had long been suffering from diabetes and heart disease. In addition, severe depression after his wife's death and guilt over the Lebanon events led him to live quietly after leaving public office, rarely leaving his Tel Aviv apartment except to visit his wife's grave. He suffered a massive heart attack on March 3, 1992, from which he could not recover, dying on March 9. He was survived by a son, two daughters and eight grandchildren.
Begin wrote two books during his life: The Revolt, about the struggle against the British from 1944 to 1948, and White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia.
In 2005, he was ranked fourth in an Israeli news poll to determine the 200 greatest Israelis.
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