Menachem Begin dedicated his life to serving his nation, and twice reached the pinnacle of his ambitions – first as the commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL) before the establishment of the State, and then as the sixth prime minister of the State of Israel. He himself felt, even after the signing of the peace accord with Egypt that – “Nothing can ever compare to the feelings I experienced during the period of the underground, or those of a person fighting from the underground for the freedom of his nation.”Menachem Begin was born in Brest-Litovsk, then Brisk, Lithuania on Av 13, 5673 – August 16, 1913 to Ze'ev Dov and Hassia (nee Kosovsky). Because he was born on Shabbat Nahamu – the Sabbath of Comfort – following the three-week period of annual national mourning over the destruction of the Temples ending on the ninth of Av – he was given the name Menachem – the comforter. His father was the secretary of the Jewish community and one of its first Herzlian Zionists. Although poor, the humble Begin home was filled with love and warmth. The parents gave their daughter (Rachel Halperin, who passed away on September 8, 1991) and two sons Herzl and Menachem, a strong Jewish Zionist education. Hassia sacrificed herself for her children, of whom Menachem was the youngest, and strongly urged them to acquire a good education. At the age of only one year, Menachem was already “witness” to his first war – World War I – which forced him and his family to abandon their home in Brisk and wander through the villages and forests of eastern Poland. When the war ended, they returned to Brisk, at which time Menachem began to go to school – first to the traditional cheder and then yeshiva, followed by the Jewish Tachkemoni school of the Mizrachi movement, the Polish government secondary school and finally, the University of Warsaw. At the age of five, he was a “particularly clever boy, active and always willing to learn,” as recalled by his kindergarten teacher some 60 years later. Begin, who observed Jewish tradition all his life, refrained from writing on Shabbat while at school. He once, even, received a failing grade in his favorite subject, Latin, because he refused to take an examination given on Shabbat. Already before becoming a Bar Mitzvah, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Asked to write a composition for school on the subject, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he wrote, “a lawyer,” explaining that he wanted to “help the wretched and downtrodden.” Until the age of 13, Menachem, like most of the Jewish youth of his town, was a member of Hashomer Hatza’ir, which at the time was a national scouts movement, devoid of socialist content. Begin made his first speeches as a member of this movement. The very first was when he was only ten when he spoke before a large audience gathered in Brisk’s main park. It was on the minor holiday L’ag Ba’omer, at the culmination of the traditional parade of the Jewish youth movements. Young Menachem spoke Hebrew, delighting and enthralling his listeners. At the age of 16, he joined the Betar youth movement. In 1930, he heard Ze'ev Jabotinsky for the first time, and the experience left a powerful and lasting impression on him. “I was captivated by the integrality of Betar’s Zionism, the Land of Israel, the aspiration to establish a Jewish state in our time,” Begin would relate many years later.In 1931, he began to study in the law faculty of the University of Warsaw and supported himself by giving private lessons. He was very active in student affairs, although his involvement in public activities had begun many years earlier. Despite graduating law school, he never practiced law, but his legal education served him well throughout his entire political career. On more than one occasion, he and his Jewish friends were attacked and beaten but were not afraid to reciprocate and fight back. In the university, he was among the first to organize the Jewish students to defend themselves against the anti-Semitic bullies. In 1935, he completed his law studies and graduated as Magister Juri.
Begin soon climbed to the top of the Betar organization hierarchy. As the commander of the Brisk chapter and one of nine officers of Betar’s Netzivut in Poland, he attended Betar’s second international conference, held in Krakow in 1935. There, he clashed with Jabotinsky in a trenchant speech he gave in the wake of the storm stirred up by the Arlozorov murder. “Mr. Jabotinsky may have forgotten that Ben-Gurion called him ‘Vladimir Hitler,’ but our memory is better,” proclaimed the 22-year-old orator before the leadership of Betar. Jabotinsky hastened to respond, “I will never forget that people like Ben-Gurion, Ben-Zvi and Golomb once wore the uniform of the battalions and fought alongside me. I am sure that if Zionism demands it, they will not hesitate to once again don those uniforms and fight.” After that, Begin’s voice was often heard at conferences and in the Jewish centers he frequently visited. His articles were already being published in the Betar’s periodicals, Hametzuda [The Citadel], Hamadrich [The Leader] and others. In 1937, Begin returned from a mission as the head of the Betar movement of Czechoslovakia, and once again found his place among the leadership of Betar in Poland. In one incident, he organized a demonstration in front of the British embassy in Warsaw that called upon the British government to increase the number of immigration certificates for Jews to Mandatory Palestine, which had been cut in the wake of Arab terror. Begin was arrested and imprisoned for six weeks in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison. This was both his first time in prison and the first time he engaged in active conflict with the British. When warned that he would be sent to a special punishment camp if he continued with protests of this kind, he responded, “Our youth is willing to bear even harsher punishments and make even greater sacrifices for the Land of Israel.” Begin also started to organize groups of “clandestine” immigrants that crossed numerous borders illegally on their way to the Land of Israel and so elude the British restrictions on Jewish entry into Palestine.At the third international Betar conference held in Warsaw in 1938, Begin once again clashed with Jabotinsky, this time even more forcefully. “After a period of political and practical Zionism, we are now facing a period of military Zionism,” declared Begin, who spoke as the representative of the activist-maximalist stream within the Revisionist movement in Poland. “We must gain strength so that we need never be dependent on the kindness of others. If we succeed in building up a force of this kind, the help of the world will surely follow.”That same conference approved Begin’s proposal to change the wording of the Betar oath composed by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. The original words: “I will prepare my hand for the defense of my people and only in defense will I will raise my hand," were replaced by: "I will prepare my hand for the defense of my people and for the conquest of my homeland.” Jabotinsky rebuked the young rebel, but at the same time, his admiration and estimation for him grew, and in March 1939, he appointed Begin Netziv of Betar in Poland, placing him in charge of the over 70,000 young members of the movement. The official Betar pronouncement to its members said: “It was the personal desire of Officer Menachem Begin to immigrate to the Land of Israel and continue his Betar service there, but the Betar authorities have seen fit to postpone his immigration for the time being and to give him, at least for a certain period of time, this responsibility in Poland.” The “certain period of time” lasted only a few months. The Second World War broke out six months later, and Menachem Begin’s immigration to Eretz Israel was delayed for another four years. Extremely tragic events were about to occur, but before that, on May 29, 1939, Menachem Begin celebrated a very happy personal event – his marriage to Aliza (Alla), nee Arnold. Menachem and Aliza met in the home of her father, Zvi, the head of the Revisionist party in Drohiczyn, where Begin spent a few months preparing for his law requirements. It was love at first sight. “Two 17-year-old girls, twins, sat at the table, but despite their resemblance, I could immediately tell the difference between them. I liked one of them, Alla, right away. I decided right then and there that she would be my wife.” Upon their engagement, Jabotinsky wrote to Begin: “Dear friend! I have had good, even very good days in my life, but the best of them was the day when I placed the ring on my wife’s finger and said seven Hebrew words to her.” Jabotinsky traveled to Drohiczyn to stand next to Begin under the wedding canopy, and with him came hundreds of Begin’s friends from Betar. Four months later, in September 1939, the Germans occupied Poland. Brisk fell to the Germans even before Warsaw. With unimaginable courage, Begin’s father stood up to the Nazi governor to protest the arrests of Jews and demand their release. It was his last act on behalf of the Jewish townspeople. The Nazis soon handed Brisk over to their Russian allies, who held on to it until July 1941. After reoccupying the town, the Germans established a ghetto which was liquidated in October 1942. Begin heard about his family’s fate from eyewitnesses. “The Germans took Mother from the hospital and murdered her. They drowned Father in the river together with 500 other Jews. Father went with his head held high and following his lead, all the Jews sang Ani Maamin bevi’at hamashiakh [I believe in the coming of the Messiah] and Hatikvah – after which the Germans threw them into the river.”
During the period just before the war broke out, Begin was mainly occupied with organizing Betar groups immigrating to pre-State Palestine. The last group found itself stranded in a village on the Polish-Romanian border, Shaniatian. Begin personally supervised the group for three weeks, and along with it, was forced to return to the point of departure – Warsaw. But he soon had to flee from there too: The Nazis were already at the gates of the city. Begin’s proposal to the Polish army to form special units of Betar members to fight the common enemy was rejected. Begin and his wife, accompanied by Natan Yellin-Mor and his wife (who had married just the day before), left Warsaw together, on September 6. They traveled by train, and after that became no longer possible, continued by wagon and on foot, traveling hundreds of kilometers in this way in ten days. In Lvov, Begin was detained by the Soviets, but because he managed to keep his real identity from them, they released him and he continued on to Machov, and from there to Vilnius (Vilna), which, although it had already been overrun by the Red Army, was given over to Lithuania with Soviet control. Vilnius of those days was a focal point for many Betar refugees, among others, from all over Poland. Begin helped organize them and continued his Zionist activities there. He refused to accept one of two immigration certificates to Palestine that arrived, thanks to the “generosity of the British government,” for the many of Betar members there through the Israel office in Kovno. He resolved to remain, casting his fate together with the Betar members that had gathered in Vilnius who were unable to immigrate. After Lithuania became a Soviet republic in July 1940, Begin and his wife – along with Dr. Yisrael Eldad (Scheib at the time) and his wife – hid in the home of a Catholic family in a suburb of Vilnius who agreed to rent them two rooms. News of Jabotinsky’s death in New York on August 4 arrived in Vilnius somewhat belatedly, and therefore, on the 30th day following his death, a special memorial ceremony was held in the local cemetery and the Betar members sang Hatikvah in his memory. On September 20, 1940, at the height of a very suspenseful game of chess between Begin and Eldad – with the situation on the board tending somewhat in Eldad’s favor – three agents of the NKVD, the secret Soviet police, showed up and arrested Begin. Aware of what awaited him, he made sure to polish his shoes and put on a tie and clean suit before leaving the house. He also took a Bible with him. In the Lukishki prison, Begin was repeatedly interrogated, especially about his activities as the Betar Netziv. He was accused of having served British imperialism, a charge that would later bring a smile to his lips. The verdict read out to him noted that, “The Special Advisory Committee to the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs finds Menahem Wolfovitch [= ben Zeev] Begin to be a dangerous element to society, and decrees that he be imprisoned in a correctional labor camp for a period of eight years." Begin was held in Vilnius until June 1941, when he was sent to do hard labor in the Pechora work camp in northern Russia. After the Germans attacked Russia, the Polish prisoners were released in order to enable them to join the war effort against the invader. Begin, never physically robust, returned from Siberia ill and exhausted. However, with the help of friends, he managed to enlist in the Free Polish army, under the command of General Anders, together with whom he reached pre-State Palestine in April 1942, via Iran and Iraq. Many of the new recruits deserted the army upon their arrival, but Begin decidedly refused to follow suit. “I swore allegiance to the Polish army – I will not desert,” he resolutely told his friends when he was reunited with them on Jewish soil. Begin served in the Polish army for about a year and a half with the rank of corporal. He acted as an interpreter in its Jerusalem headquarters, and lived in the city’s Rehavia neighborhood. From mid-1942 on, he also served shortly as the Betar Netziv in Palestine and maintained close ties with the IZL. During World War II, the organization took a respite in its war against the British Mandate in order to rally against the common German enemy. In 1941, the organization’s activities reached their nadir, especially after its leader David Raziel was killed. It was Ya’acov Meridor, who succeeded Raziel as commander of the organization, who told his fellow commanders, “Begin is the man we hope to see leading the crucial war the IZL is about to launch.”At the initiative of Aryeh Ben-Eliezer and with the help of Mark Kahan, negotiations began with the Polish army regarding the release of five Jewish soldiers from the army, including Begin, in return for which the members of the IZL delegation would lobby in Washington for the Polish forces. The negotiations lasted many weeks until they finally met with success: The Polish commander announced the release of four of the soldiers. Fortunately, Begin was among them. Upon his release at the age of 30, Begin now faced what was perhaps the most important chapter in his life. He removed his Polish army uniform and became a “soldier without a uniform,” an underground fighter. The former corporal was now the commander of the IZL.
Begin hesitated to yield to the decision of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (IZL) command to appoint him commander of the organization, but the moment he uttered the words, “I accept,” the IZL took on a new spirit. It was completely reorganized: Begin was at the helm, Meridor was his deputy, and under them was the IZL High Command, which had been reduced to three officers: Aryeh Ben-Eliezer, Eliyahu Lankin and Shlomo Levy. A short time later, on February 1, 1944, the IZL published its first declaration, which clearly reflected the unique style and spirit of “Ben-Ze'ev,” Begin’s first nom de guerre. It was a “Proclamation of the Revolt,” against the British government, the same government that Begin, the man now leading the struggle against the British mandate, had been accused of serving by the Soviets just four years earlier.“To the Hebrew Nation in Zion,” was the heading of the proclamation, the first of a long series of proclamations, declarations and communiqués made by the IZL, written by Begin. In it, he accused the British authorities of striving to destroy the last vestige and hope of state Zionism and of betraying the Jewish people, and that consequently, a war to the bitter end was no longer avoidable. “We will fight. Every Jew in the homeland will fight. The God of Israel, God of Hosts will come to our aid. There will be no retreat. Freedom or death!” said the proclamation. And the operations followed soon after. His “army” numbered no more than a thousand persons, and of them only about 200 were actual front line fighters. But by 1947, the ranks had grown to 5,000. This “army” carried out almost 300 military-style attacks in the four years under Begin’s command, and great caution and profound discretion were exercised regarding all of them. Three of those actions stand out in particular: The bombing of the southern wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which served as the central command of the British mandatory government; the storming of the Acre prison to release the IZL and Lehi prisoners held there; and the conquest of Jaffa. Begin did not personally participate in the fighting; he was in charge of leading a political struggle using military means. His main role was to outline the policies of the underground, win public support and run an effective organization. He was renowned for his concern for the lives and wellbeing of his fighters and he agonized over those that fell in battle, were wounded or imprisoned and exiled from the country to the camps in Africa. Most painful were the hangings. Begin and the other members of the IZL made every effort to save the lives of IZL fighters that had been sentenced to death by hanging, as in the case of Dov Gruner. But after Begin – with a heavy heart – gave the order to hang two British sergeants in retaliation for the hanging of Weiss, Habib and Nakar, the hangings by the British stopped. Begin set down very strict guidelines in the IZL’s war, which was directed entirely against the British army, its facilities and soldiers, the police and secret police as well as other official representatives of the mandatory government. The civilian population was completely excluded from this “game” and was not targeted, even if civilians occasionally came unintentionally in the line of fire. The members of the organization were pursued by the organized Jewish settlement of pre-State Israel, especially by the Haganah, but Begin forbade his people to retaliate, and in doing so, prevented civil war from breaking out a number of times: during the “Saison" (Open Season) – when members of the IZL were captured by members of the Haganah and handed over to the British, from late 1944 to mid-1945 – and in the Altalena affair in June 1948. Despite the rivalry, Begin advanced the concept of a united front, and his efforts produced results: For nine months the Jewish Resistance Movement, an alliance made up of the Haganah, IZL and Lehi, struck vigorously at the British, and only “Black Saturday” and the bombing of the King David Hotel caused the leadership of the Jewish community in pre-State Palestine to reconsider the framework and cut all ties with the “dissenters,” as the IZL and Lehi were called then. In the White Paper of May 15, 1948, the British admitted that they had been unable to further endure the activities of the underground, and that their decision to leave Palestine and give up their mandate over it was due to their loss of control and the deaths of over 300 British soldiers and security personnel. The revolt contributed to the battle to liberate the Land of Israel from foreign British control. On June 3, 1948, an agreement was signed to transfer the IZL units to the Israel Defense Forces.
After arriving at previously agreed upon Kfar Vitkin beach, according to the decision reached with the senior officials of the Ministry of Defense, the IZL arms ship, Altalena, having sailed from France with 900 fighters on board and with a large cache of arms and ammunition in its hold, was given an ultimatum to immediately hand over the arms to the government despite an understanding reached earlier with government officials. Stunned at the incomprehensible demand, Begin boarded the ship which then sailed to the Tel Aviv beach area. He was on board when the order was given to shell it from the beach and the ship began to burn. He ordered that no one return fire from the ship as he did earlier when the ship was sniped at by small arms fire from the Palmach headquarters. Later, Eliyahu Lankin, the captain of the Altalena, would relate, “When the flames spread throughout the ship, rescue boats began to arrive from the beach, mostly rafts, whose sailors were risking their lives under a barrage of bullets. They yelled: ‘Where is the old man?’ Bring the old man!’ They were referring to Begin, who at the time was doing whatever he could to get the wounded off the ship. Only after he had removed the last of the wounded did he agree to be evacuated himself from the Altalena.” The Altalena affair, which occurred after the establishment of the State, preceded the dissolution of the IZL, which had begun in June 1948, when its units were absorbed into the IDF. Begin’s final official announcement to his comrades and troops was broadcast the day after the declaration of the State, on May 15, 1948, from the IZL’s radio station. In his speech, which he noted as the most important of all the speeches he ever gave, he said: “Our only reward is that we are privileged to see the nation truly liberated and all fighting together for its freedom. Our true reward will be when we are able – if we return alive from the front – to freely travel among the cities, mountains and valleys of our land and see Jewish children playing without fear, and above the heads of the beloved toddlers will fly a plane that is a Jewish plane, and guarding them will be a soldier who is a Jewish soldier, and in the distance the sound of a train will be heard, and it will be a Jewish train. Ah, can there be any greater joy than that?” And he continued, “The State of Israel has been established, but we must not forget that our homeland has not yet been liberated... Those who do not recognize our right to our entire homeland do not recognize our right to any part of it, and we will not relinquish our natural and eternal right... Israeli soldiers will yet fly our flag in the Tower of David, our plows will yet cultivate the fields of the Gilad.”
Begin left the underground at the age of 35. A new chapter had opened in his life – the political one. He founded and headed a new political party –Herut – based on the principles and ideals of the IZL. In the first Knesset elections in 1949, his movement won 14 seats. Begin, now a member of Knesset and the chief opponent of the ruling MAPAI and other leftist parties, was one of the Knesset’s most outstanding members in its history. Herut remained faithful to its principles and presented itself as an alternative to the socialist government headed by David Ben-Gurion. In 1961, Herut won 17 Knesset seats, and it became clear to Begin that, his party, by itself, would not be able win enough seats to replace the government. In 1965, Gahal was founded – the Herut-Liberals bloc – which won 26 seats, and from 1973, the framework was further expanded to form a larger camp, the Likud, in which “the followers of both Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion had joined forces together.” In the 1950s and 1960s, when Begin headed the opposition to Ben-Gurion, life in the Knesset was never dull. The two constant rivals were sharply divided on almost every issue related to the past and present. Ben-Gurion, who coined the slogan “Without Herut and Maki” (the Israeli Communist Party), used a wide variety of epithets when referring to his great rival, and Begin gave as good as he got. Nevertheless, the rivalry did not prevent Ben-Gurion from inviting Begin to his home on the eve of the Sinai Campaign in 1956 and revealing to him the details of the plan, which he kept from many of his cabinet ministers. On the other hand, it was Begin who in May 1967, during the nerve-racking waiting period on the eve of the Six Day War, proposed to the then prime minister Levi Eshkol to call in Ben-Gurion, the prime minister until 1963, to stand at the head of a national unity government. Ben-Gurion did not return to the premiership, but Begin, for the first time in his life, participated in a cabinet session on June 1, 1967, and from June 5 on, following Knesset approval, became minister-without-portfolio. This appointment finally shattered the wall of isolation that had surrounded Begin’s movement and Begin personally for so long. Begin served as a member of the national unity government headed by Eshkol for three years, from the outbreak of the Six Day War on, and it was Begin, together with Yigal Alon, who initiated the debate in which the historic decision was made to liberate East Jerusalem, a move that even Uri Avneri praised in his Knesset speech on June 27, 1967. In August 1970, Begin resigned along with the other Gahal members from the government (which by then was headed by Golda Meir – following Eshkol’s passing) on a matter of principle: He refused to accept the Rogers Plan, which included a commitment to withdraw from Judea and Samaria.
Begin’s rhetorical skills, his fiery speeches and pathos riveted his listeners – even when the content of his words and their vehemence could be anticipated. His critics accused him of being a demagogue, but all agreed that rather than being a politician of narrow interests, he was a national statesman for whom the good of the nation and the country took precedence over everything else. Consequently, when visiting abroad, he meticulously refrained from even a whisper of criticism at the government. Despite accusations from his political rivals that he was a “dangerous man who supported hooliganism,” only once did he stretch the boundaries of the rule of law to the limit. In January 1952, while the Knesset was debating the agreement with Germany regarding the payment of reparations by Germany to Israel for the Holocaust, Begin addressed an angry crowd demonstrating closde to the Knesset, which was later forcibly dispersed by the police after he had left. Before the tens of thousands that had gathered in Zion Square, many of them Holocaust survivors and not all Herut members, Begin said, “When you fired your cannon at us [in reference to the shelling of the Altalena], I gave an order: ‘No!’. Today, I will give an order: Yes! We know that you will show us no mercy, but this time, we too we will show no mercy to those that sell the blood of our brethren and parents – this will be a war of life and death!” In the Knesset plenum, MK Begin hurled harsh words at Ben-Gurion in response to a slur by the Prime Minister, and when he refused to retract his remarks, he was barred from all Knesset sessions for three months. Later, Begin admitted his failure in the matter of the German reparations payments, but added, “It would have been an immeasurable humiliation of the Jewish people if no one had arisen from among us to express opposition to that agreement, which as we warned, became an agreement of rehabilitation and appeasement of the German people, the very nation that murdered six million Jews. If I contributed to this opposition, from then to this day, I am proud of that.” Eight consecutive election campaigns dealt Begin one disappointment after another, although the support for the bloc of parties he headed kept growing and the disparity in the number votes received by his party and the Alignment increasingly diminished. He never lost his optimism and never fell into despair. As he liked to say, “One can lose an election 20 times and win the 21st time.” But Begin did not have to wait quite that long for victory. Begin invested enormous physical energy in every election campaign. He gave hundreds of speeches, appeared at numerous election meetings and met with very varied audiences. On more than one occasion, tens of thousands gathered to hear the captivating speaker when he appeared in public places, such as Mograbi Square in Tel Aviv and Menora Square in Jerusalem. At such gatherings, enthusiastic cries could be heard from the crowd, “Begin for prime minister!”
Menachem Begin’s motto of “From the opposition to the premiership” became a reality on May 17, 1977, a short time before his 64th birthday. The night following the closing of the polls was the greatest night of Menachem Begin’s life. He remained at home to watch the results on television until two o'clock in the morning, agreeing to come to the movement’s headquarters in Beit Jabotinsky only after he was convinced beyond any doubt that he had really won the election. Seemingly restrained, his words at three-thirty in the morning were stirring. “Today is the beginning of a turning point in the history of the Jewish people and the Zionist movement, unlike anything we have seen for 46 years, since the 17th Zionist Congress in 1931 when Ze'ev Jabotinsky proposed declaring that the goal of Zionism is the establishment of a Jewish state in our lifetime... In the name of his principles and in order to realize those principles, his followers fought to liberate the nation and aspired patiently and out of a complete belief in democracy to change our state. We have gotten to where we are today by means of the ballot box, and only by means of the ballot box. They came based on a faithful covenant with the students of Chaim Weizmann, Menachem Usishkin, Abba Hillel Silver and David Ben-Gurion.” The internal political upheaval in Israel – even if expected – surprised the citizens of the country that made it happen, and stunned the world. Initially, the designated prime minister was portrayed in articles and newspaper reports as a “terrorist,” a “hard-line fanatic” and “intransigent zealot.” The British were especially upset by the results of the election, and were reluctant to forgive Begin for defeating them. On June 7, 1977, President Aharon Katzir invested Begin with the task of forming the government. Immediately afterwards, Begin went to the Western Wall to read Psalms and kiss its stones. From there, he continued to the home of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, to receive his blessing. Menachem Begin presented his government to the Knesset on June 29. In his speech before the vote, he said, “The voters placed their trust in us, but we will not rest on our laurels. We know full well that the most difficult tests are still ahead of us. Because this is a new government, I would like to ask the Knesset and the nation to give us moral credit for at least the first year of its term.” After reading out the government’s basic guidelines, the hands were raised – 63 for, 53 against. Begin and the others swore their oath of allegiance as cabinet ministers of Israel’s 19th government. Among the 53 MKs that opposed the new government were 15 members of the Dash party, with whom coalition negotiations had failed. Despite that, the contacts continued with the country’s third largest party, which played a major role in bringing the Likud to power. Begin even left four portfolios in his cabinet vacant – until October 24, when the efforts finally met with success. Dash joined the government, widening its base, making it, with the exception of the national unity governments, the Israeli government based on largest number of Knesset members ever. Even before the new government was confirmed, the designated prime minister stirred up a furor when he decided to appoint Moshe Dayan, whom many people considered responsible for the tragic outcome of the Yom Kippur War, as his foreign minister. Begin touched off another furor when even before the vote of confidence in his government he declared at the site of the Elon Moreh community, “In the future, there will be many Elon Morehs.” And indeed, on a visit to Kedumim in February 1981, Begin proclaimed, “I promised at the beginning of my term that there would be many Elon Morehs, and they indeed arose. Today, lights can be seen at night in dozens of Jewish communities in Samaria.” Within a short time, the new government won confidence and trust, especially after the new prime minister’s first official visit in the United States, as the guest of President Jimmy Carter. A unique personal relationship development between the two leaders who had never met before. Years later, however, it was learned that the president was suspicious of the prime minister, and in private meetings, demonstrated hostility and even animosity towards Begin, who refused to halt the continued establishment of Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and prevented, in Carter’s view, the creation of a “Palestinian homeland.’ Despite this, it was said that there was “chemistry” between them. Begin especially captivated the hearts of the American Jewish community, as one of its leaders explained: “Begin is a Jew, and that is how he succeeded in winning the hearts of American Jewry, after Israel has already sent to us talented military officers, politicians and statesmen.” Just as the public quickly grew accustomed to the new government, it also grew accustomed to the “new style” inspired by Begin: demonstrable politeness, European manners and Jewish expressions such as “with God's help” became frequent aspects of daily life. Menachem Begin slipped into his new role naturally: “It is true that I have been in the prime minister’s office for only about two months,” he said in August, “but sometimes I feel as if I have been working here for at least ten years”.
As the sixth prime minister of the State of Israel, Menachem Begin will be remembered first and foremost thanks to an event that culminated on March 26, 1979. On that day, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the first peace agreement ever signed between Israel and an Arab country, was signed on the White House lawn in Washington. It followed dramatic negotiations, which began with secret contacts held in Morocco between Moshe Dayan and Hassan Tohami, continued during Begin’s visit to Romania and his talks with President Nicolae Ceaosescu, and when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited in Israel. The Sadat initiative is closely tied to Begin’s personality. Sadat, who heard good reports on Israel’s new prime minister from Carter and Ceausesco, realized that Menachem Begin was a strong leader who would be able to convince his people of the justice of his decisions. He recognized that Begin had very clear views and that he was someone Sadat could trust and with whom he could reach an agreement. Only someone like Begin – realized Sadat – could make such a great concession in return for true peace. As someone who for so many years had been vilified as a “war monger,” a “fanatic,” who “believed in a policy of power,” Menachem Begin certainly wanted history to remember him as a leader who had brought peace to his nation, broken the circle of violence in the Middle East and put an end to bereavement in Israel. Anwar Sadat’s declaration on November 9, 1977 – “I am willing to come to them, to their home, to the Knesset itself and argue with them” – was not left unanswered. In an appeal broadcast to the Egyptian people via an American television channel, Begin said, “Let us say to one another, and let it be a silent oath between our two nations, Egypt and Israel: No more war, no more bloodshed, no more threats… Only peace, true peace, and forever.”One week later, on Saturday night, November 19, 1977, Begin received his former enemy at Ben-Gurion airport. In five private talks held during the two days of the historic visit, “chemistry” was created between the two leaders and both agreed: “No more war.” Begin’s peace plan – which was presented to Carter in Washington and Sadat in Cairo – triggered harsh criticism in Israel, and especially in his own party, because it involved the return of most of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt and negotiations for the autonomy of the Arabs of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. He told his critics in Herut, “I do not need a seal of approval for my loyalty to Eretz Israel – neither from Gush Emunim nor from the Movement for the Greater Land of Israel or from certain people in the Herut movement. He was criticized from the right by Professor Yuval Ne’eman, founder of Techiyah, who said, “In my darkest nightmares, I never imagined that Begin would reach that very same situation that he fought against his entire life.” And from the left, the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said, “Begin has an advantage – that as prime minister he doesn't have Begin in the opposition.”However, the growing friendship between Begin and Sadat did not prevent disagreements between them and the negotiations did not go as smoothly as hoped. Momentum was gained at the Camp David summit outside Washington in September 1978, where the Israeli, Egyptian and American delegations isolated themselves for 11 days to continue talks, which produced framework agreements for peace. These agreements were made possible in part due to difficult concessions that Menachem Begin agreed to make. The greatest was the agreement to carry out a complete, phased withdrawal from the entire Sinai Peninsula, which included the evacuation of the Jewish communities there, including the Naot Sinai moshav, which Begin had joined as a member at the beginning of that year. Even before the peace agreement was ratified and signed, Menachem Begin earned international recognition and honor when he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1978 together with his Egyptian partner to the peace efforts. However, Sadat himself did not travel to Oslo to accept the prize and instead sent a representative. Begin went to Oslo and in his acceptance speech, he said, “The prize is not only mine; it belongs to my nation, for the terrible suffering it has undergone, for its many losses of life, for its love of peace and deep longing for it.” In his speech at the signing of the peace agreement three months later, he admitted: “This is the third greatest day in my life. The first was on May 14, 1948, when our flag was flown and our independence declared in the land of our ancestors... The second was when Jerusalem became an undivided city... Now, I have signed a peace agreement with our neighbor, Egypt. My heart overflows.” The assassination of President Sadat by fanatical Muslims on October 6, 1981 during a military parade in Cairo marking the eighth anniversary of the “October War,” as the Yom Kippur is known as in Egypt, awakened fears for the fate of the peace agreement. But Menachem Begin did not hesitate to declare that the evacuation of the Sinai would be completed on schedule in accordance with the commitment Israel took upon itself in the agreement, and that is exactly what happened. In April 1982, nine years after it was established, the city of Yamit was completely demolished, bringing an end to all the communities in the flourishing district. The bitter struggle of those that opposed the withdrawal from Sinai did not lead to bloodshed, but the sights deeply pained the “member of Naot Sinai,” sitting in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. At that time, Begin was already standing at the head of his second government, after leading the Likud to its second victory in elections that had been moved up to 1981. The cries of “Begin! Begin!” once again reverberated in Israel’s streets and squares. This government was based on the narrow Knesset majority of 61 seats, which forced Begin to make far-reaching concessions to his religious coalition partners in various areas of legislation. The internal conflicts in the nation deepened in the election campaign. The increasingly sharp “traditional” differences between right and left were overshadowed by the rancor between Israel’s religious and secular communities, and between its Ashknazi and Sepharadi populations.
After securing the peace agreement with Egypt – even after it “cooled down” quite a bit after Hosni Mubarak became president – Menachem Begin found the time to deal with other issues on which his positions were no less firm. He set in motion the application of Israeli law on the Golan Heights; Israeli air force planes bombed the Iraq’s nuclear reactor near Baghdad; and in the ancestral lands of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the establishment of Jewish communities was considerably stepped up. And there was yet another front where Begin left his mark – the internal, social one. It was Menachem Begin that removed the division between the Ashkenazi elites of “First Israel,” and “Second Israel,” promoted the advancement of the development towns, launched the nation-wide Project Renewal to rebuild poor neighborhoods and injected the poorer members of Israeli society with new pride. As an ingrained seeker of justice and truth, in March 1982, Menachem Begin set in motion the establishment of a national commission of inquiry into the murder of Haim Arlozorov, whose killing triggered terrible strife and hostility in the Zionist camp for many, many years. The commission determined that despite the accusations at the time, the Revisionists had had nothing to do with the murder of the great Jewish leader in 1933. As the terrorists stationed in Southern Lebanon escalated their attacks on Israel’s northern settlements, and in the wake of the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador in London, the Israel Defense Forces was given orders on June 5, 1982 to launch Operation Peace for the Galilee. Menachem Begin hoped that the campaign would last but a few days and would not reach beyond a radius of 40-45 kilometers from Israel’s border. He even declared that after it, “The land will rest for forty years.” Unfortunately, that is not how it turned out. Despite the destruction of the terrorists’ bases in Southern Lebanon and forced removal of the PLO terrorists from Beirut, and notwithstanding the agreement Israel made with Lebanon, the war dragged on for many months. The continuing war, the large number of Israeli casualties (666 killed) and the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian phalanges in the Sabra and Chatilla camps all left their mark on the tormented prime minister of Israel.
The developments in the wake of the controversial Peace for the Galilee war and the increasingly acrimonious internal debate, and the conclusions of the Kahan commission report into the massacre in the refugee camps (“We found no reason to acquit the prime minister of responsibility for not showing any interest in the actions of the Phalange fighters in the camps during the cabinet sessions and afterwards. [...] We are unable to accept his explanation that he was entirely unaware of the danger of a massacre”) greatly disheartened the prime minister. To this should be added his profound sorrow over the death of his beloved wife, Aliza, on November 13, 1982, while he was abroad on official business, and his own increasing physical weakness. Indeed, Begin’s poor health, heart problems and the major surgery he had to undergo following a fall in the bath, after which he was forced to use a walking stick, all restricted the prime minister’s movements, often keeping him at home. They did not, however, undermine his leadership or affect his ability to make decisions although a deep gloom overtook him and severely interfered with his work as prime minister, and – it was said – with his attentiveness at cabinet sessions. Begin celebrated his 70th birthday in the presence of just a few close friends and family members, and exactly one month and five days later, on September 15, 1983, he announced his resignation. To the cabinet, he uttered but one sentence: “I feel that I can no longer continue,” thus bringing to an end a brilliant political career and closing an important chapter in the history of the State of Israel. Many expected Begin to write a book about the generation of Holocaust and rebirth to which he so often alluded. When first elected prime minister in 1977, he declared that he planned to serve until the age of 70, when he would devote himself to writing his great book on “the generation of Holocaust and rebirth.” Begin, after all, had been a prolific writer and over the years had written hundreds of articles and two books, “White Nights,” and “The Revolt,” and a collection of underground posters and radio broadcasts that he wrote called “Writings from the Underground” was also published. His resignation marked the final chapter in Menachem Begin’s biography, a sad one of seclusion and isolation in his apartments at 1 Tzemach Street in Jerusalem and 4 Glicksberg Street in Tel Aviv, where he spent the final year and a half of his life. Begin consciously and determinedly resolved to completely cut himself off from all public and political activities. These were years of almost total and ascetic seclusion, which saddened all his friends and comrades in arms as well as the general population, who expected some kind of explanation from him for his sudden departure from public life. None, however, was forthcoming. To his dying day, Begin refused to respond to appeals from friends, reporters or public figures to sum up his term in office in a speech, article or letter and thereby satisfy the curiosity of the public as to why he had suddenly abandoned the helm of his ship. He took his secret to the grave. It is doubtful if any of the few people that continued to frequent his home in those final years of silent and obscure decline – Yehiel Kadishai, Dan Meridor, Ya’acov Meridor, Harry Hurwitz and, of course, his devoted family members – heard any explanation from him that they may one day reveal to the public. The public was able to catch glimpses of Menachem Begin only thanks to the hoards of press and television photographers and cameramen that hounded him on those very few occasions when he left his home – for the annual memorial service for his late wife Aliza and when he was hospitalized due to illness or when he needed an operation on his knee following a second fall in his apartment. Menachem Begin moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on August 20, 1990. He had been hospitalized for a few weeks in the capital’s Shaare Zedek hospital and from there, was taken to Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv. The newspaper photographs showed Menachem Begin being taken in a wheelchair. “I felt that I was taking part in the history of the State of Israel,” said the female soldier that helped wheel Begin on his return to Tel Aviv after 13 years of service and activity in Jerusalem. Many ordinary citizens wrote to him during the years of his retirement and seclusion to invite him to various events. He responded to all these letters with brief words of thanks, sometimes adding relevant commentary on the events of the distant path or the present. On his birthdays, on Shabbat Nahamu each year, he opened his home to friends, the members of the “fighting family,” who, deeply moved and stirred, came to his home to meet once again with their commander and leader. On such days, letters and telegrams of congratulations filled his home. On Shabbat Nahamu of 1988, when Begin turned 75 years old, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wrote him: “Each year when this day arrives, all his friends, admirers, disciples along with multitudes of Jews in Israel and the turn their thoughts to Menachem Begin – the man, the commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the prime minister of the State of Israel, the great disciple of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and the man who carried out his teachings. There are few people that have left their mark on the history of the Jewish people in our generation as Menachem Begin has been privileged to do. He fought for the establishment of the state, saw it arise and participated in shaping its character and leading it to great deeds and enormous achievements. Very many among the Jewish people remember and will continue to remember his great deeds and accomplishments.” Menachem Begin made his last journey to Jerusalem on a winter day when he returned his soul to his Maker – just before dawn on Monday, 2 Adar II, 5752 – March 9, 1992. In accordance with his wishes, he was not given an official state funeral, instead laid to rest in a simple, dignified Jewish ceremony without eulogies, wreaths or foreign dignitaries. Tens of thousands accompanied him on his final journey and the streets of the capital overflowed with the legions of mourners that came to show their love and admiration for him, walking many kilometers to Mount of Olives, where he was buried next to the grave of his beloved wife. The graves of Menachem and Aliza Begin on the Mount of Olives are located next to those of two underground heroes, Moshe Barazani of the Lehi and Meir Feinstein of the IZL, overlooking the Temple Mount. His son, Binyamin Ze'ev Begin, said the traditional Kaddish and Yehiel Kadishai, his devoted aide, recited the El Maleh Rahamim prayer. The Betar anthem, whose third verse had become the IZL anthem, was softly chanted by those present and the ceremony ended. Tens of thousands filed passed the fresh grave to pay their last respects to a beloved leader, the sixth prime minister of the State of Israel, a Jewish commander, soldier and statesman of the generation of Holocaust and rebirth.