Begin, Menachem

(1919-92)
   Born on 16 August 1919 the son of Zeev-Dov and Hassia Begin in Brest-Litovsk, White Russia (later Poland). Begin was educated in Brest-Litovsk at the Mizrachi Hebrew School and later studied and graduated in law at the University of Warsaw. After a short association with Hashomer Hatzair, he became a devoted follower of Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist Movement. At the age of 16, he joined Be-tar, the youth movement affiliated with the Revisionists, and in 1932, he became the head of the organization department of Betar in Poland. Later, after a period of service as head of Betar in Czechoslovakia, he returned to Poland in 1937 and in 1939 became head of the movement there. Upon the outbreak of World War II, he was arrested by the Russian authorities and confined in concentration camps in Siberia and elsewhere until his release in 1941. He then joined the Polish army and was dispatched to the Middle East. After demobilization in 1943, he remained in Palestine and assumed command of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi. For his activities against the British authorities as head of that organization, he was placed on their "most wanted" list but managed to evade capture by living underground in Tel Aviv.
   With the independence of Israel in 1948 and the dissolution of the Irgun, Begin founded the Herut (Freedom) Party and represented it in the Knesset from its first meetings in 1949. He became Herut's leader, retaining that position until he resigned from office as prime minister and retired from public and political life in 1983. Herut was known for its right-wing, strongly nationalistic views, and Begin led the party's protest campaign against the reparations agreement with West Germany in 1952. He was instrumental in establishing the Ga-hal faction (a merger of Herut and the Liberal Party) in the Knesset in 1965. He developed a reputation as a gifted orator, writer, and political leader. He remained in opposition in parliament until the eve of the Six-Day War (1967), when he joined the Government of National Unity as minister without portfolio. He and his Gahal colleagues resigned from the government in August 1970 to oppose the government acceptance of the peace initiative of U.S. secretary of state William Rogers, which implied the evacuation by Israel of territories occupied in the course of the Six-Day War. Later, Gahal joined in forming the Likud bloc in opposition to the governing Alignment, and Begin became its leader.
   In June 1977, Begin became Israel's first nonsocialist prime minister when the Likud bloc secured the mandate to form the government after the May Knesset election. He also became the first Israeli prime minister to meet officially and publicly with an Arab head of state when he welcomed Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977. He led Israel's delegations to the ensuing peace negotiations and signed, with Sadat and U.S. president Jimmy Carter, the Camp David Accords in September 1978. In March 1979, he and Sadat signed the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, with
   Carter witnessing the event, on the White House lawn. Begin and Sadat shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. For Begin and Israel, it was a momentous but difficult accomplishment. It brought peace with Israel's most populous adversary and significantly reduced the military danger to the existence of Israel by neutralizing the largest Arab army with which Israel had fought five wars. But, it was also traumatic given the extensive tangible concessions required of Israel, especially the uprooting of Jewish settlements in the Sinai Peninsula.
   The Knesset election of 30 June 1981 returned a Likud-led coalition government to power in Israel, contrary to early predictions that projected a significant Labor-Alignment victory. Begin again became prime minister, and his reestablished government coalition contained many of the same personalities as the outgoing group and reflected similar perspectives of Israel's situation and appropriate government policies. He also served as minister of foreign affairs in 1979-80 and as minister of defense from May 1980 to August 1981.
   Israel's first War in Lebanon (1982) occasioned debate and demonstration within Israel, resulted in substantial casualties, and led, at least initially, to Israel's increased international isolation and major diplomatic clashes with the United States. Many of the outcomes were muted over time, but the war left a legacy that continued to be debated long after Begin retired from public life. It was also a factor in Begin's decision to step down from the prime minister's office, but it was a decision he chose and was not forced to make. Within Israel, Begin's tenure was marked by prosperity for the average citizen, although there were indicators (such as rising debt and inflation levels) that this might prove costly in the long term. The standard of living rose, as did the level of expectations. The religious parties enhanced their political power and secured important concessions to their demands from a coalition that recognized their increased role in maintaining the political balance and from a prime minister who was, on the whole, sympathetic to their positions.
   Israel's relationship with the United States underwent significant change during Begin's tenure. The ties were often tempestuous, as the two states disagreed on various aspects of the regional situation and the issues associated with resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nevertheless, U.S. economic and military assistance and political and diplomatic support rose to all-time high levels.
   Begin's political skills were considerable and apparent. Despite his European origins and courtly manner, he was able, through his powerful oratorical skills, charismatic personality, and political and economic policies, to secure and maintain a substantial margin of popularity over other major political figures, particularly the opposition leaders. At the time of his resignation, he was the most popular and highly regarded of Israeli politicians, as the public opinion polls regularly indicated.
   Begin's decision to resign as prime minister of Israel on 16 September 1983 brought to an end a major era in Israeli politics. It was a surprise and a shock to Israelis, notwithstanding Begin's earlier statements that he would retire from politics at age 70. Although no formal reason for his resignation was forthcoming, Begin apparently believed that he could no longer perform his tasks as he felt he should, and he seemed to be severely affected by the death of his wife the previous year and by the continuing casualties suffered by Israeli forces in Lebanon. He died on 9 March 1992.

Historical Dictionary of Israel. .

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