Begin, Menachem (1913–1992)

views updated

BEGIN, MENACHEM (1913–1992)

Israeli political figure, prime minister of Israel (1977–1983). Menachem Begin was born in 1913 in Poland. Trained as a lawyer, he attracted notice at the World Congress of Betar (1938) in Warsaw, Poland, for his oratorical skills. Begin went to Palestine in 1942 with the Free Polish Army, from which he was demobilized at the end of that year. In December 1943 he took command of the extremist group, Irgun Zvaʾi Leʾumi (IZL). Until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Irgun was engaged in a campaign of attacks against British officials and institutions as well as Arabs in Palestine. The Irgun was responsible for, among others, the attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which caused 91 deaths, and the massacre of some 100 inhabitants of the Arab village of Deir Yasin.

On 2 June 1948, after the creation of the State of Israel, Begin proclaimed the allegiance of the Irgun to the new Jewish state, which allowed his militants to join the new Israeli army, the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Nevertheless, on 21 June, Begin refused to surrender to the latter a shipment of arms belonging to his movement. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered cannons to be fired on the Altalena, the ship that was transporting the arms. This incident formed the basis of an undying hatred between the two men.

In the autumn of 1948, after his movement had been disbanded, Begin founded the ultranationalist party Herut, advocate of a "Greater Israel." In the first Israeli parliamentary elections, in January 1949, Herut obtained fourteen seats in the Knesset. In the 1950s, after losing six of these seats, the leaders of Herut tried to capture the Sephardi vote, which was going mostly to Labor. In April 1965, Begin decided to ally his party with the Liberal Party, forming the Gahal parliamentary group, which accounted for twenty-six members of parliament. On 1 June, just before the Arab-Israel War of 1967, he joined the Labor government of Levi Eshkol as minister without portfolio. After the war, Begin left the government, while a few Gahal members stayed on until August 1970, when Prime Minister Golda Meir accepted the American Rogers Plan, which provided for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. During the spring of 1973, with Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir, he formed Likud, a new parliamentary block of the right. Leader of the right since 1948, Begin led Likud to parliamentary victory in May 1977—ending thirty years of Labor hegemony—and became prime minister.

As soon as Begin took office, he initiated secret negotiations with Egypt that eventually led to the Camp David Summit of September 1978 and a peace treaty in March 1979. At the same time, Begin advocated the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. On 14 August 1977 he decided to extend Israeli jurisdiction over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In December 1977 he stated he was in favor of administrative autonomy for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while firmly insisting on Israeli sovereignty in these territories. With Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, Begin took a series of steps toward reconciliation with his Arab neighbors. As a result, Begin's position weakened within his own party, as well as within the Likud parliamentary bloc. In November 1977, Begin was host to Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat on the latter's extraordinary visit to Israel. On 17 September 1978, the Camp David Accords were signed. On 26 March 1979, Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt, the first one concluded between Israel and an Arab country. On 27 October 1979, Begin, together with President Sadat, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. There was, however, a wave of international protests when Begin pressured the Knesset, in July 1980, into adopting a law that decreed Jerusalem "the eternal capital of Israel."

That same month, after Likud narrowly won the parliamentary elections, Begin started his second term as prime minister of a government of national unity. Toughening his policies, he annexed the Golan Heights in December 1981; then on 6 June 1982, under pressure from Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, he gave the green light to the invasion of Lebanon (called Operation Peace for Galilee). The massacres at the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila by the Lebanese Phalange militia, while the IDF looked on, stirred up national and international protest. On 19 September 1983, weakened physically by illness and politically damaged by economic difficulties and by the Lebanese crisis, Begin resigned his post as prime minister and leader of Herut, replaced in both of these functions by his friend Yitzhak Shamir. From that moment until his death on 9 March 1992, Begin remained out of the public eye.

SEE ALSO Altalena;Arab-Israel War (1982);Camp David Accords;Dayan, Moshe;Herut Party;Irgun;Meir, Golda;Sabra and Shatila;Sadat, Anwar al-;Shamir, Yitzhak.