Former Israeli premier Menachem Begin dies

March 09, 1992|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,Foreign Editor

Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel, who set the course for Israel's hard-line policies toward the Arabs but who won the Nobel Peace prize for making peace with Egypt, died early today at the age of 78.

The government announced on Israel Radio that Mr. Begin died in Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, where he had been treated following a heart attack last Tuesday. The government planned to convene a memorial meeting to determine funeral arrangements.

Mr. Begin had lived in virtual seclusion since Sept. 15, 1983, when he abruptly resigned the premiership after six years in office. His election in 1977 brought a stunning end to the center-left labor movement's dominance of Israeli politics since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.

And though he had been away from the political scene for almost a decade, his militant ideology nurtured by his experiences in the Holocaust still prevails in the ruling Likud bloc that he formed. As prime minister, Mr. Begin led Israel to its first peace treaty with an Arab state, Egypt, and into its fifth major war by invading Lebanon in June 1982, a conflict that created political and social divisions within Israel that have never completely healed.

He left the political stage in despair, physically and spiritually exhausted, offering as his only public explanation, "I can't go on." Friends said that this despair had begun in 1982, with the death of his wife and lifelong companion, Aliza. But the manifest hopelessness of Israel's adventure in Lebanon and the toll of Israelis who died in that war had an equal impact.

As prime minister, Mr. Begin invoked the promises of the Old Testament to claim for Israel the right to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and he displayed messianic fervor in trying to impose his view of a "Land of Israel" living securely from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

Mr. Begin's last years in isolation were a striking contrast to his youth as an active Zionist in his native Poland, his years as leader of an underground guerrilla army in Palestine, his leadership of the right-wing opposition in Israel's Parliament and, finally, as premier.

He was the first leader of his country to represent Zionism's "revisionist" branch, a movement that from its inception in Eastern Europe in the 1920s was more militant than the mainstream Zionism advanced by David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and his successors.

As founder of the Herut (Freedom) Party, Mr. Begin was known for decades as Israel's chief hawk and seemed destined to remain in the political wilderness. He surprised critics when, as leader of the newly organized Likud bloc, he won election as prime minister in 1977. As premier, his aggressive support for the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip fulfilled the hopes of his supporters and the fears of his opponents.

His willingness to negotiate a peace treaty with President Anwar el Sadat of Egypt confounded supporters and foes alike. The Camp David peace accords negotiated in 1978 and the formal treaty concluded in 1979 won Mr. Begin and Mr. Sadat the Nobel Peace Prize and led to Israel giving back to Egypt the Sinai peninsula, territory Israel had won during the Six-Day War of 1967.

But Mr. Begin created the ideological and political framework necessary for Israel to hold on indefinitely to the West Bank. That land was Judea and Samaria in his lexicon. For Mr. Begin, the West Bank, home for almost a million Palestinians, was the land bequeathed by God to Abraham and his descendants and a rightful part of the modern state of Israel.

"If anyone wants to take Judea and Samaria from us," Mr. Begin declared in 1982, "we will say Judea and Samaria belong to the Jewish people to the end of time."

His personality was full of distinct contradictions. His obsessions were the best and worst manifestations of an older European order into which he was born, in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, in 1913. He observed brutal examples of anti-Semitism and the helplessness of Europe's Jews. His chief ambition became to rescue his people from the tragedy of the Nazi Holocaust that wiped out most of his family and to build for them an invincible homeland.

"The Holocaust is the prime mover of all that we have done in our generation," he once reflected. "For instance, our fight for liberation is a result of the recognition that we, in our time, must create conditions so that never again will the Jew be defenseless. Our scourge was the defenselessness of the Jewish people."

Mr. Begin's political experiences began at an early age. He was captivated by the militant Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, who split with the World Zionist Movement in 1935 over its failure to declare the creation of a Jewish state as its immediate aim. By the time Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Mr. Begin was head of Betar, a militant Jewish youth group that trained under a rigid military discipline.

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