Begin buried in funeral recalling underground days

March 10, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Menachem Begin, the former prime minister who came to symbolize many of the unresolved conflicts in Israeli society, was buried yesterday on the Mount of Olives after a day of national mourning.

Thousands of people joined the funeral procession led by family members and former members of the Irgun Zvei Leumi, the underground army commanded by Mr. Begin in the 1940s in the fight against Arabs and the British authorities who ruled Palestine before the establishment of the Jewish state.

There was no coffin. His body, wrapped in a white shroud, carried on a stretcher, was placed next to the grave of his wife, Aliza, overlooking the eastern wall of the Old City and the Temple Mount.

The ceremony was more a commemoration of Mr. Begin's life in the underground than his six years as prime minister -- from 1977 to his resignation in 1983 -- and served as a final public recognition of his having made a political extreme into the country's mainstream.

Seven of Mr. Begin's Irgun colleagues acted as the pallbearers in the procession, which began in West Jerusalem and traveled by motorcade through parts of the city Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War. Mr. Begin, 78, died a few hours before dawn yesterday at a hospital in Tel Aviv, six days after suffering a heart attack.

Mourners, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, ended the service not with the national anthem but by singing the anthem of Betar, the militant Zionist group Mr. Begin joined as a youth in Poland before emigrating to Palestine.

His body was covered not by soil from the Mount of Olives but by soil brought from a cemetery in the city of Safed, where Irgun members hanged by the British are buried. Mr. Begin's funeral was a reminder that he was the first leader of the right to defeat the mainstream Labor Zionist movement that traced its lineage to David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. In the fervor he inspired, Mr. Begin eventually became Mr. Ben-Gurion's equal.

"They are the two great prime ministers Israel has had up to now," said Ezer Weizman, who worked as defense minister until disagreements with Mr. Begin over implementation of the peace treaty with Egypt compelled him to resign. "The man was brave."

Members of the political left and right agreed that Mr. Begin was a gifted leader even as they disputed whether he brought the country greatness or only greater divisiveness, especially over the issues of Jewish settlement in occupied territories and the country's security needs.

Mr. Shamir, Mr. Begin's political heir who served in the even more radical Stern gang during the fight for independence, eulogized him as "our commander, our leader, our teacher."

"We have all been orphaned," Mr. Shamir said. "There is no consolation."

Yitzhak Rabin, leader of the opposition Labor Party, lauded Mr. Begin for having negotiated the Camp David accords with Egypt, the agreement that led to Israel's withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula. "More than anything, Mr. Begin will be remembered as the first prime minister of Israel who signed a peace treaty between us and a neighboring Arab state," he said.

President Bush, in a statement in Washington, praised Mr. Begin for having agreed to trade land for peace, the formula being debated again in the latest series of Arab-Israeli talks. "His historic role in the peace process will never be forgotten," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Begin inspired strong feelings by both his fiery rhetoric and his actions -- especially his decision to have Israel's army invade Lebanon, in 1982, a conflict that polarized Israelis.

"We knew that he was a man of contradictions," said Shulamit Aloni, leader of the left-wing Citizens Rights Party. "He built, and he destroyed."

Ariel Sharon was the former colleague noticeable by his absence at the funeral. Mr. Sharon, as defense minister, was the architect of the war in Lebanon and the person blamed by Mr. Begin's associates for the prime minister's resigning from office as a seemingly broken man. Mr. Begin's friends said he was left feeling betrayed and misled by Mr. Sharon, who took the war in Lebanon far beyond its originally stated objectives.

"That was a great period for Israel under his leadership, perhaps the greatest there ever was," Mr. Sharon said in an interview on army radio. "Many things have been said in the past that tried to connect Mr. Begin's resignation to me. I can only say that these things are unfounded."

Mr. Begin's funeral was simple and brief, as his three children had requested. Wearing an open-necked shirt with the collar ripped in a traditional mourning gesture, Mr. Begin's son, Benyamin, read the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. Benyamin is a member of his father's political party, the Likud.

The seven pallbearers, old men at times struggling to climb a steep path, carried the body wrapped in a shroud and prayer shawl.

Rabbis at the grave removed the prayer shawl, quickly lowered the body there and began emptying the sacks of soil.

The mourners sang the Betar hymn. A rabbi then placed on the grave a temporary marker with the name of the man who had just been buried: Menachem ben Rabi Ze'ev Begin.

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