Menachem Begin, 1913--1992

March 10, 1992

For motives equally historical and religious, Menachem Begin relentlessly and zealously dedicated all his life to the permanence and security of Greater Israel as a Jewish homeland. Even if it meant making peace with Egypt and giving up the entire Sinai desert.

This humorless, disputatious man always knew his purpose when his adversaries doubted theirs. He made concessions he swore he never would, keeping clear sight of his goals. And along the way he transformed Israeli politics.

This quintessential Ashkenazi Jew from Poland, who escaped the Nazi ovens that claimed his family and landed in the Soviet gulag instead, made a home in his Likud Party for the Sephardic Jews of Arab lands who became for years Israel's majority. And after 29 years in opposition to Israel's seemingly permanent Labor Party government, he crafted a takeover in 1977 that after some strange coalitions still sticks.

As founder of Irgun Zvai Leumi during World War II, Mr. Begin was a terrorist dedicated to ends and no captive of means, even if it required assassinating British officials. In political opposition from the day Israel became a state in 1948, he seemed an extremist crank. A journalist covering his first visit to Britain, where a price had been on his head, found him in the early 1970s a backward-looking ideologue with no future. That journalist was wrong.

Mr. Begin won the May 1977 elections as someone who would never give an inch. Yet in November, he welcomed President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to Jerusalem. That led to the Camp David meeting where President Carter brokered Israel's peace with its most powerful neighbor. The violent foe of Arabs will live to eternity as the deserved co-winner with Sadat of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1978.

He had not become a dove. Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear weapons development in 1981, a prescient aggression that the U.S. condemned and for which it has been grateful ever since. The next year, he sent Israel's army into Lebanon to destroy the PLO, a wholly mistaken adventure. That failure and the death of his wife of 43 years sent Mr. Begin into sudden retirement, in 1983, and seclusion lasting until his death after a heart attack at 78.

Mr. Begin's legacy to Israel is preparedness and resolution. He would never give an inch of the West Bank or Gaza, any more than he would the Sinai in 1977. Yet if a trade-off of peace and security came on the table as real and substantial as Mr. Sadat's offer, there is reason to think that Menachem Begin would recognize it.

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