Menachem Begin

March 11, 1992

Long before his death Monday after a heart attack at 78, Menachem Begin was a spent force in Israel. In August 1983, he resigned and went into a seclusion from which he never emerged. What had happened? His wife of 43 years had died. Israel's invasion of Lebanon the year before, which he had ordered, accomplished none of its political goals, leaving the PLO intact as a force against Israel and Lebanon a shambles of anarchy.

Yet two of his legacies endure. One is the peace with Egypt, responding to President Anwar Sadat's initiative and President Jimmy Carter's patience at Camp David in 1978. The other is Israel's relentless construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank in the face of world condemnation.

Both legacies reflect the themes of Mr. Begin's prime ministry and his prior, seemingly permanent, leadership of opposition in Israel: The permanence of Israel as a self-achieved sovereign homeland for Jews, in peace if possible, in defiance if need be. As a founder of the extremist Irgun Zvai Leumi during World War II, as a thorn in the side of the mainstream Zionist leaders who founded Israel, as a terrorist with a price on his head, Mr. Begin brooked no compromise. But he did not want endless war. He wanted Israel accepted and at peace.

Mr. Begin's intransigence was based on personal, historical and religious motives. He had survived the Holocaust, the Soviet gulag archipelago and the war. He believed that the Bible tells that God chose the Jews to possess what is now Israel, the occupied territories and much of Jordan. When he could make no theoretical compromise on that point, he was unlikely to reach practical compromise.

This difficult man is gone, his memory cherished by many and cursed by others. There was no denying his commitment and his power of character. Israel today is stumbling to an election with ,, his Likud Party led by his political heir, Yitzhak Shamir, who shares Mr. Begin's origins in the fringes, his beliefs in Greater Israel and his confidence in holding ground -- but not his political intelligence.

Mr. Shamir can build all the settlements that Mr. Begin would have, but could Mr. Shamir have recognized the opportunity to make peace with Egypt? Doubtful. When Israel does make peace with more neighbors, it will do so probably under leadership that always opposed Mr. Begin and Mr. Shamir. But it will do so by building on Mr. Begin's Camp David accord, the foundation stone for any edifice of peace to be built.

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