Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Tuesday, April 21, 1998 Published at 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK

Menachem Begin

By Gerald Butt

Menachem Begin was a hard man, who brought the Right in Israel to power for the first time. He was stern in manner, with the appearance of a schoolteacher rather than a statesman. But it was Begin's hard streak that gave him confidence to start the process of making peace with the Arabs.

Begin was committed throughout his life to the cause of fighting anti-Semitism. In his view, this struggle justified the creation and defence of the Jewish state by any means necessary (even if this meant ordering an air attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor, as he did in 1981).

From the Russia of his childhood, Menachem Begin went to Poland to study. There he witnessed anti-Semitism first-hand and joined the youth wing of the hard-line Revisionist Zionist movement led by Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

This movement abhorred the socialist ideology behind other wings of Zionism, and advocated strong leadership and discipline.

In Palestine in 1940, Begin was incensed by British attempts to restrict immigration and instigated the underground military campaign against the mandate power. The British offered a reward for his capture, but they never caught him.

Under Begin's command, the underground terrorist group Irgun carried out numerous acts of violence.

In 1946 Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. In 1948 it took part in the massacre of Arabs in the town of Deir Yassin - an incident that accelerated the Arab exodus from Palestine on the eve of the founding of Israel.

For nearly 30 years Begin led the right-wing opposition in the Knesset to Labour rule. Then, in the 1977, he brought about a revolution in Israeli politics.

Public disillusionment with the complacency of Labour coincided with the coming of age of the Oriental communities of Israel. They had felt ignored by successive governments led by Israelis of European origin. Begin gave them a voice.

[ image: Sealing the Camp David accord]
Sealing the Camp David accord
In power at the head of the Likud bloc, Begin proved to be more pragmatic than many observers had predicted. No more so than in 1977 when he invited President Sadat of Egypt to Jerusalem.

Two years later he signed a peace treaty with Israel's enemy and, to the disgust of many old comrades on the right, he ordered the evacuation of Israeli forces from the Sinai. He and President Sadat received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1979.

But wider Middle East peace remained elusive, and in 1982 Begin allowed Israel to become embroiled in Lebanon.

His defence minister, Ariel Sharon, led a major offensive across the border to break the military power of the Palestinians there.

But Sharon misled the cabinet about his real aims, which were to push northwards to Beirut and install a right-wing pro-Israeli regime there. In the event, Israeli forces got bogged down.

Begin witnessed Israel's first mass peace movement on the streets of Tel Aviv and faced accusations of Israeli complicity in the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, refugee camps outside Beirut.

All the time, Begin's health was deteriorating. After his wife died in November 1982 he became seriously depressed.

Ten months later he resigned and spent the rest of his life in seclusion, tortured by feelings of guilt and remorse for failing his country over the Lebanon war.

Menachem Begin died in 1992, aged 78, a broken man.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage |






In this section

David Ben Gurion

Golda Meir

Menachem Begin

Yitzhak Rabin

From Special Report
Profile: Binyamin Netanyahu

From Special Report
Profile: Yasser Arafat