Remembering Menachem Begin: A Profile of a Leader

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“Menachem Begin – underground commander, parliamentarian and the sixth Prime Minister of the State of Israel – was born in Brest-Litovsk, Poland in 1913. A passionate Zionist from an early age, he joined the Betar youth movement at the age of 16.  In the mid-thirties Begin received a law degree. In 1938 he became head of Betar Poland, a 70,000-member organization that formed part of the national movement founded by Jabotinsky.

Begin concentrated on military training, foreseeing the need to defend Polish Jewry. At the outbreak of World War II he fled to Vilna, was arrested in 1940 by the NKVD (a forerunner of the KGB) and was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp in Siberia. He was freed in 1941 because of his Polish citizenship and joined the Free Polish Army, which in 1943 made its way to the Middle East. Contacting the dormant underground organization of the national movement – the Irgun Tzeva’i Le’umi (Etzel) – Begin set about revitalizing it.

In 1944, when the magnitude of the Holocaust became evident, the Etzel broke away from the mainstream Zionist policy of restraint. Under Begin’s leadership the pace and the scope of Etzel’s challenges to British rule increased, and after the war he ordered many of Etzel’s operations, including the Akko prison breakout and the destruction of the British administration’s central offices located at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

The growing militancy of Etzel’s operations brought Begin into conflict with the mainstream Zionist strategy of Ben-Gurion – causing an ideological-political rift and personal rancor between the two leaders which lasted for many years.

After the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) by the Provisional Government in June 1948, the two dissident military organizations (the Etzel and the Lehi) were disbanded and their members absorbed into the IDF. Menachem Begin turned to parliamentary politics, founding the Herut Party, which was based on the political ideology of his mentor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

As a Member of Knesset, he dominated the political opposition to the ruling Labor party’s hegemony during the first three decades of independent Israel. During his years as leader of the right-wing opposition, Begin, a gifted and charismatic orator, gave expression to his disapproval of government policy not only in parliament, but also at public demonstrations. In the 1950s he led the movement against the reparations agreement with West Germany, and after the Sinai campaign of 1956 – the opposition against withdrawal from Sinai. In 1965, Begin merged his Herut party with a liberal party, a merger which served as the foundation of the future Likud party.

Two years later the crisis prior to the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War led to the formation of a national unity government, of which Begin became a member. For almost three years he was part of the decision-making body, until disagreement over an American peace initiative (the Rogers Plan) prompted him to resign.

In the 1977 elections, Begin’s Likud party gained 43 Knesset seats, compared to the Labor Alignment’s 32. Menachem Begin became Prime Minister, serving for six and a half years – from the spring of 1977 to the fall of 1983. His leadership style – with more formal attire, and emphasis on ceremonial aspects of the government – was markedly different from the “open-shirt” approach of his predecessors.

As the former head of the Irgun (Etzel) underground movement, which conducted some questionable operations during the British rule in years leading  to Israel’s independence, Begin had the reputation of a warmonger and a troublemaker. Thirty years of tarnishing Begin’s reputation by the ruling labor party had an impact:

Many of the people who voted for begin in 1977, did it as a protest against the Labor party that ruled the country for 30 years and became corrupted. At the time of the 1977 election, the horrors of the 1973 war were still fresh. Israelis blamed the government (Labor party leadership) for the poor readiness of the army prior to the war. Israelis wanted a change. They voted for the alternative, for Begin.   

However, when the election was over, many initially regraded their votes. People feared that Begin will lead them into another war. However, it was too late to change the vote, what done was done, so the nation held its breath and watched Begin taking over. People embraced themselves  for what was coming.

Whether Begin knew it, or whether it was his leader’s instinct that told him that he needed to demonstrate quickly that he wasn’t going to ruin the country in his first days in office, his first major decision surprised everyone; it was a smart confidence building action. Begin appointed Moshe Dayan, a famous leader of the rival labor party, and a former chief of staff and defense minister, to the position of Foreign Affairs minister. No one expected him to reach out and appoint to the high position someone from the opposing party, but that was what he did. 

In 1977, Moshe Dayan, was hated by most of the Israeli public for his role as the defense minister during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Yet, he was a familiar face, someone who has been part of the Israeli government for many years. Begin was quick to state that Dayan was not going to be involved with Defense decisions, which helped reducing the public anxiety.The public trusted that Dayan will be a voice of reason in Begin’s government. As it turned out during the peace negotiations with Egypt, Dayan had a major role in driving the negotiations toward a successful conclusion.

Begin also appointed Ezer Weizman to the position of a defense minister. Ezer Weizman was a popular air force general who was credited with building the Israeli air force that defeated the Arabs in the successful Six Day War in 1967. Weizman had no part in the disastrous decision making  of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1977, Ezer Weizman was a trusted retired air force general. With the memories of the 1973 Yom Kippur war still fresh on everyone’s mind, the public trusted Weizman to prepare the army for the next war.

Having Dayan to his left and Weizman to his right gave Begin the legitimacy and the time he needed to assert himself as a capable prime minister. His decision to appoint Dayan and Weizman was instrumental a year later, when the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat surprised everyone and extended his hand to peace with Israel. Having two moderate leaders to his sides gave Begin the stability he needed to move the peace agreement forward.  

In domestic affairs, Begin redirected priorities, channeling more national resources into development programs such as Project Renewal, which was responsible for the rehabilitation of distressed neighborhoods and development towns. After thirty years of Labor party rule, his party also sought, albeit with little success, to ease centralization and to liberalize the economy. He also intensified the national campaign for the right of Soviet Jews’ repatriation in Israel and he gave the orders for the evacuation of the Ethiopian Jewish community, which only took place some years later.

Prime Minister Begin’s most outstanding achievement was the signing of the Peace Treaty with Egypt. In November 1977, six months after Begin became Prime Minister, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt came to Jerusalem. This visit inaugurated two years of negotiations that culminated in the Camp David Accords, which called for Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai and the establishment of Palestinian autonomy, in exchange for peace and normal relations with Egypt. A Treaty of Peace terminating the state of war between the two countries was signed in 1979. Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat were awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for this achievement.

In the spring of 1982, despite widespread protest in Israel, Begin – who put much store in legal documents – withdrew from Sinai, including the town of Yamit and the other Jewish settlements.

In 1981 Begin ordered the Israel Air Force to destroy the nuclear reactor in Osirak near Baghdad, Iraq, shortly before it was to become operative. The wisdom of this decision and its successful execution, which were condemned by the international community at the time, became fully apparent a decade later – in the 1991 Gulf War. It was another great accomplishment for Begin as a prime minister. The destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 was a risky decision. However, it paid off in two ways: It removed a major threat to Israel’s safety, and it allowed the allied forces to invade Iraq in the First Gulf War in 1991 without fearing an Iraqi nuclear retaliation.

Twice during Begin’s tenure as Prime Minister, military actions were launched in response to Palestinian terrorist acts against Israeli citizens from Lebanese territory: the 1978 “Operation Litani” and the 1982 “Operation Peace for Galilee”. Both operations were aimed at dislodging the PLO from southern Lebanon. The 1982 Operation grew into a protracted conflict with complex ramifications and a considerable number of casualties.

Begin’s political career ended in a disaster during the First Lebanon war. It was during his second term as prime minister after the election of 1981. At this time his defense minister was Ariel Sharon and his minister of foreign affairs was Yitzhak Shamir. This government was much more hawkish. It lacked the moderation and experience of Dayan and Weizman.

On Begin’s  watch, under Ariel Sharon’s military leadership, the IDF entered southern Lebanon to destroy PLO terrorist camps. Christian-Lebanese forces that operated independently,but in coordination of the Israeli army, entered the Palestinian refugee camps and massacred many civilians. The Israeli army was not involved in the massacre, however, as the head of state, Begin was blamed for allowing it to happen. Local and international pressure to accept personal responsibility led to Begin’s resignation. The strains of office, failing health and the death of his wife caused Menachem Begin to resign from his post in September 1983 and to retire to the seclusion of his home. He died in March 1992, at the age of 79.” 

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Menachem Begin’s Quotes:

  • Israel  is still the only country in the world against which there is a written document  to the effect that it must disappear.
  • The Jew bows before no man only God
  • I wish to declare that the Government of Israel will not ask any nation, be it near or far, mighty or small, to recognize our right to exist. The right to exist? It would not enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for his people recognition of its right to exist. Their existence per se is their right to exist. The same holds true for Israel. We were granted our right to exist by the God of our fathers, at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization, nearly four thousand years ago. For that right, which has been sanctified in Jewish blood from generation to generation, we have paid a price unexampled in the annals of the nations.

Related Article:

The war of the Jewish underground in Israel against the British Army 1945-1947

To get to know Begin as a person watch the video below. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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