Menachem Begin was born in 1913 and died in 1992. Though seen as a hard-liner, Menachem Begin, along with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, started a peace initiative between Israel and Egypt that could have transformed the Middle East. It led to the talks at Camp David, America, in 1978 for which both men received world-wide praise.
Begin was born in 1913 in Brest Litovsk, in Russia . A Zionist from an early age, he became a lawyer after graduating with a law degree from the University of Warsaw in Poland. While in Poland, he gained a reputation for administrative and leadership skills and became head of Betar Poland – an organisation that was created to defend Polish Jews.
When the Germans occupied Poland in September 1939, Begin went to Lithuania where he believed he would be safe. However, in 1940, Begin was arrested by the NKVD and sent to a labour camp in Siberia. After the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, Begin was set free because he was a Polish national. He joined the Free Polish Army.
Both his parents were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust – something that was to deeply influence him and his decisions as a politician.
In 1942 he went to Palestine ostensibly to train with the Free Polish Army. In fact, Begin joined Irgun – a group identified by the British as a terrorist organisation. Begin quickly became its leader. During World War Two, Begin organised attacks against the British and Palestinians. This was considered an act of treachery at a time when Britain was experiencing difficulties in North Afrika against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Begin was put on a ‘wanted’ list by the British for terrorist activities.
After the end of the war, Irgun continued its attacks, especially after the British authorities in Palestine vigorously stopped Jewish European refugees from illegally entering Palestine. Violence reached an obvious peak with the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. Irgun was held responsible for this though Begin claimed that he and the organisation had sent out three warnings as to what they were going to do in an effort to minimise casualties.
When Israel was created as a nation-state in 1948, David Ben-Gurion needed to feel that he had complete control over the nation. He made Haganah the effective Israeli army – but this meant that he could not tolerate the existence of Irgun within Israel. For this reason, Ben-Gurion arrested the leadership of armed gangs but absorbed many of the ‘foot soldiers’ into the Israeli army.
Begin disbanded Irgun and turned to legitimate politics. Begin lead the Herut Party. This party was merged with the liberals to form Gahal that, in turn, became the Likud Party.
The 1967 Six Day War led to Israel getting a National Unity Government which meant that Begin was brought into Israel’s cabinet for the first time.
He was seen as a hard line politician. In 1970, when Egypt’s Nasser called for a cease fire across the Suez Canal, Begin said that it should only be accepted if Nasser signed a treaty that recognised the existence of Israel.
In 1977, he succeeded as Israel’s Prime Minister – a position he held until 1983. Israel had survived the Yom Kippur War of 1973, but certain political sections both in Israel and Egypt (seen as the premier Arab nation) now looked for a diplomatic solution to the Middle East problems. By now, Begin was somewhat sympathetic to a diplomatic solution but he also believed in the use of force to protect Israel. While he was willing to work with Egypt to protect Israel’s western border, Begin was not willing to tolerate the existence of PLO camps near to Israel and used the military to attack them. In 1982, he initiated Operation Peace for Galilee which was designed to clear terrorists from Israel’s northern border.
He was also willing to use force to defend Israel against a perceived attack. In 1981, he ordered the Israeli air force to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor based at Osirak. Begin was roundly condemned throughout the world but he defended his action by saying:
|“A million and half children were poisoned by the Zyklon gas during the Holocaust. Now Israel’s children were about to be poisoned by radioactivity. For two years we have lived in the shadow if the danger awaiting Israel from nuclear reactor in Iraq. This would have been a new Holocaust . It was prevented by heroism of our pilots to whom we owe so much.”
Menachem Begin resigned from politics in 1983 shortly his wife, Aliza, died. He lived in seclusion until his death in 1992. Menachem Begin is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.