Menachem Begin, writer Sidney Zion noted in 1983, was run out of Poland by the Nazis, imprisoned by the Soviets, hunted by the British and nearly murdered by the Jews. To have survived would have been impressive enough. To have flourished- Begin led the first [Jewish nationalist] revolution in nearly 2,000 years [and] signed the first peace treaty in Israeli history- ranks as something of a miracle.
In all his years in opposition- as head of an underground movement denounced by the established Jewish leadership, for nearly three decades as leader of a party that lost eight Knesset elections- Menachem Begin never lost sight of the goal he moved to realize once he finally came to power as Israels sixth prime minister: a proud Jewish people, secure within their own state.
Begin died of heart failure in 1992 at the age of 78. He had wanted a simple Jewish funeral and that is what was held 13 hours after he died at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. He was buried in a simple ceremony on the Mount of Olives, beside his beloved wife, Aliza, who died in 1982.
Begin had rejected the state funeral that was his due as prime minister of Israel from 1977 to 1983. Vice President Dan Quayle was poised to fly to Israel to represent the U.S. government at the ceremonies. So were former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who worked closely with Begin during the Israeli- Egyptian peace process in the late 1970s.
But their trips were canceled.
In Washington, U.S. President George Bush praised Begin for his very courageous, farsighted role: in trying to bring peace to the Middle East. His historic role in the peace process will never be forgotten, Bush told reporters.
While the graveside ceremony for Begin may have been simple, the funeral attracted a crowd of mourners estimated by police at 75,000. Thousands of mourners, many in tears, walked the 2 1/2 miles from the funeral home to the cemetery. A fleet of 50 busses carried others through streets that had been closed to traffic.
The procession made its way through the heart of eastern Jerusalem, as many Arab residents watched silently from roofs, window and sidewalks as it passed by. It almost looks as if theyre paying their respects, too, said a news photographer to a colleague aboard a bus bound for the cemetery.
Why not? said the photographer: Begin gave them more than anyone else. Golda [Meir, former Labour prime minister] said Palestinians dont exist. Begin said he recognized their legitimate rights.
Begins son, Knesset Member Binyamin Zeev Begin, saw to it that his fathers wishes were observed. According to informed sources, he told the governments ceremonies committee, headed by Industry and Trade Minister Moshe Nissim, that the family wanted a Jewish funeral, not an international event.
Nevertheless, at the graveside with Benny Begin and his sisters, Leah and Hassiya, stood President Chaim Herzog of Israel, Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir, Labour Party Chairman Yitzchak Rabin and scores of others representing the many facets of Menachem Begins long and fruitful career. Egyptian Ambassador Mohammed Bassiouni attended, at the urging of President Hosni Mubarak.
Seven of Begins former comrades-in-arms of Irgun Zvei Leumi, the guerrilla army that he led against the British authorities in the final years of the Palestine Mandate, served as pallbearers. They laid his coffin to rest next to the grave of Aliza Begin.
The news of her death reached her husband, then prime minister, while he was on a speaking engagement in the United States. He rushed home distraught. Begin's devotion to his wife was legendary. He never recovered from her loss, which is believed to have been a major factor in his resignation from the office of prime minister and from all public life less than a year later.
Benny Begin recited kaddish at his fathers grave, where he had placed a small, wooden temporary marker. The marker read: Menachem, son of Zeev Begin, may his name be remembered in peace.
Begins loyal friend and longtime personal aide, Yehiel Kadishai, read the El Male Rachamim.
After the family and dignitaries had left the grave, thousands of onlookers broke through the human chain of police to pay their last respects. Some kissed the freshly dug grave, some saluted and others just laid stones on the mound of earth.
Begin had lived a reclusive life since his departure from office nine years ago. But he was frequently hospitalized, twice for a broken hip. His cardiac history antedated his accession to high office. Begin suffered his first heart attack in 1977, the year he led Likud to an upset victory over the long-entrenched Labour Party. After taking office, he was treated for pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac that encloses the heart.
Begin was stricken with his final illness on March 3, 1993 when he collapsed in the suburban Tel Aviv home where he lived with his daughter, Leah. He was rushed unconscious to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, where he was initially diagnosed as having had a stroke. He was placed on a breathing machine in an intensive care unit and regained consciousness after 20 hours in a coma. Doctors had determined by then that he had in fact suffered a heart attack. A pacemaker was implanted in his chest on March 5 to control his irregular heartbeat.
Apart from the medical staff, only his family and his old confidant, Kadishai, were at his bedside during his last days. Border police guards kept the hundreds of well- wishers at bay. Begin died at 3:30 a.m. on Monday. When his death was officially announced, the hospital rabbi recited a brief prayer and the chevra kadisha (burial society) prepared the body for transfer to Jerusalem.
While there were no eulogies at the graveside, apparently at the family's request, Shamir delivered two on Monday- one to the nation on Israel Radio and the other to his ministers at a special session of the cabinet. In both, Shamir, who called his predecessor one of the great men of Jewish history, stressed Begin's ideological heritage, which he said continues to guide Herut and Likud, the parties that he founded on the precepts of Zeev Jabotnisky's Zionist Revisionist movement.
In the spirit of his doctrine and path, we will continue the struggle for the sake of the strengthening of the Jewish people in its land, the prime minister said in his radio speech.
Begin, the son of a Jewish timber merchant in czarist Russia who became Israels sixth prime minister 15 years ago, was a man driven to feats of courage and the depths of despair. His vision was forged from the Holocaust and love for the Jewish people.
He embodied the history of Jews in this century, particularly those whose lot was inextricably interwoven with the birth and continuance of the state of Israel.
He will likely be remembered most for signing Israels first peace treaty with an Arab neighbor, in March 1979. But Begin also will go down in history as the prime minister who led Israel into its first war- t he 1982 invasion of Lebanon- that did not have the universal backing of Israelis.
A native of Brest- Litovsk, he lived to learn that his parents and brother had perished in the flames of the Holocaust. His father was among the 5,000 Brest Jews rounded up by the Nazis at the end of June 1941, ostensibly for forced labor. In fact, they were taken outside the city limits and shot or drowned in a river. His mother died in Brests Jewish hospital, while his brother Herzl perished without a trace in the Holocaust.
The Brest ghetto was liquidated in October 1942.
Begin first joined the Socialist Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. At the age of 16 he embraced the ideas of the Revisionist Zionist Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky and became a member of the Betar Zionist youth movement in Poland.
Begin turned out even more militant than Jabotinsky. He clashed with Jabotinsky at the 1938 Betar convention, demanding its reorientation with the goal of conquest of the homeland by force.
He received a law degree in 1935 from the University of Warsaw and took over the leadership of Betar.
In 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Begin fled to the Soviet Union. He was arrested in September 1940 and charged with espionage. He was taken to a concentration camp in Siberia, where he was sentenced to eight years.
But Soviet authorities freed him in 1941 as part of an accord with the Polish government in exile that allowed for the freeing of some 1.5 million Polish citizens.
Begin then found his sister, the only other survivor of their family, and became active in the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine.
He soon joined the Free Polish Army. The stint took him to Iran and then Palestine. He learned English from listening to BBC Radio. He then served in the British Army in Palestine as an interpreter until 1943.
At that time, he became the leader of the liberation movement Irgun Tzvi Leumi- Etzel- whose means were more violent than the mainstream Haganah, with which he disagreed over how to push the British out of Palestine.
In 1946, under his leadership, the Irgun blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the British were headquartered. Some 90 people- Jews and Arabs, as well as British- were killed, despite warnings that there would be a bombing.
Begins picture, that of a wanted terrorist, was posted in all British prisons and offices in Palestine. The British conducted an extensive manhunt for Begin, who had a price on his head that began at $8,000 but was raised to %50,000. Begin escaped the British dragnet by disguising himself as a bearded Orthodox rabbi.
Begin wrote about his days with the Irgun in The Revolt. He also wrote another book, White Nights, about his time in a Soviet labor camp.
Begin helped found the Herut party in 1948 and was from then to 1967 leader of the opposition in the Knesset. In 1969 he was named minister- without- portfolio in a national unity cabinet.
In 1977, after Israel had lived under the exclusive domain of the Labour Party for nearly three decades, Begins Likud bloc managed, in a stunning election upset, to unseat the veteran party, which was then riddled by dissension and tainted by economic scandal.
A mannered Polish- born lawyer steeped in European culture, he came to be revered in Israel by masses of immigrants from Arab countries whom he led to political power.
Viewed by his enemies in the Zionist establishment as a demagogue and potential putchist, he proved a punctilious parliamentarian who incalculably enriched Israels democratic life.
Begins critics saw him as a narrow- visioned fanatic and dangerous adventurer. But despite the decades he spent on the margin of the political mainstream, Begins impact on Israels first generation was surpassed only by his arch political foe, David Ben-Gurion.
Begin was the first prime minister to refer to the west bank as Judea and Samaria, considering them an integral part of the Land of Israel. No sooner had he been elected than he went off to visit an Israeli settlement in the west bank, Ekon Moreh, and declared it to be part of liberated Israel. It was under his tenure that Jews embarked on the wholesale settlement of the territories.
Begin viewed the Arab states with utmost suspicion over their designs on the Jewish state.
In June 1981, Begin asked the cabinet to approve the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. On Shavuot, Israeli planes flew below radar detection through Arab airspace and destroyed the facility which Israel later claimed had been primed for a start up.
But Begin also came to cherish the role of peacemaker. It was after several visits to the United States and Romania, which was then playing the role of go-between, that Begin decided to extend an invitation to Egypts President Anwar Sadat to come to Jerusalem. The Egyptian leader accepted and made his historic visit in November 1977, the first and only Arab ruler to do so publicly.
The path from Sadat's Knesset podium to the signing of the peace treaty on the White House lawn was a bumpy one.
Begin - as well as many Labourites - resisted Egypt's initial demands for the return of the entire Sinai and for a promise of autonomy to the Palestinians of the west bank and Gaza Strip. And when, after 12 arduous days of negotiations at Camp David, Begin presented the peace treaty to the Knesset, only 29 of Likuds 43 representatives were among the majority that approved the accords.
In 1978, Begin and Sadat were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. Only Begin went to Oslo that December to accept the prize.
Begin deeply valued his friendship with Sadat. When the Egyptian leader was assassinated by Moslem fundamentalists in October 1981, Begin went to Cairo and walked to the funeral, which was held on a Saturday.
But Begin's name also become synonymous with the invasion of Lebanon, beginning a war that would cause a sharp rift in the country. The invasion was staged to rake out Palestinian terrorists in Southern Lebanon who had been shelling Israels north. But it soon escalated to an invasion of Beirut itself, Israels first incursion into an Arab capital.
In 1983, as the Israeli public was experiencing a deep division over the war, Begin called on Israelis to show tolerance, rid themselves of hatred and show understanding of each other. He said that differences of opinion were legitimate and should not lead to physical confrontation.
His statement was the closest he came to denouncing violence that led to the killing, by right- wing Jewish demonstrators, of Emil Grunzweig, a Peace Now protester of the Lebanon ear.
Begin was deeply troubled by the high death toll from the war. He suffered a further crushing blow when his wife, Aliza, died in November 1982.
In September 1983, Begin stepped down as prime minister, saying he could go on no longer. He spent the final decade of his life living with his daughter in almost total recluse, and visited only by a small circle of friends.
Thereafter, the few times Begin presented himself in public, he looked pale and frail. It was sharp contrast from the image of the great Likud leader who called out at the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt: No more war.No more bloodshed. No more tears. Peace unto you. Shalom.
Adapted from an obituary for Menachem Begin ob'm
More Begin Info
Menachem Begin - Profile
Menachem Begin Winner of the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize
Begin on The Voice of Fighting Zion radio May 15, 1948
World Likud Leaders