Early life Menachem Begin was born in Brest- Litovsk on August 16, 1913. As a child, he had to escape with his family to evade the fighting between German and Russian forces in World War I. A dedicated Zionist at a young age, Begin joined Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky’s Betar youth movement when he was in his teens, and advanced quickly to significant executive and leadership positions.
Plaque on Begin’s birth home
Early career By 1936, Begin was put in charge of Betar Czechoslovakia; just two years later, he was promoted to the head of Betar Poland, on organization of 100,000 affiliates, which was involved in weapons training to protect Polish Jewry, preparation and transportation of “illegal” immigrants to Palestine, agricultural training, and communications. In 1940, Begin was jailed in Siberian labor camps by the NKVD Soviet secret police (a predecessor of the KGB). After the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, he was released because he was a Polish citizen, joining the Free Polish Army, which made it to British occupied Palestine for training, in 1943.
Free Polish Army in the Middle East, 1941-1943
Early career – cont. Contacting the latent Jewish underground Irgun Zvai Leumi (“Irgun” or |“Etzel”), Begin went on to prepare a Jewish revolt against the British authorities, going against the Zionist association’s policy of collaboration with the British during the war. The revolt was organized to object to Britain’s continuing outlaw on Jewish migration to Palestine; that outlaw started in 1944, but it went up in pace and scope right after World War II ended and did not end until late 1947. Begin ordered many of the Irgun’s maneuvers, such as the Akko prison escape and the annihilation of the King David Hotel’s central British administrative offices.
Early political career, 1948-1977 In 1948, the Irgun, under Begin’s leadership, made an effort to bring a shipload of weapons, the Altalena, into Israel, and armed the Irgun as a separate fighting army. Labor Zionist leaders were suspicious that the Irgun were going to launch a coup. On the orders of David Ben-Gurion, the Altalena was sunk; Begin reluctantly broke the coup up. In the 1950s, he led the movement opposed to accepting German reparations for the Nazi Holocaust. From 1948-1977, he was the leader of Israel’s opposition; he was a fiery and hyperbolical speaker both in the Knesset and in public fora. The Herut party was tiny and isolated in Israeli politics, and was seen as extreme right-wing. David Ben-Gurion, Begin’s political foe, was unwilling to collaborate with them, and the resentment over the Altalena was never forgotten.
Begin speaking at a rally in Tel Aviv against the AppropriationsAgreement with Germany, February 25, 1952
Early political career, 1948-1977 – cont. In 1965, Begin combined his Herut party with the Liberals to found Gahal, later to serve as the establishment of the Likud Party. The disaster atmosphere in 1967 before the Six-Day War set up a National Unity Government, bringing Begin and other leaders of Gahal to the cabinet table. The National Unity Government remained until 1970, when Begin suggested that Israel condition Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s expansion of the cease-fire across the Suez Canal on the signing of a peace treaty that would recognize Israel.
PM of Israel, 1977-1983 In 1977, Begin was elected PM of Israel. As premier, he surprised many when he participated in the peace procedure with Egypt, which led to the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. He spent national reserves in development programs for Israel’s poorer neighborhoods and wanted to liberalize the Israeli economy. Rapid liberalization soon led to unstoppable inflation, which went away only after he departed from office. He also greatly spread out the settlement venture in the West Bank.
Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, 1979
PM of Israel, 1977-1983 – cont. In 1981, Begin activated IAF contingency plans from past administrations, calling for a bombing of the French-built Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, where the Saddam Hussein régime was building nuclear arms. While Israel was denounced by the global community at that time, it already became clear during the 1991 Gulf War that the Israeli approach was successful in foiling Baghdad’s manufacturing of nuclear arms. In 1982, in response to constant acts of Palestinian Liberation Organization terror, Israel commenced Operation Peace for Galilee to eliminate the terrorist danger from Israel’s northern border. During Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, Christian armed forces entered the Sabra and Shatila immigrant camps and killed Palestinian Arab civilians in large numbers. Begin was reported to be extremely distressed over the war with Lebanon and alleged that Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon had concealed information from him. His decision to motivate Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel later led to Operation Moses; this brought thousands en masse to Israel early in the 1980s.
Resignation, final years, anddeath, 1983-1992 After his wife Aliza died in the winter of 1982, Begin resigned as PM the following year. He spent his last years in isolation; he only made public appearances at memorials for his wife or at his grandchildren’s weddings. Menachem Begin died on March 9, 1992, at the age of 78; he was laid to rest on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.