Menachem Begin was the sixth Prime Minister of Israel (from 1977 to 1983). He was also the recipient of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, for their achievement of signing a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
Early life, education and military career
Begin was born in Brest, Belarus (which was then Brest-Litovsk in the Russian Empire) on August 16, 1913. His Polish birth name was “Mieczysław Biegun.” Begin’s timber merchant father was a passionate Zionist and an admirer of the modern Zionist member, Theodor Herzl. His mother came from a family of distinguished rabbis.
Begin studied law at the University of Warsaw, where he received his degree in 1935.
It is no wonder that Begin was a passionate Zionist early on. He was educated in schools associated with the Zionist movement and subsequently joined several Zionist youth movements. In 1938, he joined the Polish branch of the Betar youth movement, which was dedicated to the establishment of an independent Jewish state (which would become Israel) on both sides of the Jordan River.
When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939 (which would spark World War II), Begin escaped to present-day Vilnius (Wilno). His parents and brother died in concentration camps. He was arrested by the Soviet authorities and was sentenced to eight years in the gulag (forced labor camps). But because Begin was a Polish national, he was released in 1941. He subsequently joined the Polish army in exile, with which he was later sent to Palestine in 1942.
Begin left the Polish army and joined the Zionist military group Irgun, of which he became a commander from 1943 to 1949. Following Israel’s independence in 1948, the Irgun became a part of the Freedom (Herut) party, with Begin as its head and the opposition leader in the Israeli parliament (Knesset), a position he held until 1967. During the 1950s, Begin vehemently opposed Israel’s acceptance of reparations from Germany for the Nazi crimes during the Holocaust.
In 1967, Begin joined the National Unity government (under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol) as a minister without portfolio, which he held for three years. In 1973, he and Ariel Sharon (who would be 11th Prime Minister of Israel) founded the Likud Party, becoming its joint chairperson.
As Prime Minister of Israel
In May 1977, the Likud Party, headed by Begin, won the national legislative elections by a landslide, and in the following June, Begin formed Israel’s 18th government.
As Israel’s new Prime Minister, Begin helped initiate the peace process with Egypt, resulting in Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which he signed with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. For Begin’s and Sadat’s efforts, they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.
Begin invested national resources in national programs for Israel’s more impoverished neighborhoods and sought to liberalize the country’s economy.
In 1981, Begin ordered the bombing of an Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, where the Iraqi regime was developing nuclear weapons. The operation, called Operation Opera, became successful. But because of this, Israel was roundly criticized and condemned by the other countries at that time. However, it became apparent during the Gulf War in the early 1990s that Israel had succeeded in preventing Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction.
In 1982, his government gave a go-signal to the Israel Defense Forces to invade Lebanon in an effort to oust the Palestinian Labor Organization (PLO) and its political and military bases in southern Lebanon, sparking the 1982 Lebanon War. While Israel successfully expelled the PLO from Lebanon, the action was met with scathing criticism from the international community after hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed. The war also ultimately failed in bringing security to Israel’s northern border and creating stability in Lebanon.
Resignation, death, and legacy
The mounting tensions between Israel and Lebanon and the death of Begin’s wife Aliza in 1982 were probably the factors of his resignation as Prime Minister in October 1983.
Following his retirement from active politics, Begin gradually withdrew from public life, spending the rest of his years in seclusion at his apartment overlooking the Jerusalem Forest. Begin was only seen in public when he would attend memorials for his wife or weddings of his grandchildren. He was still a considerable force in the Likud party, which he used to influence it behind the scenes.
On March 9, 1992, Begin died in Tel Aviv, aged 78. He is now interred in the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, next to the tomb of his wife.
Menachem Begin was the first-ever Israeli Prime Minister to come from the political “right.” His government promoted the creation and development of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In a rare interview during his retirement years, Begin said that the Gulf War, particularly the Iraqi Scud missile bombardment on Israel during that war, vindicated his decision to bomb the nuclear reactor.
Probably Begin’s best-known legacy was signing the peace treaty with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat. The event took place in Washington D.C. in the United States, in 1979, with U.S. President Jimmy Carter as the witness. Peace between Egypt and Israel has lasted since the treaty took effect.