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Menachem Begin

Menachem Begin

Danielle Zilberberg
Yoram Sharett
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 512
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  • Book Info
    Menachem Begin
    Book Description:

    Menachem Begin, father of Israel's right wing and sixth prime minister of the nation, was known for his unflinchingly hawkish ideology. And yet, in 1979 he signed a groundbreaking peace treaty with Egypt for which he and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat received the Nobel Prize for Peace. Such a contradiction was typical in Begin's life: no other Israeli played as many different, sometimes conflicting, roles as Begin, and no other figure inspired such sharply opposing responses. Begin was belittled and beloved, revered and despised, and his career was punctuated by exhilarating highs on the one hand, despair and ostracism on the other.

    This riveting biography is the first to provide a satisfactory answer to the question, Who was Begin? Based on wide-ranging research among archival documents and on testimonials and interviews with Begin's closest advisers, the book presents a detailed new portrait of the founding leader. Among the many topics the book holds up to new light are Begin's antagonistic relationship with David Ben-Gurion, his controversial role in the 1982 Lebanon War, his unique leadership style, the changes in his ideology over the years, and the mystery behind the total silence he maintained at the end of his career. Through Begin's remarkable life, the book also recounts the history of the right-wing segment of Israeli society, a story essential to understanding the Israel of today.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18903-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-24)

    Ze’ev-Dov, a forty-four-year-old Zionist, froze as he gazed at his twenty-seven-year-old wife, Chasia, who was lying in a hospital bed staring at their newborn baby girl. It was the summer of 1909, at a hospital in Brisk (Brest-Litovsk). Ze’ev-Dov turned away from the young mother, attempting to hide his disappointment. After a silent moment he pulled himself together: “Let’s do it anyway? Let’s name her Herzliya?”

    Chasia, her face pale and her hair tightly pulled back, refused. Despite her apparent weakness, her eyes were adamant. “We will wait for the next time,” she said. Ze’ev-Dov relented, and the eldest daughter...

    (pp. 25-38)

    When World War II broke out, Begin proposed in Beitar headquarters in Poland that a Hebrew youth brigade be established with the help of the Polish Army. The Polish leadership had sympathy for Etzel’s and Beitar’s nationalistic ideas, which had a positive effect on relations between them and the government. However, such positive relations did not influence the Polish leadership in favor of Begin’s proposal. It avoided the issue.¹

    Begin and Aliza, as well as several other members of the Polish Beitar commission, fled Warsaw shortly after this episode for fear of the Nazis. Since then people have claimed that...

    (pp. 39-47)

    The Anders Army was established in the Soviet Union in July 1941 after the country was attacked by Germany.¹ In an agreement signed in London between General Władysław Sikorski, the exiled Polish prime minister, and Ivan Mayski, Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom, it was agreed that a Polish force would be created within the Red Army. This force was named after its commander, General Władysław Anders. The Anders Army had seventy thousand soldiers, including five thousand Jews, most of whom were volunteers. In January 1942, Begin was recruited into one of its four brigades.

    In late 1942 the Anders...

    (pp. 48-80)

    In January 1944, when Begin decided—after serving only three months as Etzel commander, aware of the doubts surrounding his ability to lead the organization—to announce to Etzel headquarters members that he would declare the beginning of a military revolt against the British, it was pouring rain. When he entered the conference room in which the members were waiting, wearing his gray suit, they stood to attention. Military discipline still appealed to him, and even his close associates at Etzel headquarters were instructed to refer to him as “sir.”¹ His face revealed his distress, like someone who had not...

    (pp. 81-105)

    The fact that Begin was a political leader greatly affected the underground from a military aspect. Unlike the commander of Lehi, Begin prohibited Etzel members from carrying weapons outside the framework of their operations, claiming that the benefits of carrying a gun were outweighed by the likelihood that a British police officer would open fire on an armed Etzel member.¹ Similarly, he stuck to the principle of the “open underground”: most Etzel members continued to provide for their families while being active in the organization. It seems that due to this principle many Etzel members were spared incarceration; upon being...

    (pp. 106-145)

    Following the U.N. partition plan for Palestine, the first phase of the War of Independence began—a civil war between the Arabs and the Jews of Palestine. In fighting on a new front against the Arab countries and the Palestinian Arabs, who opposed the partition, Etzel needed capabilities that it had not yet developed, and its two major military operations—seizing Deir Yassin and Jaffa—sparked great controversy.

    In 1948, Deir Yassin was a relatively small Arab village west of Jerusalem, and its residents maintained peaceful neighborly relations with the nearby Jewish communities—despite the occasional times they opened fire...

    (pp. 146-165)

    Begin was rarely absent from the first Knesset, which resided in the Frumin Building on King George Street in Jerusalem. He used to sit casually, with his legs crossed and an expression of disdain on his face for politicians who had never led an underground resistance movement. After four years of solitude in Etzel he enjoyed public exposure. Those who met him were under the impression that he was in high spirits. Herut’s defeat in the first elections had been forgotten. From his seat on the right-hand side of the government’s table he would rise expressively only when he was...

    (pp. 166-183)

    The beginning of negotiations between Israel and West Germany was initiated by a claim filed with the great powers by the Israeli government on March 12, 1951, and ended with the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1965.¹ Relations were achieved despite the fact that Ben Gurion had not sought an agreement with Germany at the beginning of the negotiations. Ben Gurion’s purpose in filing the claim was to make Germany extend economic aid to Israel—which it desperately needed—without evoking a public dialogue about a possible agreement. The funds he sought were referred to...

    (pp. 184-198)

    During September 1955 Egypt tightened its siege on the Straits of Tiran and closed the air space over the Gulf of Aqaba. Furthermore, at the end of the month Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, announced that Egypt was about to sign a large arms deal with Czechoslovakia that would transform the balance of power between Israel and Egypt.¹

    Ben Gurion, who had decided after the closure of the Straits of Tiran to respond with military action, sought the West’s official legitimacy for the operation. In October 1956, after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Ben Gurion convinced the British and the...

    (pp. 199-219)

    In February 1967 Begin was reinstated as party chairman, almost by chance. An inquiry committee established at the request of Begin loyalists found that a slanderous letter against Begin, published in the letters to the editor section inHaaretzand purportedly written by a man named Chaim Amsterdam, was in fact written by one of Tamir’s supporters, Shimshon Rosenbaum.¹ The commission was headed by Bader, who argued that this was an act of deception the likes of which had never been committed in the history of the movement. Begin himself remained silent, but when he was asked to rejoin the...

    (pp. 220-232)

    In January 1970 Begin’s deputy and confidant in Herut, Arie Ben Eliezer, died of cancer. Ben Eliezer was Begin’s close friend; he was the man who had had him discharged from the Anders Army, was responsible for Begin’s appointment as Etzel commander, and was also the one who convinced Begin to return to the political arena after his retirement following the results of the second elections. After Ben Eliezer’s death, Begin had no more old allies. Before the latest election, Begin’s former Etzel deputy, Yaakov Meridor, chose to abandon politics and focus on his shipping company. Begin’s relationship with Bader...

    (pp. 233-247)

    The Yom Kippur War caught the Israeli government by surprise.¹ After August 1, 1970, the designated day for the beginning of a cease-fire in the Suez Canal, the IDF focused on the northern border, and only after the IAF had struck Syrian military targets did the northern front calm down. Because Israel imposed a cease-fire without surrendering its political positions, the leadership thought that it was undefeatable and that the failure of political efforts was primarily an Arab problem. In September 1970, a month after the cease-fire came into effect, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser died, and his deputy, Anwar...

    (pp. 248-258)

    The 1977 election results reflected the influence political disappointment had on the voters, mostly due to repeated conflicts among politicians, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres; reports on corruption in Hamaarach; and the trauma after the war, which weakened the government. Before the elections, Simcha Ehrlich had replaced Elimelech Rimalt as head of the Liberal Party, Weizmann had returned to the political scene after ensuring his economic future, Bader had decided to resign from the Knesset, and Sharon had left the post of prime minister’s adviser on matters of terrorism and returned to the Likud.¹


    (pp. 259-313)

    Not since the days of Ben Gurion had a leader been so loved. The victory breathed new life into Begin. On learning the election results, he gave many interviews and found it hard to conceal his delight.

    “What kind of leadership style will you bring to Israel?” he was asked before moving from his one-bedroom apartment on Rosenbaum St. to the posh Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. “The usual style—a Jewish style,” he replied, with a victor’s composure.¹ Even concerning the future of Israel’s relationship with Germany, Begin hastened to clarify that his actions as prime minister would not...

    (pp. 314-334)

    In the summer of 1979, after he had signed the peace treaty, it seemed as though Begin had reached his summit too early. It soon became clear that the “peace shock” was undermining the government’s stability. Several Likud members, including Geula Cohen and Moshe Shamir, resigned in protest over the treaty and established Hatechiya (the Revival), a secular right-wing party. Dash began to disintegrate because of internal disagreements, and Dash member Meir Amit, the minister of transport, resigned. Even Minister of Trade and Tourism Yigal Horowitz, a Likud member, resigned over his opposition to the agreement. In response, Begin made...

    (pp. 335-347)

    On January 21, 1981, before his designated successor was known, Begin appointed his third finance minister. His decision to give the portfolio to Yoram Aridor, who had been appointed as minister of communications only two weeks before, resulted mainly from the political situation. Although Aridor was the first finance minister with a bachelor’s degree in economics—“an expert” according to Begin—he was appointed mainly because “now we need a political finance minister,” as Eliezer Shostak, the minister of health, told Begin.¹ Aridor had had a great success two weeks before with his first decision as minister of communications. He...

    (pp. 348-362)

    Three months before the 1981 elections, public opinion polls indicated that Hamaarach would defeat the Likud by over 25 percent, yet three weeks before, the polls revealed that the two would most likely end up almost even. Begin did not intend to end his efforts to achieve victory. This time, unlike in the previous elections, in which he was marketed (under the instructions of his advisers and Weizmann) as a moderate, responsible, and mature leader, Begin returned to his methods in Zion Square and lashed out at Hamaarach, the Arabs, and the Gentiles, especially the Germans. He was the prime...

    (pp. 363-407)

    The Lebanese population in the 1980s was made up of Shiites, Sunnis, Christian Maronites and Catholics, Druze, and more than three hundred thousand Palestinian refugees who had no civil rights. Although most Lebanese are Arabs and the predominant language is Arabic, many Lebanese citizens do not tie their personal fate with that of the Arab nation. Maronite Christians, for instance, argue that they are descendants of the Canaanites, Phoenicians, and other peoples who lived in Lebanon before the arrival of the Arabs in the seventh century. Ben Gurion believed that because of the composition of the Lebanese population an alliance...

    (pp. 408-423)

    Even when he had returned home during the days of the commission meetings, Begin could not be comforted. Aliza had developed severe pneumonia, and her condition deteriorated rapidly. She was hospitalized again and again, and Begin spent long hours at her bedside.¹ At home she often had to use a respirator and a wheelchair. Begin found it hard to see the champion of his youth so weak, and her condition affected his ability to conduct meetings. He needed no medical knowledge to understand that the woman he loved, who had given him the strength he had needed to cope with...

    (pp. 424-435)

    Yaakov Meridor did not hesitate for a second before he picked up the phone to call the Prime Minister’s Residence in late 1983. It was after midnight, but he could not resist. It had been almost four decades since he and Begin had served together in Etzel, and he wanted to report to his “commander” about the historical turning point—that their adversary from the days of the Resistance, Yitzhak Shamir, one of the three leaders of Lehi, had been elected to lead the Likud.

    To some extent, Begin and Shamir respected each other. They began their public careers in...

    (pp. 436-446)

    Begin had never liked Sharon. After his resignation as prime minister he still appreciated Sharon’s military contribution to the State of Israel but had reservations about the measures he took to achieve his goals, as well as his lack of commitment to the people around him and to moral values. Begin saw Sharon as an uninhibited manipulator, and when his name came up in conversations, he would point out that when Sharon left the army and entered politics, he joined the Liberal Party because “Sharon was afraid of me. He knew I was strong and preferred to avoid me.”¹ The...

    (pp. 447-452)

    In terms of his impact on the character of Israel, Begin is second in importance only to Ben Gurion. A quarter of a century has passed since he retired from political life, and by all indications he was the last ideological leader of his kind. His style of leadership would be ill-suited for the Israel of today. His ability to captivate crowds, his devotion to duty, the importance that he attached to his principles and to the ideological traditions in which he grew up—all these belong to another time that is unlikely to return. Begin abruptly ended his political...

  27. NOTES
    (pp. 453-520)
    (pp. 521-528)
  29. INDEX
    (pp. 529-546)
  30. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)