Begin's Noble Aim For Peace
BY MICHAEL MINK
Nobody could doubt Menachem Begin's commitment to his cause: Jews and Israel.
Of all the country's leaders, he seemed the least likely to compromise for peace. Nobody was more of a hawkish hard-liner in the Israeli government than Begin, as life experiences shaped his worldview.
He was born in 1913 into the anti-Semitism of Brest-Litovsk, Poland. He endured the pogroms of the 1930s, when locals attacked Jewish communities. He then lost his parents and a brother to the Nazi death camps amid the Holocaust.
He said in "Menachem Begin" by Richard Amdur: "There are times when everything in you cries out; your very self-respect as a human being lies in your resistance to evil."
He was no stranger to armed conflict. In 1943, Begin became commander of the Irgun, the underground Jewish army. Its aim was to drive Britain's military from Palestine on the path to building Israel.
During his career as an Israeli politician, Begin displayed "an uncompromising belief and deep care to many citizens that were neglected throughout the years," Eitan Haber, an Israeli military affairs expert and Begin biographer, told IBD.
*Grasping The Prize*
After 30 years of war had taken 80,000 Egyptian and 14,000 Israeli lives, Prime Minister Begin made peace with Egypt when the chance came in the form of its president, Anwar Sadat. Begin, with his hard-line resume, had the credentials to pursue Sadat's overtures.
For becoming the first Israeli leader to sign a peace treaty between his country and an Arab one, Begin shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize with Sadat.
Three years later, radical Muslims assassinated Sadat. Begin died of natural causes in 1992 at age 79.
Jehan Sadat, widow of the Egyptian, told IBD that "despite obvious differences, Begin and Sadat had much in common: Both had resisted and fought against British occupation, (both) made tremendous sacrifices for independence and spent time in prison and labor camps for their cause. Both were courageous leaders, patriots and soldiers who had waged wars long before each began to work together for peace."
The first great influence in young Begin's life was his father, Ze'ev Dov. He instilled in his son the dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, along with strict adherence to his Jewish religion.
"From my early youth, I had been taught by my father, who went to his death at Nazi hands voicing his faith in God and singing 'Hatikvah,' that we Jews were to return to the land of Israel — not go, travel or come, but return," Begin said in "Menachem Begin," by Virginia Brackett.
Begin's dad also set an example for his son when it came to standing up to everyday injustices. Growing up in a hotbed of anti-Semitism, Begin and his friends faced daily harassment from Polish students. They fought to maintain their dignity.
"When we were attacked we would defend ourselves," Begin recalled. "We never consented to bow down and flee. We would return home bloody and beaten, but always with the awareness that we had not been humiliated."
Begin wasted little time jumping into politics. He joined the Zionist Revisionist movement, called Betar, at age 15 and headed up the Polish branch of the movement at 25.
Begin was willing to put his freedom and life on the line for his principles. He was imprisoned by Polish police for organizing a demonstration near the British Embassy in Warsaw to protest the treatment of Jews during the Palestine riots of 1936-38. He helped European and Polish Jews emigrate to Palestine to flee persecution.
In 1940, Soviet authorities arrested him in Vilna, Lithuania, for his Zionist activities and shipped him off to Siberia. In prison, Begin's resolve stayed strong. He refused to confess to crimes he didn't commit, even under psychological and physical abuse by his captors.
He was released in 1941 because he was a Polish citizen and could join the country's free army to fight the Germans.
The next year the army sent him to Palestine, then held by the British, and he served there until his release in 1944.
Staying in Palestine, Begin picked up his political activism through guerilla warfare as the commander of the Irgun.
In 1946, the Irgun blew up Jerusalem's King David Hotel, which was British headquarters. Included in the 91 killed were Britons, Arabs and Jews. Haber writes that the Irgun made three warning calls to the hotel, but the British ignored them. After the carnage, many blamed Begin, and the British put a $50,000 bounty on his head.
Begin survived and saw his dream come true with the founding of Israel in 1948. The Irgun turned into the Herut political party, and he became its powerful spokesman.
After resigning from a Cabinet post in 1969 in protest of a U.S.-Arab-Israeli peace plan, he founded the Likud Party, even more hard line than Herut.
By 1977 the party, with its hard-line security position and opposition to giving up territory Israel had won in the Six-Day War, struck a chord with Israelis and Begin was elected prime minister that May.
"Begin had lost seven elections in the period of about 30 years, but did not let go and believed all these years in the rightness of his way," Haber said.
Begin, who was in his 60s, proved that he wasn't locked into his refusal to deal at a peace table with Arabs.
Haber said Begin "changed his mind in regards to the peace with the Arabs issue. . . . In all the years Begin was in the opposition, it was said about him that if he took government, there will be a war. He was depicted as an
Arab-hater all the years. When he met the rare opportunity of peace making, he jumped on that carriage and savored the embarrassment that was caused to his opponents."
With the Yom Kippur War having raged in 1973, Begin spoke out in an attempt to stop more killing. He quickly invited King Hussein of Jordan, President Hafez Assad of Syria and Sadat to meet with him.
"Too much Jewish and Arab blood has been shed in this region," Begin said in a speech to the Knesset, Israel's legislature.
Recognizing a Sadat overture, Begin arranged for secret talks between his foreign minister and the Egyptians. That led to an invitation for Sadat to speak at the Knesset.
"May I assure you, Mr. President, that the parliament, the government and the people of Israel will receive you with respect and cordiality." Begin said in a message to Sadat.
Sadat answered with his historic speech in November 1977.
*On To Maryland*
Coming to the particulars of peace wasn't easy for Begin when the two met at Camp David in Maryland's mountains the following year to hammer out a peace plan.
"While Prime Minister Begin wanted to analyze and debate every detail, President Sadat wanted to discuss and agree upon the general issues, thus leaving the details for his ministers," Jehan Sadat said.
President Carter, who brokered the talks, observed that Begin was "an extremely courageous man who made decisions for the well-being of Mideast peace that sometimes were in contravention of his long-standing political alignments."
The result was a peace framework between Egypt and Israel. Begin and Sadat also agreed to negotiate over an Arab self-governing authority on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
After Sadat's murder in 1981, Begin joined the funeral march in Cairo during the Jewish Sabbath.