Profile: Menachem Begin

The former Israeli prime minister shares a Nobel Peace Prize with his Egyptian counterpart.

Menachem Begin
Begin, left, held intense negotiations with Carter, centre, and Sadat in 1978 [GETTY]

Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel, shares a Nobel Peace Prize with Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian president, and Jimmy Carter, the then-US president, for successfully negotiating the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in March 1979.

The treaty came about through often strained negotiations at Camp David, Maryland in 1978; Begin and Sadat were constantly at odds, especially over the issue of Israeli settlements in the Sinai Peninsula which Israel had seized from Egypt during the 1967 Six Day War.

As Begin would later describe them, the negotiations were “in deep crisis.”

Begin’s refusal to negotiate the status of the West Bank or the legality of settlements there and instead focus only on a treaty with Egypt diminished chances of any hopes of a comprehensive regional peace deal.

In September 1978, Begin and Sadat agreed to the land-for-peace formula: Israel relinquished control of the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for Egypt’s full diplomatic recognition of Israel.

Through this deal, Egypt became the first Arab country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

In 1983, Begin resigned his premiership after mounting domestic pressure in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

Begin passed away in 1992 in Tel Aviv after spending the last decade of his life in seclusion.

Immigration to Palestine

Born in Brest-Litvosk, Byelorussia in 1913, Begin’s family fled to Warsaw to escape the fighting between Russia and Germany during the First World War.

In 1929, he joined Betar, a Zionist revisionist youth movement and began to criticise the British administration of Palestine; he would later become involved in the illegal smuggling of Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

Begin graduated from the University of Warsaw in 1935. He escaped to Lithuania in 1939 after the Nazi German invasion of Poland. He was arrested by Soviet secret police in 1940 and imprisoned until his release in 1941.

He joined the Polish army and was stationed in Palestine and in 1943 he was asked to join the Irgun, a militant Zionist group.

He criticised the Zionist leadership being too co-operative with British colonialist policies and also supported guerrilla tactics against them. Begin became leader of the Irgun in 1944 and the campaign against the British occupiers in Palestine increased in scope.

The Irgun were notorious for their guerrilla warfare tactics, and Begin was responsible for ordering many of their operations, including the infamous bombing of the King David Hotel – the British administrative centre in Palestine – which killed 91 people in July 1946.

Such actions by the group were condemned by leading world figures including Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein.

During the al-Nakba (the “catastrophe” in Arabic) which began in 1947, also known as Israel’s “war for independence,” the Irgun was at the forefront of attacks on the native Palestinian population, including the massacre at Deir Yassin, killing at least 100 civilians.

After the formation of the Israeli state in May 1948, Begin disbanded the Irgun and pursued a life of politics.

Parliamentarian to prime minister

Begin and the other Irgun leaders formed the right-wing political party Herut. In the first Israeli elections held in 1949, they won 14 seats in the Knesset.

Prominent Jewish-Americans such as Einstein and Hannah Arendt wrote an open letter to the New York Times on December 2, 1948, describing Begin’s Herut party as “a political party closely akin in its organisation, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.”

In 1965, the Herut and the Liberal party merged to form Gahal, which Begin continued to lead until 1973, when multiple right-wing parties—including Gahal—combined to create the Likud party.

During his time as a parliamentarian, Begin was widely known for being a provocative speaker, and was blamed for violent riots in Jerusalem after he led a demonstration calling for the overthrow of the government after negotiating reparations with Germany.

Begin remained the opposition leader in Israeli politics up until 1977 when he was elected prime minister, dethroning, for the first time, the left-wing political domination in Israel.

Peace with Egypt

Although the Camp David Accords solidified Begin’s role as a popular leader in Israel, his own Likud party fiercely opposed the negotiations with Egypt and the removing of settlements from the Sinai.

Despite stipulations in the Camp David Accords calling for a framework toward establishing a Palestinian state, Begin increased settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza.

It is estimated that the Jewish population in the West Bank quadrupled during his tenure as prime minister.

Source: Al Jazeera