A fascinating biography of the sixth prime minister of Israel that explains how the pre-state terrorist became the first Israeli leader to sign a peace treaty with an Arab country.
Reviled as a fascist demagogue by his great rival Ben-Gurion, venerated by Israel’s underclass, the first Israeli to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a proud Jew but not a conventionally religious one, Menachem Begin was a complex and controversial figure. Born in Poland in 1913, Begin was a youthful admirer of the Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and soon became a leader within Jabotinsky’s Betar movement. A powerful orator and mesmerizing public figure, Begin was imprisoned by the Soviets in 1940, joined the Free Polish Army in 1942, and arrived in Palestine as a Polish soldier shortly thereafter. Joining the underground paramilitary Irgun in 1944 [actually 1943, if not earlier], he achieved instant notoriety for the organization’s devastating bombings of British military installations and other violent acts.
Intentionally left out of the newly established Israeli government, Begin’s right-leaning Herut political party became a fixture of the opposition to the Labor-dominated governments of Ben-Gurion and his successors, until the surprising parliamentary victory of his political coalition in 1977 made him prime minister of Israel. Welcoming Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel and co-signing a peace treaty with him on the White House lawn in 1979, Begin accomplished what his predecessors could not. His welcoming of Ethiopian Jews and Vietnamese “boat people” was universally admired, and his decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 is now regarded as an act of courageous foresight. But the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to end the PLO’s shelling of Israel’s northern cities, combined with the aftereffects of a debilitating stroke and the death of his wife, led Begin to resign in 1983. He spent the next nine years in virtual seclusion, until his death in 1992. Begin was buried not alongside Israel’s prime ministers, but alongside the Irgun comrades who died in the struggle to create the Jewish national home to which he had devoted his life.