EVERYONE AGREED THAT ISRAEL’S MENACHEM Begin could be a difficult man. Ronald Reagan called him “uncompromising” and “combative,” and Jimmy Carter joked that one nice thing about losing the 1980 presidential race was that he wouldn’t have to deal with Begin anymore.
But his passionate determination helped make Begin, who died last week after a heart attack at the age of 78, one of the postwar era’s most formidable leaders. During Israel’s struggle for independence in the mid-1940s, he led a terrorist organization that launched bloody attacks on both British officials and Arab civilians. As Israeli Prime Minister from 1977 to 1983, he began the controversial policy of spreading Jewish settlements throughout the occupied West Bank. “I survived 10 wars, two world wars, Soviet concentration camp, five years in the underground as a hunted man and 26 years in opposition in the [Israeli] parliament,” he told an interviewer in 1982. “Twenty-six years, never losing faith in a cause.”
Born in what was then Russian-ruled Poland, Begin had an old-world formality, usually wearing a coat and tie in a country of open-necked shirts. But underneath was a quick wit; asked once for the greatest accomplishment of Jews, he replied, “The day of rest.”
His reputation as a ferocious patriot helped Begin placate critics when in 1977 he did the unthinkable: He invited Egypt’s Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem—a trip that would lead to both winning the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. With Carter’s help at Camp David, Begin and Sadat negotiated a return of the Sinai to Egypt—Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab country.
In June 1982 Begin led his country into an ugly war. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon led to more than 650 Israeli deaths and an estimated 19,000 Arab fatalities. Criticism of Begin intensified when Lebanese Christians entered two refugee camps in Israeli-held territory and massacred hundreds of Palestinians. Soon after, Aliza, his beloved wife of 43 years, died. Begin was away at the time. “I shall never, never forgive myself for leaving her bedside,” he said.
Her death seemed to end his life as well. In August 1983, he resigned from office, saying only “I can go on no longer,” and began living with his daughter Leah in Jerusalem. He became a virtual recluse, seeing only his other children, daughter Hassia and son Benjamin, and a few close friends. He was rarely seen in public, except for visits to his wife’s grave. He was buried beside her on the day he died. “I want,” he once said, “to be remembered as the man who set the borders of the land of Israel for eternity.”