Menachem Begin (1913-1992) was one of the Irgun's most revered commanders in the years prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.
As head of the Likud, he served as the first right-wing prime minister in Israel from 1977 to 1982; and was one of the architects of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel – the first between the Jewish nation and any of its Arab neighbors. Begin negotiated the Camp David Accord with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, for which they jointly received the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.
Menachem Wolfovich Begin was born in Brest-Litovsk, a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics' city which today is part of Belarus. An ardent Zionist, he joined Ze'ev Jabotinsky's Betar youth movement at the age of 16 and quickly rose to positions of leadership. By 1936, he was in charge of Betar Czechoslovakia and two years later he became head of Betar Poland, which had 100,000 members and trained to defend the Jews of Poland, as well as transport illegal immigrants to Israel. During that time he met and married Aliza Arnold.
With the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Begin and his wife fled to Vilna. In 1940, the Soviets arrested Begin on charges of espionage and imprisoned him in Siberia. After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he was set free and being a Polish citizen he enlisted in the Polish army. In 1942, his company arrived in British-ruled Palestine for training. Begin left the army, joined the National Military Organization in the Land of Israel – dubbed "the Irgun" – and quickly rose up its ranks, becoming its commander by the end of 1943, and making the British authorities' most wanted list in the process.
With Yitzhak Rabin, 1977 (Archive photo: GPO)
Begin was instrumental in planning the Jewish uprising against the British authorities, which began in 1944 and continued until late 1947. He ordered and commanded many of the Irgun's operations, including the 1946 bombing of the British Military Headquarters at King David's Hotel in Jerusalem, in which 90 people were killed, many of them civilians.
June of 1948 saw Begin aboard the Altalena cruiser, which while making its way to Israel's shores loaded with Irgun combatants and military equipment, was bombarded by their Hagana rivals. Begin forbade his people to return fire, effectively preventing a war between the Jewish factions.
After the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces were established in 1948, Begin disbanded the Irgun and formed the Herut ("liberty") Party. The party won 14 Knesset seats in Israel's first-ever elections, prompting Begin to head the opposition to the David Ben-Gurion's government.
In 1952 he led an unsuccessful fight against Israel accepting German reparations for the Holocaust. Many oh his supporters marched on Jerusalem and in a rally held before the Knesset plaza, Begin called for violent public resistance to the restitution plan. The rally soon turned violent, resulting in dozens of wounded police officers. Following the riot, the Knesset suspended Begin for three months and both he and Herut were banned from the coalition. The party remained a part of the opposition until 1967.
In 1965, Begin's Herut party merged with the Liberals and formed the Herut-Liberals Bloc, otherwise known as Gahal, which would eventually be used as the basis for today's Likud party. In 1967 and as part of the government's attempt to weather through stormy political times, Begin's party was finally inducted into the coalition, and he was name minister without portfolio Levi Eshkol.
In 1973 Begin formed the Likud. In 1977, Begin was elected prime minister, in an upset victory over Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres. It was the first time since the inception of Israel that the Left was ousted from the country's leadership.
Signing the Israel-Egypt Accord. With US President Jimmy Carter and Egypt's Anwar Sadat, 1978 (Archive photo: GPO)
In November of 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historical visit to Israel, igniting the peace process between Israel and Egypt. In 1978, in Camp David, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty – the first between Israel and any Arab state. Both Begin and Sadat were awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
Other landmarks of Begin's tenure included the 1981 bombing of the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as part of Operation Peace for the Galilee. What began as a response to PLO terror attacks from across the northern border, turned into a 22-year Israeli military campaign in Lebanon.
In August 1983, Begin resigned his premiership, but gave no reason for his decision. He retired from the political life completely and was rarely seen in public since. Menachem Begin died on March 9, 1992.