• U.S.

Four Who Also Shaped Events: Paying a High Price for Questionable Gains

4 minute read

If a single idea has dominated the thinking of Menachem Begin, it is his longstanding dream of restoring Eretz Yisrael, the biblical land that takes in not only the present-day Jewish state but also the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. In the pursuit of that dream, Begin got Israel into the most controversial war in its history and raised tensions between the U.S. and Israeli governments to a level unprecedented in more than a quarter of a century. Yet that did not diminish the stubborn Prime Minister’s resolve. “No one will set for us the borders of Eretz Yisrael,” he shouted in the Knesset after President Reagan proposed in September that the West Bank should in the future be linked to Jordan. Using the biblical names for the occupied territory, as he always does, Begin thundered: “Judea and Samaria belong to the Jewish people for all generations.”

The Israeli leader, who is a product of Nazi persecution, Soviet imprisonment as well as the Zionist struggle for an independent homeland, demonstrated in 1982 that he is both a man of peace and a man of war. In April, fulfilling one of its obligations under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Israel removed its soldiers and settlers from the Sinai and returned the last of the territory to Egyptian sovereignty. Scarcely six weeks later, Begin and his Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, sent the Israeli army into southern Lebanon, supposedly with the limited aim of dealing a fast, deadly blow to Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas who were in a position to shell villages in northern Israel. Had Begin held to his initial, publicly stated objective of removing the P.L.O. from a 28-mile zone along the Israeli-Lebanese border, the invasion would have been hailed at home, and among Israel’s remaining friends, as a great success.

Instead, he carried the war to the Lebanese capital. Israeli forces moved into the Christian sector of Beirut. They bombed Muslim-dominated West Beirut for most of the summer, contending that they were merely trying to flush P.L.O. guerrillas out of densely populated civilian areas. In what Begin called a “great, huge blow” to the P.L.O., the Israelis succeeded in driving more than 11,000 Palestinian fighters out of Lebanon, but at a terrible price: 462 Israeli soldiers had been killed, 2,218 had been wounded, and Israel remained caught in a military adventure that was tarnishing the nation’s image around the world.

Obsessed as he is with the righteousness of his cause, Begin did not see it that way. In September, when Israelis learned about the massacre by Lebanese Christians of an estimated 800 Palestinians in two Beirut refugee camps, they reacted with anger and astonishment. Political leaders, including President Yitzhak Navon, demanded a formal investigation of the role that the Israeli army had played in allowing the Christian militiamen into the camps. In Tel Aviv, a mass rally of 400,000 Israelis, an extraordinarily large crowd for so small a country, protested Begin’s refusal to launch an official inquiry. In his defense, the Prime Minister accused his country’s critics abroad of committing a “blood libel” against Israel, and added, “Goyim kill goyim, and they come to hang the Jews.”

At times, Begin, 69, seemed surprisingly out of touch. Although he finally gave in to pressure to appoint a commission of inquiry, he said that he did not learn of the Beirut massacre until almost 48 hours after the killing had begun. But he appears to be as tough and stubborn as ever; neither his chronic poor health nor the death in November of his beloved wife, Aliza, has led him toward any public thoughts of retirement. Nor does the Israeli electorate want him to retire. According to the latest polls, Begin still enjoys the support of 47.8% of his countrymen. This is down from 54% last August, but far ahead of the standing of any prospective challenger.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com