MENAHEM BEGIN is political curiosity: a man who had to outlive his fame in order to be elected leader of his country. Yet he has brought the same guiding principles, intact and unbend, across the decades from NKVD prisons and anti-British terrorists cells to the office of Isreal's prime minister, where they now can complicate the peace initiatives of Anwar Sadat and the grand designs of Jimmy Carter.
In the mid-1940s, Begin, considered "terrorist number one" by the British, who administered Palestine with much the same flavor as the Isrealis do the occupied the Arab territories, headed the most competent and brutal of the Jewish guerilla organizations. At one point, the British offered $150,000 for his capture.
When Isreal gained independence in May 1948, Begin emerged from layers of aliases to take an open role in politics. But it was not for nearly 30 years that he was able, in 1977, to achieve his goal: election as prime minister of Isreal. by that Ezer Weizman, then campaign manager for Begin's Likud party and now defense minister, had concluded, according to Eitan Haber's account, "that the young voters had no memory of the old Menahem Begin." This allowed Begin to consentrate on the older voters, projecting a new image as family man, devoted grandfather and reflective reader of books.
The reader of this book will find early on that the style of American quickie biography has caught on elsewhere. Whole pages gallop on at a too-breezy pace and many of the recreated conversations have an odd and unlikely sound to them.
But while most American political profiles must try to extract their drama from a steady procession of mayoral races, governorships and reform legislation victories, Haber can draw from half a lifetime of adventure for the ingredients of his biography of Menahem Begin. The middle third of the book - the author is the military correspondent of Yediot Aharonot , Isreal's largest evening daily - rivals Alistair MacLean on occasion and provides one of the most detailed accounts available of the terrorist campaign waged by Jews against British authorities in Palestine during the years immediately after World War II.
As head of the Irgun Zvai Luemi (IZL), Begin was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the death of hundreds of British and Arabs. In one of the most spectacular missions, his men blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. In one of the tawdriest, the IZL killed an estimated 200 Arab men, women and children in Dir Yassin, a town that, according to Begin, was being used as an Arab base. And in what turned out to be one of his biggest political blunders, Begin ordered the hanging of two British sergeants who had been kidnapped as hostages for the released of two captured IZL operatives.
Begin, then and recently, absolves himself of any guilt in these many deaths.Of Dir Yassin, he has said, "The responsibility for their death lies directly with the Arab soldiers" for not evacuating the town before doing battle. The father of one of the hanged British sergeants, Begin said in a harsh letter to him, should have gone to Downing Street and said, "You murdered my son!"
Begin's harsh methods reaped decades of bitterness that have drawn the lines for Israel's entire postindependence political history. But there were also conflicting ideologies at play. Haber masterfully traces the considerable influence on Begin of Zeev Jabotinsky, the controversial Zionist who founded the Betar Jewish youth movement in 1923.
Begin's life since his youth in Poland, before his imprisonment by Soviet authorities for Zionist activities, has been one long homage to Jabotinsky. (David Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, unabashedly detested Jabotinsky and, throughout his active political life, Begin as well.)
The IZL took its guidance from disciples of Jabotinsky. The Haganah , Ben-Gurion's rival guerilla organization that later formed the structure of the Isreali army, took its guidance from the restrained luminaries on international Jewry and Zionism.
Unfortunately, Haber has nothing to say about the absorbing larger spectacle of Zionism's once foremost territorist now girding his country against attack by Arab Palestinian terrorists, as the usurper-usurped cycles moves ahead a revolution. Nevertheless, Menahem Begin serves as a useful reminder of the complimentary functions of terrorism and nationalism and of the thin line that can separate the guerilla's hideout from the chief executive's office.