JERUSALEM -- He came out again a few days ago to make his annual visit to the grave. He trekked up the hillside on a dirt path under graying skies, recited the kaddish, and scattered a fistful of pebbles. Then he walked down to the waiting car to be whisked back to the safety and isolation of his apartment, 15 minutes away.
The usual crowd was there, several dozen well-wishers, former comrades, government officials, old friends, relatives. He accepted their greetings, nodded occasionally, but shook hands with no one.
He was dressed in a dark blue suit with a crisp white shirt and a striped tie. A black fedora shaded his eyes and hid his expression from the cameras and the colleagues. His skin was pale yellow, the color of flesh that seldom sees the sun. There were blotchy red razor scrapes on his thin cheeks. His eyes looked hollow. He stood unaided at the grave site, but his two daughters took his arms to help him make the slow walk up and down the hill.
In an hour it was over. The Peugeot carried him back to 1 Zemach St. The crowd -- the solemn disciples, the tight-lipped plainclothesmen, the voracious Israeli photographers jockeying for a last shot -- drifted off. Menachem Begin's yearly pilgrimage to the grave of Aliza, his wife of 43 years, was over.
But not his mourning. It has been five years since Aliza died, 5 1/2 years since the invasion of Lebanon, four years since he told his colleagues, "I cannot go on." Stepping down as prime minister, he retreated to the splendid isolation of his residence where he has lived ever since in a self-imposed exile of shadows and memories, the prisoner of Zemach Street.
The day before Begin's cemetery visit, Israelis marked another significant event in their recent history. It was the 10th anniversary of the late Anwar Sadat's epoch-making trip to Jerusalem. There were speeches and dinners and symposiums, sober reflections laced with bittersweet nostalgia, a longing for the days of big men and bold rhetoric. Menachem Begin was one of those men, a crucial if recalcitrant participant in the passion and the glory of Camp David. Yet his name seldom came up in the observances. When they did mention it, Israelis spoke of Begin as they spoke of Sadat: in the past tense.
Yet Menachem Begin lives. The former prime minister reads the newspapers every morning, answers the phone, sees relatives and, on occasion, old friends. His secretary says he has ventured outside his well-kept apartment in Jerusalem's western suburbs exactly nine times in the past four years -- four times to visit Aliza's grave, five for treatment by his personal physician at a nearby hospital.
His exile is a distinctly Israeli tragedy linked to a war that still haunts the nation. The 1982 Lebanon invasion, his proud crusade, became a quagmire in which more than 600 Israelis died and Israel's reputation was dragged through the mud of Sabra and Shatila, the refugee camps where hundreds of Palestinians died at the hands of Christian militiamen while Israeli soldiers stood by. Begin, it is said, feels responsible.
Many here blame Begin's defense minister, Ariel Sharon, for deceiving the old man -- indeed, the entire Cabinet -- into believing Israeli forces would halt at a prearranged point 25 miles north of the border, when in fact Sharon had always planned to push all the way to Beirut. In a three-hour stream-of-consciousness lecture before a Tel Aviv audience last summer, Sharon denied all the charges that have been festering for five years and presented his own history of the invasion and its consequences.
Despite urging from several friends, Begin chose not to challenge Sharon's account. In fact, friends say, while he may once have expressed despair over the course of the war, Begin feels no remorse.
"There's certainly no guilt," says Hart Hasten, former head of the American branch of Begin's Herut political party and a longtime friend who sees him regularly. "He's satisfied he did the right thing. He talks a lot about his days as prime minister and he sounds just like he did then."
But a onetime close aide, former Cabinet secretary Aryeh Naor, says things are not that simple. Begin the commander in chief will never blame Sharon, a subordinate, for what happened in Lebanon, Naor says, but Begin the man will never be reconciled to the alleged deception and losses.
"He doesn't feel guilty, but he feels responsible, and he feels betrayed," Naor says. "He'll never say it, in public or in private. But he feels it, and he suffers deeply.
"Think about it. The man leaves his house once a year. Where does he go? The cemetery. There is a burden on him that he will never let go."
Aliza died of a heart attack five months after the invasion while Begin was away on a trip to the United States. She was his strength, his defender and his friend. His guilt at not being by her side and his sense of loss overwhelmed him. At the same time, Israel's economy was falling apart and the Cabinet, once subordinate to the charismatic power of the old man, was disintegrating into a fractious mob of petty rivals at war with each other and with the leader they once had all revered.
His health, never good, seemed to collapse. His energy flagged. And so he chose to hide. For a while, his friends and disciples said he was only biding his time, gathering up strength before reentering the arena. He was planning his memoirs, eager to set the record straight and bask in the glory of history.
It never happened. Begin has stayed locked away. The memoirs -- they were to be called "Generation of Holocaust and Redemption" -- were never started, the silence never broken.
Others have tried to pick up the flag. Begin's only son, Benjamin, has challenged Sharon publicly about the war, even opposed Sharon for a position at last year's Herut convention. Sharon won handily, a victory that signaled the passing of an era and indicated that even the faithful recognized their old leader was gone and not likely to return.
Menachem Begin stayed out of that fight, just as he shunned involvement in the last election campaign, in which his one-time close ally, Yitzhak Shamir, was narrowly defeated by the more dovish Labor Party and Shimon Peres, a longtime political enemy. Many in Herut blamed Begin for not campaigning, for abandoning them, for seeming not to care.
Israelis see Begin's exile through the prism of their own politics. The left has begun to revise its view of its old enemy: Begin takes the blame for his own failures, it is said, unlike today's leaders, hollow men who have ducked responsibility for a series of governmental mishaps. The right sees him as a victim, hounded out of office and driven into isolation by the jackals of the media and the peaceniks who howled for his blood after Lebanon.
There is a little truth to both sides, says Ned Temko, a former Christian Science Monitor correspondent here and author of a new Begin biography, "To Win or to Die." But at this point, says Temko, even if Begin wanted to reemerge, he may, at 74, lack the energy to do battle on Israel's contentious public scene.
"If he could set everything right with a simple sentence or two, then he probably would," Temko says. "The problem is not just the Lebanon war but that everything else he prided himself for in his life -- for personally taking charge, for what he was doing -- seems undermined by that final chapter.
"In 1985 when it looked like he might come out, people immediately wrote that there were lots of questions along with Lebanon that he would have to answer. I think he senses he's likely to have a rather rough ride, and I don't think he's up to answering them."
Hasten says Begin has the energy but just doesn't want to expend it. "I saw him three weeks ago, and to me he looked as good as he did as prime minister, maybe even better. His mind is as clear as ever. He still has a photographic memory, and he reads everything.
"We urge him to go out more, and we beg and plead with him to write his memoirs. But he's a stubborn man, and you can't talk him into anything. He responds when he feels the situation requires it. Otherwise, he's willing to let history make the final judgment."
The isolation, which seemed hermetic in the early days, now loosens at times. Begin welcomed Soviet Jewish activist Ida Nudel for a brief visit the day after she flew to Israel from Moscow last month. But when Jimmy Carter came to town in March, Begin turned down his peace partner's request for a meeting. Instead, Carter said, they had a friendly chat on the phone.
"If he wants to see somebody, he sees them," says Yehiel Kadishai, his longtime personal aide. "But he doesn't see any journalists. No Bill Safire, no George Will, no Mike Wallace, not one of them. He doesn't want to. It's as simple as that."
Menachem Begin's days start early. He's up at dawn, reads the local newspapers, has breakfast, then Kadishai arrives with more Israeli papers, The Times of London and the International Herald Tribune. Kadishai brings along a cardboard file of letters, and Begin spends an hour or so going over correspondence. A housekeeper fixes lunch. In the afternoon, daughter Leah returns from her job as an El Al ground staffer and makes dinner. If there are no guests, Begin may spend the entire day in pajamas and robe. His son lives just around the corner and stops by almost daily.
He is an insatiable reader, and Kadishai strains to fill his appetite. In recent weeks he has read "Veil" by Bob Woodward and "Spycatcher" by Peter Wright. He devoured William Safire's 1,100-page "Freedom" in a mere two days. Kadishai also brought him Jehan Sadat's memoirs, "Masters of the Game" by Sidney Sheldon, and "The Proud Tower" by Barbara Tuchman.
The world does not totally forget him. He received 400 to 500 New Year's greetings at Rosh Hashanah and 100 cables for his 74th birthday in August. To those who write him, he often writes back short, noncommittal replies that express sympathy and appreciation yet say nothing of substance.
He answers his own phone and the private number seems to be on the Rolodex of every Israeli journalist. Occasionally he will respond to a specific query that is timed propitiously, expressing joy at Ida Nudel's arrival or shame and regret over Ronald Reagan's journey to the Bitburg cemetery.
Mostly, says Kadishai, Begin finds the calls annoying. But Temko, noting that Begin has taken the trouble to have his phone number changed only once in four years, believes differently. "He could always have the number changed again or disconnected. I suspect he likes getting calls from reporters because it reminds him of who he was and who he is."
Kadishai, who has known Begin for 44 years and served under him in and out of power, works out of a small cubicle in the Office of the Prime Minister in central Jerusalem. It is filled with memorabilia -- a photograph of Begin playing chess with Zbigniew Brzezinski at Camp David in 1978, an intricate paper-cut design of Washington from Ronald Reagan, assorted plaques from American Jewish organizations.
Friends say Kadishai knows the old man better perhaps than Begin's own family. But even he can only speculate about the big question: Why? "He never gave me an explanation. He feels like it, that is all. He's comfortable. He has got no obligations, no commitments. He doesn't want to involve himself, he doesn't want to interfere. He doesn't want to be a factor in the goings-on.
"He saw early on that the only way to prevent being in the middle all the time was by not seeing anyone. This was behind the isolation in the beginning, and then he saw it was comfortable and doesn't harm anyone so he continued it. There were Cabinet ministers who asked to see him again and again. They finally got tired.
"They come to see him now. He doesn't say no. But he won't be dragged in. If they make complaints, ask for his help, he listens politely and changes the subject."
The resemblance between father and son is striking. Benjamin Begin, now 44, has his father's face, his spectacles, his dry wit and legalistic mind. But friends warn that the resemblance cannot be stretched too far. When Benny speaks out against Ariel Sharon, he is expressing his own views, not necessarily those of Menachem Begin.
Friends say Benny, as he is commonly known here, blames Sharon for what happened to his father and that Benny and his political allies intend to do everything possible to prevent Sharon from ever becoming prime minister. It is blood warfare, they say, the vengeance of the son for sins committed against the father and the revenge of a patriot for sins committed against a nation.
Benny's crusade started in January 1986 when he appeared on television to talk about politics and to hint that Sharon had misled his father on Lebanon. That March, he opposed Sharon unsuccessfully for the chairmanship of the party convention committee that rules on delegate challenges. After his defeat, Benny told friends he was stepping back out of politics and in the future would stick to geology, his profession. But last August, after Sharon went public with his own version of the history of the Lebanon war and Menachem Begin kept his silence, Benny spoke out in a newspaper column challenging Sharon's account as a "totally unfounded reinterpretation."
The younger Begin says his reasons for opposing Sharon have nothing to do with his father. "It was my assessment that if Mr. Sharon obtains a high-ranking position as a launching pad for leadership, it would be detrimental to Herut and to its prospects of winning elections," he says.
If Menachem Begin agrees, he does not say so. He has seen Sharon only once since his retirement. But he called to congratulate the former defense minister when Sharon won a moral victory -- although not a judgment -- in his libel suit against Time magazine in 1985, and he called Israeli radio to deny a published claim that he could not stand to hear Sharon's name.
Benny makes denials as well. He does not hate Sharon, he says; there is no vendetta.
"It's inconceivable for me to make part of my life a personal vendetta," he says. "Maybe psychologically there's something hidden in the back of my mind, but I don't think so. There's no hidden agenda. I'm not judging Mr. Sharon's character, I'm judging his political conduct, his public conduct."
When it comes to speaking about his father, Benny says he has a firm policy: No comment. "If I answer in any way even a trivial question, I violate his privacy. I'm trying to be consistent. I think I owe it to him. His English is all right, his Hebrew is fine, and if he wants to say anything, he will say it."
The phone rings five times before he picks it up. The voice is husky, polite but terse. Asked about his health, the voice replies, "If you talk to Mr. Kadishai you know everything. But I feel fine, thank you."
Would he be willing to see a reporter? "If it will be possible, I will let you know through Mr. Kadishai."
"Mr. Begin, one more question. Why after all this time ..." The voice seems to know what question is coming and has no intention of listening to it, let alone responding. "Mr. Kadishai will contact you. Thank you very much. Shalom."
Kadishai doesn't call back. Asked about the request two days later, he chuckles. Begin, he says, was saying no politely. As he does to everyone. The silence would remain unbroken.
"In the beginning it was peculiar," says Kadishai, still puzzling over what has happened to his friend and mentor. "It was bizarre. But over time I came to the conclusion this is the only way to keep him aloof and not involved. This is the only way to fulfil his wish. It's unnatural. I think it would be very good for him to come out more. But it is his wish."