IT WOULD BE a day like any other day, with a singular difference -- a difference about which he had told no one, not even his closest advisers. The people he might have told -- his wife Aliza, his closest Etzel comrades -- were dead. And so, in many ways, was Menachem Begin.
On September 14, 1983 -- four years ago this month -- he woke as always around 5 a.m., with the first light of day filtering into the second-story room on Balfour Street and the prime minister's mansion in Jerusalem. If he chose, he could look outside his window and see the protesters, a constant reminder of one of his legacies -- the war in Lebanon.
The next day he was gone from office. He had served 2,251 days as prime minister, the longest tenure of any Israeli leader other than his old rival, David Ben Gurion.
Begin changed Israel and the Middle East in lasting ways. It's nearly four years since he left office, yet his shadow still looms over Israeli politics and the Middle East peace process. Israel today is, for better and in some ways for worse, the nation that Begin made.
How does one assess Menachem Begin? He is a man curiously out of step with his time, a visionary who tended to look backward, over his shoulder. More than any of Israel's leaders, he is shrouded in complexity and clashing tendencies. Always, he has been a man of controversy. To many, he incarnated the best and worst of Israel. No one, whether Jew or Gentile, has managed to remain indifferent to him.
There is something biblical about Begin's life and career, as if he were an ancient prophet being tested time and again by a capricious and stern God. The ancient biblical heroes and prophets of the Old Testament endured, triumphed and often died unfulfilled, their dreams unconstructed. Begin recalls them with his acute and eloquent description of Jewish suffering, with his political rhetoric, and with his defiance.
Begin will be remembered in Jewish and Israeli history in the way we look at the height of mountain peaks and the shadows in valleys, both positively and negatively, accompanied by contradiction and irony, triumph and defeat. Let us look at this legacy:
Begin, though he played the role of peacemaker during Camp David, may have destroyed some of Israel's options for peace. His legacy, the almost irreversible settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, deprived Israel of some important options for negotiation.
Begin democratized Israel. He turned its political system from an elitist labor-dominated Socialist democracy into a genuinely populist democracy. With his commitment to populism, Begin also managed to raise the self-respect and political image of the Asian and African Jews, known as the Sephardim. Begin, the old-world, Eastern European Diaspora Jew gave them a political voice. Under Labor, the Sephardim were second-class political citizens, with Labor reserving political recognition and activity for the Ashkenazim, or European Jews.
Begin, the champion of parliamentarianism, raised the stature of the Knesset and its political life, making it meaningful, funcitonal and dynamic. Begin s dedication to an activist parliamentary life in Israel was a consequence of commitment and necessity from the outset. After the 1948 War for Independence, with the Etzel guerrilla group disbanded, the Knesset was the only arena left to Begin. In the Knesset, Begin and his Herut party found a home. To see Begin at work in the formative years of the Knesset was to see a lonely figure, the lone champion of parliamentary politics. Not a distinguished legislator, he became one of the Knesset s best and most vocal orators. The Knesset was Begin s theater.
This is not to suggest Begin was a hard-working legislator, purposefully building the web of democratic structures like a patient spider. Begin, in fact, had little patience for the actual legislative workings of the Knesset. Rather, he embodied the idea of parliamentary politics itself, defended it, insisted on it in a way that the centralized forces of Labor and the huge political figure of Ben Gurion did not.
Begin left behind a bitterly divided Israel that has lost some of its political dynamism and decisiveness. Today's government of national unity survives in part because it is paralyzed on some major issues. Indeed, the only way this coalition has coped with some delicate issues -- such as the Pollard affair -- has been by appointing special commissions of inquiry. The government is also hostage to the small religious parties that hold the balance of power. The established politicians and parties, lacking vision and direction, have lost control.
Begin s rise to power was not just another change of government, it was a political turnabout, a revolutionary event in the political history of Israel. Begin s electoral victory and his subsequent seven-and-a-half years of rule successfully institutionalized a new and radically different political culture, one which, if not yet dominant, is highly prominent and visible.
The political culture of socialist democracy, of egalitarianism, of the pioneer spirit and secular values were strongly challenged by the political culture of radical nationalism, political conservatism, and traditional Jewish orthodoxy. Piety, messianism and nationalist radicalism became new symbols for the nationalist and radical orthodox bloc Israel. Begin changed the language of politics and added messianism to the symbols of Zionism and its directions, which had been firmly rooted in the secular rule of Labor and Socialist Zionism since the 1930s.
Begin s Palestinian policy was not a surprise, given that he was the major disciple of Zeev Jabotinsky. For Begin, there was no legitimate Palestinian Arab nationalist movement. The territory of Palestine, of the historical British mandate was undivided and complete to Begin, it was Eretz Israel, the complete Land of Israel. It must be totally dominated by Jews, whose rule was inviolate. The Jewish settlement of the West Bank and Gaza was a legitimate enterprise enveloped in Zionist historical and biblical rhetoric.
Begin rescued the idea of Eretz Israel from the political fringe and brought it into the center of Israeli politics. It was this goal which determined and dictated Begin s foreign, Arab and Palestinian policy. Thus the basis of Begin s approach after his election was not so much the search for peace, but rather making a reality of Eretz Israel. Once Egypt was removed as a potential military threat, Begin could concentrate on the elimination of Palestinian nationalism, the eradication of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and carrying out the dynamics and creating the momentum for the settlement of the West Bank.
Begin approached the Eretz Israel policy from several different directions. To begin with, he assigned the aggressive, talented -- and ruthless -- Gen. Ariel Sharon the task of actually settling the West Bank. In the space of five years, Sharon tripled the number of settlements which jumped from 31 to 98 by the end of 1982. The Jewish population went from 5,023 to 30,000 during that time.
The second part of Begin's Palestinian policy was directed toward bringing an end to the military and political power of the PLO and to destroy its influence in the occupied territories. The next phase was to move militarily against the PLO in Lebanon. Begin meant to bring an end to the military power of the PLO and to firmly establish Israeli rule in the West Bank as a result.
Begin and Sharon managed to destroy the PLO's military and political power in Lebanon, but at a high cost to Israel in terms of casualties, in political unity at home and the tarnishing of its image abroad.
The Lebanon fiasco was Begin's undoing. The war failed to achieve peace with another Arab state, it failed to establish Israel's Christian allies in control. Above all it helped unleash the Shia Revolution in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley and made Israel a functional neighbor of the Iranian revolutionary guards.
The war also failed in its central goal of crushing the Palestinian aspiration for nationhood on the West Bank. In fact, the number of anti-Israel incidents have grown in the occupied territories since 1982. In addition, the PLO has survived as a political entity, uniting behind its more radical and militant members.
Thus, Begin left office politically and psychologically unfulfilled. His dream of settling the West Bank and Gaza was only partially fulfilled and his goal of annihilating the PLO and with it the spirit of Palestinian nationalism as distant as ever.
How did Begin leave his country, his people, his party? Leaderless, divided and wounded. The leader, in the end, could not withstand the pressures of his political defeat in Lebanon and -- after the Sabra-Shatila massacre and the devastating Kahan Commission Report -- he retired and disappeared almost without a trace. The leader of Eretz Israel remains a functional exile in Jerusalem, a recluse within his residence on Ben Nun Street in West Jerusalem.
His nation and party were left in disarray. Stability has been restored to a degree by the National Unity Government under Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir. The IDF has withdrawn from Lebanon, and the economy has recovered to a great degree, but the nation remains politically divided. Hopes for the restoration of national unity and consensus and the chances for peace with the Palestinians are as distant as they were in 1977, perhaps even more so.
Begin's tenure raised the spectre of radical nationalism within Israel, it unleashed religious, messianic and political forces which had never been present in force in Israel's political history. Verbal violence, political extremism, underground groups and a spirit of vigilantism began to find a permanent place in Israel's political scene after Begin's departure. The nation seems to be inevitably turning to the right and away from its Socialist-Zionist origins. Although Gush Emunim is a small force and and the Renaissance Party is still relatively minuscle, the two give the tone to the nation's political scene, they are the idealists and ideologues of Israel in the 1990s.
The anti-democratic tendencies of these parties were anathema to Begin, who was a true 19th-century liberal. Begin, for all his faults, was never a messianic or vigilante Zionist. Yet with his theatrics and his appeal to populism, he unleashed those very forces.
Begin was a detached, anachronistic man, a romantic who never understood the craft of statesmanship or the workings of military strategy, a man who worshipped power, without ever quite understanding its uses and limits in the way that his predecessor Ben Gurion did. Strangely enough, he never quite managed to know the essence of Israel. In 1987, he remained a stranger in his homeland, an isolated figure, much as he had been when he arrived in Israel as a corporal in the Polish army in 1942.
Amos Perlmutter is a professor at American University and author of "The Life and Times of Menachem Begin."