Shortly before his dramatic rise to the premiership nearly two years ago, Menachem Begin visited the stony, inhospitable Samarian hills in the Israeli occupied West Bank to celebrate the installation of a Torah scroll at the Alon Moreh Jewish settlement.
"We stand on the land of liberated Israel. There will be many, many Alon Morehs," Begin declared. Then, chiding reporters for their questions about his intentions in the West Bank, Begin said, "We don't use the word annexation. You annex foreign land, not your own country."
The shudders in Washington about Begin's ascendancy to power could be felt almost all the way to Israel, as if conservatism here was a new phenomenon. "I hope that the election of Mr.Begin will not be a step backward (from) the achievement of peace," said President Carter at the time. National security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, when told of Begin's election, shook his head and said, "No, no. That's wrong."
Begin emerged suddenly on the world scene dimly perceived by outsiders as a combination of one-time Jewish underground terrorist and gadfly, who carped at the established Labor government from the back benches of the Knesset and espoused a quaint blend of mysticism and ultranationalism that was bemusedly tolerated in the free-wheeling parliament, but not taken seriously.
But those who studied the fiery raconteur's ideological origins as he tenaciously moved closer to the seat of power understood then-and now-their portents for the future of Israel and its relationship with the surrounding Arab world.
The political theorists today are again examining Begin's stormy half century in the Zionist cause, searching for inconsistencies that are not there, sifting for clues of change as if there were any.
The harder they look, the more they understand that Begin is probably the most consistent politician of significance in the world today, and that this should say something about the tortuous year that lies ahead as Israel, Egypt and the United States attempt to mold a system of self-governance for the 1.1 million Palestinians on the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.
Begin was born in Poland 65 years ago and his Zionist ideology was shaped in that tormented country after he joined the youth organization of the Betar, a group of right-wing revisionists who condemned the regular Zionist leadership as a collection of timid, ineffectual old men.
His conservative political bent-particularly his intolerance of communism-was forged at the outbreak of World War II, when he escaped the Nazis to Soviet-held territory only to be imprisoned in a concentration camp in northern Russia.
The death of his parents and a brother at the hands of the Nazis and his anguish over the horrors of the holocaust framed his deeply felt protectorship of the Jewish people. His fortuitous assignment to Palestine as part of a British-led Polish army unit fighting on the side of the Allies put him in the one place where his ideals could come into focus.
But it was in the Irgum Zvai Leumi, one of three Jewish underground movements operating in Palestine against British mandate control, where Begin shaped his vision of Eretz Israel -the land of Israel in its full biblical extent-and his place in Israeli Politics.
The Irgun conceived of all Palestine as being the biblical birthright of the Jewish people, and its motto was, "Judea colapsed in fire and blood. Judea will rise in fire and blood."
First the British and then the Palestinians tasted the meaning of the Irgun's resolve under Begin's leadership.
Begin directed the bombing of the King David Hotel, in which a hundred people died; Assassinations of British soldiers, the bloody Irgun-Stern group massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, that killed 200 people, and, finally, the ultimate confrontation with the established Jewish leadership, when David Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to fire on a gun-running Irgun ship and Begin and his followers eventually disbanded.
When Begin surfaced again as the head of his own Herut Party and won a seat in the Knesset, the political establishment would have nothing to do with him, concluding rightly that his views had not changed but, if anything, had hardened.
Even when Begin diligently created a new image for himself, joining the national unity government on the eve of the 1967 war and impressing his colleagues as a restrained polimicist, it was clear he had not compromised his hard-line principles of the future of Israel.
Even while forming an alliance of six parties to break out of the narrow confines of his isolated Herut Party, Begin defied most political axioms dealing with factional amalgamation and remained consistent to his personal platform embracing the Jewish legacy of a wider land of Israel.
That he should cause an uproar here and abroad as recently as Tuesday by declaring, "There is no force on earth which will compel us to agree to the establishment of a palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and Gaza" says more about the attention span of the world than it does about Begin.
Having achieved peace with Egypt - Israel's largest and potentially most threatening Arab neighbor-Begin will now be scrutinized more closely than ever for symptoms of change. He also undoubtedly will be subjected to more pressure than ever from the outside to start displaying some of these symptoms.
For barely one month, until negotiations resume, Israel will be able to savor the fruits of peace even while struggling with the meaning of the word.
Israelis have been almost phlegmatic about the prospect of peace, partly because the negotiations have gone up and down like a fever chart and they are numbed by the rhetoric from both sides.
But, also, Israelis cannot comprehend peace, because they have never had it. There is no saying, "It will be like the good old days," because there have been no "good old days" of peace here since the Jewish state was founded 30 years ago.
Israelis vaguely grasp what Begin calls "breaching this ring of enmity," but they do not really understand it. They have been flocking to the ancient St.Catherine's monastery at Mount Sinai in record numbers ever since Camp David, Saying they must see the Sinai while it still is in Israeli-controlled territory, even though the point of the peace treaty-to open the borders dividing Egypt and Israel-is faintly etched in their consciousness.
So, even before the meaning of the historic peace treaty comes into focus for Israel, the difficult negotiations over the political aspirations of the Palestinians will begin.
It is already a generally accepted principle that both Egypt and Israel will start the talks from extreme bargaining positions.
A senior aide to Begin asked what would happen if the proposed Palestinian self-governing council declared a constituent assembly and wrote a constitution of its own, replied, "We move in with soldiers and we're right back where it all began."
Some Israeli officials are even predicting major differences over the simple mechanics of the negotiations.
Invoking visions of the Vietnamese peace talks and bitter arguments over the size and shape of the negotiating table, one American diplomat said, "If you thought this peace treaty was an agonizing experience, you haven't see anything yet."
Also, there is the ominous prospect of increased Palestinian terrorism during the talks.
Moreover, during this phase, Israel is certain to continue building Jewish civilian settlements in the West Bank-most of them in the Jordan Valley rift-which probably will exacerbate tensions among the negotiating parties.
While Begin's government is negotiating these volatile issues, Israel will be experiencing the uncomfortable side effects of dismantling its civilian settlements in the Sinai and withdrawing from the region it has inhabited for more than a decade as well as coping with the inflation that is expected to accompany an injection of billions of dollars of U.S. aid.
It is against this backdrop of tumultuous events in the coming months that the long held mystic convictions of Begin-constant in other times of trial throughout his life-will be put to their severest test.
How he will react remains an imponderable. But nobody who understands the forces that shaped these convictions expects that they will be bent easily.