Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, stunned by the death of his wife, Aliza, abruptly flew home late tonight, breaking off a U.S. tour that was to have culminated in a meeting Friday with President Reagan at the White House.
Begin's sudden departure, shortly before he was to begin a round of speeches here and in Dallas, threw a crimp into U.S. hopes that his visit might result in progress toward revitalizing the Middle East peace process.
Overshadowing his trip here have been increased U.S. calls for Israel to freeze further settlements on the occupied West Bank as a gesture to encourage the Arab countries and nudge them toward the negotiations proposed by Reagan in his Sept. 1, Mideast peace initiative.
A settlements freeze was one of the major points in the U.S. initiative. However, Begin's government had rejected Reagan's proposals and the prime minister had signaled in advance his intention to resist U.S. efforts to press the freeze issue.
In fact, it was believed that Begin intended to use the White House meeting to argue that Reagan should shelve the entire initiative, which calls for the West Bank and Gaza Strip to attain eventual independence "in association with Jordan."
Now, with the grief-stricken prime minister returning home, the expectation is that any movement toward new initiatives in the Arab-Israeli conflict will be put on hold for the time being. Israeli sources traveling with Begin said there were no immediate plans to re-schedule a visit to Washington and they added they had no idea when Begin might be prepared to resume talks with the United States at a top-ranking level.
White House spokesman Mark Weinberg said Begin's visit Friday was not intended to be an official, working visit but a meeting between two heads of state. He said President and Mrs. Reagan were informed of Mrs. Begin's death and are "deeply saddened."
"As far as rescheduling the meeting, the Reagan's thoughts are with the Begin family and this is not an appropriate time to be considering that question," Weinberg said.
Begin's wife of 43 years died early this morning in Jerusalem's Hadassah University Hospital where she had been treated since early October for a severe respiratory condition.
Mrs. Begin suffered from chronic asthma. She was 62.
The wife of the prime minister entered the hospital on Oct. 4 and had been in an intensive care unit ever since.
Israeli officials said Begin, concerned about his wife's worsening condition, had almost called off the trip. They said he finally elected to come because of the importance he placed on meeting with Reagan and trying to influence U.S. mideast policy.
How his wife's death will affect Begin's future is unclear. There is speculation that new elections will be held in Israel next year. He has said his decision on whether to run again as head of the Likud Bloc ticket would depend on his wife's health.
Born Apri1 2, 1920, in the Polish city of Drohobycz, Mrs. Begin stayed out of the limelight throughout her husband's public career. But she was a constant companion of the prime minister.
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Begin is survived by a son, Benjamin, and two daughters, Hassia Milo and Lea.
The news that Begin's wife had died in Israel reached here only moments before Begin was scheduled to appear before more than 1,000 guests in the grand ballroom of the Bonaventure Hotel for the 50th annual dinner meeting of the federation representing more than 200 Jewish communal organizations around the country.
Reporters and Israeli officials traveling with Begin were summoned aside by a federation official, who said he had just received word from the Secret Service that the prime minister was leaving. As the traveling group left the ballroom to return to their hotel and prepare for the flight to Israel, the first rumors began circulating through the crowd.
The prime minister's ambitious schedule had called for him to address another gala dinner here Sunday night for purchases of Israeli bonds. Then, he was supposed to fly to Dallas on Monday to address a meeting of Southern Baptist Christians sympathetic to Israel. In both cities, he also had a several smaller meetings scheduled.
According to Israeli officials, he had intended to use the speeches and meetings to muster support for Israel's controversial policies that since the summer have included the invasion of Lebanon and Israel's rejection of the Reagan initiative.
Even though Begin never got to begin his support-mustering campaign, there were myriad signs around the Bonaventure Hotel that Israel's aggressive policies are a subject of continuing controversy in this country. The hotel was almost literally surrounded by separate demonstrating groups -- some of them Americans, Arabs and Iranians demonstrating against Begin and others representing militant Jewish supporters of Israel.
The anti-Begin groups carried signs blaming Israel for the massacre of Palestinian civilians in West Beirut and repeatedly chanted "Begin-Hitler are the same. The only difference is the name." There were a few scuffles but a large detachment of Los Angeles police, many of them mounted on horseback, kept the demonstrators isolated behind barricades on the opposite side of the streets around the hotel.