Menachem Begin, 78, prime minister of Israel for six dramatic years of conflict and compromise, died early today in a Tel Aviv hospital, where he had been on a respirator since suffering a heart attack Tuesday. He was among the last of a generation of post-World War II figures in Israel whose lives spanned both the Jewish nationalist movement and leadership of the nation over its first four decades.

Begin had spent the last eight years as a virtual recluse, never recovering emotionally from the death of his wife in 1983, which was viewed as having prompted his retirement as prime minister that year. For the last nine years, he rarely went into public except for emergency medical treatment or to put flowers on his wife's grave.

Like his life in retirement, Begin's climb to power in his younger years amounted to a lengthy and sometimes lonely struggle. Until he assumed the prime minister's job in 1977, Begin was always on the outside looking in -- as a dissident from the mainstream of the Zionist movement, as a militant underground fighter against British rule in Palestine during the 1940s and, for three decades, as leader of the opposition in Israel's parliament.

Yet, within months of moving into the prime minister's office, Begin played host to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and presided over an event none of his predecessors could have imagined: the arrival of the leader of a major Arab state in Jerusalem.

It was an emotional and historic high point in Arab-Israeli diplomacy. After years of operating from the periphery of established power, he soon found himself at Camp David with Sadat and President Jimmy Carter, dramatically redirecting the history of the Middle East. The Camp David accords reached between Egypt and Israel in 1978 would later add Begin to the ranks of Nobel Peace Prize winners.

But once the peace with Egypt was cemented -- a task that took months -- Begin became embroiled in continuing international controversy over the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, a key issue in the current peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

It was the course steered by Begin that brought periods of extreme tension to the U.S.-Israeli relationship and still severely tests the ties to Israel of large segments of American Jewry.

During Begin's tenure, however, it was Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon that proved the most dramatic testing ground for these relationships as well as for Israel's own internal political debate.

Vowing that Israelis should never face a threat from the north, Begin sent the Israeli army into Lebanon in June of that year, on a route that eventually led to the outskirts of the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila south of Beirut. There -- in an act that shook Israeli society and created doubts about its most honored institution, the army -- Lebanese Phalangist militiamen were permitted entry to the camps and hundreds of Palestinians were killed.

A commission of inquiry, initially fought by Begin, found the Israeli government -- although not necessarily Begin personally -- indirectly at fault for the massacre for its inaction. In the end, his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was forced to resign, but Begin's sense of political loyalties, or perhaps of political survival, would not allow him to remove Sharon from the cabinet altogether.

Even Begin's own removal from active politics came with a sense of high drama, when, apparently depressed by the death of his wife, Aliza, and beleaguered by growing problems in Lebanon, he suddenly announced to his cabinet in late August 1983 that he no longer could continue as prime minister. Weeks later, after unusual delays to allow first for the selection of a successor from his ruling Likud bloc, and then for still unexplained reasons apparently connected to his health, he finally left office.

Even then, he remained in the prime minister's official residence for several weeks, closed off to all but a few intimate friends. After eventually moving to his own Jerusalem apartment, he still showed no sign of the vitality and political combativeness that had been his trademarks. It was a steep personal decline that led to the emergence of a revisionist view questioning his long-term impact on Israeli politics.

Less dramatic than his government's actions beyond Israel's borders were his conservative policies at home, where he moved to dismantle parts of the socialist state built up by his Labor Party predecessors in hopes of revitalizing the economy.

Nevertheless, Israel continued to struggle under multi-digit inflation throughout his government and made little progress in integrating the growing segment of the population coming from less-advanced Middle East countries into Israel's increasingly technological economy. This political legacy presented a severe challenge to his successor, Yitzhak Shamir.

The economy was not Begin's strong suit; neither did he demonstrate much patience for political gamesmanship. His was a view of life forged in the maelstrom of Europe between the wars, where Jewish nationalism was given the added impetus of antisemitic pogroms and the rise of Nazism.

Begin was born Aug. 16, 1913, in Brest-Litovsk -- then part of Russian-ruled Poland, now the city of Brest in Belarus. His father is believed to have been drawn to the Zionist philosophies of Vladimir Jabotinsky; Begin refers to his father in an early autobiographical work, "White Nights," as a "veteran Zionist and leader in the Jewish community of Brest-Litovsk." Young Menachem attended a Zionist Hebrew school for his early education, went to a Polish high school and then studied law at Warsaw University.

While much was made of Begin's fundamentalist views because of his political links to Israel's religious parties and his own beliefs in Israel's historical right to all of ancient Palestine, he does not appear to have been firmly rooted in religious orthodoxy. Rather, his was a nationalist orthodoxy, unhindered by the attachments to socialism and the idealistic romanticism that characterized the mainstream Zionist movements and eventually emerged in the Labor Party governments that ruled Israel for its first three decades as a modern state.

It was this militant Zionism and anticommunism that led to his imprisonment in the Soviet Union when he and his wife fled to Vilnius as the Nazis overran Poland in 1939. During his imprisonment, Aliza Begin and other of his close friends managed to make their way to Palestine.

In the winter of 1940, Begin was sentenced to eight years in a Soviet labor camp for his work in Poland in organizing Betar, the youth wing of Jabotinsky's Zionist party. But he was released a little over a year later when Stalin decided he needed the help of all Poles against the invading Nazis.

Begin joined the Polish exile army formed by Gen. Wladyslaw Anders and within months was in Palestine -- then under British mandatory rule -- where the force was sent for training. Once there, Begin promptly joined the Jewish underground.

By this time, his parents and a brother had died at the hands of Hitler's forces. These searing experiences combined with his militant Zionism to forge a bedrock belief that the only way Jews would get a national homeland was by boldness and force of arms.

Tempered by the conspiratorial nature of Jewish politics in late 19th- and early 20th-century Eastern Europe, Begin displayed early on an uncompromising determination to stand fast for what he believed in. It was a determination his political foes and diplomatic adversaries in the Middle East and at the State Department encountered time and time again. Since his views often were extreme, the result was an unusual degree of friction and strained relationships.

The word "concession" did not seem to be a part of Begin's vocabulary. At one point, following Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, Begin told an interviewer: "You are not supposed to begin negotiations with concessions. You start with differences of opinion, and you narrow them down. Sadat and I know what our differences are, and we are prepared to negotiate an accord."

Drawing on his reputation as leader of Betar, Begin quickly emerged at the head of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, or National Military Organization, the fighting wing of Jabotinsky's Zionist movement, which quickly was labeled a terrorist organization by the British and by other Jews.

Whatever else may be said of it, the Irgun showed no hesitation in challenging British authority. Bases and ammunition depots were attacked. Police headquarters were bombed. The Irgun carried out the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, which housed the British administration in Palestine, at the cost of almost 100 lives, both British and Jewish, and also the hanging of two British soldiers in retaliation for the execution of members of the Irgun.

Begin became a man with a high price on his head, and for years he lived underground, growing a beard, changing residences, adopting different disguises.

The Irgun also took the initiative in clashes between the intertwined Arab and Jewish communities. Where the mainstream Zionists adopted a policy of armed self-defense -- a passive stance reacting to attacks -- the Irgun went on the offensive, both retaliating and preempting.

The deaths of 200 Arab men, women and children in an Irgun-led raid on the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948, just a month before the declaration of an independent Israel, stands sharply etched in the turbulent history of the period. To many Palestinians, the name Deir Yassin has been a battle cry in their effort to justify their armed struggle against the Jewish state.

Throughout the pre-independence period, the splits within the Zionist movement carried over into mutual suspicions and occasional outright clashes, leaving a constant undercurrent of strife among the Jewish nationalists.

Out of it all, Begin emerged unapologetic, defending the Irgun's tactics as the catalyst that ultimately forced the British to leave Palestine. "Whoever has followed my story knows that fate has not pampered me," Begin wrote. "From my earliest youth, I have known hunger and been acquainted with sorrow. And often death has brooded over me, both in the homeland and on alien soil.

"But for such things I have never wept," he added. "Sometimes, as our revolt against the oppressor taught us, it is essential that blood should take the place of tears. And sometimes . . . it is essential that tears should take the place of blood."

Just as his foes time and again encountered his fierce determination, so too would there be reminders of his intense desire to set down his version of history and his equally intense belief that history and morality stood with him in the right.

His years in political opposition began with the formation of the Herut Party after independence. That political experience only reinforced his image as a man who could demonstrate the politician's adeptness at sleight of hand, but who, on basic strategic principles, steadfastly followed the same political course throughout his life.

For all those long years, when he and his party often were mocked as a lunatic fringe, he did not modify his principles for political expediency. When his strident opposition to a reparations settlement with West Germany sparked rioting, he was portrayed as a seditionist; still, he did not alter his course. During the 1977 election campaign, when he might have tried to broaden his appeal by projecting a more moderate image, he stayed with his bedrock principles.

Through it all, he developed a reputation as a fierce parliamentary debater, weaving Yiddish jokes into impassioned arguments, cutting through obfuscation, charming with self-deprecation, always injecting an awesome sense of Jewish history into his cause. Only once before he became prime minister was Begin brought into an Israeli government. Just before the start of the 1967 Middle East war he was made minister without portfolio in what was intended as a national unity government. He resigned three years later to protest Israel's acceptance of a U.S. proposal that called for withdrawal from the occupied territories.

It should have been no surprise, then, when shortly before his rise to the premiership, Begin visited the stony, inhospitable Samarian hills in the West Bank to celebrate the installation of a Torah scroll at the settlement of Elon Moreh. "We stand on the land of liberated Israel. There will be many, many Elon Morehs," he declared. Then, chiding reporters for their questions about his intentions, he said, "We don't use the word annexation; you annex foreign land, not your own country."

True to his word, the number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank began to increase dramatically. From 1967 to 1976, Israel established 10 settlements there; in the first six years of Begin's government, 62 were established.

In contrast to settlements in the Sinai Peninsula, which he defended tactically but ultimately ordered disbanded as part of his agreement with Sadat, Begin showed no inclination to back away from his belief that Israel has a historical and legal claim to the West Bank.

There were other sharp retorts, reminiscent of the barbed language he used in his years on the opposition benches -- some aimed at the United States, some at West European countries, some at American Jews who became disenchanted with many of his policies following the invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut.

The pattern of hard-nosed negotiation was set at the beginning in his dealings with Sadat. The euphoria that set in with Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 quickly met head-on with Begin's refusal to budge on the West Bank or on dealing with the Palestinians. It was a negotiating posture that eventually took Begin, Sadat and Jimmy Carter to Camp David and days of tense negotiation that, by Carter's account, only barely escaped ending in disaster.

Three-and-a-half years later, long after Egypt and Israel had established diplomatic relations, the issue of Jewish settlements remained hotly disputed. President Ronald Reagan called in 1982 for an end to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank as a first step toward picking up where Camp David had left off.

In between, Begin rarely enjoyed a moment of calm as his West Bank policy of increasing the number of Jewish settlers and the degree of Israeli control was met with growing restiveness by the Arab population, which, in turn, led to clashes with settlers, security forces or both.

There was further turmoil elsewhere. In the north, a surge of Palestinian guerrilla raids and shelling from southern Lebanon kept Israeli forces engaged on a daily basis. Begin's government responded with land, air and sea attacks against the Palestinians based in Lebanon and increased support for Lebanese Christians, who already were engaged in a guerrilla war with the Palestinians. Tensions with Syria increased both over Lebanon and Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 war.

In July 1981, Israeli warplanes devastated Iraq's nuclear facilities in a suburb of Baghdad after the government said it had evidence Iraq was building a nuclear weapon.

The turmoil on the borders was accompanied by trouble at home. Inflation continued unabated, and the cabinet suffered two major defections, of Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman. Begin suffered first a minor stroke and then a heart attack, yet time and again he turned aside no-confidence motions with ease, and public opinion polls showed him firmly in command.

For all the drama and conflict of Begin's first years in power, 1982 provided even more. The final withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai was accompanied by scenes of Israeli troops dragging Israeli Jews from the last settlements in occupied Egyptian territory. Begin proved as firm in keeping an agreement once made as he had been tough in reaching the accord.

Then, within weeks of leaving the Sinai, Israeli troops invaded Lebanon. The government said it was moving to crush the military strength of the Palestine Liberation Organization in southern Lebanon and end the danger it saw facing northern Israel.

But the Israelis moved rapidly, straight for Beirut, laying siege to the city and, in the process, delivering a devastating blow to Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley and to the Syrian air force.

Israel's overwhelming defeat of Syrian forces fundamentally changed the dynamics of power relationships in the Middle East, removing with perhaps unforeseen consequences the perception of Israel as a beleaguered nation.

Perhaps in Begin's mind it was the greatest legacy this ultimate survivor could leave. He had, after all, survived the Nazis, survived the Russian camps, survived the British manhunts, survived the years in opposition and survived as head of a fractious coalition government. Some would say he grew stronger with each passing test.

Those who met and observed him say Begin seemed to identify his survival with that of the Jews as a people and that he steadfastly kept that single goal before him, regardless of how history might judge him or his actions. All else was secondary.