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Menachem Begin$

Avi Shilon

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780300162356

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300162356.001.0001

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The Downfall

The Downfall

(p.408) Nineteen The Downfall
Menachem Begin

Avi Shilon

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The death of his wife Aliza Arnold in Israel while he was away on an official visit to Washington exacerbated Menachem Begin's mounting depression. Begin disagreed with U.S. President Ronald Reagan over the peace plan proposed for Israel and Lebanon. On February 8, 1983, the Kahan Commission released its report regarding the massacre of more than 800 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The commission concluded that members of the Christian phalanges were responsible for the massacre and rejected Begin's claim that the threat of a massacre was completely absent from his mind, but did not call for his resignation. On May 17, after lengthy talks with Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz finished a draft agreement that required Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in exchange for a peace treaty between the two warring countries. Begin resigned as prime minister in October.

Keywords:   peace treaty, Aliza Arnold, Israel, Menachem Begin, Ronald Reagan, massacre, Palestinians, Amin Gemayel, George Shultz, Lebanon

Even when he had returned home during the days of the commission meetings, Begin could not be comforted. Aliza had developed severe pneumonia, and her condition deteriorated rapidly. She was hospitalized again and again, and Begin spent long hours at her bedside.1 At home she often had to use a respirator and a wheelchair. Begin found it hard to see the champion of his youth so weak, and her condition affected his ability to conduct meetings. He needed no medical knowledge to understand that the woman he loved, who had given him the strength he had needed to cope with the difficulties he encountered, was fading away. In a conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Israel before a meeting with Reagan in November 1982, Begin said that he preferred to resign and “devote my time to her in the time she has left,” but Aliza encouraged him to continue in office.2

Reagan wanted to meet in Washington to discuss the peace plan, about which he and Begin were in disagreement. Before the meeting Begin was scheduled to deliver speeches across the United States and to raise funds. Amid preparations for the visit Begin split his time between the Prime Minister's Office and Aliza's bedside. At the beginning of November her condition took another turn for the worse, and a breathing tube was inserted into her throat. Because she could not speak, she communicated by writing notes. Begin wanted to postpone his scheduled visit and stay by her side until she recovered. At that time Begin's relationship with Burg got closer, and Burg too believed he had to postpone the trip. But Aliza wanted to bolster him, as usual, and after hearing allegations that he was unable to perform his duties, she (p.409) encouraged him to go.3 Before leaving for the United States, Begin went to say goodbye. Aliza was connected to an oxygen pump. When she noticed that he was leaning toward canceling the trip in order to stay with her, she wrote, “Don't worry; everything will be fine; you have to go.” Begin kissed her and said goodbye. She fell asleep immediately afterward.4

Begin did not go alone to the United States; his daughter Leah replaced Aliza. On Saturday, December 13, Begin was expected to speak at a large event in Los Angeles. He prepared his outline, as usual, and in the afternoon he went to the synagogue to pray with the Jewish community.

Benny learned about his mother's death while Begin was in his hotel room. He hurried to call the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles and spoke with Kadishai, who suggested first notifying Begin's doctor, who was at the synagogue and had a beeper, but he did not notice a message that arrived while he was reading the Torah. Only upon the doctor's return to the hotel did Kadishai tell Begin succinctly, “I got a call from Benny. Aliza has passed away.” Begin locked himself in the bathroom, and when he finally came out, he wanted to change his tie. Leah entered the room and began to cry, and he muttered, “I shouldn't have left her.”5

Kadishai organized their return to Israel. Begin asked him to make sure Aliza would be buried on the Mount of Olives, near the graves of underground fighters Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, who had been sentenced to death and committed suicide before the verdict was executed. (He purchased the burial plot for himself and Aliza following her death.)6 The flight from Los Angeles to Israel took sixteen hours, and Begin spent the entire flight in the bedroom on the plane. His world had fallen apart. He knew that nothing would ever be the same.7 The funeral took place when he returned to Israel. He walked silently behind Aliza's coffin, wearing a gray hat and supported by the weeping Leah. Begin sat shivah at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem. He kept the mourning customs, did not shave during the thirty days of mourning, and did not hesitate to cry on the shoulders of guests who came to comfort him. President Navon described how Begin “attacked” him with hugs, as if to hold onto every shoulder offering him support.8 It was clear to his friends that Begin would find it difficult to survive without Aliza, and his guilt at leaving her in her final moments added to his sorrow.9

Despite his deep grief Begin decided to return to work full time, and when the days of mourning ended, he also returned to conducting (p.410) meetings with a firm hand, as if to prove he had not lost his power.10 But his guilt never left him, and neither did the grief over Aliza's death. The frustration evoked by the outcome of the war, the loneliness, and the mental fatigue that gripped him were evident in all his actions. “You suddenly see what a person is worth,” he told Foreign Minister Shamir while feeling some weakness when climbing the stairs to the cabinet conference room.11 When he participated in a meeting of Northern Command officers, he fell asleep just a few minutes after it began, and the perplexed officers tried to wake him. Ben Gal pushed the table, while another officer made a loud noise on purpose. Begin woke up and fell asleep again. “As soldiers say, he caught some z's,” said Ben Gal. When he awoke, before the meeting's conclusion, Begin asked, among other odd questions, “How do you communicate with the soldiers?” and “What's the difference between wireless and a two-way radio?”12

Begin tended to express distress and to share his health issues with those around him. He told Burg that he had had some bleeding and that “a genius Sephardi doctor” had told him that it was caused by the aspirin he was taking for headaches. Burg was surprised by both his candor and his childlike naivety and told his wife, “Aspirin causes bleeding only if one suffers from some other major problem. Does he really think that without aspirin he will get better?” Burg believed that Begin would not be able to function as before and discussed his thoughts with Ehrlich. After one of the meetings in which Begin seemed distracted, the two decided to turn either to the attorney general or to the president if his condition did not improve within a week. However, Begin conducted the next meeting like his usual self, resolutely and firmly. Because of his constant mood swings it was difficult to tell whether his distress was a temporary state that would pass with time or whether it was a sign of irreversible mental and physical deterioration.13

On February 8, 1983, the Kahan Commission's report was published. The commission ruled that members of the Christian phalanges were responsible for the massacre but added that the Israeli government was indirectly responsible. Regarding Begin, the report stated, “We cannot accept his claim that the threat of a massacre was completely absent from his mind…. The prime minister's lack of involvement in the matter casts a degree of responsibility upon him,” but it did not suggest that he should resign.14

The report got prominent media coverage throughout the world. The February issue of Koteret Rashit sported the headline “Remove the (p.411) Government of Evil from the Land.” Nachum Barnea, the magazine's editor, wrote that the prime minister was described in the report as an “uninvolved zombie.”15 Feeling that the burden of Jewish history was on his shoulders, Begin was hurt most of all by the comparison that the commission had made between Israel's responsibility for the events in Sabra and Shatila and the responsibility of the authorities in Russia and Poland toward the Jews who were massacred in those countries in the nineteenth century.16

Begin shut himself up in his room after receiving the report, and after reading it, he told Government Secretary Dan Meridor that he should resign. This was the first time he explicitly expressed a wish to retire, but the justice minister and the government secretary persuaded him to go on.17 Meridor did not ignore Begin's distress signals, but he was convinced that under the circumstances, there was no greater leader in the country at the time and that in any event, he could not retire at a time when his reputation was being tarnished.

Begin was not the only one criticized in the report. The commission noted that it did not suggest that IDF chief of staff Eitan should be dismissed only because he was about to end his term. It also said that Sharon—who claimed that he did not consider that the phalanges, “who had among them lawyers and engineers,” would take the military term he had used, “mopping up,” as permission to commit a massacre18—had been negligent and recommended that he should not continue to serve as defense minister.

On Thursday, February 10, the government convened to decide on its response to the commission's recommendations. Sharon suggested that the recommendations be rejected and that preparations for elections begin, but other ministers opposed his proposal. Since the commission was satisfied with a recommendation alone, Begin had the burden of deciding on his own whether to dismiss Sharon from the defense ministry or not. Now that he had the opportunity to be rid of Sharon, it was too late; he could no longer make major decisions, and he asked the attorney general to decide. The AG ruled that Sharon must resign but added that he could serve in a different ministry.19 Sharon anticipated Begin and resigned as minister of defense.

Two days after the publication of the Kahan Commission's conclusions, the Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) movement organized another demonstration in Jerusalem against the war in Lebanon and demanded that the commission's findings be implemented. The protesters planned to march to the government building, but shortly after word of the (p.412) march spread, the rightists organized a demonstration in support of the war. In the midst of the demonstration, a right-wing activist, Yona Abrushmy, threw a hand grenade at the marchers heading for the government building. Emil Grinzweig, a thirty-three-year-old reserve officer who had fought in Lebanon, was killed. Avraham Burg, son of the interior minister, was wounded. The grenade throwing was the culmination of a wave of violence and hatred that swept Israel—the result of the deep disagreement between supporters of the war and its opponents. Begin learned about the fatal incident during a cabinet meeting. He condemned the murder but refused to give a televised speech, claiming he had not shaved that morning. Only after his aides pressured him to do so did he agree. He said that the murder was “a terrible tragedy.” “God save us from taking the path of violence,” he concluded and returned home.20

Despite the intense public opinion and the commission's conclusions, Begin did not dismiss Sharon from the government; he appointed him a minister without portfolio and a member of the security cabinet. And despite all this, Sharon still believed that Begin had abandoned him. He believed he was paying the price for a war for which they were both responsible.

As a minister without portfolio, Sharon no longer had any decisive influence in the government, and he expressed his frustration in a meeting he initiated with Begin in the summer of 1983. He went to Begin's office when he learned that another Israeli soldier had been killed in Lebanon. “A tragedy, a tragedy,” Begin muttered and looked at Sharon. But Sharon did not blink. “The role of the leader is not to cry but to lead,” he told Begin, and before the prime minister could respond he added, “But that's not why I came to see you.” Sharon told him that when he left the defense ministry, he recalled his father, who had begged him on the day he was recruited to the Haganah never to hand over Jews to foreigners. Therefore, Sharon said, he had avoided joining the Palmach, which had fought against Etzel. “But you, Menachem—you turned me in,” he said. Journalist Uri Dan, who was Sharon's media adviser at the time, claimed that Sharon told him about this meeting with great satisfaction and later saw it as the last straw regarding Begin's retirement.21

The year 1983 was a bad one for Israel. In late February Moshe Arens, Israel's ambassador to the United States, replaced Sharon as defense minister. Begin preferred him over the other candidate, Reserve (p.413) General Israel Tal. When Arens was appointed, many IDF troops were still stationed throughout wide areas of Lebanon. Arens changed the deployment of forces, ordered the IDF to prepare for a withdrawal and redeployment on the Awali River line, and decided that the SLA would be deployed throughout the security zone. The plan was delayed twice at the request of the Americans, who wanted to allow the Lebanese Christians to strengthen their status in the country. The IDF began withdrawing its forces in August, after which Syria resumed control over the Beirut-Damascus road, and the Druze started fighting the Christians for control of the Chouf Mountains.

Israel's economy was also in poor shape. Mass strikes erupted sporadically, including a doctors' strike that lasted three months and a strike of El Al employees. The country's external debt soared to $21 billion,22 and the inflation rate rose to 191 percent. According to a National Insurance Institute report, about half a million people were living below the poverty line.23

Another danger posed to the Israeli economy was the unrealistic rise in share prices in the stock market, resulting from the method of their adjustment. During the 1970s Bank Hapoalim began regulating the price of its shares and recommended their purchase to its clients. These purchases enabled the bank to increase its capital for providing loans, for investments, and so on. In order to convince customers to continue to invest in its shares—that is, to make them an attractive investment opportunity—the bank itself bought its shares, creating the impression that they were in great demand. The bank also offered its customers generous credit for buying shares, making further profits from the interest. Share price adjustment through the creation of artificial demand appeared to the banks as an easy method for raising huge sums. Gradually, Bank Leumi, Discount Bank, Hamizrachi Bank, Bank Igud, and the General Bank joined Bank Hapoalim in the regulation of share prices. The only major bank that did not regulate its shares was Bank Habeinleumi (International Bank). Under pressure from the Israel Securities Authority, the banks reported the adjustments in their annual reports, but because of the need to hide the adjustments from the public, the reports were often partial, misleading, and sometimes false. The purpose of the adjustments was to create a steady increase in share prices regardless of the state of the economy. The artificial rates created an economic bubble, as the public continued to invest huge amounts in the shares but got diminishing returns. From January to March, Finance Minister Yoram Aridor and Ezra Sadan, the (p.414) ministry's general manager, appealed several times to the heads of the banks to gradually reduce the adjustments. But treasury officials feared that if the public knew about the adjustments, it would lead to a real collapse, so they therefore refrained from publicizing the fact that they were pressuring the banks on this issue. Begin himself was uninterested in the financial situation and allowed Aridor to manage the economy as he saw fit. By that time he was completely indifferent to what was happening around him, and in the meetings he chaired it was clear that “only his body was present.”24

The pressure on the banks was not fruitful, so to put an end to the adjustments, the treasury officials sought to significantly devaluate the shekel. In August 1983 the currency was devaluated by 8 percent, but this was not enough to stop the share price adjustments. By this time public selloffs of shares had increased, reaching their peak in September. The public converted bank shares into dollars, and the banks failed to convince them to stop. On October 9, the stock market collapsed, and the stock exchange was closed until October 24. Meanwhile, the shekel had depreciated by 23 percent. From the public the Bank of Israel bought shares whose value had depreciated by dozens of percentage points.

The direct result of the share price adjustment crisis was disastrous. One-third of the public's investments went down the drain, and the government bought the banks with public funds. Although the stock market actually collapsed only after Begin's resignation, the process leading up to the collapse was the result of his detachment from the situation. If he had been functioning properly, he may have been able to pressure the Ministry of Finance to eliminate the adjustments since it had already noticed signs of the impending crisis earlier in the year. In 1984, after the bank shares were put in order and before a stabilization plan was formulated by the new government, the inflation rate was 445 percent, and the shekel's depreciation against the dollar amounted to 493 percent. The economy was in danger of bankruptcy.25

The ministers blamed one another for the frequent scandals, and the cabinet meetings seemed like a dueling arena. Begin struggled to steer the ship of state effectively. His despondency grew, and he sometimes seemed tired of his job and lost his main psychological resource—hope. His condition became so serious that in one incident in which soldiers were killed, his military secretary, Azriel Nevo, and his secretary argued whether or not to update him from fear that he would (p.415) collapse.26 His eyesight, damaged during the stroke he had suffered, weakened and faded; his chronic leg pain exhausted him, and the pain relievers he took slowed down his reactions.27 One day, while Begin was reading an article by Yoel Marcus in Haaretz that said the situation of the state was terrible, Dan Meridor entered his office. To Meridor's surprise, as he finished reading the article, Begin said to him, “What can we do? Marcus is right.”28

Begin gradually let go the reins of control and enclosed himself in silence. His passivity was rarely reflected in public, and his condition was also kept hidden. For example, at a dinner party during a private visit by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Begin did not eat or speak. He ignored Carter and those around him mainly because of his anger at Carter's statements condemning the war in Lebanon, but this attitude was not so much a thunderous silence as an expression of his despair and lack of will to enter into confrontations. Burg, who was also invited to the dinner, had to initiate topics for conversation.29

In May, Begin was invited once again to a meeting with Reagan, but he asked to postpone it. Now he could not hide his mood,30 and when he realized that there was no easy solution to the issues of Lebanon, he fell deeper into despair and sometimes did not even bother to go to the office in the mornings. He grew very thin and ceased to dye his hair as frequently as before. Batya Eldad, Aliza's friend, said to Ruth, Benny's wife (who worked with her at a welfare organization), “Begin is acting like someone who wants to die,” adding that in her opinion his suffering was more intense because he was unable to express his distress. Eldad asked Ruth to convince his family to get him psychological help.31 Not only did Begin reject help from everyone, but it even seemed as though he was purging himself through self-punishment.32 When the interior minister suggested that he order the police to remove protesters from Shalom Achshav who had placed a board outside his house on which they continuously updated the increasing number of IDF soldiers killed in the war, Begin insisted that it was their democratic right, although it was clearly making him suffer.33

On May 17, after lengthy talks with Amin Gemayel, U.S. secretary of state George Shultz was able to conclude a draft agreement between Israel and Lebanon in which Syria and Israel would withdraw their forces from Lebanon in exchange for a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon. Although it was clear that Gemayel would not be able to implement the agreement and remove the Syrians from his country, (p.416) Shamir and Arens saw it as a political success. Begin, despite his aspirations to sign such an agreement with Bachir, was no longer interested. When Arens and Shamir presented him with the agreement, they argued that it was the most important achievement of the war, if only for its mission statement.34 But Begin, who throughout his life had preceded actions with words, was not convinced. He only listened, and as he handed the signed agreement to the president, he said, “Here is the agreement that is not worth the paper it was written on.” He was right. In the spring of 1984 the Lebanese government canceled the agreement, and it was never implemented.35

After the publication of the Kahan Commission report Begin rarely gave interviews or made public appearances, but on July 7, after having refused several times, he agreed to the request of some old friends from Herut to participate in a political debate on the war in Lebanon. Begin surprised the audience not only because of his presence but mainly because of what he said. For some reason he chose to focus on the claims of a citizen who had published a newspaper article expressing his opposition to Jabotinsky's theories. There was no doubt now that Begin was having trouble dealing with reality. “As for Lebanon—it is a tragedy,” he concluded and stepped down from the podium. By purposely selecting the word “tragedy,” he meant that this was a drama that would have an inevitably sad end because of wrong decisions that had led to the entanglement. It was his way of saying he could not change the results and therefore was taking responsibility for them.36 Begin's last speech in the headquarters of the party he had founded lasted about five minutes. The participants were startled. He looked thin and pale, the jacket he wore did not match his shrinking frame, and after his speech, he sat and stared without uttering a single word.37

The following day Haaretz published an interview with Shlomo Argov, the ambassador whose attempted assassination had been the pretext for the war. Argov criticized the conduct of the war and said it had been a “military experiment.”38 Begin refused to respond to his remarks. When Begin met with Miriam Gross, the mother of a soldier from the Nahal infantry brigade who had fallen captive to Lebanese terrorists, she asked him to begin negotiations with terrorist organizations, including the PLO and Ahmed Jibril's organization. Begin remained silent and she threw herself down on the floor and burst into tears. Begin was in a hurry to get to another meeting, but he refused to leave the room until Mrs. Gross got up.39 These moments were sad and embarrassing, and they had a crucial effect on Begin's mood. The next (p.417) day the diaspora affairs adviser went to visit Begin in his office. Begin ate crackers, drank water with lemon, and said nothing. Upon leaving the room in shock, the adviser told Kadishai, “He is ill.”40

Even Kadishai was worried. Unlike before the elections, he suggested to Begin that several public rallies be held. He clung to the hope that once again Begin would find a cure in the love of the masses. But Begin objected. He did not justify his opposition with the idea that the era of public rallies was over—as Kadishai himself had claimed before the election—but he simply believed that they would serve no purpose. Kadishai tried to persuade him, to elicit some enthusiasm, but Begin told him, “Yechiel, you cannot force someone to laugh.”41 Meridor too noted Begin's sorry state, but he was convinced that Israel had no other leader of his stature who could replace him. Kadishai still hoped he would recover. He saw Begin's loneliness after the death of his wife as the main predicament. After a consultation between Kadishai and Avraham Shapira from Agudat Israel, Shapira turned to the rabbi from Gur for advice. He returned to Kadishai and promised, “Do not worry; the rabbi said that only after Shalosh Regalim [the three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism] do you get over grief, and Begin will recover.”42

But Begin was unable to overcome the difficulties in which he was entangled, and he no longer bothered to hide his condition. When he acceded to a request by David Danon, a former Etzel member, to host a delegation of Jews from the United States in his office, Danon was alarmed by his condition. The prime minister leaned on him, was deep in thought, and preferred to listen to those present rather than to give a speech.43 The prime minister's condition was an open secret among his friends. Everyone knew but kept silent. The myth he had become was greater than the man. “We were simply afraid; we feared that it would make a big noise,” Foreign Minister Shamir in retrospect explained the silence of the ministers, who continued to serve a malfunctioning prime minister.44

They were not the only ones who kept silent. During a meeting with Begin, President Chaim Herzog noticed that Begin did not respond in his usual manner. He told Klimovitski, Begin's secretary, that he thought Begin was suffering from depression and suggested either that treatment be organized for him or that the pressure he was under be minimized. Klimovitski responded the same way all of Begin's close associates responded to such comments, as if it was chutzpah to interfere in personal matters.45

(p.418) But the U.S. president's request to meet with Begin could not be called chutzpah. When Begin rejected the meeting scheduled in May, the administration set a new date. But Begin did not have enough strength to meet with the president in June either, and he had no proper excuse. To avoid damaging the special relationship with the United States, Begin called the president directly and made it clear that the reason for the cancellation was personal, and he promised that a new date would be determined soon. “I just cannot go to the United States, and even Reagan understands me,” he told his office.46

In June Begin avoided public appearances and asked that cabinet meetings take place mostly without him.47 He was now carrying out minimum functions as the prime minister. His physical condition deteriorated further, and he now struggled even to take off his shoes.48 His military secretary, Kadishai, and Meridor took care of most of his business. After Aliza's death, his daughter Leah moved back home. But he accepted emotional support from no one. He kept the reasons for his decline completely to himself. His secretary blamed Sharon because he had deceived him.49 The foreign minister was convinced that the Lebanese Christians' betrayal had undermined him and attributed his tendency to withdraw to his home to his physical weakness.50

Although Begin's condition was well hidden from the Israeli people, the U.S. administration grew angry about the repeated delays of the meeting with Reagan. Ambassador Lewis met with Meridor to emphasize the importance of Begin's trip to the United States and urged him to encourage him to go. When Meridor spoke to Begin about it, Begin said, “You're right; the prime minister has to visit Washington.” Only in retrospect did Meridor understand that Begin was trying to tell him that he was no longer suitable for office.51 Kadishai also tried to find out, with awe and compassion, if Begin was ready to meet with Reagan, in part because he believed that the meeting would bring him back to life. “Look at my collar,” Begin interrupted him; “I can fit two fingers between my throat and my collar. Can I go to Reagan in my condition?”52

In August Begin was due to celebrate his seventieth birthday, the date on which he once, when strong and self-confident, had promised to retire. The government secretary believed that this date was critical. He thought that Begin, who appreciated closure, would take advantage of the symbolic date and would retire in a dignified manner. But Begin was not interested in a celebratory retirement. At his office everyone made an effort to cheer him up and made him a cake. He struggled to (p.419) cut the cake and his secretary helped him. The image of them slicing the cake together was published only in the weekly tabloid Haolam Haze; it was a symbolic picture. Begin's associates pressured him to continue, to believe, to be optimistic, but he could no longer continue. “Enough, enough,” he told Kadishai in August. Kadishai, his trusted aide, held on to the hope that Begin would regain his spirits, as had happened in the past. “What's the rush? You'll overcome this,” he said.53 Begin's other associates also held to the hope in his mental strength, reflected in his ability to bounce back after all the defeats he had suffered in his life. The myth of the great and powerful Begin had not dissipated even in his old age; his departure from the scene was seen as the closing of a curtain on an era in Israel's history, on an entire camp, a sentence they all had difficulty passing on themselves.

Meanwhile, the rift in Israeli society deepened. Since June 1980, an organized group of Jews, who later became known as the Jewish Underground, had been executing terrorist attacks against Palestinians in Judea and Samaria.54 When the group carried out an attack at the Islamic College in Hebron in August 1983, Begin had to agree with the attorney general that they must act against the group under the terms of the emergency regulations, and the events only reinforced his feeling that he had no way out.55

On August 27, 1983, German flags were hoisted over the Prime Minister's Office building in honor of a visit by Helmut Kohl, the new German chancellor. The night before the visit Begin decided that the following day, in the government meeting, he would announce that he wanted to resign. When his adviser on diaspora affairs entered his office, Begin said, as he looked out the window at the German flags blowing in the wind, that he had solved the dilemma of a visit from a German. Begin was clearly no longer thinking as a prime minister who had promised upon taking office that when it came to relations with Germany, he would act as a head of state; rather he now spoke to Horowitz as Begin the Jew, a civilian who did not want to shake hands with the German chancellor.56

The next day, the most decisive he had been for a long time, Begin got up early and stood in his office awaiting Kadishai's arrival. When Kadishai stepped into the office, he seemed satisfied with Begin's appearance, as he looked much better than before; at that moment Begin announced, “It's good you've come. I want to tell you that today I will quit my job.”57 Kadishai was the first to hear of his decision, but he was not surprised. He assumed that Begin would have the final word on (p.420) the matter, and perhaps he too was relieved. He did not say a thing about it to anyone. On his way to the meeting in which Begin was going to tell the ministers that he was resigning, he ran into Matityahu Shmuelevitz, the director of the Prime Minister's Office, who told Kadishai that it would be a long meeting as it would deal with the economic crisis. Kadishai said, “No, it will be a short meeting.” Only then could he no longer hold in the news and informed Begin's military secretary of the expected announcement. He too remained silent. Meanwhile Kadishai updated the government secretary. Meridor was concerned and would not give up hope. As he entered the conference room, Kadishai sent Yaakov Meridor a note saying he would try to convince Begin to postpone his decision.

The other ministers knew nothing about the projected retirement. For them this was supposed to be just another regular meeting. In the middle of the meeting an argument erupted between Sharon and Arens, and Sharon stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind him. Begin did not respond. He allowed the ministers to say what they had to say, and when they had finished, he asked for permission to speak.58

“The reason for my announcement is personal,” he began. “But I feel I can no longer wait to deliver it, so I will make it according to the law. First of all, I ask for forgiveness, absolution, and atonement. Whether it will be granted to me, I do not know…. Gentlemen and friends, I am informing the government of my intention to resign. I did not think I would come here today. I came specifically to deliver this message because only then can the legal process begin. I repeat: I can no longer fulfill this role.” He used the words “this role” almost in disgust, quietly, and in full confidence of his decision. Minister Meridor interrupted, “Mr. Prime Minister, I suggest the government does not accept your announcement.” Begin was quick to interrupt his old friend: “Yaakov, there is no legal possibility that the government will not accept my announcement.”59

Later many ministers, whether fearing for their political careers or for Begin himself, tried to convince him to retract his resignation. “We have followed you through thick and thin; take it back,” Shamir said. “Sir, all members of the government request that you reject this announcement, that you reconsider,” Justice Minister Moshe Nissim said. Yitzhak Modai could not resist mentioning that Begin's resigning would harm “our” shared objectives, meaning the Likud's rule. Tsipori was more direct: “The government may be put in Peres's hands.” David Levy said, “The people love you.” And Eliezer Shostak, a veteran Revisionist

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Begin raising the Euroleague Basketball Cup with Lou Silver, Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball player (right), March 1981. (Courtesy of GPO.)

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IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan (right) welcoming Begin upon his return from the United States March 1981. (Behind Begin, Yitzhak Shamir.) (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Begin and IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan at a press conference following the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq, June 1981. (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Begin (left) visiting the city or Ariel during the 1981 campaign. (On Begin's left, David Levy; on Levy's left, Yaakov Meridor.) (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Begin bowing before President Yitzhak Navon and his wife Ofira just before his second inauguration, July 1981. (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Begin (left) toasting Ariel Sharon (second from right) on his first day as minister of defense, August 1981. (At Sharon's left, his wife Lily.) (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Begin with U.S. president Ronald Reagan at the White House, September 1981. (Courtesy of White House.)

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Begin alone in his wheelchair during a Knesset discussion on annexing the Golan Heights, December 1981. (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Begin (right) and Sharon (center) visiting Beaufort Castle after its occupation, Lebanon, 1982. (Courtesy of IDF.)

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Begin (at table to right) testifying about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, November 1982. (On his left, Dan Meridor, secretary of state; on his right, Kadishai, bureau chief.) (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Begin celebrating the Mimuna (a Moroccan Jewish festival), April 1983. (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Begin (standing) in his last coalition meeting after resigning from the government, August 30, 1983. (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Dan Meridor (center left) and Benny Begin (center right) in the Knesset, December, 1995. (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Begin (now seventy-five and aided by daughter Leah) during a memorial service for his wife Aliza, August 1988. (Courtesy of GPO.)

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Tens of thousands pay their last respects at Begin's funeral, March 9, 1992. (Courtesy of GPO.)

The Downfall

Begin on his birthday, August 1983. (His secretary, Yona Klimovitski, helps him cut the cake.) (Courtesy of GPO.)

(p.421) to everyone's surprise, responded: “I'm afraid your position is correct; it's hard for me to ask you to retract it.” Begin listened to everyone with a blank face, thanked them, and said, “Do you think I didn't consider it before? The session is closed.”60 He hurried to closet himself in his room and drafted his letter of resignation.

The government secretary provoked consternation among reporters when he told them that “The prime minister has announced his resignation.” There was a great commotion, but Begin just wanted to leave the Prime Minister's Office. Many ministers chased him, as though they wanted to see him off one last time. He said a weak goodbye to the photographers who were already waiting near his car and sat down in the back.61 Begin was operating out of a sense of urgency, like someone trying to get rid of a heavy burden.62 As he went on his way, ministers gathered in Kadishai's room to obtain information about the resignation.

Kadishai did not know more than the ministers. “Begin said he can't take it anymore,” he explained. But there were ministers who insisted on phoning him at home, including Burg. On the phone Begin only said again, “I can't take it anymore.”63 Kadishai concluded as follows: “Apart from the claim that he regretted the Lebanon war and the peace treaty with Egypt, all things said about his motives for resigning are true. Everything caused him to physically weaken. He said, ‘I can't [take it] anymore.’ … So naturally the next question is: But why couldn't he take it anymore? My answer is that he could not continue. Why? Because he was a perfectionist. He wanted to do things perfectly, and he felt that he no longer had the energy—neither to meet Reagan nor to appear before an audience nor to have a serious discussion with the gusto he was used to. So he retired from political life and went home.”64

Begin truly could not take it anymore, but the main reason for his retirement was repentance—knowing that he was unable to end the war the way he wanted, the way he had dreamed. However, he believed that imposing responsibility on Sharon would increase his negligence. And his conscience tormented him. He knew that as prime minister he should bear “another gram of responsibility,” and he therefore refused to disclose the details behind his decision to resign. But many ministers and associates hoped that this time, as in 1951 and in 1966, he would yield to their pleas and return to center stage.

After the announcement of Begin's retirement his adherents suggested that owing to the shock thousands of fans would flock to the Prime Minister's Residence and demand that he retract his resignation.65 By noon over two hundred people had gathered there, and some carried signs reading, “Begin—you are our king.” But as evening (p.422) descended, the masses had not turned up, and the few who gathered near the house went their separate ways. It seemed that those who loved Begin were exhausted and understood his motives. By that night, the only people who remained were the protesters from Shalom Achshav, who continued to note the number of casualties of the war.

The next day, the coalition members met in the Knesset, and many of Begin's friends from the underground joined them.66 Begin decided to attend the meeting. The rumor of his arrival made everyone a little optimistic about the possibility that he might retract his resignation. He arrived wearing a dark jacket over an open-collared white shirt, and it was apparent that he felt relieved. He did not come in order to talk about his motives or to be talked out of resigning, but to take his leave of politics and the Knesset he loved so dearly, maybe even to savor his final moments in the Knesset, in which he felt so much at home. “There is only one reason I cannot continue,” he said. “Please let me go to the president.” Minister Meridor was quick to respond again, “You said ‘Please let me.’ Well, we will not.” Begin smiled at him. “Yaakov, it will not help,” he said. Little attention was paid to the dialogue between Meridor and Begin and more to the minister who had stormed out of the cabinet meeting on the day Begin announced his resignation and was now again present.

Ariel Sharon was well aware that Begin's associates held him responsible for the retirement, and he also had something to say. “With all due sorrow, the prime minister's resignation does not mean the dissolution of the party,” he concluded. He asked Begin, in his characteristic level-headed manner, to technically delay his resignation so that it would be possible to form a new government.67 It was clear that Begin was disappointed by Sharon's comments, but he did not express it. He shook hands with everyone and never returned to the Knesset.

Sharon's remarks were politically important. Because of changes that had taken place in the factions during Begin's term, Sharon feared that the president would ask Peres to form a new government. For this reason Begin agreed to delay the delivery of his letter of resignation to the president until the Likud could choose a new candidate.

Begin continued to serve officially from August 28 until Yitzhak Shamir replaced him on October 10, but he remained at home. He dissociated himself from the ministers and even refused to meet with Defense Minister Arens. He ran the country through his secretaries. It was clear that he was fed up with his job and did not want to make even practical decisions. “Use your own discretion. If it seems okay, then it's (p.423) okay,” he told Nevo. The intelligence reports brought to him for review were returned without comments. He suffered from a skin rash, which was perhaps psychosomatic, and because he could not shave, he would not even go out beyond the yard of his residence.68

Two Likud members were candidates to replace Begin: David Levy, who declared himself Begin's heir, and Shamir, who avoided personal statements but said he could lead the government properly. Begin refused to voice support for either of them. Although he respected Levy in many ways, he used to say in private conversations, “He only knows French,” as if to politely express his dissatisfaction that the deputy prime minister did not know English well. He believed that the country would benefit more from Shamir's skills. Most of his associates in the party chose Shamir.

On September 15 Begin was due to report to the president to submit his letter of resignation, but still he refused to leave his house. The government secretary was surprised. It was not typical of Begin, who all his life had attributed much importance to ceremonies. His relatives tried to convince him that he was worthy of stepping down from the stage in a more elegant, formal manner. But Begin insisted that the beard he had grown to cover the rash on his face did not allow him to leave the house. It was the first time a resigning prime minister refused to personally submit his letter of resignation to the president. When a loophole in the law was found, it was decided that Meridor would submit the letter for him. His close friends believed that he would not be satisfied with just the resignation and feared that he literally wanted to disappear.

The government secretary submitted the letter three times to the president, at the request of photographers who documented the scene. Now Begin was officially no longer prime minister. Now began the last chapter in his life's journey. The next day, the eve of Yom Kippur, Begin did not pray at the synagogue.


(1) Yosef Burg, Israel State Archives, May 8, 1994.

(2) Quoted in Ofer Grosbard, Menachem Begin: A Portrait of a Leader—A Biography (Resling, 2006), 291.

(3) Yosef Burg, Israel State Archives, May 8, 1994.

(4) Ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Chaim Corfu, Menachem Begin Heritage Center, June 21, 2000.

(8) ibid.

(9) ibid.

(10) Arie Naor, Begin in Power: A Personal Testimony (Yediot Ahronot, 1993), 331.

(11) Yitzhak Shamir, Israel State Archives, February 6, 1995.

(12) . From author's conversation with Yanush Ben Gal, April 14, 2005.

(13) Yosef Burg, Israel State Archives, May 8, 1994.

(14) Ha'ir, September 14, 2000.

(15) Koteret Rashit, no. 11, February 1983.

(16) Kahan Commission Report, 66–67.

(17) Naor, Begin in Power, 332.

(18) Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Yaari, Israel's Lebanon War 1982 (Schocken, 1984), 323.

(19) (p.514) Yitzhak Zamir, Menachem Begin Heritage Center, July 24, 2001,

(20) Eric Silver, Begin: The Haunted Prophet (Random Housem 1984), 240.

(21) Uri Dan, Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait (Yediot Ahronot, 2006), 150–153.

(22) Tedi Frois, Begin in Power (Keter, 1984), 170.

(23) . National Insurance Institute Report, January 1984.

(24) Yosef Burg, Israel State Archives, May 8, 1994.

(25) Israel, Kiryat Ono Academic College, September 11, 2003.

(26) Yona Klimovitski, Israel State Archives, July 24, 1994.

(28) From an interview with Dan Meridor, May 20, 2007

(29) Yosef Burg, Israel State Archives, May 18, 1994.

(30) . From author's conversation with Arie Naor, April 25, 2007.

(31) Batya Eldad, Israel State Archives, January 9, 1994.

(34) Grosbard, Menachem Begin, 297.

(35) Schiff and Yaari, Israel's Lebanon War, 363

(36) . From author's conversation with Arie Naor, April 25, 2007.

(37) Naor, Begin in Power, 333.

(38) Haaretz, July 8, 1983.

(39) From an interview with Dan Meridor, May 9, 2007

(40) Harry Horowitz, Israel State Archives, November 15, 1993.

(41) Naor, Begin in Power, 318.

(43) David Danon, Israel State Archives, February 17, 1994.

(46) (p.515) Yehuda Lapidot, Menachem Begin Heritage Center, August 3, 2000.

(49) Yona Klimovitski, Israel State Archives, July 24, 1994.

(51) From an interview with Dan Meridor, May 9, 2007

(52) Yechiel Kadishai, Menachem Begin Heritage Center, February 6, 2002.

(53) Yechiel Kadishai, Israel State Archives, May 5, 1993.

(54) Chaggai Segal, Dear Brothers: History of the Jewish Underground (Keter, 1987).

(55) Yitzhak Zamir, Menachem Begin Heritage Center, July 24, 2001.

(58) Moshe Nissim, Menachem Begin Heritage Center, September 27, 2000.

(59) Naor, Begin in Power, 339.

(61) . National Photo Collection, August 28, 1983.

(62) Yechiel Kadishai, Israel State Archives, May 5, 1993.

(65) Sarah Doron, Menachem Begin Heritage Center, July 5, 2001.

(66) Naor, Begin in Power, 341.

(68) Azriel Nevo, Menachem Begin Heritage Center, August 28, 2000.