The contradictory career of the former prime minister of Israel

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The Life and Times of Menachem Begin, by Amos Perlmutter. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. 444 pp. $21.95. Consider the contradictions in the half-century career of Menachem Begin as they emerge in this biography, which offers some fresh data and certain insights but lacks the intellectual power and focus required by so complex a subject.

As a young Zionist in pre-war Poland, Begin joined Betar, a militant youth movement that advocated force to drive the British from Palestine, which he had never even visited until war drove him there in 1943. A lawyer who was sincerely committed to legality, human rights, and British-style parliamentarism, Begin nevertheless commanded the Irgun Zvai Leumi's anti-British terrorism - including the bloody King David Hotel attack - from 1944 to 1948.

An impassioned critic of socialism, of David Ben-Gurion's Mapei, and of the boundaries devised in 1948, Begin yearned during the 1950s for legitimacy and respect from the Israeli establishment. He suddenly gained it in 1967, thanks to Nasser's threats of war: A government of national unity included Begin. And his much-derided territorial dreams came true that year, because of Israeli military power.

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A stylistic descendant of the Polish gentry, Begin found supporters among Israel's Sephardim, the Eastern Jews who neither knew nor cared about the old Warsaw. Though disdainful of all things Arab, he helped give Egypt the Camp David peace - and then launched the devastating invasion of Lebanon. And though public pontificating has been central to his life, Begin has been a virtual recluse since he retired in 1983.

What does it all mean? How do we reach beyond the United States media's portrayal of Begin as a stubborn old codger, narrow and self-righteous, to try to resolve these contradictions by understanding the mainsprings of his politics?

Amos Perlmutter offers a start, but little more. This is a reasonable book, balanced and fair in treating Begin as a patriot and a man of principle, but also as a highly limited leader. This, however, we knew: What is being added?

Perlmutter, born in the old Palestine and now an American academic, is authoritative on Israeli political gossip, on who wanted what, and on who said what to whom - particularly where Ariel Sharon is at fault - but not on the deeper forces that Begin embodied: laissez faire liberalism, romantic militarism, Jewish individualism. Perlmutter's text is diffuse, unsystematic, with Begin remaining distant and lifeless, in part no doubt because he guarded his privacy, in part also because Perlmutter doesn't risk pursuing tough questions.

Consider Begin's bouts of depression. Do these explain more about him than his occasional passivity and ineffectiveness? A biographer might at least speculate; Perlmutter doesn't. Or consider Begin's ``heroic'' period as a terrorist when, hunted and surrounded by enemies - including Ben-Gurion's followers - he staked out a historical place by helping evict the British. Perlmutter's simple, flat assertions that Begin then was a political figurehead, the military decisions being made by others, is just not enough: We need sustained proof, careful analysis - and there is none. In any case, Perlmutter treats a period filled with moral issues merely as a political episode. And what is the significance of Begin's fascination with the Israeli military, his love affair with Dayan and Sharon, his vision of a ``new'' Jewish man - and woman - invigorated and cleansed by combat, rising from the fire and blood of war to moral heights: Perlmutter, who is more interested in political maneuvering than in ideas, gives this short shrift. More is needed. Begin's models were drawn from the great 19th-century liberal and middle-class nationalists, most certainly from Herzl. Two 20th-century leaders who left their mark on Begin and his fellow Betarim were Poland's own J'ozef Pilsudski and Zeev Jabotinsky, a Zionist with international connections.

For Betar, politics signified, not merely problem-solving or legislative maneuvering, but the creation of a nation-state in which Jews - free at last from oppression - could finally shed the habits of the Diaspora, and stand upright in dignity and honor. The legacy of the great French Revolution finally lay at hand - surely violence was permissible under these circumstances. War and revolution were indeed the midwives of national independence. But Palestinian aspirations Begin rejects as mere impudence from what he defines as a cluster of tribes and clans.

It follows that disagreement was certain in the Camp David confrontations between Begin, for whom historical consciousness is everything, and Jimmy Carter, who - like most Americans - has moral but little historical consciousness. Amos Perlmutter had an opportunity to help us understand these issues; he hasn't taken it.

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