Personal portrait of Menachem Begin: `a lesson in power'

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To Win or to Die: A Personal Portrait of Menachem Begin, by Ned Temko. New York: Morrow. 460 pp. Illustrated. $18.95. For years a political pariah in his own country, rejected eight times by the electorate, known as the leader of the Irgun, the underground army responsible for bombing the King David Hotel and attacking the Arab village of Deir Yassin, Menachem Begin seemed on the way to becoming a footnote to history when, in 1977, he won the election that finally brought him and his right-wing coalition, Likud, to power.

For the next six years, he made history: at Camp David with Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat negotiating Israel's first real peace with an Arab neighbor; at home, forcing Jewish settlers to leave Sinai in accordance with the agreement, while consolidating and encouraging controversial settlements on the West Bank, ordering the lightning-strike attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor, and leading his country into the disastrous, protracted war in Lebanon before retiring abruptly in 1983 into mysterious obscurity.

Polite, gentlemanly - and sometimes ruthless

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In the words of biographer Ned Temko, who has covered the Middle East as a reporter and is currently The Christian Science Monitor's South Africa bureau chief, ``Begin's life is a lesson in power.'' Polite, gentlemanly, loyal, a sincere parliamentarian, Begin could be ruthless in dismissing supporters who ventured to dissent. He outflanked challenges to his authority by threatening to withdraw his leadership. He favored decisionmaking by consensus - generally expecting others to yield to his position.

Unlike Amos Perlmutter's ``The Life and Times of Menachem Begin,'' conceived as a political biography, Temko's book is intended as a personal portrait: a picture of the man rather than an analytical critique of his ideas. Not only is Temko less judging than Perlmutter, but he has also written a biography even more purely objective than Eric Silver's 1984 ``Begin: The Haunted Prophet,'' which most critics found reasonably unbiased. Temko's approach recalls George Orwell's advice that writers should aspire to the condition of windowpanes. What he achieves in the way of immediacy, however, is offset by what some readers may miss in the way of providing a deeper and more detailed picture of the historical and political background.

Interviewed longtime allies and ex-allies

Temko constructs a vivid portrait of the man from a variety of sources, most notably, interviews with Begin's family, friends, longtime allies and associates, opponents, critics, and ex-allies. He also draws on fascinating archival materials, accounts of cabinet meetings, high-level negotiations, even the minutes of Betar conferences from the early days of Begin's career. This is very much a reporter's book, filled with lively quotes from principals, witnesses, and supporting players, fast-paced, and page-turningly readable. The effect is rather like riding in the back seat of a squad car, getting to see the action up close. Apart from notes and acknowledgments, the author vanishes into the background, leaving the reader to judge for himself.

Temko's admirable objectivity and his self-effacement as a narrator are not tantamount to moral neutrality. His fair-mindedness and regard for accuracy are evident throughout. Discussing Begin's experience of the Gulag, for example, he notes that although Begin later claimed to have spent two years in prison and in a Soviet concentration camp, his actual confinement lasted one year, and of that year, only a month in the Gulag. ``Begin's confinement,'' writes Temko, ``however brief, was agony. The bruised limbs, the tundra flies, the taunts of the urki [common criminals] were no invention. Yet looking back, Begin seems to have felt the need to make the hell seem hotter; his stay longer.''

Begin's life was shaped by the Holocaust in which most of his family was killed. Yet, as this book suggests, his staunch allegiance to the militant brand of Zionism known as Revisionism was inherited from his father. Young Begin was active in the Revisionist youth group Betar. He worshipped Revisionism's brilliant and charismatic founder Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, whom mainstream Zionists like Ben Gurion understandably, if unfairly, accused of being a fascist.

Young Begin, like Jabotinsky, was actually a kind of 19th-century nationalist, an admirer of the Italian liberator Garibaldi. Revisionists hoped to reclaim both Palestine and Transjordan, and they favored decisive military action rather than the Labor Zionist program of reclaiming the land by farming, settling, and the work of their hands. Even Jabotinsky, however, was taken aback by the militance of some of his folowers. At the 1938 Betar Conference, he reprimanded Begin for generating mere ``noise for its own sake'' and for belittling the importance of appealing to the conscience of the world.

As Temko's book shows us, Begin is a limited man; if not the great statesman his admirers consider him, he is assuredly a man of character. It would probably be misleading to look for political, intellectual, or psychological depths in such a figure and this book avoids specious theorizing and speculation. Neither an apologist nor a prosecutor, Temko writes sympathetically of Begin, but never seems merely to be pleading his case. The result is a lifelike and believable portrait that leaves the reader free to make up his own mind on the basis of the evidence that has been so clearly and vividly presented.

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