Israel Hails Begin As Giant of His Generation

Former prime minister leaves contradictory legacy

FORMER Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was buried on the Mount of Olives yesterday afternoon, in a ceremony symbolizing the two great forces of his life.

Carrying him to his grave beside his wife Aliza's tomb were six former members of the Irgun, the violently anti-British independence movement Begin led in his youth.

Begin's death early on yesterday, at the age of 78, drew paeans of praise for his achievements from political friends and foes alike. He was widely hailed as a giant of his generation, and as the Nobel prize winner who first brought Israel peace with an Arab neighbor through the Camp David accords with Egypt. Contradictory legacy

His legacy, though, like his personality, was contradictory. Peace with Egypt was followed closely by war in Lebanon which smolders to this day, and which contributed to his resignation in 1983 and subsequent mysterious seclusion.

And his controversial willingness to remove Jewish settlements from Sinai in order to make peace with Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat was matched by a fervor in building new settlements in the occupied territories that has made a wider Middle East peace harder to achieve.

Menachem Begin viewed his life as a transition between "Holocaust and Redemption" as he planned to entitle a book he never wrote. At the same time, however, it was under Begin's rule that Israel lost its innocence in the eyes of the world, with the invasion of Lebanon and brutal siege of Beirut in 1982.

Begin's reputation during his political career was just as paradoxical.

As leader of the Irgun, a militant clandestine organization that used terrorist tactics to force the British out of Palestine in order to create the state of Israel, he was idolized by his followers and commanded their unwavering respect.

But after his men blew up Jerusalem's King David Hotel in 1946, killing nearly 60 Arabs and Jews along with 28 British officers, Irgun was denounced by Israel's first prime minister-to-be, David Ben Gurion, as an "enemy of the Jewish people."

Seventeen years later, when Ben Gurion retired, his view of Begin had not changed. He was, Israel's founding father charged, a "Hitler-like" man, with "a fondness for racism and murder."

Living in the political wilderness for 20 years after independence, at the head of his opposition Herut (Freedom) Party, Begin was consigned by the Labor Party establishment to the lunatic fringe for his dream of an unpartitioned Israel.

In 1967, though, when Israel captured the West Bank, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, his views began to win wider legitimacy. And a decade later, when he won the 1977 elections, he slowly began to gain the respect he had always craved from the Labor aristocracy which had led the fight for independence and ruled the country ever since. Sephardis' political debut

Begin broke nearly three decades of Labor rule on the crest of a wave of disaffection amongst Sephardic Jews, with their oriental background, against the perceived arrogance of the European, Ashkenazic Laborites. For the first time, he and his Likud (Unity) coalition opened up the political system to the Sephardis, and gave them a stake in it, although he himself was born in Poland.

In government, Begin used the same charisma and force of character that had kept him in charge of the Herut for 30 years despite eight consecutive election defeats. And not long after his dramatic victory he was given the opportunity to complete his transformation from terrorist leader to international statesman when Egypt made peace overtures.

He grabbed the chance, welcoming President Sadat to Jerusalem, wrestling for months with United States President Carter over the details of the peace treaty, and then steering it through the Israeli Knesset (parliament).

He was able to do so partly because he had been careful to avoid making any concession to Palestinian self rule beyond vague concepts of autonomy, and especially to avoid conceding Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories. His view of the land of Israel had shrunk from the original Irgun symbol, which included all of Jordan, but he was determined that it should stretch to the banks of the Jordan river. Invasion of Lebanon

If that attitude - maintained by his political heirs in the government today - made the prospects of peace with the Palestinians unlikely, they were doomed by Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a failed attempt to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization, that landed Begin in a diplomatic and military quagmire.

Emotionally battered by the death of his wife, and politically hobbled by the unprecedented divisions in Israeli society that the Lebanon war tore open, Begin retreated into a nine-year seclusion that only ended with his death.

He left a legacy, as Labor Knesset member Avraham Burg puts it, "of peace not just as a hope, but as a real, substantial thing, and he made the social breakthrough so necessary for all Israelis by giving oriental Jews a feeling of social mobility.

"But he also led us into the war in Lebanon, and knew well how to play on ethnic differences," Mr. Burg adds. "He was a very contradictory person. But I cannot imagine Israel without Begin."@QUOTE = 'The lack of regulations and disposal sites in the US means [toxic waste] has to go somewhere else. Then it becomes our problem.'

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