JERUSALEM — Menachem Begin, who in unbending obedience to his own rigid principles led Israel to its first formal peace with an Arab state and who later presided over a war in Lebanon that was Israel's longest and most divisive, died early today after a heart attack.
In a statement broadcast on Israel Radio, the government said Begin, 78, had been on a respirator in the intensive care unit of Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital since suffering the heart attack on Tuesday. His condition took a turn for the worse Friday after a pacemaker was installed.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 10, 1992 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Menachem Begin--In an obituary Monday on former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, an editing error omitted a reference to Begin's reelection in 1981 and left the impression that Israel's air strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor occurred in the 1970s. It was in 1981.
An often-defeated outsider who became a consistent political winner, Begin dominated his country for just over six years, from his election in 1977 to his resignation in 1983, and spread his influence throughout the turbulent Middle East.
He agreed to evacuate the Jewish towns established in the Sinai Peninsula to seal the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, but he encouraged Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip in order to preempt any future government from making a similar land-for-peace swap.
Begin, who liked to think of himself as a fighter, combined the exquisite manners of a 19th-Century European courtier with a sharp tongue that made him a formidable debater. And through his career, his beliefs rarely changed.
Sometimes the results were contradictory; almost always they were controversial.
Before the creation of the modern Israeli state, Begin led the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi, an organization that used terror tactics in an effort to drive the British out of Palestine. Later, as prime minister of independent Israel, he waged an unrelenting war against the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he derided as a band of terrorists.
For the first 29 years of Israel's statehood, Begin was a political loser, leading his unyieldingly hawkish Likud Party to defeat after defeat. Yet, he was elected prime minister in 1977 and was reelected four years later. Public opinion polls taken during his second term showed that he was by far the most popular politician in the nation.
Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their agreement to end the state of war between Israel and its biggest Arab neighbor. But the peace process did not spread in Begin's time to encompass any other Arab nation.
In June, 1982, he ordered his forces to invade Lebanon and crush the PLO. The resulting war was the longest Israel had fought since winning its independence. It chilled the Jerusalem-Cairo relationship, strained Israel's relations with the United States and opened deep divisions within Israeli society.
Begin's career was dominated by various aspects of Arab-Israeli relations, but with the exception of Sadat and a few other Egyptian leaders, he seldom had any personal contact with Arabs. Fluent in several languages, he never learned Arabic, one of Israel's two official languages.
Sol Linowitz, a former U.S. negotiator in the Middle East, called Begin "a man of many moods and many layers--and peeling away one layer reveals 20 others."
"He is often Talmudic in his disputations and revels in arguments and detailed semantics," Linowitz said. "He also seems very eager to have public approval and is deeply disturbed when he is attacked.
"Behind Begin's very formal and stiff exterior was a sentimental man. Once during a conversation, he suddenly started talking about his mother, speaking tenderly and softly about her influence and saying that it is from her that he got his patience."
Begin's leadership left Israel far stronger than he found it. The peace treaty with Egypt removed the largest and strongest of the Arab states from the confrontation line with Israel. Jerusalem's military advantage over its Arab foes was unquestioned.
However, when Begin attempted to use his military might to eliminate the threat of PLO guerrilla attack from bases in Lebanon, he led the country into a quagmire. After its initial military successes, the Israeli army became bogged down as an army of occupation in about a third of Lebanon, exposing its troops to attack by Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas.
Anti-war demonstrators maintained an around-the-clock vigil outside Begin's residence, keeping a running tally of Israeli casualties on a six-foot-high poster. Some associates blamed this demonstration, with its constant reminder of the deaths of Israeli troops, for sapping the prime minister's morale, breaking his health and ultimately forcing him to resign.
Throughout his life, Begin amassed a long list of bitter foes. With an awesome single-mindedness, he opposed the Russians, the Germans, the British, almost all factions of Arabs and the Israeli Labor Party.
Born Aug. 16, 1913, into one of the leading Jewish families of Brest-Litovsk (then in Poland, now in newly independent Belarus), Begin grew up as a modern urban youth. He received a law degree from Warsaw University in 1935.