Menachem Begin was the youngest of three children born to Zev Dov and Hassia Begin. The Begin family was uprooted from Brisk by World War I and fled into Russia. At the war's conclusion, the Begins returned to Brisk and to an independent Poland. Following the completion of his education at a local public high school, Menachem Begin enrolled in Warsaw University in 1931 and was granted a law degree in 1935.
A popular orator among Jewish students in Warsaw, Mr. Begin worked full-time on behalf of the Betar Zinoist youth movement in Poland following his graduation. He became head of Polish Betar in 1939, one of the most influential positions of leadership in pre-Holocaust Jewish Europe. At the onset of World War II, Mr. Begin encouraged the emigration of thousands of Polish Jews to the Land of Israel just as the country's gates were being shut by the British mandatory government.
Mr. Begin continued his Zionist organizational work until he was arrested by Soviet occupation authorities in 1940. He remained in Gulag prison camps, mostly in Siberia, until 1941, when he was freed with other Polish prisoners. Upon release, Mr. Begin joined the Polish army-in-exile, and was assigned to a unit that was dispatched to the Middle East. His parents and older brother remained trapped in Poland and perished in the Holocaust.
Shortly following his arrival in the Land of Israel in 1942, he was asked to assume command of the Irgun Zva'i Leumi (known as ETZEL, the Hebrew acronym for "National Military Organization"). In this capacity, he directed ETZEL's operations against British rule.
Following the reestablishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Mr. Begin, together with a number of associates, founded the Herut party. He headed the party's list in all Knesset elections from the first, in 1949, to the tenth, in 1981, by which time Herut had joined with several other political factions to form the Likud.
In May 1967, on the eve of the fateful Six-Day War, Mr. Begin was instrumental in initiating the formation of Israel's first government of national unity. He served as minister without portfolio for the national unity government's duration, from June 1, 1967 to August 1, 1970. He was elected Prime Minister as a result of the elections to the ninth Knesset on May 17, 1977.
Upon taking office on June 21, 1977, Prime Minister Begin told the Knesset: "Our main aim is to avert a Middle East war. I appeal to King Hussein, and to Presidents Assad and Sadat, to meet me, either in their capitals or in neutral territory, either in public or out of the flare of publicity. Too much Jewish and Arab blood has been shed in this region. Let us put an end to the bloodshed that we both abhor."
A series of secret meetings soon were held between Israeli and Egyptian representatives. On November 9, President Sadat accepted Mr. Begin's challenge. In a speech before the Egyptian parliament, President Sadat announced that he was prepared to go "even to the Knesset in Jerusalem to discuss peace with Israel." Two days later, Prime Minister Begin formally invited President Sadat to visit Jerusalem. Arriving in Israel on Saturday night, November 19, President Sadat was afforded a full state reception, despite the fact that the two countries were still technically in a state of war.
Sixteen months of intermittent negotiations followed before the two countries signed their treaty of peace on March 26, 1979 on the White House lawn in Washington. The treaty was based on the Camp David Accords, signed at the White House on September 17, 1978, following two weeks of intensive negotiations. The Camp David Accords included two framework agreements, setting forth guidelines for both an Egypt-Israel peace treaty and a wider Middle East agreement intended to embrace Israel's other neighbors. That second element of the Camp David Accords serves as a basis for the negotiations that were inaugurated in Madrid in October 1991.
In December 1978, Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mr. Begin served concurrently as Prime Minister and Defense Minister from May 28, 1980 until August 6, 1981. In this capacity, he ordered the Israel Air Force's successful raid on Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor, shortly before it was to go into operation, in June 1981. Though this action was widely criticized at the time by the international community and condemned by the United Nations Security Council, it has proved, with the passage of time, to have been an act of foresight.
As a result of the elections to the tenth Knesset on June 30, 1981, Mr. Begin was reelected Prime Minister.
The second Begin government soon was forced to confront Lebanon's inability to prevent terror attacks against Israel and Jewish targets around the world planned on Lebanese soil, and Katyusha shellings of Israeli towns and villages launched from Lebanese soil. Operation Peace for Galilee in June 1982 removed the terrorist infrastructure that then threatened Israel. A treaty ending the state of war between Lebanon and Israel was signed on May 17, 1983, but was abrogated by the Lebanese, under Syrian pressure, less than a year later.
On the domestic front, Prime Minister Begin initiated "Project Renewal", in which the Israeli government, in coordination with the Jewish Agency and world Jewry, addressed the long-ignored problems of Israel's urban neighborhoods and development towns. Inadequacies in infrastructure, education, social services, housing and political enfranchisement were corrected. He also initiated the movement to save Ethiopian Jewry, an effort that led to Operation Moses in 1984 and culminated in Operation Solomon in 1991.
Menachem Begin submitted his resignation as Prime Minister on September 15, 1983.
He authored numerous articles and two books, "White Nights", about his prison experiences in the Soviet Union, and "The Revolt", a history of the ETZEL's struggle for an independent Jewish state. His wife, the former Aliza Arnold, died in November 1982. Menachem and Aliza Begin were the parents of three children: MK Binyamin Begin and two daughters, Leah and Hassia. They had seven granddaughters and two grandsons.