War gave first Likud PM 'terrible depression'

Aides speak of ex-PM Begin’s depression, dysfunction near end of time in office

Biographer says signs of mental illness were ‘very clear’ as premier struggled with Lebanon War fallout, wife’s death; in unaired interview segment, Begin said he took pills

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Then-prime minister Menachem Begin during a debate in the Knesset on March 20, 1979. (AP Photo/Max Nash/File)
Then-prime minister Menachem Begin during a debate in the Knesset on March 20, 1979. (AP Photo/Max Nash/File)

In his final weeks in office, then-prime minister Menachem Begin allowed crucial decisions to be made by his top advisers while he suffered severe depression, in the wake of the death of his wife and the impact of the First Lebanon War, aides said in a TV report aired Saturday.

Begin’s biographer, his cabinet secretary Dan Meridor and military secretary Azriel Nevo laid out the details to Channel 12, describing the former Likud leader as a withdrawn man toward the end of his premiership. He resigned in October 1983.

“We saw his decline. You could see it in plain sight — whoever watched him and followed him a little, and saw his behavior. He began to turn off and withdraw,” said journalist and photographer Anat Saragusti.

Saragusti mentioned a photo she took of Begin physically struggling to leave a stage after attending an event, alongside a news headline saying: “Menachem Begin has stepped down from the stage.” She added that the title had a “double meaning.”

Begin led his Likud party to a stunning victory in the 1977 elections, ending nearly 30 years of rule by the Labor party and its predecessors. During his premiership, Begin inked the historic Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978, ending 30 years of war with Israel’s neighbor. Along with Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts that year.

The country’s first Likud premier also ordered a daring airstrike that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, fearing Saddam Hussein’s regime sought to use the technology to build an atomic bomb.

Then-prime minister Menachem Begin (R) and then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat share a laugh at the King David Hotel on November 19, 1977. (Ya’akov Sa’ar/GPO archive)

According to journalist Shimon Shiffer of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Begin had been unwell since the beginning of his premiership.

“Begin came to government as a sick man. A man with heart problems. A man, I daresay, also with certain mental problems,” Shiffer said.

Begin’s popularity began to decline as his government battled multi-digit inflation, and embarked on the First Lebanon War in 1982 after repeated, deadly attacks by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and other terror groups based in southern Lebanon. The Israel Defense Forces entered the country to drive them out, under Begin and then-defense minister Ariel Sharon.

The war lasted longer than initially promised and went beyond its originally stated goals of creating a 40-kilometer buffer zone between the terrorists and northern Israel. Hundreds of IDF soldiers were killed, leading to mass protests against the operation. During the war, demonstrators set up a daily count of troop deaths outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Azriel Nevo, Begin’s military secretary at the time, recalled giving the prime minister updates on the war as it dragged on, when the then-deputy prime minister Simha Erlich told him: “Azriel, you are killing Menachem. The messages you give him every day are killing him.”

Azriel Nevo, former prime minister Menachem Begin’s military secretary, in an interview on April 15, 2023. (Channel 12 screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

He said that he avoided waking Begin in the middle of the night with information, but recalled one morning calling to update him, and finding Sharon had already briefed the premier.

“So you understand that the defense minister did not pity him at night,” Nevo said, adding that he agreed with those who believe Sharon intentionally woke him at early hours. “The prime minister would come to us in the morning exhausted,” he added.

“The war brought down his mental health. It gave him terrible depression.” Shiffer noted.

Psychologist Ofer Grosbard, who wrote a biography on Begin centering around his mental state, said the “signs of depression began to be very, very clear” in the final year in office, as people around him noticed him repeatedly burying his head in his hands, refusing to raise it.

He added that there was evidence of his mental issues as far back as the War of Independence, when the Israel Defense Forces sunk the Altalena ship in June 1948.

The ship carried a large consignment of arms and weapons for Begin’s Irgun militia during the war. The nascent government of David Ben-Gurion, at bitter odds with Begin, demanded that the ship and its supplies be turned over to the newly formed IDF.

June 22, 1948, the ship Altalena burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv. (Israel Government Press Office)

As the ship reached the coast and then ran aground, a standoff ensued that ended in a shootout between Irgun members aboard and IDF soldiers on the shore, who were ordered to destroy the vessel. The ship was set ablaze by fire from cannon used by the forces on the shore under the command of a young Yitzhak Rabin, later the IDF chief of General Staff and prime minister.

Sixteen Irgun members and three IDF soldiers died in the incident, and the ship’s cargo was lost.

“After the Altalena, there were many testimonies that he was depressed, and it was difficult for him to get out of it,” Grosbard said, adding that Begin lost weight and began to disconnect with people close to him at the time.

Red Cross workers looking at a body, covered with a blanket, shortly after bulldozers started cleaning up the area in Sabra Lebanese refugee camp, on September 20, 1982. (AP Photo/Nash)

A series of shocking events in 1982 and 1983 further contributed to Begin’s decline.

In September 1982, three months into Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, a Christian militia group entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, slaughtering up to 3,500 people, mainly Palestinians and Lebanese Shiite Muslims, as IDF soldiers stood by.

Ten days after the massacre, the government appointed a commission of inquiry consisting of the chief justice of the Supreme Court Yitzhak Kahan, Judge Aharon Barak, and General Yona Efrat. After a four-month investigation, the commission concluded that entry into the camps “was taken without consideration of the danger which [the decision-makers] were obligated to foresee as probable.”

Failure to protect the civilian population of Beirut, which had come under Israeli control, amounted to “non-fulfillment of a duty with which the defense minister was charged.” The commission recommended Sharon’s dismissal. After initially balking, he resigned the defense portfolio, but remained in the cabinet.

On top of this, in November 1982, Begin’s wife, Aliza, died while the premier was abroad in Washington.

“Everyone who was there was witness to the greatest tragedy of his life. He didn’t forgive himself until his last day that he wasn’t there beside her when she died,” Shiffer said.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, left, and his wife, Aliza, arrive at New York City’s JFK Airport, March 23, 1979. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

Nevo said that the moment Begin received the tragic news, he “sunk into himself.”

Towards the end of his final term, radio journalist Arieh Golan recalled an interview he had with Begin, who, even before his resignation, had already withdrawn from talking to journalists.

Begin told Golan that he was not making public statements because sometimes, people experience “human anguishes.”

Golan said he pressed Begin over rumors that he was taking pills to elevate his mood, to which the then-prime minister replied: “What, what pills? I’m taking regular pills, I am a man with a bad heart, I’m taking pills that any Jew would take.”

Later on, Begin asked Golan to remove that segment from the interview, and it was indeed broadcast without mention of his medication.

Begin’s schedule also became empty in his final days as premier, Nevo recalled. The military secretary said he once suggested writing that his day plan was “top secret — because it was top secret that the prime minister didn’t have a schedule.”

Illustrative: Former Likud minister Dan Meridor attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on October 15, 2013. (Flash90/File)

During that period, Nevo claimed that he and Meridor filled in for many prime ministerial tasks.

“He was less active, he was more collected, but fully understanding,” Meridor said. “He wasn’t disconnected, but he wouldn’t ask too many questions.”

Nevo claimed he made decisions for the prime minister during the final period of his term, while Shiffer said that at the time, the country was actually governed by the cabinet and military secretaries.

On August 28, 1983, Begin told the cabinet he was resigning from his role, famously telling ministers: “I can’t go on any longer.”

Nevo said he was not surprised at the decision, and added: “I think it should have happened a little bit before.” Meridor, on the other hand, said: “I thought he should have continued. It was a waste that he left.”

Following his resignation, Begin rarely appeared in public, and was only seen placing flowers on his wife’s grave, or during doctor’s visits. He died at the age of 78 in Tel Aviv on March 9, 1992.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: