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Two months later the Irgun-owned freighter Altalena, loaded with arms and ammunition and 900 men, steamed into Tel Aviv. Convinced that the Irgun intended to overthrow his government, Ben-Gurion ordered his front-line commander Yigal Allon (now Israel's Foreign Minister) to prevent the arms from being unloaded. In the subsequent battle, the ship was set afire and sunk, and a number of Irgun members were killed. Begin, screaming defiance at the "mad dictatorship" of Ben-Gurion, ordered his forces underground. "If we go down," he yelled shrilly, "we will see to it that the state of Israel sinks with us!"

Begin eventually thought better of this approach. He disbanded his organization, founded his own political party, Herut (Freedom), and won a seat in the Knesset. But he still takes full credit for Irgun's actions. Asked not long ago about the Deir Yassin massacre, he replied, "I was the commander. I was responsible for any operations carried out." In his 1951 autobiography The Revolt, he wrote: "The life of every man who fights in a just cause is a paradox. He makes war so that there should be peace. He sheds blood so that there should be no more bloodshed. That is the way of the world. A very tragic way beset with terrors. There is no other."

In person, Begin is a witty man with simple tastes—he likes to read history, political biographies and the Bible. He and his wife Aliza, 57, still live in the three-room Tel Aviv apartment they have occupied since 1946. He insists that he will continue to live there even if he becomes Premier. They have three children, a son and two daughters. Scandal? "Begin's private life is as clean as a pin," says a Western diplomat. "Everything they say about him is true. He's kind, honest and quite likable. But that doesn't mean he isn't dangerous."

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