Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading Israel to peace with Egypt, suffered a heart attack Tuesday and was unconscious and partially paralyzed in a Tel Aviv hospital.
The 78-year-old Begin, who has suffered several heart attacks dating to the 1960s, was in serious condition and breathing with the help of a respirator, hospital officials said.
Begin is a major figure in Israel's history, and he once was known for stirring the Israeli public with sharp-tongued rhetoric. But he resigned without explanation in 1983 as the army was bogged down in the Lebanon war. He has been a virtual recluse since.
Begin shared the Nobel Prize in 1978 with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, the only Arab country to reach a peace settlement with Israel. But he also presided over the 1982 Lebanon invasion, which became Israel's most divisive war.
There has been wide speculation that Begin's seclusion stems from a combination of that war and depression he experienced over the death of his wife, Aliza, in 1982.
Hagai Elias, spokesman for the Health Ministry, reported that Begin's condition improved following an initial setback after he was brought unconscious to Ichilov Hospital at 7:35 a.m.
After issuing detailed bulletins on Begin's condition in the morning, hospital officials refused to give out information, apparently at the request of Begin's son, Benjamin, a member of Parliament and one of Likud's young generation of leaders.
Begin's room was guarded by police with automatic rifles. His son, daughters Leah and Hasia, two granddaughters and a few friends, including longtime aide Yehiel Kadishai, were allowed to visit.
His daughter Leah, who lives with Begin in a Tel Aviv apartment, called an ambulance at 6:58 a.m., saying her father had collapsed, according to Israel Radio.
Because Begin was unconscious, doctors first believed he had suffered a stroke. But at midmorning, Ichilov's director, Dr. Dan Michaeli, said the former prime minister "almost certainly" had a heart attack.
"We now know that the attack made him lose consciousness," Michaeli said. He said that Begin's blackout "was not emanating from the brain," as it would in a stroke.
Asked why Begin remained unconscious hours later, Michaeli said, "There was a disturbance in his blood supply because of the heart attack."
Health officials said Begin's left side was paralyzed.
Since his resignation, Begin usually has appeared in public only for an annual graveside memorial for his wife and at a few family events. His last appearance was on Oct. 3 at the wedding of a granddaughter.
Begin also granted occasional radio interviews, commenting on political events and sometimes defending his leadership.
Last July, Begin pointed to the Gulf War to answer the heavy international criticism he faced in 1981 after he ordered warplanes to bomb Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.
"In the days when the Scuds (missiles) fell on our heads, many understood . . . that they were not right . . . and we were right," he said.