Apologia for Ben-Gurion
At the yahrzeit ceremony for David Ben-Gurion (1886 -1973) held earlier this month at Sde Boker and with Iran clearly on his mind, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked -- no fewer than eight times -- Ben-Gurion's faculty for making hard decisions. It's a theme that also permeates Ben-Gurion: A Political Life, a "conversation" – a "fusion of memory and history and multiple competing narratives" – between President Shimon Peres and advocacy journalist David Landau. Here we have truth in labeling. For this slim volume is neither reliable history nor dependable biography.
Peres's first consequential encounter with Ben-Gurion took place on the sidelines of the 1946 Zionist Congress. In a huff over Chaim Weizmann reticence to insist on the immediate fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration, Ben-Gurion was fixing to walk-out. Pere seizes his opportunity: "I had incredible chutzpah. Ben-Gurion hardly knew me, but I said, 'Yes, we'll go with you…'" From then on, Peres was Ben-Gurion's indispensable man.
Peres had made a smart bet. Even before the creation of the state and his subsequent long premiership, Ben-Gurion would come to control a powerful politico-military machine that encompassed the Histadrut Labor Federation, Jewish Agency government-in-waiting and Haganah.
Moreover, the two men were kindred spirits. The Old Man had arrived in Palestine in 1906. Young Peres came in 1934. Both were opinionated, conceited, single-mindedly ambitious and coldly pragmatic. Though not observant, they hearkened back to lineages of piety and learning. They ruthlessly battled foes within their own political camp though Ben-Gurion was arguably the more vindictive. Where Ben-Gurion was feared Peres was despised. Moshe Sharett, Israel's second prime minister found him revolting; Yitzhak Rabin untrustworthy; Yigal Yadin insolent, and Gold Meir found him an unwanted nuisance.
Guru and acolyte were both voracious readers and polymaths. Both ultimately rebranded themselves. Ben-Gurion shifted his socialist Mapai Party toward the center. Peres, defeated for Labor's leadership, aligned with Ariel Sharon in the formation of Kadima. Both were Big Idea men: Ben-Gurion wanted to fashion the ethos of renascent Israel along vaguely biblical principles; Peres, more ambitious still, sought to create an entirely "new Middle East." Both men knew how to turn a phrase. With the doors to Palestine slammed shut by Mandate Britain making escape from Hitler impossible, Ben-Gurion famously pledged: "We must help the British in their war as though there were no White Paper, and we must resist the White Paper as though there were no war." Peres's variation on a theme – as Hamas bombers detonated themselves on Israeli busses in the wake of the Oslo Accords – was: "We must fight terrorism as if there was no peace process, and we must continue the peace process" with Yasir Arafat "despite the acts of terrorism." Needless to say, neither man had much capacity for self-criticism.
It's not always obvious where Peres's voice trails off and Landau's takes over. Synthesizing some of the voluminous history available on Ben-Gurion, the authors move from BG's early (and brief) days laboring in Palestine's fields to his emergence as a socialist Zionist polemicist and politician focusing on his disputations with Weizmann and Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
Even as he consolidated his power, BG travelled widely spending time in England, America and Russia. There he became infatuated with Vladimir Lenin (though he would loath Stalin). He esteemed Lenin's "decisiveness" which made up for the fact that Leon Trotsky was the more intellectually gifted, he told Peres. There is no question that Ben-Gurion was often wise and decisive, for example, in accepting the flawed 1947 UN Partition Plan. With equal aplomb, he disregarded the 1949 General Assembly resolution that called for the internationalization of metropolitan Jerusalem (meaning Jewish west Jerusalem to Ein Karim and the Arab-occupied east from the Old City to Abu Dis and south to Bethlehem).
Ben-Gurion made the unpopular but economically responsible call to accept reparations from West Germany against Menachem Begin's fierce and principled opposition. He showed hesitation against preemptive military strikes. And he ordered the capture of Adolf Eichmann and disregarded resultant UN criticism. Perhaps his most long-lasting contribution to Israel's survival was that he gave Peres the green light to build Israel's nuclear capacity; though Peres implies that he mostly left Ben-Gurion in the dark about all that.
The more he concentrated power in his own hands, the more he accused his opponents of anti-democratic tendencies. As if channeling his own subconscious wishes, he slammed Jabotinsky as a fascist who had dictatorial ambitions. In practice, when the IDF supplanted the Haganah BG ensured that all command decisions would be in the hands of his loyalists not the politically suspect Yigal Yadin or Israel Galili. Years later, well out of office BG schemed to replace his party comrade Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in the lead up to the 1967 Six Day War. Those altogether outside his socialist orbit including Menachem Begin and his Irgun would be violently quashed. The sinking of the Irgun arms ship Altalena typified the Old Man's capacity to conflate his political needs with the national interest. Rather archly, the reader presumes, Peres tells Landau that Ben-Gurion did not engage in political patronage.
It's hard to know if Ben-Gurion abhorred Jabotinsky more than Weizmann. True, differences of principle separated these Zionist founders. Ben-Gurion had been enamored with class struggle and building an agrarian economy; Jabotinsky was a classical liberal who wanted to foster an urban middle class. Peres grants that the two men saw eye-to-eye on many social welfare issues. But Ben-Gurion scorned Jabotinsky's demand for the territorial integrity of Eretz Israel as much as Weizmann's hesitation to move boldly. He schemed with Weizmann against Jabotinsky then sidelined the elder statesman. He professed to "love" Weizmann and pledged "genuine friendship" to Jabotinsky. Peres takes him at his word. The Ben-Gurion-Jabotinsky dispute was cut short when Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in 1940 in upstate New York. As premier, Ben-Gurion mean spiritedly refused to allow Jabotinsky's remains to be reinterred in Israel. Among those, according to Peres, that Ben-Gurion also didn't hate "personally" was Menachem Begin. Odd then that he could not bring himself to utter Begin's name for most of the years they served together in the Knesset.
The most unsettling pages of this book are Peres's (and Landau's) paroxysms of partisanship in covering the Holocaust era. They would have the reader know that in 1933 – the year the Nazis came to power – Jabotinsky had pooh-poohed Hitler's Mein Kampf while the prophetic Ben-Gurion by 1934 had warned of the enormity of the threat to Europe's Jews. There is half-truth in that. The fuller truth, according to Jabotinsky scholar Yisrael Medad, is that already in August 1933; Jabotinsky's men on the World Zionist Organization were defeated and sabotaged by the Ben-Gurion clique in every attempt to force a "vigorous attitude on the German situation." The same year, Jabotinsky told the 18th Zionist Congress in Prague, "The present Congress is duty-bound to put the Jewish problem in Germany before the entire world…We are conducting a war with murderers. [We must] destroy, destroy, destroy, them – not only with the boycott…"but also politically.
At one point Landau to his credit challenges Peres on whether Ben-Gurion as leader of the Yishuv throughout the war had really done enough on behalf of European Jewry? Peres does not waver: We didn't know; there was nothing we could have done. As for the Jabotinsky loyalists operating in the U.S. during the war who tried to shake heaven and earth, Peres's cold-hearted assessment is: "What did they achieve? Nothing."
It is in their conversation about the pre-state Jewish underground that Peres and Landau achieve a moral nadir, disgracefully embracing what is essentially the Palestinian Arab narrative which blamed Begin's Irgun for a litany of "outrages" such as "deliberately killing civilians" in Deir Yassin and "helping to spark the Palestinian refugee crisis."
So it is a relief that toward the end of Ben-Gurion: A Political Life the authors turn to other matters including the intriguing claim that Ben-Gurion had wanted to reform Israel's electoral system away from proportional representation. There is also the historically tone deaf Peres taking "credit" for having been Ben-Gurion's emissary to the ultra-Orthodox world in institutionalizing IDF exemptions for yeshiva students.
Peres and Landau close by acknowledging that Ben-Gurion would under no circumstances agree to have Israel pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines. If anything, he favored extensive settlement in metropolitan Jerusalem and in Hebron. Maybe their point is that Ben-Gurion had no interest in ruling over the Palestinian Arabs; though Peres and Landau can't bring themselves to say so, neither does Netanyahu. His dilemma is that the same Arab rejectionism that made peace unreachable in Ben-Gurion's day continues to grip the contemporary Palestinian leadership.