Ben-Gurion: A Political Life

by Peter Shapiro

book cover for Ben-Gurion A Political LifeThe authors, Shimon Perez and David Landau, made it clear from the outset that their views on David Ben-Gurion as a man, his accomplishments and failures, as well as his vision for Israel could be considered biased. Perez, the current President of Israel, was his friend and worked with him for many years on issues about which they felt passionately, but on which they were not always in accord. Landau is a lifelong journalist and the former editor of Haaretz.  He was born in 1947, and was more critical of Ben-Gurion.  The authors concede that the book is a fusion of memory and history with multiple competing narratives.

The main source of the book was Perez’s recollection of events and a series of conversations between the authors with Landau asking penetrating and often provocative questions and Perez providing frank answers.  The authors acknowledge that whether or not the book accurately portrays Ben-Gurion and shapes his legacy is subject to debate. It was their intent that “in some sense this book is a dialogue with the future, which will need to choose what of Ben-Gurion’s legacy it elects to follow.”

David Ben-Gurion, nee David Gruen, was born on October 16, 1886 in Plonsk, Poland. He arrived in Jaffa on September 7, 1906 and moved on to Petah Tikva.  Over the next several years he engaged in agricultural pursuits. He eventually realized that he could make a greater contribution to the Zionist cause by studying law. From an early age he became involved in the political life of Eretz Israel. His politics were always pro labor.  He served in HaShomer, an armed force that guarded isolated agricultural settlements, where he rose to the rank of Captain in the Jewish Legion.

In 1920 he joined and subsequently became general secretary of Histadrut, the Zionist Labor Federation of Palestine.  Labor Zionism became the dominant party in the World Zionist Organization, and in 1935 Ben-Gurion became chairman of the executive committee of The Jewish Agency of Palestine, a role he kept until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. He was chairman of The Provisional State Government of Israel, its first President and its first Prime Minister,, a position he held from May 17, 1948 to June 21, 1963, with a hiatus from December 7, 1954 to November 2, 1955. He died at age 87, a few months after the Yom Kippur War on December 1, 1973.

Ben-Gurion’s North Star, the guiding principle he always unerringly followed was Mamlachtiyut. Defined as “unity despite difference” that is the line where “party and political differences should give way to the overriding needs of the national agenda”. For him the Zionist tenet that Israel was the state of all the Jewish people was a meaningful and practical precept.  His three major priorities were security, settlement and Jewish immigration. Even after the Shoah there was little unity as to whether Palestine should be subject to a mandate or partitioned. If partitioned, when, what would be its boundaries, its form of government, and the fate of Jerusalem?

Ben-Gurion’s resolve for the immediate creation of a Jewish state hardened after he met in Germany with then Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight David Eisenhower, who made the neighbors of the death camp see firsthand the atrocities their fellow countrymen had committed. More important was his comment that the world would soon forget those atrocities. In 1947 the UN voted for partition, the terms of which gave Israel three areas not contiguous with one another other connected by “kissing points” and it placed Jerusalem under a UN Protectorate. As grossly unfavorable as it was to Israel and not without substantial disagreements by the various Israeli political factions Ben-Gurion and his principle of Mamlachtiyut prevailed. Israel reluctantly accepted the terms of partition which were unanimously rejected by the Arab States.

On May 18, 1948 the British departed and the Arab Legion, as was anticipated, attacked Israel. Israel, with scant assistance from the world gained substantial territory, thus creating one contiguous land mass. Ben-Gurion, over the strenuous objection of the military and at great expense and loss of life obtained control of most of Jerusalem. After the UN imposed an armistice Ben-Gurion reached out to the Arab States in an attempt to resolve the issues of right of return, control of Jerusalem, secure borders, and a lasting peace. The response in essence was similar to that issued years later after the 1967 War, “no peace, no negotiations and no recognition of Israel”.

The authors asked the reader to contemplate which, if any, of Ben-Gurion’s values Israel has followed or should follow. A more appropriate question might be, “What would he think about the courses of action and polices of Israel since his death”?  One might say that looking at Ben-Gurion’s career from the vantage point of the 21st century his views would be considered “Right Wing”. He was committed to the principle of compromise when the needs of the national overrode politics and party (Mamlachtiyut), if it did not drastically compromise security, settlements and immigration.  In all likelihood he would have approved of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. The Camp David and Wye River proposals put forth by President Clinton had some restrictions on settlements but I believe Ben-Gurion would have found them acceptable.

One question that lingers is: would he require as a precondition to negotiations a statement that “Israel is a Jewish State and has the right to exist”. I believe that he would engage in negotiations without that precondition if he had realistic assurances it would be unambiguously included in the final resolution.

Ben-Gurion would never have supported the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the Oslo Accords in 1993 as they violated his core principles. He would not have countenanced the government’s actions in Hebron, the unilateral destruction of settlements, in particular Gush Katif, or the several proposals for the division of Jerusalem and control of the Temple Mount. The military incursions in Lebanon, the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in my judgment would have been opposed by Ben-Gurion.

The dilemma for the reader is whether the relationships of the authors with Ben-Gurion color the facts elicited and their conclusions. I found Perez’s account of their relationship somewhat self-serving as it seems he attempted to cover himself with the mantle of Ben-Gurion. I can’t help but think that if one of Perez’s contemporaries read this book the response to Perez would be, “I knew David Ben-Gurion and you’re no David Ben-Gurion”.

I welcome your thoughts and comments. Please join the conversation.


Read the review of this book in Reform Judaism magazine and see other Significant Jewish Books.

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