Shimon Peres, the current president of Israel, began working for David Ben-Gurion – Israel’s first prime minister – in 1952. Having appointed Peres director-general of the Ministry of Defence when he was only 24 years old, Ben-Gurion obviously thought highly of him.
Ben-Gurion’s faith in his protégé paid dividends as Peres went on to assume the most important positions, including the post of prime minister, in a succession of Israeli governments.
Ben-Gurion’s admiration of Peres’ talents was consistently reciprocated by Peres, one of his most loyal aides. Now in Ben-Gurion: A Political Life (Nextbook), a biography written in association with Israeli journalist David Landau, Peres adds yet more layers to this mutual admiration society.
Peres’ sympathies are evident in the introduction, when he describes his mentor as a pragmatic visionary and compares him to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. To Peres, Ben-Gurion, who died in 1973, was not only an emblem of the energy that created Israel, but a symbol of the leadership the country needs today “to find its way to peace and security.”
In this illuminating biography, Peres traces the arc of Ben-Gurion’s career as a Zionist functionary in Palestine and as a leader in the newly created State of Israel.
Ben-Gurion arrived in Jaffa from eastern Europe in 1906, when Palestine was still an underdeveloped Ottoman colony and the Zionist project was still in some doubt.
A Labour Zionist, he flirted with communism, but his Bolshevik leanings were forever laid to rest after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1923. A man of ideas who devoured books, he was so consumed by his official duties that he was an absentee father, his daughter recalled as an adult.
Under his leadership, the Histadrut labour union assumed great importance, while the Jewish Agency led the fight for immigration and independence and became a shadow Jewish government during the British colonial era.
A realist, Ben-Gurion warned against the illusion, prevalent in some Zionist circles, that Palestine was an “empty” land, devoid of Arabs who sought self-determination. “We do not dream of denying them that right or diminishing it,” he said.
When 1930s Palestine was exploding in violence, Ben-Gurion called for a policy of havlaga, or restraint, in responding to Arab terrorism.
In common with mainstream Zionist philosophy, Ben-Gurion opposed the 1939 British White Paper, which restricted immigration at a time when fascism was driving Jews out of Europe.
But after Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to stop attacks on British forces in Palestine and coined a now-famous slogan: “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.”
Unlike Zionist Revisionists, he accepted the concept of partitioning the land. Ben-Gurion’s decision to embrace partition, Peres observes, was “a historic act of political wisdom whose logic is as cogent today as it was then.”
As incredible as it may sound today, a number of Zionist leaders, notably Golda Meir and Meir Yaari, opposed the 1947 United Nations partition plan. Ben-Gurion disagreed, saying the Zionist movement would not be able to bring in Jewish immigrants in the absence of a sovereign state.
As war in Palestine loomed, he ordered the Haganah to modernize itself and dispatched emissaries to Europe and the United States to scour for weapons. He knew that Jewish statehood was not merely dependent on UN resolutions.
On the eve of Israeli statehood in May 1948, the future justice minister, Pinhas Rosen, argued there could be no declaration of independence unless Israel’s borders were defined. Ben-Gurion challenged Rosen’s logic: “We should say nothing about them because we don’t know what they will be.”
In hindsight, Ben-Gurion was right. During the war, Israeli forces captured land that the 1947 resolution had allotted to a Palestinian state. Israel was thus established in 78 per cent rather than in 56 per cent of what had been Palestine.
According to Peres, Ben-Gurion was not in favour of expelling Arabs from Palestine. “On the contrary, during the war I heard him speak in condemnation of this practice,” Peres writes.
However, Ben-Gurion came out against the return of Palestinian Arabs to Israeli territory after 1949. Nonetheless, under a family reunification plan, Israel permitted close to 200,000 Arabs to return over the subsequent decades.
Although Peres strives to portray Ben-Gurion as something of a dove before and during the 1948 war, he discloses that the Old Man ordered the army to seize the southern part of the West Bank so that it could be attached to the northern Negev. The majority of his ministers objected, prompting Ben-Gurion to denounce their position as a bechiya ledorot (a cause for sobbing for generations).
Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party won a plurality of 46 per cent of the seats in the Knesset in Israel’s first election. Armed with this mandate, he devoted himself to encouraging unfettered immigration, a policy to which some of his ministers objected. But he pressed ahead and in a four-year period from 1949 onward, 686,748 immigrants arrived, more than the original Jewish population of the state.
The rising tension between Israel and Egypt in the mid-1950s is the subject of an intriguing chapter.
With Israel carrying out retaliatory raids in response to Arab terrorism, he and Moshe Sharett, the prime minister, clashed over tactics and strategy. Ben-Gurion, temporarily the defence minister, proposed that Israel should conquer the Gaza Strip. Sharett demurred, as did most of the other cabinet ministers.
Egged on by Moshe Dayan, the chief of staff, Ben-Gurion returned with a still bolder proposal: the capture of the Strait of Tiran, which Egypt had barred to Israeli shipping. Here, too, he was blocked by cabinet colleagues.
In the wake of the Six Day War, Ben-Gurion urged Israel to withdraw from all newly conquered territories except eastern Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, Peres says. “His essential worldview never changed. He always held that not pursuing peace was immoral, and that ruling over another nation was immoral.”
Comparing Ben-Gurion to Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, Peres likens him to a latter-day Moses, a shepherd to his people. “He led them across the desert toward the promised land.”
Peres’ description smacks of hagiography, but he can be forgiven for his effusiveness. Ben-Gurion, a leader of conviction and a man of action, guided Israel to nationhood against all odds, built and populated the country and died in the knowledge that his achievements remain unassailable.