State in the Making, A Reader’s Guide - Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres 

Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres (2011)

APPENDIX. State in the Making, A Reader’s Guide

Modern Israel did not spring fully formed from the head of Theodor Herzl—though Herzl did create some of the Zionist institutions out of which the state grew. Herzl’s international Zionist movement gave way to the elected executive bodies that ran the pre-state Yishuv, or Jewish community. Together they morphed into the government of the emerging State of Israel.

It was this complex and evolving political system that Ben-Gurion navigated—and dominated—with such skill. The following outline is intended to serve as a reference for readers unfamiliar with the pre-state agencies, the labor union that functioned in a quasi-governmental fashion, and the numerous political parties that battled one another in the pre-state era and after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. These parties often split and shifted alliances in a rough-and-tumble democratic culture that pitted clashing ideologies against each other, only to come together, tenuously, in times of war.

The World Zionist Organization (WZO), created by Theodor Herzl in 1897 as the Zionist Organization, was governed by an elected congress that met annually or biennially and voted on broad Zionist strategy. To be eligible to vote, one paid a shekel in membership dues. On the eve of the Holocaust, more than one million Jews worldwide paid their membership dues and were registered as Zionists. Between meetings, an Actions Committee or General Council, elected by the Congress, would convene periodically to make policy decisions. Day-to-day running of the WZO affairs was in the hands of a small Executive, whose members headed the various departments of the WZO.

Before World War I, the seat of the WZO Executive was in Germany, but with the outbreak of war the focus of diplomatic activity shifted to London, where Chaim Weizmann took an increasingly central role. He later became president of the WZO.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the League of Nations, in June 1922, assigned the Mandate for Palestine to Great Britain. Article 4 of the Mandate provided that:

An appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognised as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social, and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine … The Zionist Organization, so long as its organization and constitution are in the opinion of the Mandatory appropriate, shall be recognised as such agency.

In 1929, mainly at Weizmann’s urging, the Jewish Agency for Palestine was officially created by the Sixteenth Zionist Congress. It included non-Zionist organizations and individuals—philanthropists and activists not involved in the life of the WZO but interested nevertheless in playing a role in the Jewish return to Palestine. The WZO, however, continued to dominate the Jewish Agency.

The WZO had started out as a territorial-based organization, with delegates to the congresses elected mainly on country-by-country lines (“General Zionists”), but it grew increasingly ideological over the years. By 1939, 386 delegates represented political parties and only 171 delegates represented countries.

By the mid-1930s, the socialist-Zionists, led in Palestine by Ben-Gurion, had become the dominant faction in the WZO, and Ben-Gurion was elected chairman of the WZO Executive. In Palestine the largest socialist-Zionist party, led by Ben-Gurion, was Mapai, a Hebrew acronym for Workers’ Party of Eretz Yisrael. Mapai was created in 1930 by the merger of Ahdut HaAvoda, the workers’ party Ben-Gurion founded in 1919, and Hapoal Hatzair. Mapai members also came to dominate the Histadrut, or Federation of Trade Unions, which Ben-Gurion created in the early 1920s.

The right-wing Revisionist Zionists, led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, seceded from the WZO in the 1930s and formed their own rival Zionist organization and rival trade union federation. The Revisionists returned to the WZO fold after the Holocaust, in 1946.

The Yishuv, as the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine was called, was administered by a National Assembly (Asefat Nivharim), a quasi-parliament with authority over socioeconomic, cultural, and religious life. The Assembly was elected every four years in a countrywide vote (using proportional representation) for the various political parties. The Assembly elected a National Executive (Vaad Leumi) as its executive arm.

In the period immediately before Israel’s declaration of independence, a People’s Assembly was created, comprising members of the Zionist Executive, the National Executive, and several other individuals; thirty-seven members in all. On independence, its name was changed to the Provisional State Council (Moetzet Hamedina Hazmanit), and it functioned as the temporary parliament until elections were held. The People’s Assembly created a smaller body of thirteen members, the People’s Executive, as its executive arm, and this, chaired by Ben-Gurion, became the new state’s Provisional Government.

The Zionist Movement’s pre-state political structure, in Palestine and in the Diaspora, became the basis of the new State of Israel’s democracy. The government modeled the British system of government, in which the ministers, including the prime minister, are responsible to Parliament; the Zionist electoral system of proportional representation enabled more than a dozen parties to be elected to the Knesset, or parliament. This in turn made a coalition government almost inevitable. Ben-Gurion’s Mapai always ruled at the head of whatever coalition it created with other political parties.

Ben-Gurion’s coalition partners usually included one or more of the religious parties: Mizrachi-Hapoal Hamizrachi, the Zionist-religious group later known as the National Religious Party, and Agudat Yisrael–Poalei Agudat Yisrael, the ultra-Orthodox group.

On occasion, he aligned also with Mapam, a socialist party to the left of Mapai; and with the General Zionists, who later split into the Liberal Party and the Independent Liberal Party.

The Revisionists entered the Knesset as the Herut Party, led by Menachem Begin. Herut later joined with the Liberal Party to form the electoral alliance Gahal. This alliance later co-opted additional parties to become the Likud Party.