Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres (2011)
7. Birth Pangs
I spent that night with a rifle in my hand in Ben-Gurion’s office, in case the headquarters compound was stormed by demonstrators.
The war with the Palestinian Arabs didn’t wait for the British to evacuate or the Jewish state to be declared. The day after the vote at the United Nations, a spate of Arab attacks left seven Jews dead and scores more wounded. By February 1, 1948, according to a British report to the UN Security Council, there were 869 killed and 1,909 wounded: British—46 killed, 135 wounded; Arabs—427 killed, 1,035 wounded; Jews—381 killed, 725 wounded; others—15 killed, 15 wounded. The report said that without “the efforts of the [British] security forces over the past month, the two communities would by now have been fully engaged in internecine slaughter.” To many members of the two communities, it seemed like they already were.
Irgun bombings in East Jerusalem killed scores of Arabs. Big bomb blasts in downtown West Jerusalem killed scores of Jews and sapped the Yishuv’s morale. In Haifa an Irgun bombing triggered Arab attacks on Jewish refinery workers, leaving nearly forty of them dead. On March 11 a car bomb exploded in the forecourt of the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem, killing thirteen. In the north, the famous Iraqi fighter Fawzi al-Kaukji slipped into the country at the head of the Arab Liberation Army, a legion of volunteers who reinforced local Palestinian armed bands.
As the countrywide guerrilla warfare intensified, especially around Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion grew frustrated with what he felt was the inability of the Haganah commanders to plan ahead for the much bigger military challenges that he saw as inevitable once independence was declared. “I was surprised to find a lack of understanding on the part of several Haganah commanders as to the need for heavy armament,” he confided to his diary. “There’s going to be a war,” he declared to the Haganah commanders. “The Arab countries will unite and … there will be battle-fronts. This will no longer be a war of platoons. It is essential to set up a modern army.” The response on some parts was smug incredulity. He tried to bring in men who had learned their soldiering in the British Army and the Jewish Brigade but ran into resistance from the “Haganah party,” who jealously guarded their egalitarian tradition and despised the rigid formalism of the “army party.”
Ben-Gurion’s basic strategy, in the face of the Palestinian gangs and the gathering Arab armies, was that no Jewish settlement was to be abandoned, even those outside the boundaries of the Jewish state under the Partition Plan. As he explained in his diary, on the eve of the partition vote: “If the UN decision is favorable in terms of territory, we will defend every settlement and control the entire area of the state that is allotted to us. If we don’t get a favorable resolution, we will defend every settlement, we will repel every attack, and we will not determine in advance territorial boundaries.”
He dispatched top aides like Ehud Avriel, Teddy Kollek, and Munia Mardor to scour Europe and America for arms. Avriel concluded a contract with Czechoslovakia, presumably with Soviet consent, for guns and planes. There was no money to pay for it all, so Ben-Gurion prepared to fly to the United States with Eliezer Kaplan, the Jewish Agency treasurer, to raise funds from the Jews there. Golda Meir intervened. “What you’re doing here I can’t do,” she reasoned. “But I can do what you want to do there.” Their party colleagues sided with her, and off she went. All told, she was able to raise more than $50 million, double the target that Ben-Gurion had hoped for. “When history comes to be written,” he told her, “it shall be said that there was a Jewish woman who found the money which enabled the establishment of the state.”
April was a month of extreme crisis. On the diplomatic front, the Jewish Agency representatives in Washington reported ominous backsliding by the American government. The State Department was now advocating a “provisional trusteeship” for Palestine under UN auspices, rather than immediate partition. This was supposed to give the protagonists more time to reach a settlement. Ben-Gurion called it “a capitulation to the terrorism of Arab bands armed by the British Foreign Office and allowed into the country under its protection.”
In a public statement he reassured the Yishuv that while the UN Partition Resolution had been “of great political and moral value,” the creation of the Jewish state would not depend on the resolution. “It depends on our ability to emerge victorious. If we have the will and the time to mobilize all our resources, the State will still be established. We will not consent to any trusteeship, neither provisional nor permanent, not even for the briefest period. We will no longer accept the yoke of foreign rule, whatever happens.” To drive his point home, Ben-Gurion announced the appointment of a thirteen-member provisional government, to be known as the People’s Executive. All the main political parties were represented, except the Revisionists and the Communists.
On the military front, the situation worsened fast. The Etzion bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem was under constant attack. In January a unit of thirty-five fighters sent to reinforce it was ambushed and massacred. Jerusalem itself was effectively cut off from the rest of the country. On March 29 a convoy of trucks trying to get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was attacked and had to turn back. The Haganah assembled a five-hundred-man force to bolster the beleaguered city. Ben-Gurion dismissed that plan as altogether inadequate. “The battle for the road to Jerusalem is the one burning question right now,” he told Yadin and his officers. “The fall of Jewish Jerusalem would be a death blow to the Yishuv.” He demanded a much larger force, which would attack the Arab strongholds in the villages overlooking the winding road up to the city. Reluctantly, Yadin stripped soldiers from other fronts and was eventually able to amass fifteen hundred fighting men for what was code-named Operation Nachshon. A shipload of rifles and machine guns, hidden under onions, somehow made it through the British blockade and was unloaded at Tel Aviv port. The weapons were rushed up to the Jerusalem foothills where the troops were preparing to attack.
In a series of brutal engagements, a number of the villages were taken and the Jerusalem road opened. On April 5 a first convoy got through. It was followed by others. On April 13 a convoy of 235 trucks reached the city, bringing provisions that were to prove vital in the later fighting. On April 20 Ben-Gurion himself drove up to Jerusalem and held meetings there in a demonstrative act of solidarity with the hard-pressed Jerusalemites.
This somewhat brighter picture was darkened, however, by an outrage perpetrated by Etzel and Lehi men at the village of Deir Yassin, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The village was attacked by Etzel and Lehi on April 9, in coordination with the Haganah. They claimed later that the civilian inhabitants had been urged to flee but had refused to do so. After heavy fighting the village fell to the Jewish forces. But then a deliberate killing of civilians took place. It left more than one hundred dead, including women, children, and the elderly. It triggered a countrywide wave of fear and panic among the Arabs, which certainly contributed to the mass flight of hundreds of thousands of them across the borders. The question of why they left—whether they were forced out by the Haganah and, later, the IDF, or whether their own leaders urged them to leave while the nascent Jewish state was overrun by Arab armies—has been the stuff of much historical research and debate, as well as political polemics, for the last sixty years. The Palestine refugee problem continues to dog peacemaking efforts in the region to the present day.
I was at Ben-Gurion’s side for much of that time, and I never heard him speak in favor of expelling Arabs from Israel. On the contrary, during the war I heard him speak in condemnation of this practice. Everyone has his own story about this. For instance, some claim that when Yitzhak Rabin, then a senior commander in the Palmach, told him of the expulsion of Arabs from the town of Lydda, Ben-Gurion made a gesture with his hand that implied approval. In Haifa, which was a mixed Jewish-Arab city, I personally heard him tell Abba Houshi, the city’s Jewish mayor—I think this was during the first truce, which began on June 11—that we must stop the flight of the Arabs from the town.
Ben-Gurion constantly thought on two planes, the immediate and the historical. He would not have expressed himself in such a way that history would judge him as guilty of reprehensible acts. Never in the World Zionist Organization or the Labor Zionist movement was a plan to expel Arabs on the agenda. There was a time when an exchange of populations was discussed, and the British Labor Party supported this idea at one point. But never expulsion. That would would have been against our fundamental ideology, and I don’t think Ben-Gurion would have countenanced any ideological compromise in this matter. It is true that during the truce Ben-Gurion referred to Lydda and Ramle as two “thorns.” But he never ordered the expulsion of Arabs from either of those cities. He was, however, opposed to the return of Arab refugees to Israeli territory both during the war and after the war ended. They had by then become the enemy. It’s one thing not to expel members of a resident population, but quite another not to permit an enemy’s return.
We did agree to permit the return of Arab refugees to enable families to be reunited. I would estimate that we have taken in close to 200,000 Arabs over the years under our policy of family reunion. That is not a negligible number. Moreover, the mufti’s policy—and after him, Ahmed Shukeiri and Yasser Arafat*—was not to dismantle the refugee camps but to keep them in existence as a permanent irritant. The Palestinians’ demand for return was in the context of a mass return following Israel’s presumed defeat. Most did not want to return individually. Many had believed the tales they were told: that the Arabs would defeat Israel by force of arms and that they would then be able to return to their homes. The long-term strategy later adopted in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan was deliberately to leave the Palestinians living in refugee camps. The refugee issue was destined to turn into a permanent disaster for Israel—politically, militarily, and diplomatically. But Ben-Gurion had no real options.
In this context, I would point too to the more than 700,000 Jews who, beginning in the 1940s and continuing through 1967, had to leave the Arab countries—Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen among them—where their families had been living for centuries. In some of these countries, they experienced discrimination and persecution. Some countries refused to permit them to leave, and we had to spirit them out in clandestine ways. Almost all of them were forced to leave their property behind and arrived in the new State of Israel destitute. They were all absorbed here. We thought, perhaps naïvely, that this would be an example for the other side.
The first mixed Jewish-Arab town to be taken by the Haganah was Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, inside the partition borders. “On April 18,” Ben-Gurion writes in his diary, “all the Arabs of Tiberias were evacuated by the British Army, even though the Haganah commanders announced that they would safeguard the lives and property of members of all communities.”
Of Haifa, also inside the partition borders and taken on April 22, he wrote, “The local Arabs of Haifa accepted the Haganah demands [to hand over their weapons], but the Mufti, who was in Egypt, ordered the Arabs of Haifa to reject the demands and leave the city.” They would be able to return, he said, with victorious Arab forces. Safad, Beisan, and Jaffa, all mixed cities that were to have remained within the Jewish state under partition, were also taken by the Haganah before statehood, and most of their Arab inhabitants fled.
Ben-Gurion’s wrangles with the army brass continued right through the war and repeatedly led to either him or some army officer threatening to resign, as though they were oblivious of the mortal perils that hung over the newborn state. But Ben-Gurion felt that there were times when he had to dig in his heels.
Apart from the tensions between the old-time partisans and the ex–British Army professionals, political allegiances were involved too. On April 26, 1948, Ben-Gurion announced that he was abolishing the position of head of the national command of the Haganah because it complicated the command structure between himself and the army-in-waiting. The position had originally been held by two civilians, one appointed by the Histadrut and the other by the Citizens’ Union, a body run by the General Zionists. The present incumbent was one man, whom Ben-Gurion himself had appointed the year before.
The trouble was that this man, the wise and widely respected Yisrael Galili, was a prominent member of the breakaway party Ahdut HaAvoda (formerly Siah Bet), and Ben-Gurion was suspected of ulterior motives. Al Hamishmar, the newspaper of the Mapam party, wrote of “a personal dictatorship” by Ben-Gurion. Ten days before the state was to be declared, with the country submerged in a welter of bloody guerrilla warfare, the Haganah’s senior commanders threatened to quit. Ben-Gurion climbed a little way down, agreeing that Galili could return to the general staff of the Haganah, but not in his previous post, which was abolished.
No sooner was this issue settled—though not permanently resolved—than Ben-Gurion was faced with a wave of hesitation on the part of the politicians over whether to actually go ahead with the declaration. On May 11 Golda Meir returned from Amman with the worrisome news that Emir Abdullah seemed to be caving in to pan-Arab pressure to fight. The next day the Jordanian Arab Legion, with its artillery and armored vehicles, joined the ongoing Palestinian attacks on the Etzion bloc of villages, whose situation quickly turned desperate.*
Yigael Yadin and Yisrael Galili briefed the Provisional Government on behalf of the Haganah; neither of them was prepared to predict the outcome of the inevitable war. Moshe Sharett met with the U.S. secretary of state, George Marshall, a strong opponent of American recognition of the future Jewish state, and came away deeply troubled by the eminent soldier-statesman’s warning that the Yishuv might not survive the anticipated Arab attack. Sharett returned to Tel Aviv and reported privately to Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion told him to make the exact same presentation to the party leadership the next day. Sharett presented his report and then lined up firmly on the side of Ben-Gurion in favor of declaring the state on May 14 as planned.
Ben-Gurion tried to instill confidence in his colleagues. It’s true, he said, that based on the present balance of forces
our situation will be very perilous. But … it will improve if we manage to bring into the country not even everything we have but, let us say, 15,000 rifles and a few million cartridges, and the cannon and the bazookas, and the warplanes fitted with machine-guns and bombs … We would be able to land a powerful blow on the Arabs at the outset of their invasion and undermine their morale.
He put the issue to the vote: Declare the state in two days’ time as planned, or wait? By a vote of six to four the ministers of the Provisional Government decided to go ahead. They then turned their attention to a draft of the declaration that had been prepared. It referred to the borders “as laid down in the United Nations resolution.” The future justice minister, Pinhas Rosen, said there could be no declaration of statehood without defining the borders of the state. But Ben-Gurion demurred. “The American Declaration of Independence contains no mention of territorial boundaries,” he observed.
Nothing obligates us to mention them … We should say nothing about them because we don’t know what they will be. They are preparing to make war on us. If we defeat them and capture western Galilee or territory on both sides of the road to Jerusalem, those areas will become part of the State. Why should we obligate ourselves to accept boundaries that the Arabs don’t accept in any case?
On the afternoon of Friday, May 14, 1948, before the onset of the Sabbath, a festive session of the People’s Assembly (the Yishuv’s parliament) convened at the Tel Aviv Museum on Rothschild Boulevard, formerly the home of the city’s longtime mayor, Meir Dizengoff. The delegates and hundreds of other invited dignitaries sat with bated breath as Ben-Gurion read out the proclamation. “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” he began in his familiar, raspy voice and clipped, undramatic delivery. All over the war-torn country, people strained to listen to radio receivers. Tears flowed freely.
Here their spiritual, religious, and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world. Exiled from their land, the Jewish people remained faithful to it in all the countries of their dispersion, never ceasing to pray and hope for their return and for the restoration of their national freedom.
The declaration went on to survey the preceding decades of settlement in Palestine, Zionist diplomacy, the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate, and the Holocaust, which “proved anew the urgency of the re-establishment of the Jewish state, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the family of nations.”
It referred to “the recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their independent State” and affirmed that it was “the natural right of the Jewish people to control their own destiny, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”
After this stirring preamble came the formal, political act.
ACCORDINGLY, WE, the members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish community of the Land of Israel and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over the Land of Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the Resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, HEREBY DECLARE the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, to be known as THE STATE OF ISRAEL …
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open to the immigration of Jews and for the ingathering of the exiles from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice, and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed, or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education, and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and holy places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be ready to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in the implementation of the Resolution of the General Assembly of November 29, 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of the Land of Israel …
We extend our hand of peace and neighborliness to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the soverign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East …
Placing our trust in the rock of Israel, we affix our signatures to this Declaration at this session of the Provisional State Council, on the soil of the homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the fifth day of Iyar, 5708, the fourteenth day of May, 1948.
This last reference to “the rock of Israel,” perhaps referring to the Deity or perhaps to some less divine national destiny, was the upshot of last-minute wrangling between religious and agnostic members of the Provisional Government over whether God should be invoked at all, and if so how.
Ben-Gurion then said, “Let us rise to indicate our support for the Declaration of Independence.” All rose. “Please be seated,” he said. “There is one more announcement to be made, but before I make it I would like to call upon Rabbi Yehudah Leib Fishman.” The white bearded leader of the religious Mizrachi Party recited the traditional Shehecheyanu blessing celebrating a new or festive experience. Ben-Gurion then read out a decision by the provisional government “in accordance with the Declaration of Independence.” The regulations emanating from the white paper “are hereby declared null and void … The Land Transfer Regulations, 1940, are abolished retroactively.” (“Stormy applause,” he later recorded in his diary.) Thirty-seven minutes after entering the hall, the new prime minister of the new state rapped his gavel and announced, “The State of Israel has arisen. This meeting is now adjourned.” In his diary he wrote, “Throughout the country there is profound joy and jubilation and once again, as on November 29, I feel like the bereaved among the rejoicers.”
Now the war that Ben-Gurion had predicted with such certainty began in earnest. Armed forces from five Arab states—Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—invaded Israel from all sides. The new state’s survival would depend on its ability to hold them off until the weaponry that could defeat them arrived and was deployed.
Eleven minutes after Ben-Gurion’s proclamation, the U.S. government announced that it would recognize the new state. President Harry Truman’s announcement read, “This Government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof. The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the State of Israel.” It was Truman’s personal decision, overruling the professionals at the State Department.
Before dawn Ben-Gurion was awakened with a request from Israel’s diplomats in the United States that he broadcast live to the American people over the radio. He was driven to the Haganah’s radio station in north Tel Aviv. As he spoke, Egyptian bombs fell on the Sde Dov airfield nearby. Unruffled, he wove an explanation of the explosions in the background into his broadcast. He drove back in an open jeep. “From all the houses, people in pajamas were gazing out,” he wrote in his diary. “But there were no signs of panic. I felt that these people would stand their ground.”
They would need to. The first days of the war were unrelievedly dark. In the north, Syrian armor pressed down on the Sea of Galilee, smashing through the Haganah’s inadequate defenses at Tzemach. In the south, the Egyptians hurled their forces against Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. The fighting there went on for five days; if the Egyptians had broken through, the road to Tel Aviv would have been open before them. In Jerusalem, Transjordan’s Arab Legion attacked at multiple points and threatened the west of the city. In Tel Aviv, forty-two people died in a single bombing raid by Egypt on the central bus terminal.
Old farmers from the Jordan Valley settlements, Ben Gurion’s friends from years back, came to beg for reinforcements. The army had just received four antiquated 65-milimeter mountain-guns, which Yadin wanted to send up to Lake Galilee to try to stop the Syrian tanks. Ben-Gurion refused: The guns were for Jerusalem, he insisted. They argued; Yadin slammed down his first and broke the glass on Ben-Gurion’s desk. Outside, the farmers from the north cried bitter tears. In the end, Ben-Gurion agreed to send the guns for twenty-four hours. They were duly deployed and did indeed make the requisite impact on the Syrians, who pulled back their forces.
The most difficult day was May 22. Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, on the southern perimeter of Jerusalem, changed hands repeatedly in bloody fighting. An IDF force trying to break through the Zion Gate and reinforce the beleaguered Jewish Quarter of the Old City was repulsed. Large sections of the western city were under incessant shelling. In the south an Egyptian column entered Beersheba. “There was nothing left to fight with,” a Mapai party colleague later recalled. “Ben-Gurion stalked about like a wounded lion.” But the defenders on most of the myriad front lines somehow held on.
By the next night Ben-Gurion could see the first glimmers of hope. Messerschmitt warplanes bought in Czechoslovakia began to arrive; five Czech technicians worked feverishly on assembling them and getting them airborne. A first ship carrying light arms and artillery was approaching Haifa. “That will be the beginning of the turning point,” Ben-Gurion wrote. He focused his attention on Jerusalem. “We have to hold on in the Negev,” he told the army general staff. “The battle for Jerusalem is the most important, both politically and to a large extent militarily, too.” Yadin strongly demurred. Ben-Gurion was exaggerating the precariousness of the situation there, he recalled later. “I thought the Egyptians were the most dangerous enemy and I gave priority to the south.”
Ben-Gurion thought otherwise, and he now asserted his full authority to bend the general staff to his will. Two food convoys had reached Jerusalem on May 16 and 17, but then the Arab Legion cut off the road again. The linchpin was the British-built Tegart fort* at Latrun, in the Jerusalem foothills, which commanded the road up to Jerusalem and the surrounding lower-lying areas. The legion held it, and Ben-Gurion was determined to oust them from it. He ordered the army to concentrate men and equipment for a massed attack on the stronghold. The men included young immigrants literally just off the boats and barely aware of how to fire a rifle. The equipment was no match for the defenders’ field guns, machine guns, and mortars. Three times over the next weeks Israeli forces tried to storm Latrun, and three times they were repulsed with heavy losses. In the meantime the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem fell to the legion; the remaining handful of able-bodied defenders were taken into captivity in Transjordan, and the wounded and noncombatants were sent across the lines to West Jerusalem.
The siege of West Jerusalem was eased by the discovery, at the beginning of June, of an alternative route through the hills. Hundreds of civilians from Tel Aviv were mobilized to carry matériel up the stony slope, assisted by mules and jeeps, while work went on feverishly to clear the path and pave it. This “Burma Road,” as it was called, was functioning by June 8.
On other fronts, the Iraqis advanced westward from Tulkarm toward Netanya, threatening to cut the country in half. They were stopped and turned back at Kfar Yona on May 25–28. Other Israeli units pushed Fawzi al-Kaukji’s Arab Liberation Army forces back from the southern Galilee toward Jenin. At Kibbutz Negba, near Gaza, approximately one hundred defenders equipped with one Piat gun and small arms managed to hold out against an Egyptian armored force numbering one thousand men. Yad Mordechai, however, finally fell on May 24, and the Egyptians moved on northward toward Isdood (present-day Ashdod). The Egyptian advance up the coast was slowed on May 29 by the first appearance of Israeli air power: Four Messerschmitts strafed the advancing column. Their success was limited (two crashed), but their psychological impact, on both sides, was important.
Summing up that period, Ben-Gurion wrote later, “The month of battles from the Arabs’ invasion of the country until the first truce was the most difficult and dangerous period of the War of Independence. For the most part, the Arabs enjoyed the initiative. Operations that we initiated were not always successful. The weapons purchased overseas trickled in slowly. Heavy weapons, in which the Arabs had the greatest advantage, took longest to arrive because of transport difficulties.”
The United Nations sent a peace emissary, the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, together with its own senior diplomat, the American Ralph Bunche, to try to end the fighting. They first called on Ben-Gurion on May 31. The next day his office in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, was bombed and strafed from the air. “Apparently,” he wrote in his diary, “a spy in Bernadotte’s party had informed the Arabs of the location of my office. Perhaps it was hit in retaliation for our bombing of Amman.” Israel had sent three planes, the bulk of its then–air force, on two bombing runs over the Transjordanian capital the previous day. “Three-quarters of a ton of bombs were dropped,” Ben-Gurion meticulously recorded. “Fires were started.” Ben-Gurion himself refused to take shelter during the air raid. I remember him sitting impassively at his desk, writing. When a guard outside was hit by shrapnel, Nehemia Argov, his military aide, and I ran out with a stretcher. Ben-Gurion got up, but only to lend us a hand carrying the wounded man to an ambulance. Then he returned to his writing.
For Israel, sorely pressed on every front, a four-week truce arranged by the UN Security Council, which finally went into effect on June 11, was a godsend. “I asked the members of the General Staff whether a truce would be to our advantage,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary on May 26. “All of them agreed that it would.” The period of quiet was spent rearming and training. It was a reinvigorated IDF that took to the field when battle was rejoined on July 8. This was the case in more than just the logistical sense. For while the Arab guns had been silent, Ben-Gurion faced his sternest test—from within his own side.
The Provisional Government had issued an ordinance on May 26 establishing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and prohibiting “the establishment or maintenance of any other armed force.” On June 1, Menachem Begin, the Etzel leader, signed an agreement with the government whereby Etzel units would join the IDF in battalion formations and take an oath of loyalty. The Etzel’s separate command structure would be disbanded within a month, and the organization would cease buying arms abroad.
Nevertheless, on June 11, the Altalena, a ship that the Etzel had purchased, set sail from southern France with a large quantity of arms and explosives on board as well as some 850 immigrants. As it approached the shores of Israel, Begin informed the government that 20 percent of the arms would be sent to Etzel units in Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was not yet formally under Israel’s jurisdiction, Yisrael Galili, negotiating for the IDF, agreed. Begin then proposed that the remaining weaponry go first to equip Etzel units within the IDF. Whatever was left could then be allocated to other units. Galili balked. He reported to Ben-Gurion on June 19 that the danger of a “private army” was evolving. Ben-Gurion convened the cabinet. “There are not going to be two states,” he declared, “and there are not going to be two armies. And Mr. Begin will not do what he feels like … If he does not give in we shall open fire!” The cabinet resolved unanimously to “authorize the defense minister to take action in accordance with the law of the land.”
Ben-Gurion feared that Begin might use the arms aboard the Altalena to equip Etzel units outside the sovereign jurisdiction of the state—thus ostensibly not violating his commitment—in order to extend the war with the Arabs into the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), thereby defying government policy.
The Altalena anchored off Kfar Vitkin, a moshav between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and hopefully far from the prying eyes of UN observers, and began off-loading the weapons with the help of hundreds of supporters who had gathered at the site. Galili and Yadin deployed troops to surround the beach and ordered Begin to surrender. Some of the troops with Etzel sympathies crossed the lines and joined the Altalena crew and its enthusiastic sympathizers. The ship, with Begin and other Revisionist leaders now on board, weighed anchor and put out to sea, chased by IDF craft. It sailed south toward Tel Aviv and eventually ran aground close to the shore. At army headquarters in Ramat Gan, I spent that night with a rifle in my hand in Ben-Gurion’s office, in case the headquarters compound was stormed by demonstrators.
Off the Tel Aviv boardwalk, a traumatic scenario unfolded the next day. Etzel soldiers and civilian sympathizers streamed to the site. Some waded into the sea and swam out to the ship. At military headquarters, Ben-Gurion paced back and forth, fuming. Eventually he issued written orders to Yadin to concentrate “troops, fire-power, flame-throwers, and all the other means at our disposal in order to secure the ship’s unconditional surrender.” Yadin was then to await the government’s instructions.
Ben-Gurion then convened the cabinet again. Some colleagues suggested possible compromises, but he was of no mind for any such weakness. “This is an attempt to destroy the army,” he thundered. “This is an attempt to murder the state. In these two matters there cannot be any compromise.” The cabinet backed him. Small-arms fire broke out between shore and ship. The government evacuated homes and shops in the line of fire. The Palmach commander Yigal Allon, now a senior IDF general, was put in charge of the operation. He ordered a cannon deployed. Yitzhak Rabin was in command of it. The first shell fell wide, but the second struck the vessel. Fire broke out in the hold. Those on board began to abandon ship. (It stood barely one hundred yards from the beach.) But before they could all do so, an explosion tore through the ship, destroying it. Sixteen Etzel men and three IDF soldiers died in the episode; dozens more were wounded.
Begin delivered a two-hour broadcast live on Etzel radio that night, roundly cursing Ben-Gurion who, he claimed, had been out to kill him. He for his part, Begin said, would continue to restrain his men and thus prevent the outbreak of civil war: “We will not open fire. There will be no fraternal strife when the enemy is at the gate.” Ben-Gurion spoke at the People’s Assembly, the transitional parliament. He said that since the arms had not been destined for the IDF, he was glad they had been destroyed. He added a line praising “the blessed cannon” that had fired at the Altalena—a phrase that Revisionist stalwarts never forgot nor forgave.
Less than a week later Ben-Gurion was again facing down what he angrily termed “a political mutiny in the army,” this time from the left. He was determined to bring more ex–British Army/Jewish Brigade officers into key posts. And he was determined too to reduce the influence of Mapam (since January, an amalgam of the Hashomer Hatzair and Ahdut HaAvoda parties) in the army, which was exercised primarily through the Palmach commanders, most of them Ahdut HaAvoda adherents. The two aims dovetailed and succeeded in raising the ire of Yigael Yadin, the (nonpolitical) chief of operations (Chief of Staff Yaakov Dori was ill for most of the war), and of the Mapam-affiliated generals, who now tendered their collective resignation. Ben-Gurion accused Yadin of mutiny. Yadin said he was prepared to serve as a simple soldier but not to take responsibility for decisions that he found unjustifiable. At a cabinet meeting, Ben-Gurion threatened to resign. And he again demanded Galili’s dismissal as the sine qua non for any new arrangement.
A five-man ministerial committee was set up to investigate the charges and countercharges. Yadin testified before it, excoriating Ben-Gurion’s incessant interference in operational matters. He restated his profound disagreements with the prime minister and defense minister over the battle for Jerusalem. Galili testified too, also criticizing Ben-Gurion’s performance of his duties as defense minister. The ministers recommended the creation of a formal war cabinet. They recommended too that Galili be restored to his old role as head of the national command—effectively interposing him between Defense Minister Ben-Gurion and the general staff. Ben-Gurion promptly resigned, just days before the truce was due to end. With the prime minister demonstratively at home, and the generals no longer at their posts either, the entire political and military establishment went into a paroxysm of negotiations to find some saving formula.
Here one sees graphically how even Ben-Gurion’s opponents, who blithely accused him of autocratic ways, were desperate not to lose him. Galili altruistically offered his own head. In the end, Yadin went around to Ben-Gurion’s home, braved Paula, and put before the Old Man a compromise scheme designed to get on with the war (once the truce ended) without making an immediate string of controversial appointments. Yigal Allon, the Palmachnik accepted by all, was given command of the key Jerusalem front.
The confrontation subsided, but for Ben-Gurion it was just a tactical retreat. The sequel came in October, on the eve of a third round of hostilities against the Egyptians in the Negev. Ben-Gurion issued orders to dismantle the Palmach’s separate command structure, explaining that it was anomalous in an integrated army. Mapam appealed the decision before the executive of the Histadrut, and there the arguments raged for two days. Ben-Gurion accused Mapam of endangering “the integrity of the state.” A Mapam leader warned that the right was plotting to seize power undemocratically, and that by eliminating the Palmach, Ben-Gurion was heightening the risk that this might succeed. This time Ben-Gurion enjoyed his own party’s solid support, and the Mapam appeal was voted down. After the war Ben-Gurion achieved his goal of a fully integrated army by disbanding the separate Palmach brigades.
For Ben-Gurion, these two dangerous brushes with rebellion, the one from the right, the other from the left, required him to impose, without compromise and without delay, his hallowed principle of mamlachtiyut (state before party) upon the fledgling nation. He was shocked to discover that the principal fighting force of the army, the Palmach, was party-oriented, to the point where, in the first round of tensions over Galili’s role, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon,* a key Ahdut HaAvoda figure, seriously proposed that the Palmach be subordinate to the Histadrut, the socialist-run trade union organization. Ben-Gurion was appalled to hear that from one of the most intelligent people in politics. It showed that the fundamentals of national sovereignty had not yet permeated the political echelon.
If Ben-Gurion had not faced down Etzel and disbanded the Palmach, we would have had a seriously compromised state right from the start. Over the years there were still occasionally army officers who felt—or at any rate claimed they felt—that they were discriminated against because they weren’t affiliated with the Mapai Party. Ezer Weizman† was one particularly high-profile example. His affiliations were with the right, and he in fact joined Menachem Begin’s Herut Party after retiring from the IDF. But he was wrong to think his military career was slowed or stymied (he wasn’t appointed chief of staff) because of it. Yigael Yadin was a chief of staff, and he wasn’t a Mapai Party man. Neither was Mordechai Makleff, Yadin’s successor. Tzvi Tzur,‡ who succeeded Haim Laskov as chief of staff, didn’t come in as a party man. They were all strictly army men.
In fact, contrary to the legends, it was often Ben-Gurion who had to fight over military appointments against the serried ranks of his opponents, both in the general staff and in the Mapai. He had no clique of his own. During the War of Independence the generals ganged up time and again and threatened to quit en bloc. And in 1953 the party bridled at his appointment of Moshe Dayan as chief of staff. Levi Eshkol referred to Dayan as Abu Jilda.* Golda opposed him too, as did Sharett. Ben-Gurion ignored the party because he thought Dayan’s appointment was in the national interest.
Mamlachtiyut was a strict and uncompromising code. Yadin helped Ben-Gurion to inculcate it in the army. At one point in time the director-general of the treasury ministry was scheduled for reserve duty on the eve of the presentation of the national budget, and Yadin refused to release him from his obligation to serve. The director-general stayed in his office, anyway, to prepare the budget. And so Yadin sent him to jail!
* Ahmed Shukeiri (1908–80) founded the PLO in 1964 and was its first chairman. Yasser Arafat (1929–2004) became chairman of the PLO in 1967 and headed the organization for thirty-seven years, until his death.
* They were ordered to surrender the next day. In all, 151 defenders were killed, some of them massacred after the fighting ended and before the International Red Cross could step in to arrange the surrender terms. Under those terms, 320 defenders were taken into captivity in Jordan and returned to Israel after the war. The Etzion bloc, as part of the West Bank, remained under Jordanian control until the Six-Day War in 1967.
* A series of concrete fortresses, built at strategic points all around Palestine, were named for Sir Charles Tegart, a British police officer and engineer.
* Ben-Aharon (1906–2006) was later a cabinet minister and secretary-general of the Histadrut.
* Abu Jilda was a famous Arab brigand.
† Chaim Weizmann’s nephew, Weizman (1924–2005) was a commander of the Israeli Air Force; a cabinet minister under Eshkol, Begin, and Peres; and, from 1993 to 2000, president of the state.
‡ Tzur was IDF chief of staff, 1961–63.