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

8. Settling In

He sent me on many assignments. For some reason he thought I could do things, let’s say, unconventionally.

On July 7, 1948, the day before the truce was officially to end, the Egyptians went into action in the south, and soon battles were raging again on all fronts. The IDF was now bigger—there were 63,800 men (and women) under arms, compared with under 40,000 in May—and much better equipped than before. It scored some successes, extending the areas under its control in the Jerusalem corridor and the Galilee. Ramle, Lydda, and Lydda Airport*were taken. Israeli planes bombed Cairo and Damascus as well as the Egyptian airfield at El Arish in the Sinai. But Israel failed during the ten days of this second round of fighting to dislodge the Egyptians from the northern Negev, the Jordanians from East Jerusalem and the Old City, and the Syrians from the northeastern Galilee. The IDF was not fully in control even of the areas allocated to the Jewish state in the 1947 Partition Plan, especially in the south. The Negev settlements were largely cut off by the Egyptian advance and had to be supplied from the air. A second, UN-ordered indefinite truce went into effect on July 18.

Despite the still-inconclusive outcome of the fighting, and despite the relatively heavy casualties, the overall atmosphere was much improved. The state’s permanence and confidence steadily strengthened in the minds of its citizens, whose numbers were already being augmented by the first arrival of new immigrants from the displaced-persons camps in Europe. Ben-Gurion ordered a military parade in Tel Aviv, which was held on July 27. The UN envoy, Count Folke Bernadotte, reported to the secretary-general that “a feeling of greater confidence and independence had grown out of Jewish military efforts during the interval between the two truces. Less reliance was placed in the United Nations and there was a growing tendency to criticize its shortcomings with regard to Palestine.”

Influenced apparently by the British, Bernadotte now produced a peace plan that proposed lopping off the Negev from Israel and annexing it to Transjordan. Israel would retain the western Galilee areas that it had conquered but would emerge much truncated (the Negev was 60 percent of its territory) and would have to take back the Palestinian refugees who had fled the country, numbered by Bernadotte at more than 300,000. In an early version of his plan, in June, Jerusalem was to have been part of Transjordan; in the second version, in September, it was to be internationalized. Both Israel and the Arabs rejected Bernadotte’s proposals.

On September 17 Bernadotte was ambushed in his car and shot dead in West Jerusalem, apparently by the Lehi. The organization had ostensibly disbanded, but a hard-core group of activists still held together. Ben-Gurion, shocked and embarrassed, had hundreds of known Lehi and Etzel members around the country arrested. Natan Yellin-Mor and Matti Shmuelevitch, two prominent Lehi leaders, were charged with the murder and sentenced to long jail terms. (They were released under a general amnesty, after the war finally ended in 1949.)

The assassination intensified international diplomatic efforts to produce a settlement in Palestine. In December the UN General Assembly, angered by the envoy’s murder and stirred by the plight of the still-growing number of Palestinian refugees, passed Resolution 194, which called for a cessation of hostilities and the return of refugees who wished to live in peace.

Ben-Gurion meanwhile decided on a bold military operation to take the entire southern portion of the West Bank (Judea) and link it up with the northern Negev. In late September he ordered the army to prepare the troops and took his plan to the cabinet. There, however, he was firmly resisted by the majority of ministers. He termed their position a bechiya ledorot (literally, a “cause for sobbing for generations”),* but his colleagues remained adamant, and he was forced to order the army to make do with a more modest, though also not unambitious, plan to attack the Egyptians in the northern Negev and attempt to drive them out of the country. The campaign, code-named Operation Yoav, developed into the largest and bloodiest battle of the entire war.

The Egyptians provided the required pretext by attacking a food convoy in violation of the terms of the truce. The IDF, under Allon, attacked on several fronts, with air support. In the end, Israel managed to capture Beersheba and open a secure corridor into the Negev. The invading Egyptian Army was cut into four separate and isolated brigades, pinned down by IDF forces. On October 28 the Egyptians evacuated Isdood, and on November 6 they retreated from Majdal (Ashkelon). Most of the Arab inhabitants in those areas left with the retreating Egyptian forces. They were to remain as Palestinian refugees living under Egyptian rule in the Gaza Strip until the Six-Day War in 1967.

In December further IDF initiatives in the south drove the Egyptians from more of the Negev. At year’s end Israeli troops were in control of northeastern Sinai. Forward units reached Bir Hasanah, deep inland and some fifty miles from the border of Palestine. Other units closed on El Arish, the seaport lying on the Mediterranean coast. A dogfight with British RAF planes led to several of them being shot down and dramatically heightened international tensions. Ben-Gurion quickly pulled the troops back. The future Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was among the officers of a four-thousand-man force surrounded at Faluja, near present-day Kiryat Gat. (That force was eventually released and repatriated under the terms of the armistice agreement signed between Israel and Egypt in February 1949 on the island of Rhodes.)

In the north, the IDF mounted a large and successful operation against Fawzi al-Kaukji’s Arab Liberation Army at the end of October, driving them and Lebanese forces out of the Galilee and pushing the Syrians eastward. IDF units swept into southern Lebanon as far as the Litani River.

In March a Palmach unit in the south reached Umm al-Rashrash on the Red Sea coast and, famously, ran up an improvised flag drawn on a sheet with ink. Then they sang “Hatikva,” which has gone down in Israeli history as marking the end of the War of Independence. Armistice agreements, brokered by a UN-appointed conciliation commission, were eventually signed with Egypt, with Lebanon in March, with Transjordan (which now became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) in April, and with Syria in July. Six thousand Israelis had died in the war—1 percent of the population. Four thousand of them were soldiers and the rest civilians. Israel ended up with some 50 percent more territory than was originally allotted to it by the Partition Plan; its borders under the armistice agreements covered 78 percent of pre-state Palestine. The war created some 600,000 Palestinian refugees. Gaza fell under the jurisdiction of Egypt. Judea and Samaria, the area along the west bank of the Jordan River, was occupied by Jordan and later officially annexed, an act recognized only by Britain and Pakistan.

At the first meeting of the Provisional Government after independence was declared in May 1948, Ben-Gurion proposed that Chaim Weizmann be elected president of the state. “I doubt whether the presidency is necessary to Dr. Weizmann,” he said, “but the presidency of Dr. Weizmann is a moral necessity for the State of Israel.” This was duly done, and Weizmann, who had gone to the United States to lobby President Truman on behalf of the soon-to-be-born state, was then formally feted at the White House as a fellow head of state. On February 16, 1949, Weizmann was officially sworn in as president at a special session of the newly elected Knesset.

No sooner was the fighting more or less over than Ben-Gurion led the country to elections, on January 25, 1949. Despite the objective difficulties—tens of thousands of people were still under arms—a whopping 86.9 percent of the eligible electorate (499,095 out of 506,567) exercised their democratic right to vote, a turnout that has never been bettered since. Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party won a plurality of 46 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. That meant a coalition government, in which no single party had a majority. This was to be the pattern of political life in Israel going forward, with all the inherent instability that it entails. The next-largest party was Mapam, with 19 seats. But Mapam refused to join a coalition with Mapai, and Ben-Gurion was forced to make do with the Religious Front (16 seats), the Progressives (5 seats), and two tiny parties, an inherently unstable alliance that indeed proved to be intermittently shaky and fell apart within two years.

On April 4, 1949, the new Knesset, meeting in the old San Remo Hotel on the Tel Aviv beachfront, held its first great political debate. The day before, on the island of Rhodes, representatives of Israel and Jordan had signed an armistice agreement, formally ending the fighting and formally enshrining Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank. All the old opponents of partition, from all their various positions on the Zionist spectrum, hurled upon Ben-Gurion a final chorus of criticism. He rebutted them with words of timeless relevance:

A Jewish state, or shleimut haaretz [the integrity of the biblical Greater Israel]? Well, a Jewish state … over the entire country can only be a dictatorship of the minority. A Jewish state, even just in western Palestine [i.e., not including Transjordan], cannot possibly be a democratic state because the number of Arabs in western Palestine is larger than the number of Jews.

To have held out for Greater Israel, he continued, would have meant the imposition of a United Nations–sponsored international mandate over the entire country.

We want a Jewish state, even if not in the whole country. Who is “we”? The Zionist Movement, a large majority of the Yishuv, and a large majority of the pioneers and the fighters and the soldiers and those who died fighting for it … And so, when the question before us was Greater Israel without a Jewish state or a Jewish state without Greater Israel—we chose a Jewish state without Greater Israel … We did [initially] demand a Jewish state over the whole country. And it would have been possible had the Mandatory Power [Great Britain] fulfilled its duty and enabled the immigration of a million Jews over two years … But now, we do not want to launch further war against the Arabs. I want one thing to be clear. We believe that the creation of the state, albeit on less than Greater Israel, was the greatest act in Jewish history since ancient times … The criterion by which to judge these armistice agreements is whether they are better than no agreements, not whether they are better than a miracle. If a miracle happens and the Messiah comes, there will be peace in the world and all will be good. But it is our task to save the Jewish people by natural means, until the supernatural miracle happens. And judged by natural means, these armistice agreements have advanced our prospects. They have strengthened our international standing. They have enhanced our ability to bring in immigrants. They have enhanced the possibility of eventual peace and friendship with the Arabs.

The armistice agreement with Jordan was approved by a large majority. Mapam voted against it. Apart from the scarring from the internal battles over the Palmach, Mapam was ideologically at odds with Ben-Gurion at that time, still believing in “the world of tomorrow”—that is, the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Mapam and Ahdut HaAvoda pinned their hopes on support from the Soviet bloc for Israel as a progressive and anticolonialist state. The Ahdut HaAvoda leaders Yisrael Galili and Yitzhak Tabenkin, despite their Greater Israel views, believed there would be some sort of reconciliation between Zionism and Soviet Russia, though at the same time they did not want to forgo the friendship of the United States or the support of American Jewry.

Another prominent Ahdut HaAvoda leader, Lyova Levite of Kibbutz Ein Harod, boasted that he read no paper but Pravda. And Ahdut HaAvoda leader Nahum Nir (formerly Refalkes) was voted Knesset speaker in 1959 by the opposition parties against Ben-Gurion’s wishes. “In your room there’s a picture of Stalin on the wall!” Ben-Gurion would scream at him. And there was. It’s hard to recall, and even harder to explain, the atmosphere of those times. Many members of the Soviet Politburo were Jewish. In the end Stalin killed most of them, but until then some of our people deluded themselves into thinking that this “Jewish connection” in the Soviet Union could somehow work in our favor. The Russians were in constant contact with the French intelligentsia; many of them were Jewish too.

Meir Ya’ari, the Mapam–Hashomer Hatzair leader, sat in his kibbutz, Merhavia, and spoke of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He insisted on “ideological collectivism.” He had a rabbinical air about him, and his followers were like disciples. He quoted from Lenin but still managed to sound like a rabbi! Moshe Sneh thought that if we supported Russia, Russia would support us. During his Mapam period, he was in close contact with Soviet diplomats. Mordechai Oren,* another senior Mapam figure, was also much too close to the Soviet Union. Even farther to the left were the Israeli Communists, who claimed that they could bring peace to the Middle East because they were class warriors and not nationalist warriors. They were ideologically anti-Zionist, though Shmuel Mikunis of Maki, Israel’s Arab-Jewish Communist Party, always claimed that he was responsible for the Czech arms deal with Israel in 1948.

It was inevitable that Zionism and Communism would frequently come into conflict over ideological issues. The Yevsektsia* was set up in the Soviet Union to fight Zionism by pitting a form of Jewish communism against Jewish nationalism. But some of our people wanted to be both Zionists and Communists. They were a minority, but vocal and passionate. Ben-Gurion fought them with all his strength.

Among the European socialist parties too, there were social revolutionaries who espoused Marxism. The British Labor Party, on the other hand, was staunchly social democratic; it had no truck with Communism. On the world stage, nonaligned meant nonaligned with America and, more often than not, aligned with the Soviet Union. The Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the original apostles of nonalignment, was Soviet oriented. He upbraided us over the Sinai War in 1956, writing to Ben-Gurion, in effect, If you’ve got a regional dispute, take it to the UN. Don’t collude with others and launch a war. Later, in 1962, when India and China became embroiled in a conflict over Ladakh, Nehru asked world leaders for military and diplomatic support. And Ben-Gurion wrote back to him, telling him to take it to the UN.

The formation of the government in the aftermath of the war in 1948—when Ben-Gurion moved, in effect, from supreme commander of army and country to democratically elected leader—still stirs up passionate debate about Ben-Gurion, Israel, and the nature of governance itself, especially in the fledgling days of a newly established democracy. In America’s formative experience, George Washington famously stepped down after two terms as president, but his successor, John Adams, wound up with a vice president, Thomas Jefferson, from a different party, which created a bitter rivalry that tugged at the country as it found its footing. Ben-Gurion’s insistence on excluding Menachem Begin’s Herut Party; his decision to elevate—in effect, isolate—Chaim Weizmann in the office of the presidency; even Israel’s place in the larger geopolitical environment of the Cold War world was a perennial subject of argument. To some degree it still is and offers another occasion for authorial dialogue.

DAVID LANDAU: Very early on, Ben-Gurion made a conscious, strategic decision to align Israel with the West. Some asked at the time, why be an American satellite?

SHIMON PERES: Ben-Gurion said the Cold War was not between two blocs, but between a bloc and a civilization. The West wasn’t a bloc. It wasn’t organized and disciplined like the Comintern was. He said of the Cold War that this was the first confrontation in history that was not over natural resources or territory but over the soul of man. Nikita Khrushchev taunted Western leaders with the prediction that “your grandchildren will be Communists.” And the Americans predicted the opposite. Each side invested enormous resources to win hearts and minds. The Soviets were fortunate in that they had no Senate to investigate their huge foreign-aid ventures: to Indonesia, for instance, to build a vast stadium just because Sukarno wanted it; to Egypt, for arms and for the Aswan Dam. Did either effort succeed in winning over those societies to Communism? No; the Communist Party was outlawed in both countries!

The West, being free, was not a regimented “bloc” or “camp,” which is itself a totalitarian concept. So Ben-Gurion didn’t have formally to decide that we weren’t part of the totalitarian camp. We just weren’t. Israel’s government was democratic. Anyway, the totalitarian camp didn’t want to conquer our hearts. It made a mathematical calculation: how many people were there on our side, how many on the Arab side.

DAVID LANDAU: Could this question of Israel’s orientation have ended up differently? Nahum Goldmann* thought so.

SHIMON PERES: Goldmann was too much of a man-of-the-world to be a national leader. And he didn’t live in Israel. How could you be a leader if you didn’t live here? Ben-Gurion was an ascetic. He had lived and worked on the land. He walked around in khaki fatigues!

DAVID LANDAU: Did Ben-Gurion want Goldmann to settle here and become leader of the opposition? How was it that Ben-Gurion was totally committed to setting up a parliamentary democracy and yet at the same time had such unveiled contempt for Begin, the leader of the opposition? How does that square?

SHIMON PERES: Israel’s political culture was determined before the state came into being. It was transplanted en bloc from the Zionist movement to the Knesset and became the new state’s democratic process. Ben-Gurion couldn’t change it. He wanted to change the electoral system. He tried from the very beginning, but he couldn’t. He never had a majority in the Knesset to change the system of proportional representation.

He understood that you can’t solve all your problems at once. His method therefore was to take one issue at a time. The main problem was to set up the state. So even things that deeply worried and angered him, like the electoral system, had to be put off. He never stopped talking about electoral reform and trying to move it forward. But he didn’t succeed. All the parties joined to foil him. It was convenient for them to continue with the old system, which had been inherited from the Zionist Organization and the pre-state Yishuv.

DAVID LANDAU: But he did set up a parliamentary democracy, which is normally based on government versus opposition, even though he had contempt for the opposition.

SHIMON PERES: It wasn’t “the opposition.” When there are two parties, one is an opposition. When there are fourteen parties, there’s chaos, there’s scrambled eggs. Each time he had to confront a coalition-of-the-opposition, which kept changing like a kaleidoscope. But he wasn’t one to be deterred. That was the game—so he played the game. He was a tactician with the best of them. One time he stitched together a governing coalition like this, another time like that.

DAVID LANDAU: But they accused him of autocracy. In real time—

SHIMON PERES: In real time they didn’t see the reality. Only now the reality is clear to all. Now he stands taller than he did then. Now there’s a consensus around his greatness. Then he was controversial. Why? Because he fought! You’re controversial when you don’t agree with everyone. And who says controversy’s a bad thing! Once I was the most controversial man in Israel. Now I’m the most popular. And I don’t know which is better! If you ask me, I miss times of controversy! What is popularity? It’s not when people follow you; it’s when you seek to please them! What is controversy? It’s when you march ahead even though they’re not following you. So people said things about him, so what? Did he ever put anyone in prison for saying things? The concept of leadership that we learned from him was not to be on top, but to be ahead.

DAVID LANDAU: You yourself behaved very differently from Ben-Gurion as prime minister and as leader of the opposition. As prime minister you would invite the leader of the opposition for regular briefings. As leader of the opposition, you were invited by them. And when governments were being formed, you at least talked to each other about serving together, and sometimes the talks led to agreements. Those were the democratic, parliamentary procedures in your time.

SHIMON PERES: Ben-Gurion ruled out Herut because he saw them as mere wordmongers.

DAVID LANDAU: What kind of disqualification is that?

SHIMON PERES: He didn’t disqualify them. But if he could oppose them, what’s wrong with that? He wasn’t the pope. He didn’t give orders. He fought them. He ridiculed them. Everyone else was afraid to fight, to clash, to confront. He wasn’t afraid.

DAVID LANDAU: He admired the British system. But at least in this respect, he didn’t apply it.

SHIMON PERES: Because there weren’t only two or three parties in Israel, as there were in Britain. If there had been, he would have. If there were fourteen parties in Britain, it wouldn’t be a parliamentary democracy at all! And if there were fourteen parties in America, it wouldn’t be a democracy with a president as head of state. That was the essence of the problem.

Ben-Gurion saw the Communists as upholding loyalty to a foreign entity, and he slashed at them, ridiculed them. Made them a laughingstock. Fought them with irony.

DAVID LANDAU: Fought them with the Shin Bet*?

SHIMON PERES: No. I think the Shin Bet simply warned him on rare occasions when there were serious suspicions of foreign espionage. There was some serious Soviet espionage here in Israel, in the top political echelons. People were caught. There was real danger. But who didn’t watch their own backyard at that time? The United States didn’t do it? England didn’t do it? The whole world seethed with conspiracies.

DAVID LANDAU: Sitting here in this room, in your current job, do you sometimes think critically about Ben-Gurion’s relations with Weizmann, especially during those last years of Weizmann’s life? I’m especially thinking about Weizmann’s immortal but poignant comment that the only place he was permitted to stick his nose was into his handkerchief.

SHIMON PERES: As I’ve said, Ben-Gurion respected and admired Weizmann, despite their differences over the years. Those differences were very real. Remember, a significant part of the Mapai leadership leaned at times toward Weizmann rather than toward Ben-Gurion. People like Sprinzak, Kaplan, and Sharett.*

DAVID LANDAU: Why didn’t he have the generosity of spirit to change his attitude toward Weizmann after all their old arguments had become history?

SHIMON PERES: He gave him respect. He accompanied him to his inauguration as president.

DAVID LANDAU: So why did Weizmann have the feeling that apart from honor they gave him nothing? They made no use of his political wisdom.

If you’ll permit me, without making comparisons: We are having this conversation in 2010, when there is a politically “contrary” configuration between president and prime minister. You and Benjamin Netanyahu were political rivals. Yet the two of you appear to have achieved a good constitutional relationship, in which you speak to each other frequently and project a sense of mutual regard. Which seems to mean it’s possible, if you try.

SHIMON PERES: When he became president, Weizmann was elderly, and he was already ill. Weizmann may have viewed the presidency on the American model, but Ben-Gurion saw it more as a symbolic role. This was something of a disappointment for Weizmann. After Weizmann’s death in November 1952, Ben-Gurion offered the presidency to Albert Einstein. He wanted a scientist in the position. Like Socrates, he thought a savant should stand at the head of the nation. Einstein declined, and Ben-Gurion’s old friend Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was elected president and graced the position as a modest and much-loved figure for two five-year terms.

DAVID LANDAU: Did you ever hear an expression of regret from Ben-Gurion regarding the course of his relations with Weizmann?

SHIMON PERES: Ben-Gurion was not a gossip.


* Now Ben-Gurion International Airport.

* Asked, however, after the war, “Why didn’t you liberate the whole country,” Ben-Gurion cited the demographic consideration as well as international pressures. “There was a danger of getting saddled with a hostile Arab majority,” he explained.

* Oren (1906–85) was convicted and imprisoned in Czechoslovakia in 1953 on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel against the Soviet bloc. He was released in 1956.

* Yevsektsia was an agency established after the Russian Revolution to draw Jews to Communist ideology. In line with official Soviet doctrine, the Yevsektsia was deeply opposed to both Bundism and Zionism, labeling them forms of “bourgeois nationalism.” Many Yevsektsia activists were subsequently executed in the Stalinist purges.

* A prominent Diaspora Zionist leader, Goldmann (1895–1982) was born in Germany, lived in the United States for many years, and later moved to Switzerland. He was president of the World Jewish Congress (1948–77) and president of the World Zionist Organization (1956–68); a political “dove,” he advocated Israeli neutrality under international guarantees.

* The Shin Bet is Israel’s internal security service.

* Yosef Sprinzak (1885–1959) was the first speaker of the Knesset (1949–59); Eliezer Kaplan (1891–1952) was Ben-Gurion’s first minister of finance.