Soured Fruits - Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres

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

12. Soured Fruits

“You can repay us by being a great president of the United States,” he said. It’s … shortsighted strategy to suggest that Israel can somehow benefit from a confrontational or adversarial relationship with the president of the United States.

Average wasn’t his goal. He wanted us to be above average morally. He thought lying is a terrible erosion of strength and he would not tolerate it.

The years following the Sinai Campaign were the most serene and in many ways the most gratifying of Ben-Gurion’s premiership. Working mainly through the Mossad, he spun a web of mutual interest with three important non-Arab states on the periphery of the region: Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia. “Our object,” he wrote to President Eisenhower, “is the creation of a group of countries, not necessarily a formal and public alliance, that will be able to stand up steadfastly against Soviet expansion through Nasser.”

Interestingly, that wasn’t the original motivation. Rather, Ben-Gurion saw these overtures in an ideological context more than a strategic one. He believed that Israel’s future depended to an important degree on our ability to develop relations with Asia and Africa. He wanted ties with China and India but failed to achieve them. He sent Sharett on missions to Asia, but somehow Sharett’s heart wasn’t in them. Ben-Gurion sent his close aide Ehud Avriel to be ambassador to Ghana, one of the leading new African states.

I too was mobilized as part of this effort. We set up soldier-farmer units, on the pattern of our own Nahal, in a number of African countries. Together with Yitzhak Rabin, then the IDF head of operations, and Nahman Karni, a defense ministry official, I toured Kenya, Ethiopia, and Zambia. We helped set up the Ethiopian Air Force and trained their troops in Israel. One time in Addis Ababa we saw the most beautiful, regal-looking woman. “What a looker,” Karni blurted out in Hebrew. She cooled his ardor in fluent Yiddish! It turned out she was a member of Emperor Haile Selassie’s family and had been with him during the time he had spent in exile in Jerusalem. Now she was married to an Ethiopian prince and served as head of the government information service.

Ben-Gurion’s outreach to Turkey was also not purely a strategic calculation. We’re not Prussia! Things here are not nearly so regimented or so militaristic. Ben-Gurion was deeply drawn to Turkey’s effort to build a modern society. There were close links too between Mapai and the Turkish socialist party. This all fit in with Ben-Gurion’s overall weltanschauung, and one thing led to another. Later the intelligence community came aboard, and they naturally wanted to invest these relationships with the “countries of the periphery” with a structured strategic content.

Separately, Ben-Gurion extended our relationship with West Germany to provide significant arms supplies to Israel. I was put in charge of that project, which included obtaining defensive equipment like transport planes and antiaircraft guns, and which was eventually expanded to include combat planes, helicopters, air-to-air missiles, and submarines. The terms we obtained from the Germans were hugely advantageous. In some cases they demanded no payment at all; in others, the weapons were “lent” to Israel. Additionally, Ben-Gurion met with Konrad Adenauer in New York in 1960 and obtained from him a half-billion-dollar loan (beyond the original reparations), repayable on easy terms over ten years, for civilian development.

The German connection continued to draw criticism at home, from the right and the left. This was muted, though, by the capture in 1960 and trial in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann. The Knesset spontaneously stood and applauded when Ben-Gurion delivered to them, on May 23, 1960, the sensational news that the man who had personally supervised the implementation of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” was in Israel’s hands. Isser Harel’s Mossad agents had stalked him for weeks in Buenos Aires. They swiftly overpowered him one evening on a lonely street a few yards from his home and nine days later deftly sneaked him onto an El Al plane that brought him to Israel via Senegal.

Ben-Gurion had given the green light for the abduction, knowing it could damage relations with Argentina and deciding to go ahead nonetheless. The Argentinian government had some advance knowledge of what Israel was up to, and indeed, Argentinian police agents observed the abduction. Argentina’s formal protests to Israel and to the UN Security Council were satisfied by Golda’s parenthetical apology for the kidnapping in a speech she gave at the UN that pointed out that Eichmann’s captors could have lynched him “on the nearest tree” instead of turning him over to authorities to be tried in a court of law.

Ben-Gurion made sure that the trial, presided over by a three-judge panel in Jerusalem, was as much a seminar on the history of the Holocaust for the entire nation—and for the world at large—as a forensic process. He believed this was a unique opportunity to explain what the millions who died and the hundreds of thousands who managed to survive had actually experienced.

While Ben-Gurion was determined that the Eichmann trial help the nation grapple with the tragedy of the recent Jewish past, he was equally determined that Israel shore up its ultimate anti-Holocaust protection for the future. The reactor being built in Dimona was a source of tension and concern as demands mounted for it to be placed under international inspection. But at the end of the day, both the French, who were actively helping us build it, and the Americans, who were following it closely, accepted the formula that I proposed: Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. That has remained the core of our policy in this sensitive area to the present day.

A meeting between Ben-Gurion and the newly elected President John Kennedy in New York in May 1961 ended without rancor regarding this sensitive issue. Israel had permitted two American scientists to visit the reactor, and Kennedy, whatever he might have thought, chose to inform Ben-Gurion that he was satisfied that it was intended for peaceful purposes.

As the president walked the prime minister alone to the elevator, he said, “I know that I owe my election to your people.” How could he repay the Israeli leader for this support? he asked. Ben-Gurion was extremely uncomfortable and declined to be drawn into that line of wink-and-nod politics. “You can repay us by being a great president of the United States,” he said.

There was more in that statement than merely a reluctance to horse-trade on American Jewish sympathies. There was a profound and lastingly relevant articulation of Israel’s core interest. Israel, by virtue of her abiding strategic, political, and democratic quintessence, needs the president of the United States to be strong and successful. It’s poor politics and the most shortsighted strategy to suggest that Israel can somehow benefit from a confrontational or adversarial relationship with the president of the United States.

Granted, the American attitude was not always supportive, as I myself learned early on, the hard way. At our time of most dire need in 1948, Washington would not sell us even rifles to defend our lives, let alone heavier weapons. The embargo was ostensibly on both sides, but the Arabs had no problem procuring arms. I remember Ben-Gurion’s anxiety. “We can’t exist forever on contraband,” he kept repeating during those crisis days, as our people scoured the world for arms. Years later, when I accompanied Eshkol on his first visit to the United States as prime minister, Averell Harriman, who had served American presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson in a wide variety of diplomatic and cabinet-level positions, asked me to lunch for a freewheeling give-and-take on relations between our two countries. “Why didn’t you let us have even rifles?” I asked him straight out. “My dear friend,” he replied, “I don’t have an answer.”

Ben-Gurion’s great wisdom was never to ask for American soldiers to defend us, even in the most trying situations. The nations of Western Europe had no such compunction, but he didn’t want American mothers to feel that their sons were endangering their lives for the Jewish state. Overcoming ideological opponents within the Israeli government, he made pro-American sentiment the Israeli consensus. Permit me the irony of saying that today, even though we’re America’s friend, we’re still pro-American, unlike so many other countries. On the strategic level, we were the only American friend that successively fought against and destroyed two generations of Soviet weaponry during the Cold War. That is a factor of major historical significance that needs to be given its due in any reckoning. Subsequently, cooperation on weapons research and production has worked to the advantage of both sides. Pilotless planes, for example, an increasingly important component of modern-day warfare, were originally an Israeli invention.

In the November 1959 election, despite tensions within Mapai between the old guard—Sharett, Golda, Pinhas Sapir, Zalman Aranne, Pinhas Lavon—and the younger men like Dayan, Abba Eban, and myself, whom Ben-Gurion wanted to promote, the party had won its biggest-ever plurality: forty-seven seats. This idyllic period, however, was not to last. The Lavon Affair, like a bad dream, returned to haunt Ben-Gurion and all his colleagues. It would eventually drive him from office, angry and embittered.

The trigger was a closed-door trial, in the summer of 1960, of Avry Elad, an Israeli intelligence agent who had been dubbed “the third man” in the heavily censored press coverage of the original “mishap” in Egypt. He revealed during interrogation that he had been suborned to commit perjury by emissaries of Binyamin Gibli, the head of intelligence whom Lavon had accused of giving the ill-starred order. Elad also attested to forgeries carried out by a certain individual in Gibli’s interest. Ben-Gurion, as defense minister, ordered a new inquiry to investigate these disclosures. Lavon, upon hearing of this, demanded a full, formal, and unequivocal exoneration.

Ben-Gurion refused. For him the issue was not who was right but how right and wrong were to be established. He saw this question as going to the very heart of democratic governance. He said he was “neither judge nor investigator.” He had not condemned Lavon when the affair first surfaced, and he was not authorized to exonerate him now, because that would entail, by implication, condemning Gibli. Only a judicial process could do that.

As he had previously threatened to do, Lavon now took his case to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. From there, in sensational daily headlines, his bitter catalog of accusations made its way into all the newspapers. He saw Dayan and me as part of a cabal arrayed against him, and we too were sucked into the storm. For the most part, the press and public failed to distinguish between Ben-Gurion’s principled position and the increasing antipathy between him and Lavon. In October 1960, in a last-ditch effort to contain the volcanic eruption that was threatening to bury the government, the cabinet voted to set up a committee of seven ministers to examine all the material pertaining to the affair and decide on a procedure to resolve it. Ben-Gurion, chairing the session, did not object to this decision.

Led by Eshkol and Justice Minister Pinhas Rosen, the seven sorted through the written evidence but did not summon witnesses to appear before them. On December 20, 1960, they rendered their verdict, which, it turned out, went much further than merely recommending a procedure. “We find,” they wrote, “that Lavon did not give the order cited by ‘the senior officer’ [Gibli] and that ‘the mishap’ was carried out without his knowledge … Investigation of ‘the affair’ should be regarded as concluded and completed.” Ben-Gurion resigned.

He insisted that “there is a certain procedure by exclusive means of which the truth can be revealed. Witnesses are cross-examined and confronted with one another; both sides have lawyers; the lawyers examine the evidence. What is this fear of yours of a judicial commission of inquiry?” The Mapai leadership recoiled in horror at the effects of their own action. Eshkol and the others now forced Lavon to resign his post as secretary-general of the Histadrut in order, they hoped, to woo Ben-Gurion back. The Mapai secretariat backed Lavon’s dismissal by majority vote. “This was the end of Lavon,” writes Ben-Gurion’s biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar. “But Ben-Gurion’s young disciples, who toiled with great enthusiasm to canvass votes against Lavon, did not comprehend that it was also the end of the Old Man.”*

For Ben-Gurion, however, there could be no end to the battle for truth, the supreme value in his order of priorities and the chief bulwark, as he saw it, of a strong and moral state. In wartime, one could dissemble and even lie. The Bible itself advised, “With cunning deceit make thee war” (Proverbs 24:6). But cover-up is a legitimate instrument only when employed in the defense of the realm, Ben-Gurion held. There’s a huge difference between lying to yourself and lying in the face of the enemy. In peacetime situations, truth was above all else, truth as elicited by due judicial process in a court of law or quasi-judicial inquiry. His mantra was “Ministers can’t be judges.” He was warning against a license to lie, to play fast and loose with judicial process, which is a civilized society’s only legitimate way to get at the truth. He feared that the Diaspora had imprinted on us a certain tendency to prevaricate, and he wanted to uproot it.

Ben-Gurion’s war over the Lavon Affair was, in this deeper sense, a continuation of his war against galutiyut. He believed that the difficulties inherent in Diaspora life over the centuries had forced Jews to become accustomed to telling untruths to survive. Of course there were all kinds of Jews, just as there are all kinds of Gentiles. But Ben-Gurion wanted us to be a different nation. Average wasn’t his goal. He wanted us to be above average morally. He thought lying is a terrible erosion of strength, and he would not tolerate it. If he found someone lying—that was the end of him. And he believed his Mapai colleagues in the cabinet wanted to whitewash or cover up lies. They wanted to shut the mouths of Lavon’s accusers.

Ben-Gurion’s most powerful argument was that to be moral is to be wise too. I think Ben-Gurion was wiser than Eshkol. I liked Eshkol, but setting up a committee of cabinet ministers to judge an army officer—that was wrong. All are equal before the law, and ministers can’t be judges. I think Ben-Gurion was right. I accepted his basic position. I am against lying in public life as much as in private. I don’t think politics achieves perfection, but politics should aspire to perfection. One has to recognize this distinction. There is a legitimate need for compromise in public life. Ben-Gurion didn’t pretend there wasn’t. What Ben-Gurion rejected was falsehood and covering it up once it had been discovered. That a group of ministers got together to defend one of their own against people who didn’t have that ability, in this case military people, was intolerable. He expressed no opinion regarding the guilt or innocence of Binyamin Gibli. He just said that cabinet ministers couldn’t act as judges. He demanded a comprehensive inquiry, with all the powers and the safeguards of a quasi-judicial process, so that the army would not lie to itself in the future.

One time, while I was traveling with Eshkol from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, he turned to me and said, in the Yiddish of which he was fond, “Yungerman, vos vil ehr fun mein leben?” (Young man, what does he want from my life?)

“Eshkol,” I replied, “he just wants one thing. He wants you to tell the truth.”

“Nu,” Eshkol said, “and you, do you tell Sonia [my wife] all the truth?”

Eshkol was essentially a man of compromise. He once said that everyone is in love with his own compromise. Ben-Gurion rejected any compromise in the Lavon Affair. That doesn’t mean he never made compromises. When there’s no choice (ein breira), then you compromise. Granted, someone has to decide when ein breira applies and when it doesn’t. But in the Lavon Affair, as he saw it, the decision was not subjective but objective. His determination that ministers can’t be judges was, to him, the objective truth.

The old Mapai comrades were able to pretty much patch things up between them, and Ben-Gurion and Eshkol once again ran at the head of the Mapai list in the elections of August 1961, scoring a respectable forty-two seats. Seeking to put a lid on the rancor and recriminations that still seethed beneath the surface of the party, Ben-Gurion pledged not to bring up the Lavon Affair anymore. He kept that promise until his final retirement from office, early in 1963. But his diaries show that the affair, and what he saw as its profound ramifications for Israeli society, continued to exercise him intensely.

Ben-Gurion’s final term was darkened by a pall of internal feuding and media hype surrounding purported plans by German scientists to develop doomsday weapons in Egypt. Nasser boasted in the summer of 1962 that he had in his possession ballistic missiles that could hit any target “south of Beirut.”

Mossad agents under Isser Harel, Ben-Gurion’s longtime intelligence czar, claimed to have discovered secret facilities in Egypt, headed up by German experts, where missiles, warplanes, and apparently nonconventional weaponry were being developed. Ben-Gurion took the assessments calmly, refusing Harel’s advice to ignite a major international storm of protest. His own policy of dealing with the “new Germany” was on the line, but so was the self-confidence and sanity of the Israeli people. He asked Golda and me to work the issue through diplomatic channels. Harel, however, apparently decided to use other channels: Soon Germans thought to be linked to the projects in Egypt were receiving parcels and letters that exploded in their hands. Others disappeared. A cloak-and-dagger operation that slipped up in Switzerland led to the arrest of Israeli operatives there. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the issue reached the press in Israel, which outed it in a paroxysm of apocalyptic hysteria. This was predictably exploited by Menachem Begin, who saw it as a dramatic vindication of his own opposition to the gradual reconciliation with West Germany.

Ben-Gurion, vacationing in Tiberias when the story broke, was slow to contain the mushrooming crisis. He ordered the IDF’s military intelligence to make their own assessment of the danger, and this turned out to be significantly less shrill than Harel’s. Ben-Gurion proposed to take it to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset in order to try to alleviate the anxiety that was sweeping the country.

Harel, quite properly, submitted his resignation, which Ben-Gurion accepted. He placed the Mossad under the command of the head of military intelligence, General Meir Amit, but the episode eroded Ben-Gurion’s standing among his colleagues. There was further erosion when he seemed to overreact to the creation, in April 1963, of an Arab federation consisting of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. In the summer, the sensitivities surrounding Ben-Gurion’s German policy errupted again when Golda clashed forcefully with him over reports that IDF soldiers were training in the use of new weapons in Germany. After arguing with her late into the night in his home, he wrote out a brief letter of resignation and submitted it the next morning to the new president, Zalman Shazar. (His friend Ben-Zvi had just died in April, further depressing him.) This time there would be no going back.

In his diary entry for that day, June 16, 1963, Ben-Gurion wrote, “In fact, I made the decision two-and-a-half years ago, when ‘the hypocritical vulture’ [Lavon] succeeded in mobilizing all the Parties against us. But at the time I feared our Party would be destroyed if I resigned.”

The Mapai Party was in a way destroyed by his resignation now. He immediately returned to the Lavon Affair, stirring up the embers that lay dormant but not extinct beneath the surface of Mapai. He commissioned Haggai Eshed, a journalist at the Histadrut newspaper Davar, to make his own investigation of the whole affair, and Eshed presented his findings in the form of a book, Who Gave the Order?* Eshed was unequivocal: Lavon did. Ben-Gurion demanded that the official investigation be reopened. Eshkol, the new prime minister, gently but firmly refused.

Ben-Gurion, the bit now between his teeth, refused to take the refusal for an answer. He collected all the material in his possession about the Lavon Affair and submitted it to the minister of justice, Dov Yosef, who sided with him and urged a new inquiry. “I feel it is my comradely duty toward you,” Ben-Gurion wrote to Eshkol,

and even more so toward the Party, and above all toward Israel itself, to prevent a grave mishap—a personal mishap to you, the mishap of the Party’s disintegration, and a public mishap to the state—and to tell you that you will be making a terrible mistake if you again attempt to proclaim a “period.” There will be no “period” as long as a court does not express its opinion on whether the Committee of Seven was in order or was in error … There will be no “period” without a commission of inquiry of the finest judges in the country, in whom the people have confidence … Summon up your courage and do the only thing that will end this matter honorably!

Eshkol remained adamant. The inevitable showdown took place at a Mapai Party conference at the Mann Auditorium, the main concert hall in Tel Aviv, in February 1965. The scene there has imprinted itself indelibly on the collective political memory of the Jewish state. Sharett, dying of cancer, seemed to release years of choked frustration and unrequited devotion as he hurled at the former leader, “By what moral right does Ben-Gurion fling this matter at the party? By what moral right does he make this the focus?” Golda demonstratively walked over to Sharett in his wheelchair and kissed him on the forehead. In her own speech she was even more cutting than Sharett, linking the confrontation over Lavon to the underlying battle between the old guard and Ben-Gurion’s young favorites. “The first curse lying across the threshold of our home,” she asserted, “was when people began to talk of ‘favorites’ and ‘non-favorites.’ ” Of the Lavon Affair she said, “What does Comrade Ben-Gurion do? He is the accuser and he is the judge!”

Ben-Gurion was scheduled to reply to his traducers, but instead he got up and walked out without speaking. His resolution to request a reopening of the investigation received 841 votes to Eshkol’s 1,226 votes opposing it. His followers were jubilant at their strong showing and prepared to fight another day. But he had had enough of fighting within the party and demanded that his followers create a new political entity, which we called Rafi (an acronym for Reshimat Poalei Yisrael, or Israeli Workers’ List). We claimed we were still part of Mapai, but Mapai drummed us out after a particularly vicious and heartbreaking proceeding in a “court of comrades,” at which Ben-Gurion was accused of “cowardice” and his new list of “neo-fascism.” I had stayed on at the defense ministry after Ben-Gurion resigned, working as Eshkol’s deputy though never concealing my personal loyalty to Ben-Gurion. Now I had to leave, but I did so reluctantly. I loved my job, but I would never have dreamed of defying Ben-Gurion to his face.

Rafi attracted famous and influential names from the worlds of art, literature, commerce, and science. But in the general election in the fall of 1965, it managed only a disappointing ten seats, while the rump Mapai, running together with Ahdut HaAvoda as the Labor Alignment, scored a comfortable forty-five seats and set up a new coalition with its usual partners, the National Religious Party, Mapam, and the Independent Liberals, leaving Rafi in the opposition.

In 1967, during the anxious weeks of waiting before the outbreak of the Six-Day War, the possibility of Ben-Gurion’s return to the nation’s helm appeared briefly on the public horizon. People were losing confidence in Eshkol’s leadership and, more specifically, in his ability to make the decision to go to war. His uncharismatic personality contributed to this widespread sense of unease (which historians have since concluded was unjustified). Ben-Gurion, brooding anxiously in his home in Tel Aviv, certainly shared that lack of confidence. He thought Eshkol should not be prime minister in wartime, because he believed Eshkol had abandoned a fundamental bulwark of political morality. Eshkol to him was the wrong man at the wrong time. He had originally wanted Eshkol to succeed him, but Eshkol had disappointed him.

As for myself, I’m a Ben-Gurionist, but I’m not Ben-Gurion. I think I’ve got a sufficient sense of proportion to make the distinction. On the personal level, I really liked Eshkol. But on the plane of principle, I thought he was wrong. In my view, Eshkol should have remained loyal to Ben-Gurion. I think he was wrong to pass the reopened investigation of Lavon on to a committee of cabinet ministers. I’m not rendering a judgment on who was guilty, Lavon or Gibli. The question is, Who were the judges? Judges, by definition, must not have a vested interest in the outcome of their judgment. But that group of ministers simply defended themselves and their interests, just like a trade union. And that is not doing justice.

Ben-Gurion’s disillusionment with Eshkol’s administration was so intense and unforgiving that, on the eve of the 1967 war, he actually approached his old enemy Begin to collude against Eshkol. I was his emissary. The effort to restore Ben-Gurion as prime minister failed, but the indirect upshot was something of a success: Moshe Dayan was appointed minister of defense under Eshkol, Begin joined the government as a minister without portfolio, and we went to war a united country.

The timing of the war turned out to be perfect. The initial Israeli air strikes were devastating; the Egyptian ground forces in Sinai were smashed within days; East Jerusalem—an unexpected and unintended bonus—was liberated and the entire West Bank brought under Israeli control after King Hussein of Jordan ordered the shelling of West Jerusalem; and finally, the IDF drove the Syrians off the Golan escarpment, from which they had for years been firing down on our settlements in the North.

The dramatic prewar power play, one of the few episodes where I was not in strict agreement with Ben-Gurion, serves as the subject of my final exchange with David Landau. Perhaps there’s a message in it for me too. In the end, to be a Ben-Gurion protégé was in fact to think for yourself, to say what you thought—to him too—but never to lose sight of his greatness.

DAVID LANDAU: Ben-Gurion tried actively to oust Eshkol in the run-up to the Six-Day War. Did this reflect his feeling that Eshkol would be inadequate as a wartime leader, or was it also lingering disapproval of Eshkol because he felt he had rigged the outcome of the Lavon Affair?

SHIMON PERES: It began with “truth above all else.” The moral factor. He thought the Israeli people had no confidence in Eshkol. He thought the people should have no confidence in him.

DAVID LANDAU: But didn’t he deliberately erode their confidence?

SHIMON PERES: Okay, so he eroded. Eshkol wasn’t actually that pathetic.

DAVID LANDAU: At the end of the day, you stood up to Ben-Gurion and said Eshkol could remain prime minister if Dayan was minister of defense.

SHIMON PERES: Yes. I was less extreme than Ben-Gurion. I thought Ben-Gurion was being unrealistic: We did not have the political power to replace Eshkol. I thought Dayan’s entry would be a contribution to the war. I wanted us in Rafi to contribute whatever was possible. I tried to fulfill Ben-Gurion’s wishes, but I saw it was impossible. So I did the next best thing. In the end he agreed with me. Also, Ben-Gurion had given me the task of running Rafi. He didn’t know the true state of the party. I knew. Before the war, it was disintegrating. Yosef Almogi* was tired. Dayan didn’t want to be involved. I was left almost by myself. Ben-Gurion didn’t know this, and it didn’t interest him. He was ready to remain alone.

DAVID LANDAU: Which in effect happened at the next election, in 1969.

SHIMON PERES: He carried on with Rafi because he could no longer make peace with Eshkol.

DAVID LANDAU: With Begin he could make peace and with Eshkol he couldn’t? There’s a famous picture of him lunching with Begin after the 1967 war—

SHIMON PERES: There was something special about Ben-Gurion that I found particularly impressive and attractive: When he attacked someone, it was over his position, not his characteristics. If the man changed his position, he didn’t mind. He had no personal gripes. He didn’t hate Begin personally. Personal hatred was not a factor at all.

DAVID LANDAU: He had no personal hatreds?

SHIMON PERES: His personal hatreds were the fruits of ideological opposition.

DAVID LANDAU: What had changed in Begin?

SHIMON PERES: Begin supported Ben-Gurion’s becoming prime minister before the Six-Day War. He asked me if Ben-Gurion wanted it and if he was capable of it. I replied, capable—yes; wants—I don’t know. I told Ben-Gurion; he did not respond. Ben-Gurion didn’t order me to make him prime minister. He said, Go and get Eshkol replaced.

DAVID LANDAU: And was he in fact capable, as you told Begin? By 1968-69 he was visibly declining.

SHIMON PERES: Well, that’s the difference. Then he was capable.

DAVID LANDAU: To run the war in detail?

SHIMON PERES: To run the war in broad brushstrokes. He had the experience.

DAVID LANDAU: Was Dayan’s becoming defense minister part of the package?

SHIMON PERES: That wasn’t an issue with Begin. It was an issue within the Labor Party.

DAVID LANDAU: So Dayan would have run the war in practice?

SHIMON PERES: The minute Ben-Gurion was there, Ben-Gurion would have run the war in practice. He was a very powerful personality. He’d walk into the room, and he’d be the man calling the shots.

DAVID LANDAU: Why didn’t it happen?

SHIMON PERES: Because Begin became convinced that he couldn’t make it happen. He went to talk to Eshkol, and when Eshkol said, famously, “These two horses [himself and Ben-Gurion] can’t pull together,” Begin understood there would be no majority. The religious parties were against deposing Eshkol against his will. Begin said, If there’s no majority, I won’t pursue it. So Begin dropped out of the picture.

* Michael Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion (New York: Adama Books, 1977).

* It was suppressed by the military censor and released for publication only years later, in 1979.

* Almogi (1910-91) was a member of the Knesset who also held several ministerial positions and served briefly as the mayor of Haifa.