Israel’s early team of rivals
A few weeks ago, I received in the mail a three-volume set of the diary of Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister. Called “My Struggle for Peace,” it is an abridgment and translation from the Hebrew by Neil Caplan and Yaakov Sharett, Moshe’s son, of a larger set of Sharett’s diaries. These English volumes, published by Indiana University Press, span the years 1953 to 1956, a tumultuous period in the life of the young state. While Israel was absorbing hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from many lands, it was also working hard to fend off bloody attacks by Arab infiltrators from neighboring countries. At the same time, its leaders were trying to find their footing on the world stage.
With Israel’s 71st birthday last week, it is fascinating to look back through the eyes of one of the country’s key players at its early struggles, not only with the forces weighing on it, but among the leaders themselves as to the directions the country should take in handling those forces.
It’s comforting to think of the founders of a nation as working harmoniously toward a common goal, but that is rarely the case. Historians have documented heated conflicts among the founding fathers of the United States, with, for example, Thomas Jefferson pitted against George Washington even after Washington became president. The founders of Israel were stubborn and strong-minded, with the burning vision of creating a sovereign state for the Jewish people. But they differed, sometimes viciously, on how to shape that state. Sharett, a cautious, moderate, and sophisticated man, fluent in several languages, believed in the efficacy of diplomacy to achieve major goals. In contrast, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and the more senior of the two, was an activist who did not hesitate to use force when he deemed it necessary, with less concern for world opinion.
The two men worked closely in the pre-state era, but their differences began to dominate their relationship after Israel came into being. Ben-Gurion insisted on military reprisals to defend the state against Arab infiltrators. Sharett argued for political means to thwart the incursions, particularly by working through the United Nations. Ben-Gurion, fed up with what he and others considered the UN’s unfair discrimination against Israel, dubbed that institution the “Oom-Shmoom,” and was determined to follow his own inclinations. The tension between the two became so fierce that in 1956, Ben-Gurion manipulated Sharett’s ouster as foreign minister, to be replaced by Golda Meir. Sharett’s diary expresses his pain at the dismissal.
Yet until that final break, there were moments of deep agreement that reflect both men’s commitment to the good of the state rather than to any form of self-aggrandizement. At one point, The New York Times planned to run a story about a negative statement Ben-Gurion supposedly made concerning some of the new immigrants, along with his criticism of American Jews for not making aliyah. Sharett was outraged. Even if Ben-Gurion had said these things, he wrote in his diary, it is not as if he “had said this, and only this.” These thoughts were “but crumbs scattered throughout his extensive tracts on the tasks facing this generation…” Yet the Times was presenting them “as concentrated bitter poison.” Sharett managed to have the story changed. And despite their many differences, the two never wavered in their agreement that Arab refugees should not be permitted to return en masse to Israel. “Where and when have refugees ever been returned? Has Russia perhaps done so? Has Czechoslovakia?” Sharett wrote with sarcasm. Besides, he pointed out, nobody but Israel had offered to compensate the refugees for their abandoned lands. Ben-Gurion would have concurred.
An appendix to the diary presents excerpts from lectures Sharett gave in 1957 that seem as relevant today as they were then. Three basic elements govern Israel’s relationship to the world around it, he said. The first is the state’s security and the lives of its citizens, about which “there can be no compromise.” The second is the Arab refugee problem, which can be solved only as part of a general settlement, when all sides are ready to conclude a peace treaty. And the third is Israel’s aim, not for “eternal warfare, but peace with the neighboring Arab peoples.” They are principles Ben-Gurion also held, although his day-to-day policies for implementing them diverged from what Sharett envisioned.
On Israel’s 71st birthday, the third principle — peace with “neighboring Arab peoples,” and especially the Palestinians — remains elusive. As Benjamin Netanyahu forms his new government now and copes with that problem, he would do well to look back in history at Ben-Gurion and Sharett, who disagreed on so many things, yet whose integrity and commitment to Israel’s well-being overshadowed all other considerations.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” is now available in paperback.