Book review: The forgotten prime minister

Sharett’s diary is a rare peek into halls of power, comical moments of a top statesman.

August 14, 2019 17:39
Book review: The forgotten prime minister

FORMER PRIME minister Moshe Sharett (right) and Israeli-Arab MK Amin-Salim Jarjora.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

If you ask an Israeli to tell you something about the country’s second prime minister Moshe Sharett, there is a decent chance they will respond with the fact that until recently, his face adorned the 20-shekel note.

Sharett, whose visage on the bill was replaced after nearly three decades by Rachel the Poet in 2017, was Israel’s shortest-serving prime minister (just over a year and a half from 1954 to 1955) and first foreign minister (from the state’s founding in 1948 to 1956). During his tenure, he was overshadowed by his erstwhile friend and mentor David Ben-Gurion. As a result, Sharett is not a household name in Israeli history the way that Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Golda Meir or even non-prime ministerial figures such as Yigael Yadin or Moshe Dayan were. It is not likely that the release of a gargantuan 2,400-page English translation of the prime minister’s diary by a university publishing house will do much to change that.

Nevertheless, My Struggle for Peace: The Diary of Moshe Sharett 1953-1956 provides an invaluable source for studying the inner political workings of Israel in the mid-1950s, and a glimpse into the life of Israel’s oft-overlooked prime minister.

The diary opens with a bang: In 1953, the country’s fledgling political system is grappling with water rights, cross-border attacks from Egypt and Jordan and soon-to-be substantiated rumors that Ben-Gurion would step down as prime minister.

Sharett hypothesizes that Ben-Gurion’s departure to Sde Boker was due to monotony rather than stress.

“It seems that Ben-Gurion wasn’t simply tired of bearing the load, but was unable to sustain the mundane routine of governing when there are no daring projects in the offing which promise grand results: a breakthrough toward a new wave of immigration, peace with the Arabs, another war, and the like. The struggle with day-to-day difficulties is what has drained him of his strength.”
Something of an armchair psychologist, Sharett is able to provide great insight into his political colleagues in only a sentence or two. Of Ben-Gurion he writes, “It is interesting to what an extent this man with his penetrating mind can delude himself with wishful thinking when the matter concerns a burning desire in his heart. His strong desire overrules his logic.”

He does the same with Golda Meir, calling her a “dear and worthy woman” who “betrays a surprising lack of practical political instincts.”

Sharett comes off as an incredibly busy and dedicated statesman, typically working into the wee hours of the morning over his papers. His work weighs on him.

“These days I am walking about as if with two heavy coins hanging down from my eyelids,” he writes, not long into his role as prime minister.

The pages are full of amusing anecdotes that could never happen in Israel’s political establishment today.
“Yitzhak Navon placed a note written in Arabic in my hand,” Sharett writes, recounting a cabinet meeting, “so that nobody else could read it.” And, faced with a boycott by the oil-rich Arab states, Sharett writes of trading oranges to the Soviet Union in exchange for oil. The austerity of the era is on full display as well: “My [office] is as cold as a grave, its walls are leaky, and it has been necessary to roll up the carpet at the corners to make room for the puddles,” he writes. “We returned home at 2 a.m. and I couldn’t take a bath because the tub was full of washing that had not been hung outside to dry because of the rain.”

But along with the austerity of the era are also nostalgic tales of the “Good Old Israel,” when the country’s foreign ministers might arrange a financial favor for his fisherman friend in exchange for a portion of his catch.

“The table was set for lunch when our old friend Hassan, the fisherman from Jaffa, and his son Mahmud showed up… their boat was completely smashed several weeks ago during a storm that hit Jaffa port. They came to ask for a loan of IL600 to build a new boat. We arranged a loan of 400 for them from Bank Hapoalim on my security. This time they came to plead for an additional IL150 without which the work could not be finished. There was no choice but to lend them the sum from our own funds. Meanwhile old Hassan went out to sea himself this morning, cast his net and drew up a large fish which he brought to us as a gift, as he is wont to do every week.”

THE PERIODIC dryness of Sharett’s recounting his telegrams and baths are offset by hysterical personal interludes. Of a dinner with Israel’s second president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Sharett writes, “When we had soup, conversation was difficult because the President slurped it from his spoon with a deafening noise. When the chicken was served, the President displayed a daring streak of creativity in the proper utilization of knife and fork while progressively the various implements at his disposal were all piled upon and around his plate in a colorful array, and scraps of meat began flying over in all directions.”

The prime minister sometimes comes off as pompous and self-important.

“When my turn came to reply, everyone re-convened and rapt attention once again held sway,” he writes of a cabinet debate. At a dinner with composer Leonard Bernstein, he writes, “Both old and young were spell-bound by my stories and anecdotes of times gone by.”

At other times, his folksy sayings exude charm: “We have certainly prepared ourselves a pretty pudding,” he writes of a UN Security Council Meeting on the subject of the Qibya massacre. “Who’s going to eat it now?” And he can be amusingly irreverent as well. “The funeral cost me my afternoon nap,” he writes of the service for Ben-Zvi’s father Zvi Shimshi.

Sharett shines when, perhaps toward the end of another long night hunched over his papers, he allows himself to be brief: a quick piece of gossip about the whispered enthusiastic drinking habits of defense minister Pinhas Lavon, or a story of picking up two hitchhikers on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and then telling them to pipe down in the back seat so he could compose a speech, allows the reader to glean the personality of the man in a way that his retelling of cabinet meetings does not.

Sharett, who lays bare his feelings for each of the domestic newspapers in the country, sometimes has less than kind words for this paper. “I telephoned The Jerusalem Post and as usual edited the report on the press conference over the phone, I found quite a few slips which I corrected,” he writes in 1953. Later in the year he writes, “After midnight the galleys of The Jerusalem Post report on my speech of reply were brought over to me. The job was so badly transcribed that I had to re-write it almost entirely.”

The translation by co-editors Neil Caplan and Yaakov Sharett (the prime minister’s 94-year-old son) is splendid with Sharett’s high Hebrew translated masterfully into an English that reads appropriately for the era and Sharett’s position. When Sharett writes about a historical incident, the editors are quick to provide footnotes that advise additional sources for more information.
After the disaster and drama of the Lavon Affair, Sharett was replaced by Ben-Gurion as prime minister. He retained his post as foreign minister but later stepped down. Latter parts of the diary see him writing from exotic locales such as Bangkok, Geneva, and Yangon on a whirlwind speaking tour of 11 countries in 82 days.

There are periods of time, sometimes as long as a half year, when Sharett neglects his writing duties and switches to what he and the editors term a “skeleton diary,” typically no more than a couple of broken sentences for a particular date, when generally a daily entry consists of many pages. The editors supplement these skeleton pages with letters to colleagues and friends as well as speeches given in the Knesset and social functions.

One such letter is written to Anglo-Jewish journalist and historian Jon Kimche in May, 1954:

“I will now tell you… a secret,” the prime minister writes. “I’m writing a diary. I started it last year in October, and for the time being I have succeeded in carrying it on… This diary serves me as a substitute for writing letters to… you… The day will come when you will have your share during a visit or a vacation; then you will have to devote [a] few days to reading the [diary], and learn a great deal and be party to many experiences which by then I would have surely forgotten.”

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