Ben-Gurion cannot be compared with any other prime minister

Ben-Gurion's flaws and errors shrink in the light of his powerful intellect and will.

Knesset exhibit: David Ben-Gurion 1954 (photo credit: KNESSET)
Knesset exhibit: David Ben-Gurion 1954
(photo credit: KNESSET)
Historical comparisons are by their very nature invidious. Or in plainer English, comparing Moses to Isaiah, Elizabeth I of England to Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, George Washington to George H Bush is senseless, or actually impossible.
Isi Leibler, in a recent column in The Jerusalem Post (November 28, 2018) wrote an article criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for reasons that do not relate to my present writings. This itself is unusual, since Leibler is a great fan of the prime minister. What hit my eye was the following sentence: “Although I would include myself as one who considers Netanyahu worthy, together perhaps with David Ben-Gurion, of being recorded as one of Israel’s greatest leaders… .”
The word “perhaps” puzzled me totally. True, Leibler is a proud right-winger, but has shown his independent thinking even in the article I cited. Its title is “The prime minister is treating us as morons.” But even Menachem Begin showed his respect for Ben-Gurion when he offered to subordinate himself to B-G in the period prior to the Six-Day War.
There is no question in the mind of critic and supporter alike that it was Ben-Gurion’s focus on achieving statehood and his pragmatism in the pre-1948 period that – more than any single individual – made Israel possible. His flaws and errors shrink in the light of his powerful intellect and will. The title of a recent carefully researched and nonjudgemental biography, Dr. Tom Segev’s “A State At Any Cost” aptly summarizes the lodestar of Ben-Gurion’s life. (I read the Hebrew edition; the English edition is scheduled for September 1, 2019 by Farrar Straus, New York). It was B-G’s single-minded push for statehood, to the exclusion of almost any other consideration, which had become the focus of his life and leadership.
To compare Ben-Gurion with Netanyahu would be like comparing George Washington with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Washington, like B-G, had a militia for an army, limited funds and stood against the greatest military power of the time. Arms had to be smuggled from friendly countries, mainly Czechoslovakia under Soviet tutelage. The West imposed an arms embargo and the British government and the US State Department were hoping for Israel’s failure to survive, and the Arab invading states had semblances of armies and some outstanding leaders like Gamal Abd el-Nasser and the British commander of the Transjordan Legion, Glubb Pasha. New immigrants were rushed to the front lines, and the air force was mostly piloted by overseas volunteers.
Roosevelt presided over the greatest industrial power of the time, had a loyal cabinet at his side, and the frameworks of a major army and airforce as well as a powerful navy. “Progress” had made speedy radio and telegraph communications standard, and the arms available made the muskets and long rifles of the colonial American forces – and even the cannons – seem like peashooters.
Netanyahu, though resting upon an uneasy and cantankerous cabinet of men and women, each seemingly grooming themselves to replace him one day, nonetheless has an organized and skilled and disciplined military and intelligence machine to work with. Israel is probably the strongest single country in the Middle East, an international hi-tech and cyber power. Netanyahu has a magnificent air force, a well-trained and experienced army, and a small but advanced and long-range navy.
Without Ben-Gurion’s leadership there would be no Israel as we know it. His abandonment of socialism, his pragmatic ability to use his fractious ministers and his excellent choices of men like Levi Eshkol, Moshe Sharett, Abba Even and a woman like the younger Golda Meir, and later his development of the fledgling defence forces, bringing up men like Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzhak Rabin – all of these made possible the Israel that we have today. His defense doctrine, to build Israel’s military might, carry the war to enemy territory and never to go to war without major power understanding and support, guides us today.
I could go on and on, but the reader has grasped the point. Creatio (almost) ex nihilo – creating from very little – is quite different from leading a people which is already a start-up nation and whose military prowess has been proven more than once.
We must give Benjamin Netanyahu credit as an expert creator and wielder of public opinion. He has placed himself among the top ranks of world leaders, and made himself a household name in every part of the world. He has made the case for limiting Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs a model exercise in world diplomacy. On the international front, he is a great success. Hand in hand with that have gone major errors, the greatest of which is making Israel an adjunct of the Trump administration. This has, of course, led to gains for Israel, but the alienation of liberals will one day rebound against us. He has manipulated would-be contenders to the point where Liberman, Bennett and Shaked seem ridiculous. (Keep your eye on Ayelet Shaked, like her or not. She is learning, waiting, and once she masters control of her temper and tongue is the true rising star in the dangerous far right.)
Ben-Gurion knew how to run a government, leaving internal and economic affairs to Finance Minister Levi Eshkol and concentrating on his portfolio as Minister of Defense and chief strategist. Though Tom Segev shows that B-G had many personal foibles, the only “corruption” he mentions is that B-G did not repay part of a loan he had received from the Histadrut to purchase his house in Tel Aviv, and that B-G bought books for his library, often with public funds. However, Segev did not use the word corruption, since his work is that of a historian and not a polemicist. However (take good note!), both the house and its library were left to the State. Since I spent a good few years studying Ben-Gurion’s thinking and writings, I am sure that was his intention quite early on.
He was a man who would create a cabinet crisis and go to national elections on a point of principle. The classic case was in 1958, when the Israeli Minister of the Interior, representing a labor group further left than the classic Mapai, issued a directive, which stated that “any person declaring in good faith that he is a Jew, shall be registered as a Jew.”
This led to a crisis in the coalition government, in which Ben-Gurion voted for the definition that a Jew is a Jew if he says he is while the two National Religious Party ministers resigned. Eventually, to skip much detail, a new government was formed and the definition of a Jew – for State purposes – was that a Jew is whoever declares in good faith he is a Jew and who is not a member of another religion. That decision, of course, did not require the Chief Rabbinate to use the same criteria. The problem lives on, 60 years later.
When writing my study of Ben-Gurion’s years in government (1948-1963), I consulted Chaim Israeli, who had been B-G’s head of bureau in the Ministry of Defense. “Chaim,” I said, “the Old Man knew that there would be a cabinet crisis, He could have avoided it.
Why did B-G vote for the non-Orthodox point of view?
It was his response that taught me that with B-G, sometimes principles outweigh pragmatic political considerations. “Because he believed that, he agreed with the principle.”
The other point to bear in mind with Ben-Gurion was his lack of desire for riches. In the early 1960s, he received a letter from a famous New York publishing house offering him $100,000 for just promising to publish his memoirs, once he would eventually write them. B-G said to me, “Tell them no! What would I do with so much money?”
Well it was a lot of money! In today's terms it would be close to $900,000!
To be clear then, periods are different, values are different, and the world is different, though wars, famine and cruelty have never ceased. And perhaps – just perhaps, Mr. Leibler misplaced the “perhaps” in the sentence I quoted. To remind you, it read: “Although I would include myself as one who considers Netanyahu worthy, together perhaps with David Ben-Gurion, of being recorded as one of Israel’s greatest leaders.” The astute and experienced Isi Leibler may just have had a lapsus computeris (a slip of the keyboard) and intended to write “considers Netanyahu perhaps worthy, together with David Ben-Gurion….”
Finally, it is hard to refrain from comparison, but the Bible commentator Rashi, who lived a thousand years ago, has taught us the main lesson that each person must be judged in the context of his own time (Rashi on Genesis 6:9). And even earlier the Talmud tersely (in four words) tells that Jephthah in his generation was like Samuel in his (Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 25).
Avraham Avi-hai filled senior posts in the Prime Minister’s Office of David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol. His PhD thesis became the basis for the book,
‘Ben-Gurion:  Statebuilder’ (Wiley, NY, and Keter, Jerusalem, 1963). Comments and queries welcome: [email protected]