The life of Israel's forgotten prime minister, Moshe Sharett

October 15 is the birthday of Moshe Sharett, Israel's second prime minister, who served as premier for 21 months from 1954-55.

 MOSHE SHARETT became prime minister in highly challenging circumstances. The Jewish state was less than six years old and Arab hostility remained omnipresent. (photo credit: KNESSET)
MOSHE SHARETT became prime minister in highly challenging circumstances. The Jewish state was less than six years old and Arab hostility remained omnipresent.
(photo credit: KNESSET)

October 15 is the birthday of Moshe Sharett, Israel’s often-forgotten second prime minister. Sharett served as premier for 21 months, from January 1954 to November 1955; his time in office was longer than those of Ehud Barak (20 months), Naftali Bennett (12 months), and – depending on the November election results – potentially longer than Yair Lapid’s term. Yet for myriad reasons, Sharett is largely unrecalled today.

Sharett's political life

Sharett became prime minister in highly challenging circumstances. The Jewish state was less than six years old and Arab hostility remained omnipresent. Palestinian terrorists were constantly infiltrating Israel from the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank – in 1954 alone, 25 Israelis were murdered in such attacks. 

In parallel, an economically impoverished Israel struggled to integrate the waves of new immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, with the country’s population more than doubling since independence in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of people were living in temporary transit camps, where chronic overcrowding and rudimentary conditions made for a multitude of social and economic problems. 

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s larger-than-life founding prime minister, had been the dominant political figure in these early years. He led the struggle for independence and oversaw victory in the 1948-49 war. But after years at the pinnacle of national leadership, Ben-Gurion said he needed a rest, and in 1953 announced his intention to resign. Famously, Ben-Gurion opted to return to his pioneering roots and settled on Kibbutz Sde Boker in the then largely barren Negev desert.

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

Sharett was not Ben-Gurion’s first choice for a successor as prime minister (that honor befell then-finance minister Levi Eshkol, who refused the role). But Sharett was no political novice. Since 1933, he had served as the head of the Jewish Agency’s political department, directing Zionist diplomacy in the years leading up to statehood. 

With the establishment of the State of Israel, Sharett became the country’s first foreign minister, a role he held while serving as prime minister. (Ben-Gurion had also combined the premiership with another senior portfolio – serving both as prime minister and defense minister.) 

Though Sharett held all the official-legal powers of the premiership, he found that Ben-Gurion’s authority cast a shadow over his entire term as prime minister. Ben-Gurion remained the dominant force behind the scenes – in the ruling Mapai (Labor) party, in the government, and in the army. Ministers, MKs, and IDF commanders often conducted pilgrimages to Sde Boker to seek the revered former prime minister’s guidance. 

The Lavon Affair and other issues

EMBLEMATIC OF Sharett’s limited authority was the Lavon Affair, a security debacle that remained politically contentious in Israel for over a decade.

Before Ben-Gurion left office, he orchestrated two crucial appointments: Pinchas Lavon as defense minister, and Moshe Dayan as IDF chief of staff. Neither was particularly enamored with Sharett’s leadership, and on their watch the IDF was involved in a botched intelligence operation that occurred without the knowledge or authorization of the sitting prime minister.

In the summer of 1954, Israeli military intelligence instructed a group of Egyptian Jews it had recruited to carry out clandestine activities designed to destabilize the new Free Officers’ regime in Cairo. 

Members of the Jewish underground cell were sent to plant bombs in Egyptian cinemas, English libraries, and American educational centers. To avoid civilian deaths, the explosives were supposed to be detonated late at night, when the targeted institutions were empty. 

The idea was to have the attacks blamed on local communists, nationalists and Muslim Brotherhood, creating a climate of insecurity that would supposedly lead the British to rethink their planned military evacuation of the Suez Canal. 

The operation caused no casualties, except among the cell members themselves: two committed suicide after being captured, and two were tried, convicted and executed by the Egyptian authorities. 

In Israel, a huge controversy erupted over who had authorized the failed operation. The head of military intelligence, Col. Binyamin Gibli, claimed that the order had come directly from Lavon. By contrast, the defense minister asserted that Gibli’s charge was a fabrication designed to clear the military echelon of responsibility for the debacle. 

Despite his repeated declarations of innocence, Lavon had to resign, with Ben-Gurion returning to the defense ministry in February 1955, though not to the premiership. This created a bizarre political situation in which Israel’s preeminent leader served in a secondary role under a prime minister whose authority continued to erode. 

When Ben-Gurion returned to the premiership in November 1955, he kept Sharett on as foreign minister but dismissed him some five months later. Relations between the two men had become increasingly strained, their policy differences exacerbated by growing personal animosity.

Instead of Sharett, Ben-Gurion chose Golda Meir as his new foreign minister. She was politically loyal to Ben-Gurion and shared his activist, security-first approach. It was unlikely that Sharett would have supported Ben-Gurion’s October 1956 decision to join Britain and France in the tripartite attack on Egypt, as Meir did at the time.

Sharett's temperate views

MANY CONTEMPORARY Israeli doves have retrospectively embraced Sharett’s temperate views. In the years before statehood, Sharett, though a loyal member of the Mapai leadership, was nonetheless often more sympathetic to Chaim Weizmann’s moderation than to the combative positions advocated by Ben-Gurion, Sharett’s party leader. 

And during the 1950s, in cabinet debates over the IDF’s policy of launching reprisal operations following Arab attacks, Ben-Gurion and Dayan would place plans for a forceful response before the cabinet, only to see Sharett galvanize a majority behind a more restrained approach.

This made Sharett an anathema for the hawks. Security activists saw in the demonstration of Israel’s military prowess a formula for enhancing deterrence, which, they hoped, would bring quiet to Israel’s borders. 

It was not that Sharett believed peace with the Arabs was imminent; rather, he opposed military operations that, in his view, only inflamed tensions, while in parallel undermining Israel’s standing in the international community. 

In the end, Sharett got even with Ben-Gurion for his 1956 ouster. Ben-Gurion had resigned from the premiership for the second time in 1963 but had turned against his second successor, Eshkol. The ruling Mapai party conference met in February 1965 to debate Ben-Gurion’s demand to unseat Israel’s third prime minister. 

Sharett, though sick and dying of cancer, was brought into the hall in a wheelchair and delivered a piercing attack on his nemesis. For the assembled party delegates, Sharett’s remarks stole the show, ensuring a majority vote against Ben-Gurion, who, in defeat, was forced to bolt Mapai and establish a rival party. 

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.