The Principled Pragmatist

Shimon Peres in conversation with David Landau, Ben-Gurion: A Political Life (Schocken Books, 2011), 240 pages, US$25.95 

David Ben-Gurion’s political philosophy, according to Shimon Peres, was surprisingly pragmatic for someone so principled. Ben-Gurion’s capacity for compromise literally put Israel on the map and his facility for honourable compromises goes a long way to explaining the current dynamism of “The Start-Up Nation” despite its location in such a belligerent neighbourhood. He understood the risks of a Jewish state, but not the extent to which Arab leaders (Palestinian and otherwise) would exploit and deceive their own people to pursue rejectionism, a cause made redundant by the 1948–49 Arab-Israeli War.

Ben-Gurion’s pioneer-worker version of Zionism required European Jews to earn their place in the Holy Land through honest toil. Arriving in Palestine in 1906, Ben-Gurion belonged to a wave of Jewish migration (the Second Aliyah) between the turn of the century and the First World War. Most of these pioneers were young socialists who believed in avodah Ivrit, “the social imperative for Jews to work their own lands or hire other Jews to work them”. A second crucial tenet was geulat bakarka, “the political imperative to buy up tracts of land and not occupy them by force”. Ben-Gurion and his contemporaries hoped that labouring under a hot Mediterranean sun would not only enable pioneer-workers to forge a new identity far from the stultifying ghettoes of Europe, but might also solve “the Arab problem”. During his brief Bolshevik period, Ben-Gurion spoke of “the common class interest of the Jewish and Arab worker and suggested that this might somehow enable them to transcend their national differences”. Reality, as Peres admits, revealed this to be a “fanciful notion”.

In May 1921 Arabs rioted in protest against Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration and a 1921 League of Nations memorandum, both having referred to a future “Jewish National Home”. Forty-seven Jews were murdered and many more injured. The British decision that 76 per cent of Mandatory Palestine should be renamed Transjordan and excluded from any putative Jewish state failed to assuage Arab hostility. In August 1929, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, helped spark murder and mayhem with the false assertion that Jewish settlers planned to occupy the al-Aqsa Mosque: 

On August 22 three Jews and three Arabs were killed in rioting in Jerusalem after Muslim prayers on the Temple Mount. The next day the tiny, centuries old Jewish community in Hebron was decimated by jihadist murderers. Sixty-seven Jews were killed there; the rest, 435 souls, fled the city.  

These events were a mere prelude to the 1936–39 Arab Revolt, a reaction to high levels of Jewish emigration to Mandatory Palestine, which included 66,000 (mostly German) Jews in 1935 alone. One of the catchcries of the Arab nationalists during those bloody years says it all: “The English to the sea, the Jews to their graves”.

The Arab Revolt faltered, forcing Haj Amin al-Husseini to flee to Berlin, where he remained as the honoured guest and ally of Adolf Hitler. One of al-Husseini’s more notorious remarks during the Second World War was his enthusiastic declaration in November 1943 that “the Germans know how to get rid of the Jews”. Had Rommel’s African campaign succeeded, transit camps and concentration camps might have ensued in Nazi-occupied Palestine. Amongst the local militia only the Palmach—elite force of the Jewish Haganah—were prepared to resist the Wehrmacht.

The case for rejectionism per se cannot be dismissed out of hand. A Muslim or Christian Arab living in (say) Haifa or Jaffa during the time of the Ottoman empire or Mandatory Palestine was quite within his rights to oppose the Zionist project unfolding before his eyes. He had every reason to dismiss as risible Ben-Gurion’s (fleeting) Bolshevik notion that “the common class interest of the Jewish and Arab worker” might overcome “national differences”. Nevertheless, the inflexibility of Arab Palestinian leadership did not serve the best interests of the Arab population.

The intransigence of Arab leaders resulted in their unilateral rejection of the November 1947 United Nations partition proposal. Peres describes the UN scheme as “the most disadvantageous partition plan imaginable” for the Zionists. In contrast to his Arab counterpart, the Arab Higher Committee (the AHC), Ben-Gurion was willing to make a painful compromise and accept the deal. Peres depicts Ben-Gurion’s principled pragmatism as an “historic act of political wisdom”. Mahmoud Abbas, current president of the Palestinian National Authority, repeats a falsehood that is more than six decades old every time he alleges that Israel is the reason why no Arab Palestinian state exists.  

At 4.00 p.m. on May 14, 1948, in a special session of the People’s Assembly in downtown Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of a Jewish state, the first of its kind in two thousand years. That evening the Egyptian Air Force struck Tel Aviv’s central bus station and within twenty-four hours four other Arab nations, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, were also at war with the State of Israel. In the first phase of the Arab-Israeli War (1948–49) Israel did not even possess an air force, but still the IDF defended Jewish outposts, secured parts of Jerusalem, cleared Egyptian forces from the Negev, and made dramatic gains in Galilee.

Israel might have defeated its mortal enemies on the battlefield, but the propaganda war was only beginning. Israel’s borders at the cessation of hostilities were more generous than those proposed in 1947 by the United Nations. Even today there are academics in the West who accuse Ben-Gurion of deliberately provoking the conflict in order to expand the partition borders: 

But did he think the Arabs would accept partition? He certainly thought they might. The map was all in their favour. He took into account when he accepted partition that the other side would accept it too. And if they accepted, there would have been no war.

Ben-Gurion, insists Peres, was right to claim that the disintegration of the Arab Palestinian militia, along with the defeat of the five Arab armies, created “a new ball game”. The idea that the sovereign territory of Israel should have contracted to the pre-war status quo is nonsensical, if for no other reason than that Arab leaders never recognised those borders in the first place: “The 1948 war wasn’t over borders … It was over the existence of the State of Israel.” 

The question of Arab Palestinian refugees is another contentious issue. In his book Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988), the Israeli “New Historian” Benny Morris estimated that as many as 700,000 Arabs fled their homes during the 1948 war. Morris blamed the various Zionist militias and the IDF for a sizable proportion of the exodus, contradicting mainstream Israeli opinion that Palestinian leaders played the major role in hastening Arab departures. Even in his incarnation as a radical, Morris insisted that no evidence pointed to Ben-Gurion or his cabinet conspiring to force Arabs out of their homes. Morris’s Birth of the Palestinian Problem Revisited (2004) tells a somewhat different story from his 1988 reading of events. Further research largely corroborated the conventional Israeli view that many Arabs fled on the understanding that the Jewish settlers would be expelled from Palestine once the combined armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon triumphed in the 1948 war. Much of the Arab exodus was self-initiated—the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) tale turns out to be a myth.

At the 1949 UN-sponsored Lausanne Conference, Ben-Gurion offered to accept the return of some 100,000 Arab refugees—with compensation for the balance—on the proviso that the Arab world recognised the State of Israel’s right to exist. The Arab leaders, as distinct from ordinary Arab Palestinians with hopes of returning, turned down Ben-Gurion’s proposal. There was one exception. In the final stages of the war the IDF could have routed King Abdullah’s forces in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but Ben-Gurion chose conciliation. We might classify this as the first installation of land for peace. Ben-Gurion’s flexibility and pragmatism appeared to pay off when Abdullah privately signalled his preparedness to share Jerusalem with the Israelis and acknowledge the legitimacy of the Jewish state. In return he asked for Israel to recognise Jordan’s sovereignty in the West Bank. Ben-Gurion expressed no objection. The nature of these negotiations became public knowledge in 1951 and a fanatic promptly assassinated Abdullah.

Ben-Gurion’s principled pragmatism met with more success on the domestic front. He and the other founding fathers were mostly democratic and secularist, and this helps explain why Israel is a “Jewish state” in the sense of being a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors, 900,000 post-1948 Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, a million-plus Soviet-era Jews, 30,000 post-Islamic Revolution Iranian Jews, 130,000 Ethiopian Jews, and so on. Otherwise, the place is very much a typical liberal democracy in which non-Jewish citizens enjoy freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association. Non-Jewish citizens have exercised their right to vote, form political parties, and win seats in the Knesset. Modern Israel might have been established as a “Jewish state”, but it has never been a religious entity in the manner of (say) the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

A visit to Lenin’s Soviet Union, according to Peres, convinced the socialist Ben-Gurion of the inappropriateness of an authoritarian political system in the future Jewish homeland. His stay in Britain during the 1940 London Blitz further persuaded him that parliamentary democracy could hold a nation together during dark times. Discrimination persists in Israel, and yet Israel’s critics cannot deny that Arab citizens (approximately 20 per cent of the population) have the same rights as Jewish citizens under the law. Minority groups such as the Druze and the Bedouin have integrated into the State of Israel on every level, not least in the IDF. Arabs currently hold twelve Knesset seats, and Arabs have been government ministers and served on Israel’s Supreme Court. None of this is to discount the vexed issue of identity in Israel, including the fact that today a percentage of young Arabs classify themselves as Palestinian Israelis rather than as Israeli Arabs. That said, the internet site MEMRI provides examples of Arabs who have no desire to relinquish the political, economic, educational and social welfare benefits accorded to every citizen in Israel. Ben-Gurion’s sound practical judgment on the merits of liberal democracy still pays dividends.

His common sense also proved successful further afield. In the 1950s he oversaw an unlikely rapprochement with West Germany. Konrad Adenauer, a genuine anti-Nazi during the time of the Third Reich, offered to lend a hand to the nascent Jewish state. He proposed providing Israel with unconditional monetary payments and military hardware at knockdown prices. Menachem Begin’s response to the German overture verged on the hysterical, and the reaction of Israel’s communists was not much better. In contrast, the ever-practical Ben-Gurion reasoned that if some of Germany’s wealth had come at the expense of Jewry, then the Jewish state had every moral right to be the beneficiary of German remorse. 

Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister in 1963 after bitter internal party disputes. Most would explain his political demise in terms of remaining too long in the top job. Peres, however, blames Ben-Gurion’s downfall on the opportunism and treachery of political colleagues, but his argument is not totally convincing. Though no longer calling the shots, in moments of crisis the Old Man’s counsel was still sought, most crucially in 1967 on the eve of the Six-Day War. A reader who alone relied on Peres’s account of events would be left unaware that Ben-Gurion made no useful contribution. Reports suggest he refused to believe that a third Arab-Israeli war loomed, even in the shadow of Nasser closing the Straits of Tiran and making bellicose statements about the impending “destruction of Israel”. He could not grasp that Egypt, so comprehensively vanquished in 1948 and again in the 1956 Sinai War, was impatient for another roll of the dice. Ben-Gurion assumed that one day Arab rejectionism would come to an end. History tells us otherwise. 

Ben-Gurion’s irresolution on the Golan Heights suggests limitations to his principled pragmatism. During the Six-Day War he vacillated on the subject of Israel extending the battlefront to Syria. Once the IDF was in command of the Golan Heights, Ben-Gurion seemed—in Peres’s own words—“clearly loath to envisage their return to Syria”. Later in that year, according to none other than Peres, Ben-Gurion believed the Golan Heights would probably be better off back in Syrian hands in order to facilitate Palestinian recognition of Israel. A year later he changed his mind, before reverting in 1969 to his original position. In 1985, twelve years after Ben-Gurion’s death, the international community roundly condemned Israel when the not-especially hawkish Prime Minister Shimon Peres annexed the Golan Heights. The question Israel could now ask the international community is whether they should have handed over this natural defensive barrier to the homicidal and Israel-hating Hafez al-Assad or to his equally murderous and Israel-hating son, Bashar al-Assad. Perhaps the international community will now counsel Israel to wait until the virulently anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Syria before signing the deal.  

Peres touts Menachem Begin’s restoring the Sinai to Egyptian dominion in 1978 in return for peace as an example of the legacy of Ben-Gurion prevailing over “Revisionist” or conservative inflexibility. Today most Israelis would assert that much more “Ben-Gurionism”—if that is what we are to call land for peace—and Israel might not have a future. The increasingly ascendant Islamists in Egypt are already warning of their intent to overturn the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. The appeasing of Israel’s mortal enemies has encouraged rather than placated them—witness the emboldened nature of Hezbollah after the IDF’s unilateral exit from Southern Lebanon in 2000, the rise of Hamas in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and the onset of the murderous Second Intifada (2000–05) after President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak offered Yasser Arafat everything this terrorist-statesman demanded, apart from Israel committing demographic suicide and inviting the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of the 1948 refugees to settle within the borders of “the Zionist Entity”. In the wake of the Second Intifada, Ehud Barak’s offer to permit the Palestinians a foothold in Jerusalem will never be repeated.    

In the aftermath of an astonishing military victory in the Six-Day War, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, no less a protégé of Ben-Gurion than Shimon Peres, famously announced that he was “waiting for a telephone call” from Arab leaders. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, gushed that his nation would be “unbelievably generous in working out peace terms” with its vanquished neighbours, and that “everything is negotiable”. Shimon Peres would describe this as Ben-Gurion-style statesmanship. The leaders of thirteen Arab states repaired to Khartoum, from where they issued their intention not to recognise Israel, negotiate with Israel, or make peace with Israel. As a parting shot, they demanded the Zionists withdraw forthwith behind the 1947 UN partition lines, even though they themselves continued to reject partition.  

Commencing in the 1950s one of Ben-Gurion’s foreign policy initiatives was to reach beyond his immediate Arab neighbours to two non-Arab Muslim nations, Turkey and Iran. Alas, over time Islamists eclipsed the secularists in those two countries, and one of the recurrent features of modern-day Islamism is not only rejectionism, but also a virulent form of anti-Zionism that has been exacerbated by Nazi anti-Semitism. The spirit of Haj Amin al-Husseini remains with us still.

If all the time and money spent on developing relations with Turkey and Iran proved futile, the same cannot be said of Israel’s connection with Ethiopia, begun under the patronage of Ben-Gurion. Today the State of Israel is a key player in various understated geopolitical understandings that stretch from East Africa to East Asia. What the anti-Zionists failed to kill, they only made stronger.   

Most Israelis are painfully aware that, despite the vibrancy of their economy and society, the national narrative does not have a trouble-free, happy-ever-after ending. Maybe Mohammed Ahmadinejad or one of his successors will succeed in eradicating “the Zionist Entity” from the face of the earth, although the evolution of Iron Dome gives hope that Jews will be spared another round of genocide. Perhaps a Third Intifada will break out and more wedding ceremonies, dance clubs and pizza parlours will be bombed. Israelis embrace everyday occurrences with a heightened sense of enjoyment and urgency, knowing that disaster could lie around the corner. This was how Ben-Gurion and his generation experienced life, but not what they imagined for their descendants in the twenty-first century. 

At least Israelis, conservative and liberal, are more likely now to confront the truth of those who wish to destroy them. They tend not to resort to platitudes and false sentimentality, which is more than can be said for the politically correct brigade in the West. Alick Isaacs of the Hebrew University has coined the expression “violent co-existence” to characterise relations between the Jews and their neighbours in northern Europe between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. This might also serve as an apt description of the way things will be between the State of Israel and its neighbours for years to come. 

Daryl McCann reviewed two books on Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the June issue.

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