The latest edition of Quadrant magazine featured a book review by Daryl McCann of Ben-Gurion: A Political Life (Schocken Books, 2011), which is highly recommended not only for what it says about the book, but because it explains clearly some truths and some long-forgotten facts about the origins of the Arab-Israel conflict that everyone should understand.
The book is a biography of Israel’s first prime minister and one of its founding fathers, based on conversations between Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was Ben Gurion’s protege, and journalist David Landau. The article suggests:
“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…”
McCann recounts the ways in which Ben Gurion’s willingness for strategic and honourable compromise paved the way for many of Israel’s achievements and helped shape Israeli policy and decision making in generations to come.
For example, it discusses Ben Gurion’s approach to the new reality which was revealed when the dust of battle settled in the aftermath of 1948 war:
“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.'”
During the 1949 UN-sponsored Lausanne Conference he again exhibited pragmatism and a willingness to compromise even over the vexed issue of Palestinian refugees, which was met with rejection by the Arab world:
“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.”
On the domestic front, Ben Gurion was extremely influential in shaping the newly established State of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic country, a balance of values which is maintained till this day, despite the absurd misrepresentations of Israel’s Jewish identity which are increasingly being promulgated by critics:
“… 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.”
Yet despite of Ben Gurion’s success domestically, in shaping and influencing institutions and society, and his efforts to bequeath his successors a state at peace with its neighbours with clear borders, some the difficulties and challenges he encountered accompany Israel to this day – and remain the key barrier to lasting peace:
“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.”