Israel's lost PM

Moshe Sharett - Ben-Gurion's Spy
January 3, 1997

First a little anecdote, for it tells a lot about Moshe Sharett. Back in 1989, members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, were given a gift, a painting of "The Prime Ministers of Israel", to hang in their office. Against a white background and two blue stripes (the colours of the Israeli flag) there were, shoulder-to-shoulder, seven portraits of Israeli prime ministers. First on the left - David Ben-Gurion the founder of the Jewish state, then Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres and last (on the right of course) Yitzhak Shamir, the leader of the Stern Gang who became prime minister.

But one portrait was missing - that of a man with a thick black hair and moustache, high forehead, heavy eyebrows, warm dark eyes and sharply pointed nose - Moshe Sharett.

Conspiracy theories were rife. Some in the Knesset said that it was no coincidence that Moshe Sharett - Israel's second prime minister and its foreign minister for 18 years - was dropped, for he was too moderate a figure in Israel's politics; only if his realistic policies had been recognised and accepted at the time, they said, could Arabs and Jews have reached a peace agreement many years ago. But, conspiracy theories (it was found out later) were unfounded, for the bare, if sad, fact was that Moshe Sharett - the forgotten man of Israeli politics - was forgotten by those who made the painting.

Sharett was a man of very many talents who could have easily become a poet or a writer. The writings he left - especially the eight volumes of his Personal Diary (edited by his son Yaacov) - are not only a rare historical document but a lively, often amusing, personal history. Take for example the story he tells of the dinner with Yitzhak Ben Zvi, his personal friend for many years and the second president of Israel: "Upon entering the dining room, Rachael, Yitzhak's wife, was meticulously strict that Yitzhak should march at our head. Also, in the presence of others she referred to him only as The President and not, God forbid, Yitzhak. With regard to presidential gracious manners - these completely disappeared when we sat at the table. I found before me the knives on the left and the forks on the right ... When we had soup, conversation was difficult because the President slurped it from his spoonful with a deafening noise. When the chicken was served, the President displayed a daring streak of creativity in the proper utilisation of knife and fork while progressively the various implements at his disposal were all piled upon and around his plate in a colourful array and scraps of meat began flying over in all directions. In my conversation with the President I adverted to him by the name of Yitzhak; after a few minutes his wife Rachael made sure to remind me of the proper manner by once again referring to him as The President'.'' Sharett became, however, neither a writer nor a poet but a politician and it was unfortunate for the human, sensitive and moderate Sharett that he chose this thankless job at a time when the Jewish people - and later the fledging state of Israel - underwent a most turbulent period; a period in which people yearned not for a moderate, human and compromising leader of the type of Moshe Sharett, but for a strong, charismatic leader - the type of David Ben-Gurion. And when this happened Sharett was bound to work, during the most critical years of his political career from 1948 to 1956, in the shadow of Ben-Gurion who tortured him.

They - Sharett and Ben-Gurion - were two leaders who differed not only in temperament and character but, more importantly, in their view of how Israeli-Arab relations should be conducted. Sharett believed in the power of foreign policy and diplomacy and thought that defence policy and military force should come to support diplomacy, not replace it. David Ben-Gurion thought differently. He was a great believer in the "diplomacy of power". For him, foreign policy and diplomacy came second to defence policy and were, in his view, subordinated to it. Different approaches led to different policies and different policies to struggles between the two leaders. While Ben-Gurion opted for tough military actions against the Arabs, Sharett tried, as much as he could, to restrain the use of force and limit the number and scope of what were then known as "retaliatory actions" against the Arabs.

In the tough, even cruel struggle between the moderate Sharett and the activist Ben- Gurion the latter had the upper hand. For in the mid-1950s Israel seemed to face grave danger from across its borders (at least this was the view from the Israeli side of the border) and little wonder that the Israelis opted for the leader who seemed tougher. In June 1956 Sharett, by then a very wounded and bitter man, was forced out of office. He never forgave Ben-Gurion for the way he treated him, nor did Ben-Gurion forgive Sharett. When Sharett died of cancer in 1965, Ben-Gurion was the only national leader who did not attend the funeral.

The life and struggles of Sharett and his complicated relationships with his colleague and political rival Ben-Gurion are unfolded in the first, very much overdue biography of his life. Gabriel Sheffer takes us from Russia, where Moshe Shertok (he later changed his name to Sharett) was born in 1894, to Palestine, where the family was settled in 1906, to Turkey, where young Moshe began reading law in 1913, to the Turkish army, where he served, and then back to Palestine where Sharett embarked on a long and distinguished political career. This is a very comprehensive, thorough and well documented piece of work by a serious academic who has looked at all relevant and available evidence. The weakness of this work, though, is that it often fails to find the balance between the two most important elements of any good political biography: history and psychology. Thus while we are told of almost all the events in which Sharett was involved and what he said and how he acted we still, after reading this thick biography, remain with the odd feeling that we have failed to penetrate the soul of the man and have a sense of what really made him tick.

Neither Sharett nor his arch-rival Ben-Gurion resigned peacefully or went willingly from the political stage. Instead they were both pushed out of office - Sharett by Ben-Gurion and Ben-Gurion himself as a result of the Lavon affair, the subject of Shabtai Teveth's book.

The Lavon affair began in Egypt in 1954 when an Israeli secret operation went disastrously wrong. Israeli agents, acting as if they were Egyptian nationalists, were to put bombs in Cairo and Alexandria. The aim was to give the impression that Egypt was unstable and, therefore, it would be wise for Britain to stay put and not evacuate its forces from the Suez Canal Zone, where, from an Israeli point of view, they provided a very useful buffer between Egyptian and Israeli forces (did anyone in Israel seriously believe that a few small bombs could force Britain to make a U-turn and stay in Egypt?).

But the young Jewish agents who were ordered to execute this silly operation were caught. Two of them were executed and the others were thrown into jail where they remained until after the 1967 war. The scandal which followed the operation focused on the question of who gave the order to execute it. Defence minister Pinchas Lavon was the first to pay the price and was forced to resign his post in February 1955. However, five years later, he charged that his forced resignation was the result of a conspiracy hatched by the military, in particular chief of staff Moshe Dayan and the then director-general of the ministry of defence Shimon Peres, the "whizz-kids" of Ben-Gurion. It put in motion a chain of events which not only tore apart the Labour party but also led to the downfall of Ben-Gurion himself. The story of the operation, but more so the political scandal which followed it and the inner struggles and intrigues within the Labour party, and the fall of Ben-Gurion, is the story of Ben-Gurion's Spy.

For Teveth, it is a story of a "political scandal that shaped modern Israel". The quarrels that beset Labour in the wake of the Lavon affair, according to Teveth, paved the way for the victory of Menachem Begin in 1977 which culminated in disasters such as the war in the Lebanon in 1982. Here, it seems, Teveth presses his conclusions a little too far, for it seems very odd indeed that the amateur operation in Egypt in 1954 and the scandal which followed could have led, or was a single cause for events which took place more than two decades later. Nevertheless, Teveth's Ben-Gurion's Spy is a masterpiece written by a thorough, detective-orientated journalist who knows not only history, but also how to tell a good story in a most dramatic way. Teveth's heroes - villains might be a better word - appear in his story so vividly that one very often feels, that one can touch and feel them and, especially, berate them for their stupidity.

It is odd that these two important and invaluable books have appeared at the very same time, shedding light on a critical period in the history of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ahron Bregman is an associate producer in the forthcoming BBC TV series, Israel and the Arabs: The 50-year Conflict.

Moshe Sharett: Biography of a Political Moderate

Author - Gabriel Sheffer
ISBN - 0 19 8994 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 1,065

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