Ariel Sharon, according to a report in Haaretz, will be remembered as Israel's wealthiest prime minister. David Ben-Gurion, by contrast, was a modest man who ate herring and old bread, slept until his dying day on an iron cot with a straw mattress and didn't leave his family a dime. But the real difference between them lies in the magnitude of their deeds, and especially the iron discipline that Ben-Gurion imposed on his party. Sharon has lost control of the political party he led to stunning victory.
The slogan "only he can do it" fits more for B-G than Sharon for the simple reason that Ben-Gurion went out and showed he could, whereas in Sharon's case we just assume he can. There's no proof as of yet, especially now, as the country stands at a crossroads.
Looking back, it's amazing how much Ben-Gurion accomplished in the first two years of Israeli statehood. He set up a national insurance system and inaugurated free compulsory education.
He brought more than a million immigrants and disbanded private armies. He agreed to accept indemnification from Germany despite the fiery objections of Menachem Begin. How would the country look today without this vast sum of money and the reparations paid out over the years in accordance with the agreement signed by Ben-Gurion and Chancellor Adenauer? That is the difference between a far-sighted leader and a myopic one.
B-G introduced strict norms of national conduct. He court-martialed a young officer for misreporting from the battlefield, and demoted a famous colonel for covering up for his driver who was accused of stealing a sack of sugar.
It would have been unthinkable in his time for the chief army chaplain to declare that he takes his orders from rabbis and not the IDF chief of staff. In B-G's day, rabbis didn't dictate to statesmen, and army generals didn't quake in their boots at tough assignments - even opening fire and sinking the Altalena.
In a speech to the nation, Ben-Gurion was very firm: Any malicious attempt to challenge the sovereignty of the State of Israel and its authorized institutions would be swiftly nipped in the bud. B-G knew how to keep his party in line. He knew how to govern.
For those of you who wonder why I am comparing B-G and Sharon, let me explain: Both faced similar crossroads in the life of the state. Both were in the driver's seat as the country was wracked by war. Both reached a stage in the confrontation where there was no peace and no accord, and compromise emerged as the only option. Both tried to expand Israel's borders, only to have their dreams dashed. B-G withdrew from Sinai in 1957 despite his talk about a "third kingdom of Israel," and Sharon awoke to the realization that without a pullback from the territories there can be no agreement.
Both faced the threat of a home-grown putsch. The difference is that B-G had the power to defeat his enemies at home, whereas Sharon has yet to show that he has the leadership qualities needed to disengage from the Palestinians. He has yet to prove that he has what it takes to set in motion what he himself has described as the last historic opportunity to partition the country, even if it means using force against the rebels, the refuseniks and the rabbis.
Sharon's problem is that he has lost control of the Likud. Coalition chairman Gideon Sa'ar voted against the evacuation-compensation law, and Netanyahu, who tried to carry out a mini-putsch and failed, is now talking about disengagement in terms of a national tragedy.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the Likud is snubbing his nose at Sharon's authority. The comic debate over what to call Peres - "acting prime minister" or "deputy prime minister" - together with the games played by United Torah Judaism and Sharon's dependence on the whims of rabbis and party opponents may leave him no choice but to call for a referendum, if not early elections.
We are looking at a war of nerves in which Sharon is buying time and the settlers are scaring the daylights out of everyone with their talk of violent resistance. But Sharon is not the chairman of the board of some company on the stock market. He is the elected leader of this country and he has one job to do: govern.
Sharon should be doing what Ben-Gurion would do in his place. He must make it clear to those rebelling against the authority of the state that one strike at an Israeli soldier and they're out.
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