Last Monday, Israel marked the 30th anniversary of the death of its founder, David Ben-Gurion. Just a minority of Israelis still remember Israel's first prime minister as a living figure, as a leader and political activist; nonetheless, Ben-Gurion's legacy is engraved everywhere. His successors have added little to Ben-Gurion's main decisions, which fashioned Israel's character and the nature of its relations with Arabs: the declaration of statehood, the choice not to demarcate the state's borders, the refusal to acknowledge a right of return for Palestinian refugees, the transfer of the capital to Jerusalem, the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces, the mass aliyah immigration, the nuclear program, the decision not to draft a constitution, and the upholding of a secular-religious status quo. None of Ben-Gurion's successors displayed the same mix of long-range vision, decision-making ability, and political agility.
The "old man's" last disciples in Israeli politics, Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres, serve today as prime minister and opposition leader. Both view themselves as Ben-Gurion's successors, and both frequently quote him. Sharon feels more comfortable with Ben-Gurion than he does with Ze'ev Jabotinsky and other right-wing Zionist icons; these Revisionist Zionists are seldom cited in Sharon's speeches.
As in the case of other activist leaders, Ben-Gurion's legacy is open to several contradictory interpretations. The left views Ben-Gurion's legacy as a lesson encouraging compromise in dealings with Arabs, since Ben-Gurion approved partition plans, and endorsed cease-fire agreements at the end of the 1948 War of Independence, rather than conquering the West Bank. The right prefers to recall Ben-Gurion's responsibility for the vanquishing of the Palestinians and their departure in 1948, along with his forceful policies in the 1950s, including reprisal attacks that put the young Ariel Sharon on center stage.
What did Sharon learn from Ben-Gurion? Sharon's speeches at state memorial services for Ben-Gurion reflect an interesting evolution in Sharon's views.
Two years ago, Sharon stressed the forceful dimension of Ben-Gurion's legacy; he cited passages from Ben-Gurion's war diaries in which he called on the army to "charge ahead more powerfully, and with more determination," and complained about the passive stance adopted by the army's General Staff. Last year, Sharon took a neutral stance during the Ben-Gurion memorial, stressing issues of aliyah immigration.
This year, Sharon had the flu, and so missed the ceremony at Sde Boker; he asked Ehud Olmert to act as his substitute. The Prime Minister's Office relayed the speech to Olmert, who then incorporated just a few minor changes. The message had three parts: First, Israel must rely on its own strength, rather than on international support; second, Jerusalem is the "heart" of the state of Israel; third, visions must be adjusted to the limits of reality. In this last connection, Sharon quoted his teacher, Ben-Gurion, who opted for a Jewish state on a portion of the Land of Israel, rather than a state on the whole Land of Israel with an Arab majority. Sharon interpreted various Ben-Gurion quotations in light of contemporary realities; and this interpretation underscored the importance of compromise.
Ben-Gurion had an acute grasp of international realities, and he knew how to distinguish between statements made just for the record, and genuine pressure. He derided the United Nations, mocking it with a Hebrew gibberish rhyme (um, shmum), and he ignored UN resolutions. However, he twice pulled out of the Sinai peninsula because of American demands. His decision to move the Knesset and government offices to Jerusalem in December 1949 - a move which Sharon recalled this week - was a compelling unilateral stroke: The UN General Assembly decided to internationalize the city, and Ben-Gurion simply created facts on the ground.
Sharon seeks to copy his teacher as he crafts foreign policy. Like Ben-Gurion, he believes that Israeli power can fashion realities, so long as Israel avoids conflicts with Washington. Like his teacher, Sharon finds it hard, if not impossible, to forge compromise agreements with Arabs; he is more comfortable with unilateral moves. Sharon can be praised for his agile political maneuvering ability; here, too, the comparison to Ben-Gurion is flattering. Only one question remains to be answered: At a moment of truth, will he show the same decision-making clairvoyance which the state's founder displayed; or, will Sharon do as he has done up to now, and choose the safe course which guarantees his own political survival?
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