What Happened to Ben Gurion When He Finally Quit Israel's Government?

The decade between Ben-Gurion’s resignation and his death, in 1973, was a kind of senile decline; the amount of hate he spewed and his preoccupation with bizarre matters did not permit one to think otherwise.

“Ben-Gurion: Epilogue,” by Avi Shilon, Am Oved ‏(Hebrew), ‏284 pages, NIS 94

In June 1963, David Ben-Gurion resigned from Israel’s government after having headed it continuously − with only one, scandalous break − since the establishment of the state 15 years earlier.

Many countries, democratic and undemocratic alike, have experienced the resignation of founders without those leaders destroying their images single-handedly. Ben-Gurion was an exception. A cartoon by Dosh ‏(the pen name of Kariel Gardosh‏), in the daily Maariv, dating from the time of the Lavon Affair ‏(involving a vehement argument concerning jurisdiction between Ben-Gurion and Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, in connection with Israel’s operation of a spy and sabotage ring in Egypt in the 1950s‏), depicted the premier, small-dimensioned, standing and trying to shatter his giant monument in the ’60s, when it resurfaced.

Since we live in an era in which symbols quickly crumble, I doubt there is great importance to ascertaining the “true” meaning of the symbol of Ben-Gurion, who lent his name to an important street in nearly every city. In schools, it is Herzl who is more studied, even though it is clear that in terms of the Zionist enterprise, Ben-Gurion was the most important statesman, if only because he led that movement during its most decisive periods and succeeded. His determination was probably his real strength.

The decade between Ben-Gurion’s resignation and his death, in 1973, was a kind of senile decline; the amount of hate he spewed and his preoccupation with bizarre matters did not permit one to think otherwise. It was something that ranged between madness and comedy, and had he not been a symbol in his lifetime, a symbol to which had been ascribed “prophetic vision,” it is doubtful there would be any interest in the sad story of the last 10 years of Ben-Gurion’s life. That same determination through which his leadership had excelled became a political farce after his retirement.

His reasons for stepping down were unclear. According to the most sensational guesses, he resigned because he did not want to meet U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s demand for American inspection of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, or to agree to let refugees return as part of a resolution to the conflict. In general, the Old Man disliked Kennedy and made very peculiar comments during their meeting ‏(in 1961‏), which did not attest to ample tact, nor, apparently, to the manners one expects of a statesman. There were other explanations for the abrupt retirement, and Avi Shilon spends time on them − for example, early signs of dementia. The prime minister was 77 when he resigned.

In any event, the truth that emerges from the rich and riveting book “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue” is this: In retrospect, it seems that Ben-Gurion thought he would remain, unofficially, beside the helm, without the daily worries of the prime minister’s job. He evidently longed to be “the great guide.” His successor, Levi Eshkol, along with the leaders who stood beside the prime minister throughout all the years that Ben-Gurion led Mapai, would − so the Old Man thought − let him go on being “the prophet.”

And then, all at once, he was the leader shorn of his crown. The figure of biblical prophet was truly useless to a state that had just begun its petit-bourgeois life, at least in the country’s center, with the reparations payments from Germany, a paradise compared to the past, and also three years before it was hit by a recession and four years before the 1967 war.

Ben-Gurion’s disillusionment was rapid. Yes, Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson altered the administration’s policy toward Israel. But Eshkol, apparently, was also good at steering the relations between the countries in a direction Ben-Gurion could not understand.

Symbolic gestures offended him. For example, the government’s decision to honor Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s will, and bring his remains to Jerusalem for reinterment. Ben-Gurion had refused to do this for years. Eshkol consented to the gesture, however, and masses of Betarists accompanied their leader to Mount Herzl. This did not stop Menachem Begin from sticking a knife in Eshkol’s back in 1967 and bringing upon us Moshe Dayan.

However, the decisive event at the end of Ben-Gurion’s historic career, an event everyone who lived then still remembers, was the Lavon Affair. Originally it was referred to as “esek habish” − the shameful affair. It included a series of terror attacks Israel carried out in Egypt in 1954 with the hope of pinning the violence on subversive Egyptian groups, including at a movie theater ‏(which for some reason always eludes Israelis’ memory‏). The ring was caught. Two of its members were hanged.

Ben-Gurion was neither prime minister nor defense minister at the time. A committee of inquiry was unable to determine “who gave the order.” One key document was forged, without a doubt, and helped pin the blame on Lavon. Over the years, Lavon maintained his innocence, and demanded to have his name cleared. He did not behave in a “statesman-like” manner, but rather railed against the conspiracy he said the military had conspired against him. And in fact, he had been conspired against, in a manner that makes the latter-day Harpaz-Ashkenazi affair over a forged document look like small change.

As punishment, Ben-Gurion brought about the ouster of Lavon as head of the Histadrut labor federation. For his part, Eshkol and his coalition partners tried to bury the matter. However, even after his resignation, the Old Man remained preoccupied with the affair.

At the time, Ben-Gurion looked like someone who had lost his mind. At a certain stage, he was thrown out of Mapai, the party he had helped co-found. He went on badmouthing Eshkol. When Eshkol died, in 1969, and the president telephoned Ben-Gurion to inform him, the Old Man said unthinkable things and naturally did not attend the funeral.

‘Principled stance’

Shilon is very cautious. Sometimes he treats with utter seriousness Ben-Gurion’s “vision” and furious allegations. To his rivals at the time of the Lavon Affair, Shilon attributes “psychological” motives, even though he says that he “gets” them. But it is the “principled stance” that belongs to Ben-Gurion. There is no psychology here. But the truth is that the ex-prime minister did not have any principled stance on the constitutional matter here. The man who trampled on High Court of Justice rulings ‏(for example, in the matter of Ikrit and Biram, two Arab villages evacuated during the 1948 war, whose residents had been promised in vain that they would be allowed to return after the end of hostilities‏) began acting in the name of “the democracy and the judicial branch” as part of a campaign against the Mapai leadership. He was gripped with a hatred that only undignified old age can explain.

But only the first part of this fascinating biographical work is devoted to the scandals that became associated with Ben-Gurion in the initial years after his resignation. In 1970, he resigned from the Knesset, to which he had been re-elected in 1969 at the head of a small right-wing faction. Then he threw himself into writing his memoirs. Essentially, though he invested all of his effort in this, he did not really manage to write a memoir.

What tripped him up, Shilon says, was his stubborn adherence to the recorded minutes and summaries he copied from his diaries. The truth is crueler than that: He simply was incapable of writing a memoir. Ben-Gurion was a statesman who wished to grant historic significance to his actions. But determing the historic significance requires historians and writers.

The former prime minister did not know how to write. He did not read fine literature. He did not listen to music. He was not interested in art. Suffice it to compare him to other leaders, even his contemporaries, to see just how mired he was solely in the experience of founding a state and building a nation with the help of myths. Nothing concrete interested Ben-Gurion, not even the suffering of human beings. The people he met were symbols. If they were soldiers, he wanted to know where their parents came from; if they were officers, they reminded him of heroes from the Bible.

His writing was intellectually impoverished. It was filled with biblical cliches and attempts “to be original” with all kinds of odd interpretations of the Bible as actual history. At some point, in the personality-cult era, he was said to have read Plato in the original Greek, but even if this was true, he wasn’t exactly brilliant in his understanding of the great philosopher.

Nevertheless, it is this part of Shilon’s book, the part that deals with the writing of the memoirs, that is the beautiful and sad part of it. Here, Shilon can go back with the help of Ben-Gurion’s recollection to earlier periods in his life, including when he met Paula, his wife, her tremendous concern for him, her death, and also the attempt by an old flame, from his early days in the country, to reconnect with him in his widower years. His stubborn refusal arouses great curiosity.

The description of Ben-Gurion’s loneliness in his final years also gives some sense of the nature of the political figures in the picture. He worshiped Dayan and forgave him everything, but Dayan did not devote to the Old Man even 1 percent of the attention he lavished on his antiquities. Ben-Gurion’s bodyguards urged all sorts of figures to come visit him at Sde Boker. He remained alone.

It is touching how Ben-Gurion tried, at the end of his life, to get closer to Golda Meir, after having been “disappointed” with her in the days of the Lavon Affair. Meir, very much contrary to the way leftists described her prior to the Yom Kippur War, when she was prime minister, appears here, as she does in other places, too, as a humane and heartwarming figure.

The last decade of Ben-Gurion’s life is the last decade of our “pioneer” lives. His burial place is certainly one of the most beautiful spots in the country. In that choice he made no mistake.

Shalom Buchbinder / Kibbutz Sde Boker archive