David Ben-Gurion's Diary Invites a Rethink of Benzion Netanyahu's Extreme Zionist Image

‘People think the Holocaust ended,’ said Benzion Netanyahu in 2009 to Channel 2’s political correspondent Amit Segal. ‘The Holocaust didn’t end. It continues all the time.’

Benzion Netanyahu, who died this week, was considered a very zealous Zionist; in the 1940s he worked with Ze'ev Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist party. It is customary to say that his opinions prevented him from being accepted as a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and that even Menachem Begin did not take him with him to the Knesset, because Netanyahu was too extreme for his taste. But things that David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary apparently call for a reassessment of Netanyahu's extremist image.

In 1956, Netanyahu proposed that Ben-Gurion employ him as a public diplomacy (hasbara ) functionary, in the guise of a history professor, at one of the universities in America. He sought to work under the auspices of the Prime Minister's Office, and tailor his activity to its policy.

Benzion Netanyahu
Avi Ohayon

A meeting between the two took place on Friday, November 11, at the close of one of the most dramatic weeks in Ben-Gurion's life: In response to heavy pressure, accompanied by threats from the Soviet Union, the premier was forced to order the evacuation of the territories that the Israel Defense Forces had conquered less than two weeks earlier, during the Sinai Campaign.

Netanyahu and Ben-Gurion knew each other. In July 1945 Netanyahu offered Ben-Gurion - then head of the Jewish Agency - to work on bringing the Revisionist Party back into the World Zionist Organization. Ben-Gurion made their return conditional upon the disbanding of the Irgun, the Revisionists' armed militia. Netanyahu, who came to Ben-Gurion accompanied with some of his colleagues, told Ben-Gurion that during World War II, he had overseen the propaganda work in the United States of the New Zionist Organization (the NZO ), the group founded by the Revisionist Zionists. He assured him that he had not worked with the radical faction of the Revisionist movement, headed by Hillel Kook.

By 1956, Netanyahu was working as the editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica. According to the prime minister's diary, on this occasion as well he emphasized that he had not cooperated with Kook. He told of a series of meetings with American statesmen, among them Dean Acheson, who had been secretary of state in the Truman administration. It seems that he spoke with them primarily about the danger of Soviet penetration of the Middle East. According to Ben-Gurion's diary, Netanyahu told him that when the state was founded, he had left the Revisionist Party.

And then, Netanyahu came to the heart of the matter, as Ben-Gurion wrote: "He believes that our public-relations mechanism in the U.S. is weak and he is offering his services. He will get a year's leave from the encyclopedia. His cover will be that he will be lecturing at some university. His subject is Jewish history. He wrote a book on Abarbanel. We must set up a non-Jewish team: from among the most important authors, journalists, congressmen. We need to acquire those who hate us - or at least make them neutral. For the first half a year we might be called upon to provide about a quarter of a million dollars. Later he will find money in America itself. There is no value in appearances by Zionist Jews. American figures are needed, and it is necessary that it not be felt in the least that this entity has ties to the state of Israel, but in practice it has to answer to the Prime Minister's Office, because propaganda has to adapt itself to policy."

Ben-Gurion told his visitor that he did not agree with all of his comments. "A great deal has been done in terms of rallying public support," he reportedly said, "and in fact the U.S. government has assisted us a great deal since the day the state was established," but he concurred that propaganda must be strengthened. He promised to give him an answer within a week. After Netanyahu left, Ben-Gurion immersed himself in Spinoza's writings about fear.

Ben-Gurion's diary does not tell us whether the proposed mission was carried out. In those years Netanyahu frequently spent time in the U.S., and in the 1960s he became a lecturer in Judaic Studies at Cornell University.

In June 1968 Netanyahu paid another visit to Ben-Gurion, by then in retirement, and once again proposed a plan for Israeli propaganda in America. We must take action against the American left, he said referring to what was then called the New Left. Almost all are communist Jews, Netanyahu told Ben-Gurion, and once more proposed concentrating Israeli propaganda on the danger of Soviet penetration of the Mideast: If the Soviet Union takes over the Middle East, it will control the United Nations, he suggested arguing, and praised two of the Israel supporters he had found on the right flank of the Republican Party: Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.

Netanyahu did not speak about money this time; in fact he did not even offer his services. Nevertheless, it seems that Ben-Gurion valued his suggestion: He sent him to two cabinet ministers, Moshe Haim Shapira and Yosef Sapir, and promised to try to arrange a meeting for him with Moshe Dayan. Ben-Gurion liked to cite in his diary words of praise he heard from his interlocutors, and so he wrote, following his talk with Netanyahu: "He extols my conversation half a year ago on television, that I had the courage to say that it is possible that the Arabs will be victorious in the future and annihilate us." Netanyahu himself believed that to his dying day. "People think the Holocaust ended," he said in 2009 to Channel 2's political correspondent Amit Segal. "The Holocaust didn't end. It continues all the time."

The meetings with Netanyahu that Ben-Gurion documented in his diary do not prove that the father of the current prime minister did indeed operate in America as a covert public-relations agent for a Labor Zionist government, but the praise he gave to Ben-Gurion reflects a proximity of thought. Ben-Gurion as well always feared the state's destruction; he too, like Benzion Netanyahu, thought that coexistence between Israel and its neighbors was possible, if at all, only on a basis of deterrence.