What Turned Ben-Gurion From a Hawk Into a Dove?

Explanation for the amazing change lies in developments following the Sinai Campaign, though there is a specific date on which the turnaround occurred.

Ami Gluska
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Ami Gluska

Toward the end of May 1967, the Egyptian army had deployed in eastern Sinai, the Straits of Tiran were blocked to Israeli shipping and transport of oil to Eilat, the reserves were called up, the economy was paralyzed, shelters were dug in backyards and public parks were readied to serve as temporary cemeteries. Great excitement prevailed in the whole Arab world. Fiery speeches and Cairo Radio broadcasts informed the masses that the end of the "Zionist entity" was near. On the Israeli home front, the sense of isolation and existential foreboding only grew.

Israel at the time was ruled by a moderate coalition headed by Levi Eshkol, who was a wise and level-headed prime minister and defense minister, but also a worn-out, fatherly type who lacked the charismatic leadership necessary to answer the collective psychological needs in a time of emergency. The government's stock was already at an unprecedented low, as a result of the severe economic recession and a worsening security situation, which led, among other things, to a wave of emigration from the country.

Israeli army convoy with Egyptian POWs, near El Arish in Sinai on third day of 1967 War.Credit: Getty Images

When the security crisis erupted in the middle of May, Israelis looked, on the one hand, to former Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion, and on the other, to the Israel Defense Forces. At that time, the "Old Man" was the leader of the Rafi faction (the Hebrew acronym for Israel Workers List ) - a middle-sized opposition party, which was harshly critical of the government and its head. The IDF was the nation's darling, immune to criticism, protected by draconic censorship and basking in the aura of a victorious army. It was headed then by Yitzhak Rabin, a charismatic and popular chief of staff, and by a talented young General Staff, imbued with fighting spirit, consisting mainly of veterans of the Palmach pre-state underground.

Ben-Gurion and the General Staff held opposite opinions regarding the measures that should be taken. The army pressed with all its might for a preemptive attack for fear the advantage of taking the initiative would go to the enemy - while Ben-Gurion said military action should be conditioned on the completely unlikely agreement of "the friendly countries [the United States, Britain and France] and their commitment to supply arms to Israel."

Most of the cabinet ministers tended to agree with the Old Man. The government did all it could via diplomatic channels to avoid a war, despite the army's determined stance. When the officers' pressure increased to the point of fear of a putsch, Ben-Gurion came to the defense of the government. He called a press conference and declared: "The army in a democratic country does not act according to its own understanding, nor the understanding of the military commanders, but rather according to the understanding of the civil government and upon its instructions."

The state of emergency, the crisis in relations between the military and political echelons and the loss of the public's trust in Eshkol led to feverish political activity, on the part of the National Religious Party (at that time a "snow-white" dovish party ), Rafi and Gahal (the Herut-Liberal bloc ), which was intended to replace Eshkol with Ben-Gurion. But the efforts of the NRP interior minister Moshe Shapira (who was strongly opposed to going to war ) and Menachem Begin to convince Eshkol to step down in favor of Ben-Gurion, Begin's bitter enemy, were in vain.

On May 28, in response to a stern communication from U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, Eshkol's government decided almost unanimously (17 to 1 ), contrary to the IDF's position, to wait for three weeks in order to enable continuation of the international effort to open the Straits of Tiran, and thus prevent a war. But exactly one week later, on June 4, the government (which in the meantime had been reinforced with ministers from Rafi and Gahal, Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin, respectively, and had become the "national unity government ") decided to go to war immediately.

The next day, on the morning of June 5, when Ben-Gurion heard about the start of the fighting, he wrote in his journal: "I believe this is a grave mistake."

Tipping the balance

Ben-Gurion was mistaken: The government's decision was the inevitable outcome of failure on the diplomatic front; exacerbation of the threat to Israel when Jordan joined the military alliance and agreed to allow the Iraqi army to enter its territory to reach the front with Israel; and the lifting of the American veto on an Israeli first strike. Contributing to this, no doubt, were the strong opinions of the heads of the army, the change in the makeup of the cabinet and the fact that the defense portfolio was given to Dayan. The Jordanian move, however, was mainly what tipped the balance.

It was with good reason that the decision was passed in the cabinet with such a sweeping majority, and it was with reason that it earned general public support - even from committed peace-seekers in the Knesset like Uri Avnery and Moshe Sneh. There is no doubt: Israel's "grave mistake" was not going to war, but rather what it did after the war.

Since when had Ben-Gurion, the shaper of Israel's security doctrine, turned from a hawk into a dove? How did Ben-Gurion change his mind; the same Ben-Gurion who in the 1950s upheld a militant retribution policy against Arab infiltration and terror; the same Ben-Gurion who ejected Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett in June 1956 from the cabinet because of his consistent moderation and his opposition to a "preventive war" in June 1956; the same Ben-Gurion who in October of that same year signed a secret agreement with representatives of the governments of Britain and France on jointly waging war on Egypt, and in effect presented his government with a fait accompli?

The explanation for the amazing change in the Old Man lies in the aggregate of developments that followed the Sinai Campaign, though there is a specific date on which the turnaround occurred: November 8, 1956, a date Ben-Gurion noted in his journals as "a day of horrors."

Just one day earlier, Ben-Gurion stood on the Knesset platform and declared that the 1949 armistice lines between Israel and Egypt had "given up the ghost." On the preceding day, at a victory rally in Sharm el-Sheikh, to mark the end of the fighting, Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan read out an enthusiastic letter of congratulations sent to the IDF from the prime minister and defense minister (the same man, Ben-Gurion ), with a promise to annex Sharm el-Sheikh to the State of Israel, to the effect that "Yotvat, also known as Tiran, will once again be part of the Third Kingdom of Israel."

Moreover, a week before the start of the Sinai Campaign, in a secret meeting in Paris, Ben-Gurion set forth for his colleague French Premier Guy Mollet his vision of "a new Middle East," in which the borders in the region would be redrawn, the Kingdom of Jordan would be dismantled, the East Bank of the Jordan River would be handed over to Iraq and the West Bank would be handed over to Israeli control.

Now, at midnight, Ben-Gurion sat in front of the Israel Radio microphone and dolefully informed the citizens of Israel that the IDF would withdraw from the territories it had conquered from Egypt. This was indeed "a day of horrors": Britain and France, whose armies had already landed at Port Said, had surrendered to the threats from the Kremlin and the massive pressure from the White House and had stopped Operation Musketeer, which was aimed at restoring to them control of the Suez Canal.

A blunt cable to Ben-Gurion from the premier of the Soviet Union, Nikolai Bulganin, included an implied threat and expressed doubt regarding Israel's continued existence. In New York, United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold demanded in no uncertain terms that Israel withdraw immediately, and a resolution on sanctions was in the air. Washington, too, expressed its fury in a stern and uncompromising demand for withdrawal. An atmosphere of emergency and international crisis prevailed.

The terrifying impression left by the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolt by Soviet tanks just a short time earlier was having its effect. There were more and more reports of deliveries of bombers and a flow of Soviet "volunteers" to Syria. Ben-Gurion surrendered - "very pale, angry as a wounded lion," as Dayan described him.

A new doctrine

During the subsequent three months, as the IDF was withdrawing from Sinai, Ben-Gurion was still trying to save even a shred of territorial achievement in the Gaza Strip or the Gulf of Aqaba, but in vain. His conclusion was clear: There is no point in expanding the borders of the state of Israel; the days of "preventive war" were over. Even a preventive strike was liable to cause Israel to face a hostile international front that would force Israel to return every inch. The dream of the expansive "Third Kingdom of Israel" was shelved.

The hawk donned the wings of a dove. Security moderation, preserving the status quo and effective deterrence became Ben-Gurion's defense goals. In the fall of 1957, an agreement was signed with France that engendered the nuclear reactor in Dimona. The building of the facility was aimed at creating deterrence by means of "superior force," which would cause the Arabs to fear war and compel them to come to terms with Israel's existence.

All his life Ben-Gurion feared for Israel's survival, and now a nostrum for it had been found, an alternative to an initiated war forced upon the country with its narrow dimensions. Ten years later, on the eve of the Six-Day War, the reactor (according to foreign reports ) was very close to the stage of being productive, but had not yet crossed that threshold.

Ben-Gurion's moderation was clearly manifested in his relinquishing of any territorial ambitions after the Sinai Campaign. Mordechai Gur, who in the early 1960s was head of the Operations Division at the General Staff, asked to present him the operational plan on file for occupying the West Bank, but Ben-Gurion refused even to listen.

In an interview with journalist (and later MK ) Geula Cohen on May 12, 1967, less than a month before the war broke out, Ben-Gurion was asked what he would tell his grandson when he asked what the borders of the homeland are. He replied: "The borders of your homeland, my grandson, are the borders of the State of Israel as they are today. That's it."

Liar and coward

During the six month before the Six-Day War, Ben-Gurion severely criticized his successor as premier, Levi Eshkol, for actions by the air force and the ground forces, which in his opinion had contributed to a dangerous escalation of tensions. On May 21, 1967, a week after the crisis erupted, Chief of Staff Rabin came to Ben-Gurion asking for advice. Cold water was thrown on him, as Ben-Gurion gave him an earful of harsh criticism of those IDF actions and of the call-up of the reserves, even though the call-up was still partial at that time. Rabin left beleaguered and depressed.

The next day Ben-Gurion noted in his journal: "[Gershom] Schocken and Avraham Schweitzer [Haaretz editor and editorial board member] came to me for a conversation."

Ben-Gurion lashed out to them about Eshkol, "Who tried to exploit security for election purposes ..., attacked a non-hostile Jordan and destroyed a civilian village [the Samua action in November of 1966], contrary to the position over all the years that turned every retributive action in Syria into a kind of war ... as a lying and cowardly prime minister?"

Schocken went back to Ben-Gurion on May 27 and showed him an opinion piece supporting a first strike against Egypt. "I told him succinctly that I did not agree with his article," wrote Ben-Gurion in his journal. He opposed going to war for two reasons: fear for the fate of the reactor in Dimona, which everyone considered a top target for the Egyptian air force, and the certainty that international pressure would immediately force Israel to withdraw from any territory it occupied.

Ben-Gurion was not alone in assuming Israel would be compelled to return any territory it occupied. It was also the government and the IDF General Staff's initial assumption. In its decision to send the army to war, the government declared that it wanted only to "release Israel from the noose tightening around it."Upon the outbreak of the fighting, Defense Minister Dayan, said: "We have no aims of conquest."

The government, which on June 5 discussed whether to occupy (Begin called this "liberate" ) the Old City of Jerusalem and if not, to whom to return it, was very angry at King Hussein (for having joined Egypt and Syria ). Interior Minister Shapira declared: "To Jordan we will not return it. To the world, yes" (by which he meant internationalization ). Prime Minister Eshkol said: "In the Jordanian sector we are going with the foreknowledge that we will have to leave [East] Jerusalem and the West Bank." Defense Minister Dayan, in response to a question from GOC Central Command Uzi Narkiss, replied: "Who needs all that Vatican?"

A pinch of salt

Many years have gone by and soon it will be 50 years since that war, the jubilee. Huge changes have taken place on the ground, and there have been UN resolutions, diplomatic initiatives, peace agreements, wars and terror attacks, and repeated vain attempts to arrive at a resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Ben-Gurion's basic assumption, and that of the Eshkol government, to the effect that the "world" would not accept the expansion of Israel's borders and would demand its return to the lines of June 4, 1967, (with agreed-upon changes ) as the basis of any agreement, has not been refuted.

Ben-Gurion and Israel's entire political leadership before the Six-Day War would have adopted such an arrangement joyfully. Prime ministers of Israel during recent decades have agreed to it with reservations. And yet, 1967 has never been the constitutive trauma of the Palestinian people. In the Palestinian national ethos, both here and in the diaspora, the "anchor" was and has remained 1948. It is doubtful that at this stage in history there is a magic formula that will satisfy the Palestinians' demand for "justice" and with which Israel will be able to live. Sixty-three years after 1948 and 44 years after the Six-Day War, this is apparently the bleak truth.

The 1949 cease-fire lines, known today as "the 1967 borders," were Ben-Gurion's handiwork. They reflected the State of Israel's victory and the expansion of its territory from the 55 percent of Mandatory Palestine allocated to it in the UN partition resolution of 1947 to 78 percent after the War of Independence. Ben-Gurion believed it was impossible to obtain more, and in a debate in the Knesset about the cease-fire with Jordan, he adumbrated the diplomatic and demographic reasons why he had decided to be content with this. Among other things, he said: "We could, militarily ... have occupied all of the western land of Israel. And then what would happen? We would become one state. But that state would want to be democratic, there would be general elections - and we would be in the minority. Thus, when the question arose of the wholeness of the land without a Jewish state, or a Jewish state without the wholeness of the land, we chose a Jewish state without the wholeness of the land."

Ben-Gurion's approach to the question of the borders was usually realistic and sober. The glib statements attributed to him - "Oom-shmoom," dismissing the United Nations, ("Oom" being the Hebrew Acronym for "United Nations"), and "It's not important what the gentiles say, it's important what the Jews do" - should be taken with a big pinch of salt. Ben-Gurion's panicked order to the IDF during Operation Horev in December 1948 to beat a fast retreat from Sinai, the withdrawal from all the territories occupied by the IDF in the Sinai Campaign and his position during the "waiting period" in 1967 against going to war without backing from the powers - all testified to his understanding of the limits of Israel's strength and his predominant consideration for world opinion.

Dr. Ami Gluska is the author of the book "The Israeli Military And the Origins of the 1967 War: Government, Armed Forces and Defense Policy 1963-1967" (Routledge, 2006 ).



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