Israel’s Forgotten Prime Minister Finally Arrives in America

Moshe Sharett’s tenure in the ‘50s was racked by clashes with David Ben-Gurion’s allies, who pushed for an aggressive defense policy. It’s all in Sharett’s diary, now out in English

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Moshe Sharett with David Ben-Gurion, at Sde Boker.
Moshe Sharett with David Ben-Gurion, at Sde Boker. Credit: GPO
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON — From 1953 to 1955, Israel faced deadly terror attacks on all its borders, secretly negotiated with Egypt over potential diplomatic relations, and hosted the first visit to the country by a foreign leader, Burmese Prime Minister U Nu.

The prime minister in those days might not be a household name to non-Israelis, Moshe Sharett, but his diary is now finally out in English. It’s a project of his son Yaakov Sharett, a journalist and author, and Neil Caplan, a Canadian historian who has written extensively on early Zionist history and Israel’s first decade.

The three volumes in English, published last month by Indiana University Press, follow two decades of translation and editing work. The diary came out in Hebrew decades ago.

Sharett was prime minister, Israel’s second, for nearly two years before resigning amid tensions with David Ben-Gurion, his predecessor and eventual successor after the 1955 election. Sharett remained foreign minister for a few months before his rivalry with the Old Lion got him removed.

Sharett’s tenure was racked by clashes with the young country’s military leadership and supporters of his political nemesis Ben-Gurion, who pushed for an aggressive defense policy, in contrast to Sharett’s more cautious approach and preference for diplomacy.

Sharett was meticulous in his diary, documenting his dilemmas as the leader of a small and vulnerable country, his daily workload, and his power struggles with the military leaders.

A great writer

Caplan told Haaretz that Sharett was in many respects a “forgotten prime minister.”

“I think that people who are interested in the history of Israel can benefit a lot from a document that was written by one of the main players in the dramas of Israel’s early years,” Caplan says. He considers Sharett “one of the pillars of Israel’s early leadership: clearly a junior partner next to Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann” – Israel’s first president – “but still a member of that very small group.”

The diary, Caplan says, “brings to life personalities and events from a different perspective than what you find in most history books. It’s very detailed and fine-tuned. Sharett was a great writer and he doesn’t just provide a dry description. As a reader, you really get into the atmosphere. You see his frustration with Ben-Gurion, his resentment towards Golda Meir, his suspicion of Moshe Dayan – you suddenly see these historical figures as real human beings.”

Sharett penned his diary in his apartment mostly at night after long and often miserable workdays. “It feels, when you read it, that the diary was a form of therapy through writing for him,” Caplan says. In some pages, Sharett noted that he was writing as late as 2 A.M.

A cabinet meeting with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, 1949.Credit: David Elran / GPO

“It’s a very personal document,” Caplan adds. “He vents, he expresses his feelings. From what we know, he told very few people in real time that he was writing it.”

The three volumes have some gaps during which Sharett was either too busy or apparently not in the mood for writing. Those holes have been filled by minutes and notes collected by Yaakov Sharett from Israeli archives.

“You can clearly see through the diary his work overload,” Caplan says. “He documents how his workday begins very early in the morning, and really doesn’t end at any given point. There is an endless flow of correspondence he needs to sign, decisions he needs to make, meetings he has to attend.”

Elusive vacation

One anecdote Caplan mentions in that regard is Sharett’s description of being sucked into a minor but potentially explosive military crisis on one of Israel’s borders – while on a rare family vacation.

“He’s in the Weizmann Institute, visiting with his family, trying to relax, and some sheep get stolen from a kibbutz on the border, and he’s trying to stop the incident from turning into a full escalation,” Caplan says. “He intervenes with the UN to get the sheep returned, and pressures the [army] not to respond; the whole thing goes on for pages. It shows what kind of fires he had to put out.”

Caplan says that while Ben-Gurion and other senior Israeli officials during that period wrote diaries, no surviving tome is as detailed, personal and literary as Sharett’s. “It goes well beyond what you find in many diaries – a list of meetings and appointments, some personal notes, an original thought here and there,” Caplan says. “It’s very descriptive and well crafted.”

Caplan first read the diary in Hebrew during a research visit to Israel in the ‘80s. A decade later, he bumped into Yaakov Sharett at an academic conference in Jerusalem. Their conversation landed the Canadian an invitation to the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society, a Tel Aviv nonprofit group – ironically located on Ben-Gurion Boulevard, Caplan notes. During that visit, he asked Sharett’s son why the diary had never been published in English.

“Yaakov Sharett asked me if I’d be interested in working with him on this project, and I readily agreed,” Caplan says. “When I returned home from that visit, I began working on my first batch of text from the diary.”

Caplan insisted that the writings be released in their entirety, based on his view that Sharett was one of Israel’s founding fathers. Caplan says he and Yaakov Sharett felt they were “releasing Moshe Sharett from his Hebrew prison” into the world of English readers.

Asked if the work on the diary convinced him to pick a side in the political battle between Sharett and Ben-Gurion, Caplan said that “Sharett had weaknesses and flaws as a leader, but I learned to appreciate the moral force driving him as a political leader, an extraordinarily talented statesman and a sensitive human being – a rarity on today’s political landscape.”

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