Israel's Great Debate

Pulmus hashilumim Moshe Sharett bema'arakhot hamasa umatan al heskem hashilumim migermania ("The Reparations Controversy: Moshe Sharett and the Reparations Controversy: Collected Documents) Edited by Yaakov Sharett, 973 pages, NIS 98.

This is the most interesting boring book I have read in the past few years. On the face of it, what could possibly be of interest in a book that is a collection of minutes from debates in the cabinet, Knesset, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and Mapai party institutions; original documents; correspondence; and entries from personal journals? There's little reason to think that "The Reparations Controversy" will become a best seller, yet I am certain that, without it, learned readers will be denied the best means of learning about the most dramatic, incisive, painful debate ever held in Israel.

The German-Israeli reparations agreement of 1952, which led to West Germany paying some 3 billion marks to Israel over a 14-year period, as compensation for the costs of resettling 500,000 Holocaust survivors there after the war, as well as for stolen property, still raises questions of intense national and personal interest: How could Israel have survived, conducted its affairs and developed without the money from the reparations, which enabled it, inter alia, to absorb within a short period of time millions of penniless immigrants? Would it have managed to handle this major task or would it have collapsed under the weight of its fundamental obligations to its citizens, especially new immigrants? Second, if the government of today had been in power then, would it have been able to sign the agreement?

I ask this not necessarily because of a difference in moral stance between the two coalitions, but rather because of the different quality of leadership that prevailed then, a quality that is steadily becoming scarcer and scarcer. David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett were made of different stuff than their successors. Third, where would any of us have stood in this debate? None can swear, I certainly cannot, what position they would have taken.

Ben-Gurion (who was prime minister until 1954, and then again from 1955 until 1963) and Sharett (foreign minister from 1948 until 1956, and prime minister as well during Ben-Gurion's time in the desert) were on the same side in the litmus test of the reparations agreement, despite their differences of opinion and substantially contrary outlooks on matters of security and foreign affairs. Had there not been close cooperation between the two, the negotiations with the Germans would never have been launched and the agreement certainly would not have been signed.

Sharett (whose son edited this volume) was the one who made the major sacrifices and who led the debate without rolling his eyes heavenward; he recognized the reparations' vital importance to a young state that was barely breathing and the significance of the mission history had placed on his shoulders. In 1956, Ben-Gurion, who by then had returned to the Prime Minister's Office, dismissed Sharett as foreign minister, and the two went their separate ways.

At the time, Sharett's political legacy seemed orphaned and doomed to having no heirs. Ben-Gurion's heirs multiplied, filling the land, whereas Sharett had no successors, no disciples. As I read "The Reparations Controversy," I repeatedly thought about the way history's judgment is sometimes delayed. Considering the present situation, Sharett's disciples and spiritual heirs today appear to outnumber Ben-Gurion's disciples. Granted, the spiritual father, Sharett, the first dove in Israeli politics, is still considered a stepfather - as if it is neither proper nor pleasant to recognize him as a biological-ideological father. Nevertheless, his political moderation, and his belief that Israel would not ultimately be able to solve its problems with its neighbors through war, are enjoying a new lease on life after a prolonged death.

Even Ben-Gurion's most loyal disciple, President Shimon Peres, has been more of a Sharettist in recent years than a Ben-Gurionist, although he might find it difficult to admit this for sentimental and public-image reasons.

The self-confidence of fools

There were valid arguments on either side of the debate over the reparations. However, as usual in crucial, fateful debates, the hypocrites, not the Sadducees or the Pharisees, were the ones who were infuriating. Even more infuriating were the fools, whose foolishness was exceeded only by their self-confidence. I am not referring to the members of Maki, the representatives in Israel's parliament of the Israel Communist Party.

Meir Vilner, Shmuel Mikunis, Esther Vilenska and their colleagues had much to say in their condemnation of the reparations agreement with West Germany, but could find not one bad word to utter about East Germany, whose de-Nazification process was, in comparison, more of a zigag and more labored. Nor am I referring to Menachem Begin, who was then the leader of Herut, and his comrades, who nearly destroyed Israeli democracy's institutions and only at the last minute changed their minds and stopped their actions.

I am thinking, rather, of members of the Zionist left, and of the Mapai party, who perceived the shadows of mountains as mountains, who drew ghosts on the wall and all of whose predictions proved to be unfounded. Had they, like their colleagues, employed ethical and moral arguments, we could judge them less harshly. They sought, however, to impart to their arguments an air of sober-minded analysis, claiming to have their feet planted squarely on the ground of international reality. Their words have proven totally false and thus they must be judged severely.

On November 5, 1951, Yaakov Chazan of Mapam (United Workers Party) said in the Knesset: "Nazism is rearing its ugly head again in Germany, and our so-called Western 'friends' are nurturing that Nazism; they are resurrecting Nazi Germany.... Our army, the Israel Defense Forces, will be in the same camp as the Nazi army, and the Nazis will begin infiltrating here not as our most terrible enemies, but rather as our allies...."

Even Mapam was blinded by Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, the "Sun of the Nations." Yitzhak Ben-Aharon was particularly energetic in making predictions and deluding himself. At a session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in September 1952, Ben-Aharon, then a Mapam MK, stated, "I am not assuming that there are people who believe that Germany will pay a total of three billion marks, over a period of 12 years, and that this is no empty promise.... The Israeli government will obtain nothing but a piece of paper referring to three billion marks. And all this is only intended to mislead the public and claim the government has attained...."

Golda Meir was in favor and against, against and in favor, worrying about such questions as how to receive the money without signing, how to sign without meeting, how to meet without delivering a speech, how to deliver a speech without shaking hands, and a few other tricks meant to soothe one's conscience. Her central theme over more than two years of discussions was "a German is a German," and she never wearied of developing variations on this subject. At a session of Mapai's central committee in December 1951, she declared, "My position is absolutely resistant. In my eyes every German is a future Nazi German.... I am no longer prepared to distinguish between good and bad Germans. In my eyes, they are all the same...."

With the passage of time, did she begin thinking the same about Arabs.

Nor was this the major poets' finest hour. In September 1952, in the daily Davar, immediately following the signing, Nathan Alterman, who supported the agreement, wrote his regular "Seventh Column," perhaps one of the most contrived of all the columns he ever wrote. A week later, he wrote a piece castigating Sharett for "the overly lofty and overly crude rhetoric being heard in recent days from the mouths of those involved in formulating the agreement, which I believe is completely unnecessary."

Two weeks later, Sharett responded with a courageous, coherent article: Obviously, this political leader was not intimidated by the poet.

Sharett's battle during those years is a classic example of diplomacy and leadership, waged without apologies and without deviousness, without self-pity and without feelings of self-sacrifice. He was certainly not an individual to shirk responsibility for his actions nor was he prepared to fashion an agreement by employing all sorts of ruses. Sharett looked the past and future straight in the eye.

"There is another thing I want to bring to the attention of the members of the cabinet: We are a state.... All the authors writing articles against negotiations with Germany live in a Diaspora reality, not in the reality of a state," he said at a session of the government.

Normally, you would not expect to find great "scoops" in a collection of documents that are neither confidential nor classified. Nonetheless, I did find in this book a piece of information that I, at least, was unaware of. At an early stage in the discussions, as early as February 1951, Sharett linked the compensation Israel would receive from Germany with the compensation Israel would one day give the Arabs: "If we receive compensation from the Germans, it will enable us to make generous compensation to the Arabs. If we demanded compensation from the Germans, we cannot ignore our obligation to pay compensation to the Arabs."