Ben-Gurion: A Political Life
By Shimon Peres and David Landau
Schocken, 240 pages, $25.95
The most revealing conversation that Shimon Peres ever had with his mentor, David Ben-Gurion, was perhaps his first. Peres was a young activist in Ha’Noar Ha’Oved, the Labor Zionist youth movement, when he asked the powerful and charismatic chairman of the Jewish Agency for a lift up the coast to Haifa from Tel Aviv. They spent most of the ride in silence, but then, just as they were approaching their destination, Ben-Gurion decided, out of nowhere, to tell the young man why he preferred Lenin to Trotsky. This was, for sure, a surprising admission. Trotsky was the fiery Jewish revolutionary filled with ideological fervor to match that of the Zionists of Ben-Gurion’s youth. “Lenin was Trotsky’s inferior in terms of intellect,” Ben-Gurion explained. But Lenin had a quality that Trotsky never possessed: “He was decisive.”
The secret of Ben-Gurion’s leadership was, as legions of mythologizers have pointed out, his willingness to be — to borrow a recent leader’s inelegant but apt expression — the decider. In that conversation with Peres, Ben-Gurion revealed that his annoyance with Trotsky stemmed from the revolutionary’s position on the Brest-Litovsk peace talks between the Russians and Germans to end their part of the fighting in World War I. Trotsky wanted to implement a policy that was known as “no war-no peace,” storming away from negotiations but also declaring an end to fighting. This waffling approach was, Ben-Gurion told Peres, “not statesmanship. That’s some sort of Jewish invention.” Lenin pursued peace, accepting its price in much lost territory, but he got to build his communist paradise. In short, he cut his losses and moved on — which is also not a bad way of describing how Ben-Gurion approached the building of the Jewish state. Ideology drove him, but he was more interested in putting stakes in the ground, even if they involved difficult sacrifice.
It is this vision of “the old man” that Peres offers in his new biography, written together with David Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz. For Peres, Ben-Gurion’s life can be reduced to “the decisions he made at critical junctures in Israel’s history” — chief among these being his acceptance of partition and the concept of two states, a serious compromise that Peres believes ensured Israel’s founding.
Not long after that conversation in the car on the way to Haifa, Peres became the most eager and devoted of Ben-Gurion’s young acolytes — so much so that today, as president of the State of Israel at the age of 88, he still unabashedly refers to himself as a “Ben-Gurionist.” The book is filled with frequent dialogues between Landau and Peres, interludes that break up the story of Ben-Gurion’s life and save the narrative from a certain conventionality. In one, Landau asks Peres if he was ever “in private, critical of Ben-Gurion’s policies.” “No!” Peres answers, perishing the thought. “That’s almost impossible,” Landau responds in exasperation. “You’re a critical person by nature. You couldn’t have abnegated your entire personality.”
In this book, at least, Peres is quite willing to do that. He says nothing negative as he takes us through the stations of Ben-Gurion’s well-known life: his Polish origins in Plonsk; his first years in Ottoman-ruled Palestine; the building of a powerful political party for the Labor Zionist movement, through which he eventually ascends to the leadership of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency; the epic battles with Chaim Weizmann and Vladimir Jabotinsky (and then Menachem Begin), and the tough decisions of war and peace that came with the state’s founding, from securing arms for the War of Independence to German reparations to the pyrrhic victory of the Sinai Campaign and the exhausting Lavon Affair.