Posts Tagged Israel

Ben-Gurion and land for (true) peace

In the film Ben-Gurion: Epilogue, Israel’s founder is made to seem eager to exchange territory for peace. That was in 1968, when he was 82 and long out of power. We see him say this to an interviewer: “If I could choose between peace and all the territories that we conquered last year [in the Six-Day War], I would prefer peace.” (Excluded: Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.)

In my April essay at Mosaic Magazine, I showed that Ben-Gurion had a very different take on territory back in May 1948, when he declared Israel’s independence from the pinnacle of his political and analytical power. But what about the later Ben-Gurion?

In my “last word” in the month-long discussion of my essay, I track his thinking on Israel’s borders, from the later months of 1948 through 1972, the year before his death. It turns out that the quote in the film, torn from its context, is utterly misleading. I restore the context, and you may be surprised to discover where the “Old Man” ended up.

In the course of telling that story, I touch on a few of the most interesting points raised by my distinguished respondents: Efraim Karsh, Benny Morris, and Avi Shilon. I’m grateful for their insights.

“Israel’s Situation Today Looks Much as Ben-Gurion Envisioned It,” my “last word”—read it right here.

Ben-Gurion in his study

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    Ben-Gurion and borders

    David Ben-Gurion at the Western Wall, June 11, 1967As I showed in this month’s essay at Mosaic Magazine, David Ben-Gurion made sure that in 1948, Israel declared statehood without specifying its borders. So just what future borders did Ben-Gurion have in mind? This has been the source of a running debate in Israel, as proponents of this or that set of borders invoke certain statements by Ben-Gurion, and downplay or ignore others.

    Avi Shilon is one of Israel’s most interesting younger historians, and is the author, inter alia, of the book Ben-Gurion: His Later Years in the Political Wilderness. Makers of the film Ben-Gurion: Epilogue credited that book with providing inspiration and background. In Shilon’s response to my Mosaic essay, he looks at Ben-Gurion’s pragmatic approach to Israel’s borders, and his preferences after 1967. I’ll have more to say on this issue in my “last word” next Monday. Read Shilon here.

    And just a footnote: last week, Israel’s Channel 10 began to broadcast journalist Raviv Drucker’s six-part series The Captains, on crucial decisions by Israeli prime ministers. Ben-Gurion is the subject of the first episode. Drucker builds up the May 12, 1948 session of the People’s Administration very dramatically. But even he has to accept the record. “Ben-Gurion wins,” goes Drucker’s narration. “There isn’t even a vote. It’s clear that he has a majority, and no one wants to go down in history as someone who voted against establishment of the state.” Indeed. Unfortunately, Drucker doesn’t mention the fateful vote that banished mention of the UN partition borders from the declaration. Too bad: as I showed, it was one of Ben-Gurion’s greatest coups.

    Photo: Ben Gurion at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, June 11, 1967. From the collection of Dan Hadani, National Library of Israel.

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      Efraim Karsh weighs in

      Efraim Karsh offers the second response to my Mosaic Magazine essay on the prelude to Israel’s declaration of statehood. He succinctly retells the famous saga of the clash between President Truman and his formidable secretary of state, George Marshall, on whether to recognize the Jewish state. Truman emerges as the hero. But there’s an interesting sequel: Truman was also the first president to issue a stiff threat to Israel. Perhaps I’ll tell that story on another occasion. Read Karsh here.

      David Ben-Gurion proclaims Israel's independenceSince Israel is primed to mark its 70th anniversary later this week, I’ll quickly tell one of the lesser-known stories about the declaration. The only moving picture camera at the May 14, 1948 ceremony at the Tel Aviv Museum (now Independence Hall) belonged to cinematographer Nathan Axelrod, who had a company that produced weekly newsreels. The Jewish Agency commissioned him at the last minute to film the great occasion.

      But he only had four minutes of film on hand, to cover a ceremony which was expected to last half an hour. So Ben-Gurion arranged to give Axelrod hand signals and nods at the most important points in the proceedings, so Axelrod would know when to roll the camera. After the ceremony, the Jewish Agency press handlers cut up the original negative into four parts, and sent them out to various news agencies, so that less than a minute of the original survives. Later, the sound (recorded separately) was overlaid with this fragment, but if you watch it, you’ll see that there’s no synchronization between Ben-Gurion’s lips and his words.

      (Avi Weissblei tells the story in his documentary film, A State Behind the Scenes, 2010.)

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        Benny Morris responds

        David Ben-Gurion and Benny MorrisBenny Morris, historian of Israel (and 1948 in particular), offers the first response to my essay at Mosaic Magazine on what happened (and didn’t) on the eve of Israel’s independence in May 1948. Morris: “While in 1948-49 Ben-Gurion was highly interested in expanding Israel’s borders beyond the confines of the territory allotted by the UN partition resolution, he also refrained from supporting the conquest of the whole Land of Israel.” In my final word, I’ll focus exactly on this issue. Read Morris here.

        (And I offer a special word of thanks to Morris: this is my third monthly essay at Mosaic Magazine to which he’s contributed a response. Always reliable, always interesting.)

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          The vote that really made Israel

          We’re fast approaching Israel’s 70th anniversary: David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948. (The 70th will be celebrated on April 19, according to the Hebrew calendar.) To mark the occasion, I’ve written an essay about the run-up to Israel’s independence. Do you know that there was a close vote in the Zionist proto-cabinet on May 12, 1948, on whether to declare independence? Sure, you’ve read about it in histories of Israel and biographies of Ben-Gurion. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but the evidence for that vote couldn’t be weaker.

          But another vote took place at that same session. It was a close one—five to four—and it had far-reaching consequences for the future of Israel. Although Ben-Gurion chalked it up as a triumph, it’s usually overlooked. I offer a full account in my essay, “The May 1948 Vote That Made the State of Israel,” at Mosaic Magazine. Read here.

          Ben-Gurion signs Israel’s declaration of independence, May 14, 1948. Holding the scroll: Moshe Shertok (Sharett). Between them, Avraham Rivkind.

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