Thursday, July 14, 2016

74 - Note on an Exchange between Abba Eban and David Ben-Gurion, December 1955

            Abba Eban gives a colorful summary of the  aftermath of Israel's attack on Syria in his 1977 Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1977), 198-99:

            It was a shocking spectacle of carnage with very little attempt to give world opinion any warning of its necessity or dimensions. This action at Kinneret naturally killed any chance of a favorable reply to our arms request from the US, even if such a  reply was in the offing.
            The international community was in furor and Sharett was plunged into depression. Golda Meir, the Minister of Labor, reached New York that night for a speaking tour and confirmed that there had not been any consultation with the Foreign Ministry or with other ministers. Ben Gurion had merely conducted a consultation with himself. Sharett thought that, at best, Ben Gurion's timing had shown indifference to his own diplomatic efforts, which, after all, had been ordered by the Cabinet. At worst Sharett seemed to believe that there was something subconsciously deliberate in an action which deprived him of a slender hope of a personal diplomatic triumph. Back in Israel he was to say with some hyperbole, "Not even the devil could have chosen a worse time context for such an action."
            My own feeling was that whatever remnants existed of Sharett's ability to work with Ben Gurion went up in flames in Galilee that night. [- - -] I thought that an error of judgment had been made. I said so frankly in a long letter to Ben Gurion in January 1956 after we had gone through the routine of discussion and condemnation in the Security Council. I got an immediate reply through his secretary saying: "I fully understand your  concern about the Kinneret operation. I must confess that I, too, began to have my doubts about the wisdom of it. But when I read the full text of your brilliant defense of our action in the Security Council, all my doubts were set at rest. You have convinced me that we were right, after all."

Eban regarded this "somewhat mischievous reply as being as close to repentance as I was likely to secure" (ibid., 199). 

             In a later autobiography (Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes [New York: Putnam's, 1992 /London: Jonathan Cape, 1993], 248-49), Eban describes the episode slightly differently:

            The incident took place in early December 1955. Although there were no Israeli casualties and little damage, Ben-Gurion ordered a massive attack on Syrian positions, leaving seventy-three Syrians and six Israeli dead. The scenes of  carnage were horrific. This disproportionate action was criticized in Israel itself [ - - -] and also because Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett was working with me in Washington, where we awaited a response to our request for permission to buy jet aircraft. James Reston of The New York Times had informed me that the response was not going to be negative. Our attack at Kinneret was inevitably followed by a deferment of the American response on our arms request. [- - -] [T]his decision by Ben-Gurion was fiercely resented by Sharett. "Only the devil could have conceived such an outrage," he cried. He  expressed his views to me and others in a form that could only be interpreted as a suspicion that Ben-Gurion had sanctioned or initiated the Kinneret attack for the purpose of denying Sharett a personal victory in the quest for arms.
            I ignored these evidences of domestic turmoil and wrote indignantly to Ben-Gurion protesting the decision to embark on a sensational military assault to a minor provocation at the very moment when the United States seemed about to accept Israel's case on the arms balance.
            His reply was breathtaking. "I myself thought," he wrote, "that we had made a grave mistake, but when I read your great speech in the Security Council defending my decision I concluded that we had acted correctly. I have nothing more to add...."
            This mischievous response was the nearest that Ben-Gurion would ever come in the direction of either humor or penitence.
            Eban's recollections may not be 100% accurate when compared with documentary evidence of the period. In a letter addressed to Eban dated December 19, Ben-Gurion wrote, inter alia:

            I read your cable of criticism and grievance on the subject of Kinneret, and I regret that from time to time your work, which is very close to our hearts, is marred by difficulties and grief. When our neighbors send saboteurs and murderers into our territory, we have first to appeal to the UN observers, but if they don't succeed in carrying out their task  because of inability or lack of interest, we must act ourselves in order to protect the life and security of our citizens. I knew in advance that public opinion would not grasp quickly the essence of the conflict, its importance and gravity, as well as the need to defend our borders. Justifying our action is not easy. It needs a big and continuous effort, and we should not be deterred by the first hostile reaction if justice, wisdom and belief are on our side. This was the situation in respect of the Kinneret operation. Perhaps its timing can be criticized but, to my regret, it was decided by the fishing season on the lake. It is my opinion that one cannot disregard the difficulty of explaining [hasbara] as well as public reaction stemming out of ignorance, but if we are to be deterred by this difficulty, I doubt whether we can sustain the existence of the state, settle the south, guard the borders and secure our citizens' lives. I am not confident that I will convince you, but I find it incumbent on me to explain matters to you, for your personal "public opinion" is very, very important to me.

A 3-page typed draft of this letter (with some handwritten changes), dated December 19, 1955, is in the BGA, and is reproduced (without the handwritten changes) in David Ben-Gurion: Rosh ha-Memshala ha-Rishon: Mivhar Te'udot (1947-1963)  [The First Prime Minister: Selected Documents], eds. Yemima Rosenthal and Eli Shaltiel, (Jerusalem: Israel State Archives, 1996), doc.75. Ben-Gurion subsequently read out this letter at the Mapai Political Committee meeting of December 28 and sent copies to Israel Embassies in Paris, London and Rome (DFPI 10, doc.529). Eban composed several drafts in reply to Ben-Gurion, but it is unclear whether any of them was actually sent. Eban's draft replies are in ISA FM 130.02/3/5936/57. See also: Sharett Diary entry for December 25; Morris, Israel's Border Wars, 367-68.