Thursday, September 8, 2016

130 - Ben-Gurion Letter to Mapai Party Haverim, June 28, 1956

To the haverim,
            I have been aware of the mood of the haverim at the Central Committee’s meeting and of the mood of many citizens of Israel (as well as that of some friends abroad), who were confused by the personnel change that took place in the Foreign Ministry, and by the departure of M.S. from the Cabinet – which occurred without an adequate explanation, or even without any explanation at all. I well knew that this matter, both in Party discussions and at the Knesset, might indeed cause me some harm. Had I been motivated, first and foremost, by the stature of the PM in the eyes of the public, then I would have had no reason to hide anything from it. On the contrary, I would have had much interest in divulging the reasons and the motives to the public’s attention.
           The restrictions I have put on myself resulted from my maintaining respect of haverim with whom I have collaborated over many years. It is with a clean conscience that I can leave my responsibility for the personnel changes in the Foreign Ministry to the judgement of the people in days to come. No fault will be found with me for not making this change beforehand. It is possible that I took into consideration too much the feelings of friendship and comradely collaboration in state matters.
           Since 1933 I have been responsible for the outlining of the political course of the Zionist movement and the yishuv as head of the Zionist Executive.
           From May 24, 1948 I was responsible for the fixing of the political course of independent Israel – until I left the Government for personal reasons sometime at the end of 1953.
           M.S. was my chief aide in all political matters. And in the establishment of the Jewish battalions in World War II and in the attainment of the Jewish Brigade he had taken the biggest part, and I regard this important project first and foremost as his achievement.
           M.S. was not always in agreement with the course I took, but even though he had hesitated at some junctions of fateful decisions, he always collaborated with me in a friendly manner.
           Our first [contentious] episode came in the days of the Provisional Government, when he disagreed with me on a vital matter and overrode me by his own vote.*

* NOTE: Reference is to the vote taken on September 26, 1948, on BG’s proposal that the IDF occupy the southern part of the West Bank, including Bethlehem and Hebron. According to the protocol, the proposal was defeated by a vote of 7:5 (!) but there are other versions showing a 6:5 vote. This episode was defined by BG as an occasion for the “weeping of generations to come”  (b'chiya ledorot). The essence and many contradictions of the phrase and its users are examined in an Annex to Moshe Sharett, Davar Davur [Speaking Out: The Collected Speeches of Israel’s First Foreign Minister, 1948], eds. Yaakov and Rina Sharett (Tel Aviv: Moshe Sharett Heritage Society, 2013), 619-43.

I am not at all sure he is happy with and proud of the position he took then, but it is my opinion that by it he caused a tremendous, immeasurable national failure: the loss of Old Jerusalem, of the Samaria areas and of the northern Dead Sea.
           There was no collective responsibility in the Provisional Government, and I could not afford a governmental crisis in view of the serious political and military campaigns [then underway].
           It is with satisfaction that I note that M.S. did not repeat his mistake when I proposed later the expulsion of the Egyptians from southern Judea and finally from the Negev, too.
           Since then and up to my departure from the Government there did not occur even one instance of a vital political decision taken against me under the influence of M.S. He tried to make use of his influence when he was away at the UN General Assembly in order to prevent the moving of the Government to Jerusalem, according to my proposal, but his opinion was not accepted by the Party and by the Cabinet, and – in spite of his and his counselors’ opinion – Jerusalem has become the capital of Israel both in theory and in practice.
           M.S. tendered me his resignation at the time, but I did not accept it. I even did not divulge this to the haverim; I only informed M.S. of it in a letter to him in New York, saying that [such] disagreements are not enough of a reason for leaving [the Government].*

*NOTE: See exchange of correspondence in DFPI 4 (1949), docs.490 and 498.

           In November 1953 I left the Government for personal reasons, since there was a necessity for a respite “for a year, two years or more” from the psychological tension bearing on me incessantly for more than twenty years, as I explained in my letter to the President.
           In accordance with my suggestion, P. Lavon was then nominated Minister of Defense. M.S. was nominated Prime Minister – not in accordance with my opinion, but without my objections. I appreciated Moshe’s abilities, knowledge and diligence, but I did not think him capable of performing a leading and decisive role since he was devoid of boldness, foresight and understanding of complicated political situations. But I felt I had no right to intervene actively at a time when I myself had given up responsibility.
           After what happened in Egypt to our people (and to this very day it is not clear to me who was responsible for it), P.L. left the Ministry of Defense. I proposed nominating Shaul [Avigur in his place], but he refused.
           In mid-February a delegation (Golda and Namir) came to me in the name of haverim and in the name of M.S., asking me to return to the Ministry of Defense. I had personal and other reasons for continuing my work in Sde Boker, but the fear of moral deterioration inside the IDF tilted the scales. I informed the two emissaries of my readiness to return to the Ministry of Defense.
           Without my approval this was immediately announced on Kol-Israel. On Sunday [February 20, 1955] M.S came to me at Sde Boker and we conversed about the security situation and about the Ministry of Defense. I told Moshe that I disagreed with the change he made during my absence – the transfer of negotiations with the UN Observers from the Ministry of Defense to the Foreign Ministry. M.S. tried to convince me that this arrangement was justified and desirable. In the meantime evening set in and I did not want him to drive back in darkness. We thus parted in disagreement over this matter.
           Next day I came to Jerusalem, since on that day M.S. had to table at the Knesset the Cabinet’s decision to co-opt me into the Government as Minister of Defense. On that same day I wrote a letter to Moshe, informing him that, if he insisted on his opinion concerning negotiations with the UN Observers being carried on by the Foreign Ministry, he would have to look for another Minister of Defense.
           I did not receive an answer, but in the afternoon, at the Knesset, I was proposed by M.S. as nominee for Minster of Defense and after a debate this was approved.
           I was quite astonished by this procedure, but Moshe explained to me later that he had not managed to read my letter to him before coming to the Knesset since he had been busy composing the speech he was about to make at the Knesset.
           During the six months of my service as Defense Minister, two vital matters were decided upon against my opinion – by a Cabinet majority composed by [ministers of] the General Zionists, Hapo’el Hamizrahi, M.S, Rosen, and one or two of our Party’s ministers:
(a)   Leaving the Gaza Strip in the hands of Nasser, in spite his violations of the Armistice Agreements and the turning of the Gaza Strip into a base for anti-Israeli terror, this at a time during which he was enmeshed in a serious crisis with Britain and we would have been able to expel him overnight without a cock’s crowing in the international arena;
(b)   The rejection of my second proposal of announcing that the violation of the Armistice Agreement by Egypt would release us from the obligations this agreement imposed on us.
          On one occasion, I informed our haverim in the Cabinet that after the [November 1955] elections I would not be a participant in a government which pursued such a security policy and would not support it.
          And since I knew the days of this government were numbered in any event, I avoided creating a crisis, even though I had enough reasons to do so, but I resolved to adopt self-restraint. I also resolved to accept M.S.’s decisions as Prime Minister without objection, whether or not I happened to agree or disagree with him, and I also told him so.
          During the election campaign I spoke in my speech in Be’ersheva about the importance of the south and of Eilat, and I announced that, if I were asked to form a government after the elections, I would not accept the blockade which was in contradiction with the UN Charter and with the Security Council’s decisions, and that we would put an end to this blockade by IDF force unless the UN was powerful enough to do this.
          I was happy and surprised to read in the next morning’s papers that, on the same previous evening, M.S. had spoken too on this subject and had pronounced (although in different terminology, of course) the same position regarding the breaking of the blockade in the Red Sea.
          I felt happy about it, because I saw the breaking of the blockade as a vital need for the state. I discussed this subject with Rosen, who was always among those opposing my “daring” proposals, even though he admitted in one of the Cabinet meetings that, in all the disagreements between us, he realized later that I had been right and he had been wrong.
          To my astonishment, Rosen was in full agreement with the plan of breaking the blockade.
          As is well known, constituting the Cabinet took a long time, and the basic principles [of the coalition government] agreed upon were not relevant to the new situation created by the Czechoslovak arms deal and the great Egyptian danger. I drafted a speech that I would give in the Knesset, and I brought it to the knowledge of the ministers-to-be. They all approved the text. M.S. was out of the country at then time, and I sent him the draft of my speech by special air courier. He proposed some minor linguistic corrections, but he too approved its contents.
          One of the disagreements between me and Moshe was over my principle never to make public or inform representatives of foreign governments about moves we do not intend to make. M.S. was of the opinion that in certain instances we should do so in order to “plant fear”, in order to extort concessions, even if he had not planned to put into action what he said to other governments for the sake of “frightening” them. For instance, he informed the French Minister (and possibly to others), without my knowledge, that we were going to renew work in the Jordan channel on March 1 [1956]. I don’t agree with this method. I shall not say something which I am not going to implement. And therefore I had no doubt that the haverim agreed with what I said in the Knesset on November 2, both in theory and in practice. But, to my dismay, I became aware that I was mistaken. When I proposed – after satisfactory preparations on the General Staff – a plan for breaking the blockade, I encountered an opposition by a majority of the Cabinet ministers, headed by M.S.
          Had there not been no such serious danger of Egypt’s waging war on us, I would not have hesitated for one moment to tend my resignation from the Government immediately. But I was apprehensive of the resulting impact on the morale of the people and the IDF, and I chose self-restraint.
          After I had warned Burns that Egypt had to cease fire and implement the Armistice Agreement, and after Burns tried influencing the Egyptian Government but was unsuccessful – I proposed the establishment of a new settlement in Be’erotayim, in the Nitzana area. Mapam, Hapo’el Hamizrahi. Rosen, and one or two of our haverim under the leadership of M.S. vetoed this. I claimed that this was not prohibited by the Armistice Agreement, nor by the UN or by the Security Council, and in my conversation with Burns I had announced that not only was the establishment of one kibbutz not prohibited, but even the establishment of ten kibbutzim – if only we found them necessary, since we had agreed on demilitarization of the area, not to its barrenness. But the majority opposed [my proposal] for fear of UN censure.
          Again I opted for self-restraint, but I realized I was confronted by a united majority in the Cabinet – Mapam, Rosen, Hapo’el Hamizrahi, M.S. and one or two of our haverim against the majority of our haverim, a majority which I felt did not reflect the opinion of most of the people. And I notified the haverim that if I ever saw moral grounds for leaving the government, I would do so; and not only that, but that I would fight against this policy which to my mind was not in accordance with the vital interests of the state.
          I have reached, with much sorrow, a second conclusion: after my departure from the government M.S.’s haughtiness grew and as a result he was shouldering responsibilities for which he lacked the necessary inner strength.*

*NOTE: BG uses a Hebrew phrase here which cannot be translated literally. In Hebrew:Hu lokea’kh al akhrayuto d’varim b’li samkhut maspika”. By “samkhut maspika” BG means MS is not of sufficient stature, or with a strong enough personality, to allow him to make fateful decisions relying only on himself – like he, BG, presumably could.

          “The straw which broke up the camel’s back” happened on a marginal matter. At the meeting of the Party’s Committee of Nine, when the nominating of an authoritative candidate for the post of Party General Secretary was discussed, somebody proposed Golda for the post, and somebody else proposed Eshkol. M.S. suggested himself for it.
          The matter was not decided at that meeting, and I discussed this with several haverim. I discussed it, of course, with M.S. too. I was astonished upon hearing from him that he did not intend at all to become General Secretary, and that he had suggested himself for this post only in order to make it easier for Golda to accept it....
          I have never valued M.S.’s decision-making ability when facing complicated and fateful political questions, but I had no doubts about his moral integrity. His words regarding his disingenuous suggestion shocked me.
          I felt I could not go on anymore in the existing setup. I said this to the haverim. M.S. had demanded a decision by the [Party’s] Political Committee, since all our haverim in the Cabinet were also approved by a central organ [of the Party]. His demand was accepted. I called up Moshe and in the presence of Shaul I told him I did not want to explain to the Political Committee why I insist on his leaving the Foreign Ministry (a) because I did not want to disqualify him in front of the haverim; (b) because I was pretty certain that everything I would say would appear in the evening papers and in other papers, perhaps with additional distortions.
          I did not vote against him in the Political Committee. Rather, I suggested to him that I would leave the government, Golda would be Foreign Minister, Shaul or Moshe Dayan or somebody of their caliber would be Defense Minister and M.S. would be Prime Minister, since I would be able to support him as Party General Secretary only if there was a government in which foreign and security policies were managed by two people who would implement the policy I had outlined in my speech at the Knesset on November 2, 1955, courageously and with conviction.
          M.S. announced that he was not going to be a member of such a Cabinet. On the next day I decided to convene our Cabinet haverim and tell them I was not going to take part in the Political Committee’s meeting and that there was no need for this, since I was leaving the government.
          A few of the haverim possibly understood why I was convening our Cabinet haverim. And by noon Ziama and Pinhas Sapir came to me and informed me that M.S. had waived his demand for the Political Committee meeting and that he was leaving the government.
          In the meantime false news appeared in the papers, especially abroad, that I had proposed M.S. for the post of Party General Secretary in order to oust him from the government.
          I was surprised that M.S. did not deny this fabrication.
          On Monday, 18/6/1956, I convened the Cabinet and at that meeting M.S. announced his resignation. On the same day the Cabinet decided to nominate Golda as Foreign Minister and to have Namir join the Cabinet. On the same evening I announced these changes in the Knesset.
          Before coming to the Knesset I sent Moshe the draft of my speech (a very short “speech”); he suggested a few additions regarding his [past] activity, which I accepted, and then I said what I said in the Knesset.
          Moshe spoke immediately after me. And again I was surprised that had not felt it necessary to deny the fabrication concerning my proposal that he become Party General Secretary, although he did deny some [other] fabrications which appeared in the papers.
          Next day I decided to speak again in the Knesset, to clear up some obscurities and to deny the fabrication concerning my proposal that he become Party General Secretary. I telephoned Moshe and informed him that I was going to say that he was the first to table that proposal (of becoming Party General Secretary). He suggested that I say that I had heard from him for the first time about the “possibility’ (of his becoming Party General Secretary). I was somewhat surprised at this inexact wording, but I accepted it and used the terminology he suggested to me.
          All the rest is known.
          To one of the haverim who wrote me a letter on this matter, I summed up my opinion in a few sentences [see WebDoc #128]:

You are as much aware of Moshe’s many talents and qualities as I am. And I have no doubt at all that in a country like Denmark, which primarily deals with courteous trade relations with her neighbors, he could be an excellent Foreign Minister. Israel, to my deep regret, is not Denmark. From time to time she faces serious political conflicts and fateful decisions which demand a great deal of foresight, courage and a deep understanding of concrete factors and circumstances, not symbols and rhetoric, in order to steer the storm-bound ship to safe harbor through the treacherous seas that beset it.

          An ability for literate expression and for explaining matters is not enough, and the abilities necessary for standing at the helm have, to my dismay, never been at the command of M.S. Negative avoidance by “sitting put” and doing nothing is not enough. The preference for not doing is at times fraught with much more dangerous future results than any daring and fateful deeds.
          Three instances of “sitting put” – decided upon in the days of the Provisional Government and in the last two Cabinets against my opinion by M.S.’s inspiration and leadership – shall cost our people very dearly. In my view the end of the tether has been reached, and no wise man could have expected that I would – in the long run – be a party to a failing policy.

SOURCE: Ben-Gurion Archives, Yad Ben-Gurion, Sde-Boker. The document bears no signature. The original Hebrew text is reproduced in Shoher Shalom, 89-95. Some quotations and paraphrasing of the above indictment appear in Moshe Dayan, Avnei Derekh, 208-09.