Behind the Ben-Gurion-Sharett ‘Controversy’
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Behind the Ben-Gurion-Sharett ‘Controversy’

Ma’ariv, June 11, 1956


“I do not know of many cases in our public life in which there is such sincere and fruitful collegial cooperation than the ‘ideological,’ moral, and public cooperation existing between Moshe Sharett and David Ben-Gurion, although they are not obliged to think the same on each and every question.”

Thus wrote David Ben-Gurion less than a year ago, when he was asked to form a government after the elections to the Third Knesset. In the same article he vigorously denied reports that he intended to take foreign affairs out of Moshe Sharett’s hands. In an interview given to the London Times and in an article published in Davar, Ben-Gurion emphasized again that “between two independent personages there obviously were, and probably would be, disagreements and differing views,” but that he had no intention of dissolving the cooperation between Moshe Sharett and himself, which had lasted for 22 years.

At yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, one of the ministers indirectly raised the question of the rumors about Mr. Sharett’s resignation as Foreign Minister. A clear reply was not given. But today the question will still reverberate through the Knesset corridors and in interparty discussions. Although the Cabinet reshuffle has been postponed for a few weeks, the postponement cannot heal the wound which was opened by the proposal to make changes at the head of the Foreign Ministry.

Ben-Gurion did not want to hurt Moshe Sharett. He did not want to “throw him out,” as many thought. His comradely feelings towards Sharett are as ever. The recent contention between the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Defense is more between their respective advisers.

When a “line” of policy changes, B.G. knows how to sacrifice people on its altar. He knows how to dismiss and replace advisers as need be. Sharett, in contrast, less resolute than B.G., is more loyal to his advisers. He always tries to cover up their errors and is not inclined to replace them.

Sharett is more hesitant. B.G. makes decisions very quickly. The differences in their temperaments have borne differing approaches to security matters which are the focal point of our foreign policy. Yet it is difficult to draw a precise boundary between Ben-Gurion’s activism and Sharett’s non-activism.

It is a matter of record that it was during Sharett’s tenure as Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister that the IDF’s most daring reprisals, at Gaza, Khan Yunis, and other places, were undertaken. Yet Sharett’s advisers tried to label him a moderate. They described him thus abroad, and this definition was apparently to Sharett’s liking. This is the main cause of the existing tension. As “moderation” had been linked to Sharett’s personality, and as conciliation was the cause of the débâcle in the Security Council, Ben-Gurion sought a way of expressing his dissatisfaction to the Great Powers who had counseled moderation.

B.G. could have called for military action to express this dissatisfaction, but because of Sharett’s arguments and the pressure exerted by the Great Powers, he preferred diplomatic action. He came to feel that Sharett’s resignation from the Foreign Ministry would influence the Great Powers just as much as a military operation. It would serve as a warning that Israel would not sit idly by in the face of the menacing rearmament of the Arab states.

Be that as it may, he did not wish to cause Sharett personal anguish and tried to execute the surgery painlessly by giving him another distinguished post, that of General Secretary of Mapai.

Sharett would have been able to influence foreign policy from this post just as he does today. He was even disposed to accept the post and might even have agreed to the political rationale behind the reshuffle.

But Sharett’s aides and advisers thought otherwise. They knew that in any reshuffle of this kind they would bear the main brunt, so they embarked upon a struggle to overturn the “verdict.”

The first intimation of this came in a New York Times article on the political damage that Sharett’s resignation would cause.[*]

Then rumors began to spread. It was as though Sharett’s departure from the Foreign Ministry would be likely to harm the chances of obtaining jet aircraft from a certain country, which would only agree to supply the aircraft if it were sure that Israel would display moderation and not start a war.

In fact, Ben-Gurion too does not intend to go to war. He does not want war. Not out of a fear of the response of the Great Powers, but out of purely national considerations. But he knows that without pressure the Western countries will not agree to supply the weapons that Israel needs, the supply of which alone is likely to prevent a war.

The advice given to him by his advisers caused Sharett second thoughts about accepting the post of General Secretary of Mapai. Although he had already given his assent, he later argued that the decision regarding the reshuffle should be made by the Party Central Committee, and not by the Secretariat or the Party Political Committee.

Those who advised Sharett to use this strategy granted him a temporary victory. The reshuffle has been postponed. But the advisers did not do Sharett a personal favor, for as a result of their advice, relations with B.G. have been aggravated – something that Sharett does not relish. They have also obviated the exploitation of the reshuffle abroad. Sharett’s strategy has succeeded so far, but the government has not been saved from the shocks that await it. 

[*]     In the New York Times of May 31, 1956, Jerusalem correspondent Homer Bigart had written, inter alia: “It will be difficult to convince the world that Moshe Sharett’s resignation from the government in order to take up the post of General Secretary of Mapai did not stem from fundamental differences of opinion with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. [- - -] [I]t will be difficult to avoid the impression that Ben-Gurion’s prime motive was his desire to get rid of Sharett [- - -] [A]lthough Ben-Gurion now admits that there is a great deal of wisdom in Sharett’s moderation, some worldwide fears are likely regarding Ben-Gurion’s actions when Sharett is no longer at his side. [- - -] Moshe Sharett faces a crucial decision in his public career.”

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