By Tom Segev
Haaretz, January 2, 2009
On April 5, 1956, Israel bombed the marketplace in the center of Gaza City. Fifty civilians were killed in that attack, including women and children. Then foreign minister Moshe Sharett thought it was a "savage and stupid" operation. But David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister and defense minister, and Moshe Dayan, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, believed the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, sought to destroy Israel and therefore his regime must be toppled, via a defeat in a comprehensive war. Therefore, the ministers followed a policy designed to increase tension and escalation, to the brink of war.
Sharett believed there was a chance of talks with Nasser. The conflict between the powerful Ben-Gurion and the weak Sharett is among the most dramatic stories in the state's history, and appears in a book that was released by the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society a few days before the IDF's latest assault on Gaza ("A Statesman Assessed: Views and Viewpoints about Moshe Sharett," edited by Yaakov and Rina Sharett). In the book, the attempt to topple Nasser appears to have parallels to the attempt to destroy the Hamas regime.
Sharett ventured that the IDF would not manage to topple Nasser, and he was right: Nasser's standing was bolstered the more the IDF pounded Egypt, in 1956 and 1967. Sharett also cautioned against the war psychosis that Ben-Gurion's government encouraged: "I kept asking myself whether assuming that we are on the brink of war and ingraining this in the minds of the masses might not in itself become a trigger that brings war to our world," he wrote.
There was plenty of ego and politics in that story, but contrary to the prevailing view, the disagreements were always about strategy and tactics, and never about the fundamental thinking, as Uri Avnery writes in that same book: "Ben-Gurion and Sharett shared the basic mindset of the entire Zionist leadership - a pro-Western and anti-Arab mindset. The disputes related to execution."