A Dove Among Hawks
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A Dove Among Hawks:  Moshe Sharett

the Political Tragedy of an Israeli Leader

Yaakov Sharett


(This article, originally published in "Midstream", is most insightful in explaining the tragedy of Moshe Sharett's conflict with David Ben-Gurion, reflecting the opposing backgrounds, views and policies of these two pillars of  the nation.

I consider this a "must read" for any student of Sharett's legacy - Ed.)


Moderation or escalation - these were the two basic alternatives in the entwined domains of foreign and defense policies confronting Israel's leadership immediately after the historic and bloody victory in the War of Independence in 1948-1949, and that have confronted government after government unceasingly to this very day. It was the choice of history that these two contradictory and fateful alternatives were first epitomized by David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett. These two outstanding leaders had stood together at the helm of the Yishuv - the Jewish community of Palestine - starting in the early 1930s, leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel, and throughout the State's formative years until 1956.


It took Israel 22 years to reverse its escalationist trend - and momentarily at that - when it signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1978. But by then, both old rivals, Ben-Gurion and Sharett, were gone from the stage. In fact, Sharett, the first of the two leaders to pass away, had not even been a witness to the Six-Day War of 1967. Thus, when discussing Sharett's political school of thought and behavior, one should constantly bear in mind the crucial fact that Sharett belongs to the pre-1967-war era, a war considered by many to be the watershed of Israel's political course, since it resulted in the continuous occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.*

But how did it all start? How did it evolve? Why has escalation, as represented by Ben-Gurion, and not moderation, as represented by Sharett, held the upper hand for so long?


Touching briefly on a few landmarks of Sharett's personal history might give us some relevant answers to these intriguing questions. Sharett was born in 1894 in the city of Kherson, Ukraine, situated a short distance east of Odessa, the second child among five siblings. His parents belonged to the Russo-Jewish intelligentsia. The father, Ya'akov Chertok (Shertok), was an ardent Zionist and man of the pen. His mother Fanny (nẻe Lev) was a certified and dedicated teacher. Their household was traditional, yet enlightened and liberal. In 1882, under the impact of a series of antisemitic pogroms that swept over south and east Russia, Ya'akov Shertok joined a small group of university students like himself- the famous BILU group - and decided to emigrate to Palestine in order to build a Jewish homeland there.


After four difficult years in < ...

Sharett, by nature a rationalist and by position and capacity keenly aware of the do’s and don’ts governing the international arena, wanted Israel to behave as a normal state. The achievement of statehood, to his mind, had a price tag attached to it: no more expansion, recognition of international rights as well as duties, respecting UN decisions and mediations, pursuing a non-aggressive policy towards neighboring states and charting a policy striving towards peace in the Middle East. Moreover, having devoted all of his time and energies towards the attainment of the November 29th decision in the UN General Assembly to partition Palestine, and later to accept the State of Israel into the UN, Sharett argued that the special emphasis on the Jewish people’s moral right to build its own sovereign state, which played a major role in prevailing on UN members in 1947 to grant the larger part of Palestine to the recommended Jewish State, obliges it to abstain from pursuing policies which can be defined as immoral, for otherwise it is bound to destroy the very foundation and justification of its establishment.

Generally speaking, Ben Gurion, a man of vision, felt much less bound by mundane considerations. He saw history as a flow of time punctuated by sudden opportunities to be seized upon for establishing faits accomplis. Level-headed Sharett was not oblivious to historical opportunities, but argued that once the miraculous advent of Israel occurred, and once the majority of UN members recognized the increase of its territory resulting from its victory over the various Arab armies which tried to destroy it while defying the UN decision of November 29, 1947 to partition Palestine, it should refrain from future adventurous political and military operations. Ben Gurion disagreed. His political philosophy harbored a messianic strain, manifested time and again in his urge to engage militarily in geopolitical changes which would expand Israel’s territory in the southern, eastern and northern borders.

It seems appropriate to cite here from historian Michael Breecher’s interview with Sharett where the latter delineated the differences between himself and Ben Gurion: “I am quiet, reserved, careful. Ben Gurion is impulsive, impetuous, and intuitive. My capital C is Caution; Ben Gurion’s capital C is Courage”. On another occasion, right after the Anglo-French-Israeli collusion in the 1956 War (which had been the reason for his ousting from Government), he said:


As it appears that standing at this country’s helm entails adventurism and deception, and seeing that I am not able to do either, it follows that I am not fit for that position. My nature dictates that I consider the risks and not rush into an adventure. I shall be cautious and not tempt fate. Therefore, I shall neither lie nor instruct others to lie. This is neither an expression of self righteousness nor show of it. It is an admission of my limitations and my acknowledgment of them. There is a chasm between our political thoughts and actions – they do not converge. Israel is being led down a road which is not mine. Things have gone too far – incontestable facts are being established. The new historic facts cannot be altered. I had nothing to do with them. I had control only over myself. Fundamental conceptions have been adopted which cannot be remedied in this generation, and in any event, the next generation will not be mine.

I am prepared to assume that in the end, history will justify both the deception and the adventurous campaign. Be it as it may, there is one thing I am certain about: I, Moshe Sharett, am incapable of these deeds. I therefore cannot stand at this country’s helm.




During the War of Independence, when Ben Gurion’s proposal to his cabinet that the IDF exploit a certain opportunity and occupy the southern part of the West Bank was outvoted by a majority of one – that of Sharett – Ben Gurion was deeply annoyed and later accused Sharett more than once of being responsible for that missed opportunity about which “generations will mourn”. (Ben Gurion’s disciples corrected this omission and put an end to the mourning in the Six-Day War of 1967. Israel’s eastern border moved up to the Jordan river at the expense of the occupied Palestinians and their West Bank territory, but Sharett’s refusal to accept Dayan’s strategy for solving Israel’s security problem was justified when the solution fathered a new, much more acute problem – for who-knows-how-many generations to mourn).




After Israel’s swift occupation of the Sinai Peninsula in the war of 1956 (the Sinai Campaign) Ben Gurion announced that this area never really belonged to Egypt to begin with, and should remain in Israeli hands. This step was indeed in full accordance with his messianic approach to realpolitik.

At the time Sharett was no longer a cabinet member – having been forced to tend his resignation a few months prior to the outbreak of war as mentioned above – however, there is no doubt that he would have vehemently opposed going into that war, to say nothing of Ben Gurion’s predilection for territorial expansionism.

A not altogether dissimilar instance occurred about two years earlier, in February 1954, when Minister of Defense Lavon and Chief of Staff Dayan pressed for the military annexation of a strip of Southern Lebanon and for the establishment there of a Christian state which would undoubtedly in their views make peace with Israel. At that time Ben Gurion, out of Government and staying in kibbutz Sde Boker in the distant Negev, pulled his weight to prevail on the cabinet to accept this expansionist plan. Sharett, then Prime Minister, simply vetoed it. In a personal letter to Ben Gurion he said:


Is there any chance that the Arab League would accept Israel’s annexation of southern Lebanon? Could one surmise that the bloody war which would inevitably erupt as a result of our attempt would be limited to Lebanon only and would not involve Syria as well? And what about the Western Powers? Would they behave as passive onlookers in view of this geo-political upheaval? I am afraid that an attempt on our part to arouse the non-existent wish of the Lebanese Christians for a separate Christian state in Lebanon would be seen as proof of our shallow and rash thinking, if not as an adventurous speculation with the peaceful life and independence of another people. No power on earth will reduce Lebanon back to its limited pre-WWI era size. I am against any such adventure which is bound to end only in disgrace. It is a crazy adventure.




To reiterate: Once the State of Israel was established, the clash between level headed, moderate and cautious Sharett and volatile, messianic Ben Gurion was inevitable. The problem facing the leadership of Israel was the nature of its policy towards the Arab world, or, in other words, what was the most effective policy to achieve peace with the Arab world at the earliest possible moment. Here Sharett and Ben Gurion clearly differed. Ben Gurion was convinced that the Arab states, which attacked Israel on the morrow of its establishment with the clear aim of annihilating it, were planning a “second round” to compensate for their shameful defeat in 1949. In order to prevent this military revenge, Israel must prove to the Arabs its preponderant military strength time and again. Any sign of Israeli weakness would immediately entice Arab aggression. In view of this consideration, Ben Gurion was given to a constant policy of “retaliation”. Each incident of Arab incursion into Israel along on any of its long borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, must be responded immediately with a military blow. Eventually, once the Arabs realize that they have no chance of vanquishing Israel, they will accept its existence in their midst. Only then they will be prepared to make peace with her.

Ben Gurion went even a step further. According to his line of thinking, it might very well be that the series of military retaliations would not suffice. At a certain point, then, a preventive war against all or one of the Arab states would become inevitable. It is indeed not clear whether this reasoning originated with Ben Gurion or with Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, who had a far-reaching influence over him. It was Dayan’s tenet that the War of Independence did not “end” as it should have with the IDF reaching the river Jordan and making it Israel’s “natural” eastern border. He therefore deliberately pursued a policy aimed at provoking the Arab states to initiate a “second round” which would bring about another Israel’s victory – this time guaranteeing her a tenable border in the East as well as convincing the Arabs that making peace with her is an absolute necessity. Here, then, Ben Gurion’s predilection for a preventive war and Dayan’s discontent with Israel’s 1949 borders, to be “repaired’ by a second round initiated by Israel, converged. It was only natural that the ideas of these two influential men were directly as well as indirectly absorbed by the combined Israeli military and defense systems, forming the most formidable establishment in Israel, filling them with a sense of a great national mission.

Sharett’s political philosophy clashed head-on with the above. His course of thinking did not follow from the present to the future, but on the contrary, from the future to the present. While acutely cognizant of the Arabs’ spirit of revenge towards Israel, he reasoned that since Israel was forever destined to be a small non-Arab island in the vast Arab ocean, and since ultimately it must reach peace with its neighbors, for it cannot live on the sword forever, she should, from the outset, pursue a policy calculated to blunt the sting of their 1948-49 trauma. The Arabs must be given time to heal their wounds and come to terms with the new Middle East reality created by the cataclysmic emergence of Israel. Each military blow Israel inflicts on any of the Arab states cannot but revive that old trauma, cannot but regenerate their feelings of humiliation, hatred and revenge, and thus postpone ever further, if not indefinitely, their moment of readiness to make peace. If Israel really seeks peace, it follows that it must demonstrate moderation and not aggression, compromise and not belligerency, restraint and not emotional behavior – and the sooner the better, before it’s too late to put down the rising flames of Arab hatred and revenge..

Sharett was outraged by the spirit of revenge and retaliation that was generally rampant among the commanding officers of the IDF. A modern state, he argued, cannot behave as a Bedouin tribe in the wild desert. “These men are beyond me,” he wrote in his diary about the IDF officers. “They have grown accustomed to the idea that the army’s morale cannot be sustained without giving it license to vent its emotions by bloodletting from time to time.” Following a bloody incident when a Jewish settler in a border area was murdered by an Arab infiltrator, Sharett the public-minded statesman could not ignore outraged public opinion over a chain of such incidents and therefore, against his better judgment, approved a military retaliation. On the same day he confided in his diary:


This murder was considered the last straw and anger must be assuaged. This is the only logic, and none other. I do not believe that retaliation will make the slightest difference from a security point of view. On the contrary, I fear that it will launch a new chain of bloodshed in the border area. The edifice I have tenaciously taken pains to construct for the past months and all the measures of restraints I tried to install against Israeli retaliatory steps – all this is liable to be wiped out with one fell swoop. Come what may, I feel that I have no alternative.”


Whether or not Sharett was right in this prognosis, he was practically alone in calling for its implementation. Even after Ben Gurion’s surprising retirement from the Government towards the end of 1953, paving the way for his replacement by his second-in-command, Sharett’s premiership was untenable. For one thing, although Ben Gurion kept to his distant kibbutz in the Negev, it was common knowledge that his sojourn there was only temporary. For another, Ben Gurion fully backed the Chief of Staff, namely the influential Moshe Dayan. And moreover, the latter fomented his own political-military agenda which resulted in his policy of aggravating the border situation. In this imbroglio it was only natural that Sharett would face a grave if not insurmountable difficulty in his efforts to rein in the IDF.

Still, as evident from his diary, on assuming office Sharett planned to quell the IDF’s prognosis, i.e. that Egypt was planning a war against Israel. He wished to replace that prognosis with its ensuing conclusions by non-military means such as “activating solutions to the refugee problem by bold and concrete offers on our part to pay compensation; restoring good relations with the great powers; and ceaseless endeavors to reach an understanding with Egypt. Each of these courses of action is liable to take us into unknown avenues, and yet we are not exempt from striving towards it.”

 It is important to bear in mind that Sharett’s tenure of less than two years as Prime Minister was not only fraught with obvious, objective difficulties, but also too short-lived. Thus he never did really have a “fighting chance” to implement his political agenda. As if to prove Sharett’s precarious position, a most unhealthy situation evolved in February 1955 when Ben Gurion, in the wake of the forced resignation of Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon, returned from Sde Boker to become once again Minister of Defence under Sharett’s premiership. This unhealthy situation was corrected a few months later, when after the general elections of November 1955, Ben Gurion regained his former premiership. Sharett, acknowledging Ben Gurion’s seniority, remained in his new cabinet as Foreign Minister but was cruelly torn between his will to serve as a moderate balancing weight in the new political constellation and his clear awareness of his political weakness opposite the revived Ben Gurion-Dayan coalition. It was obvious to all political observers that his days in Government were numbered.

Sharett himself was certainly aware of the personal consequences his opposition to the stronger Ben Gurion must inevitably bring about. His moral integrity and political philosophy led him to clashes with Ben Gurion – before Ben Gurion became Prime Minister again, as well as afterwards. Even though he was not a charismatic and feared leader as was his opponent, he put all his weight against a series of Ben Gurion proposals in the cabinet to approve military retaliations against Israel’s neighbors, and at least four times he outvoted Ben Gurion, thus thwarting major operations planned by Dayan (such as seizure of the whole Gaza Strip, or of the Eilat – Sahrm-A-Sheihk strip on the Red Sea). It was only natural that the frustration that Prime Minister Ben Gurion suffered at Sharett’s hands would exacerbate their relations even further.

But while Sharett succeeded several times in carrying the majority of cabinet members with him, he was not prepared to bring about a showdown between him and Ben Gurion in the higher institutions of their common party of Mapai. For Sharett was essentially not an ambitious politician aiming at reaching the top. He had no autocratic strain in his personality and consequently he was neither a feared nor adored leader inside Israel, as well as outside. When elected Prime Minister, he told his colleagues that he would like to operate on basis of constant consultation and cooperation with them (When one of them retorted that he should hope that the gentiles would not stand in his way, he said: “let’s pray the Jews do not stand in my way!”). Inevitably, this position of Sharett weakened his leadership right from his premiership’s start. His followers were numbered, since all others gravitated towards the seat of power, occupied by Ben Gurion, an autocratic, charismatic, feared and worshipped leader, who generally found it superfluous to consult anybody but himself.




In one major case, Prime Minister Sharett failed to thwart Minister of Defense Ben Gurion’s proposal for a military retaliation against Egypt when he gave his approval to the so-called “Gaza Raid”, in which an IDF elite unit, commanded by Ariel Sharon, attacked an Egyptian army camp on February 29th, 1955, killing more than 40 soldiers. Sharett deeply regretted afterwards his approval of this operation (as it turned out, its scope was enlarged without consulting him), but the far-reaching damage was done: Nasser, his army put to shame, decided to buttress his military might and speedily purchased a whole lot of arms from the Soviet Union; thus giving a fateful push to the arms-race in the region.

Upon the implementation of the Egyptian-Soviet arms deal, IDF experts assumed the modernized Egyptian army would be ready to initiate a heavy military strike against Israel by mid June, 1956. Dayan and Ben Gurion started to consider waging a preventive war against Egypt before it became too formidable to overwhelm. However, Ben Gurion was fully aware that in the event, he could expect Sharett’s unquestionable opposition to this plan, and that with his powerful reasoning and eloquence Sharett could sway the majority of the cabinet to side with him. Moreover, Ben Gurion was aware that in view of Sharett’s prestigious position in the cabinet, in Mapai and in the public at large, it would be heedless of him to conceal from Sharett his secret war plan. Ben Gurion’s only way out of this complication was to get rid of his opponent. In mid-June 1956 Ben Gurion presented an ultimatum to the Mapai Presidium: Either him or Sharett - the party must choose between the two; if Sharett were to stay on, he, Ben Gurion, would resign immediately.

The party’s choice was to be expected. Ben Gurion won the day. Sharett tended his resignation. Inasmuch as he believed in his ability to have a reasonable chance of convincing Mapai’s Central Committee of the soundness of his policy of moderation and of the basic mistake involved in opting for a war in which Israel would be the instigator and obvious aggressor, he characteristically desisted from giving fight. He reasoned, perhaps correctly, that in that case it was not too far-fetched to surmise that the resigned Ben Gurion, backed by the whole defense establishment, would continue fighting him. The result would be a devastating split in Mapai which would make his position as Prime-Minister untenable. Moreover, during that momentous event of Ben Gurion’s ultimatum, none of his Mapai colleagues in the Cabinet sided with him; Sharett, a lonely, single dove in the midst of warlike hawks, asked himself: “Suppose I do win the rank and file of the Party, can I go on collaborating with these colleagues, who have just succumbed to Ben Gurion’s ultimatum and agreed with his aggressive, escalationist policy?” Thus, on June 18, 1956, he preferred to resign.

What Sharett did not know was that throughout the few last months of his tenure in Ben Gurion’s Government as Foreign Minister, Defense Ministry representatives, under Ben Gurion’s directions, began clandestine talks with their French counterparts in order to amalgamate their collusion towards toppling President Nasser. It was in this context that on June 22, only four days after Sharett’s forced resignation, an Israeli mission – established while Sharett was still at the helm of his Ministry – headed by Dayan and Peres, flew over to France where they agreed to cooperate militarily with France against Nasser’s Egypt. Little did Sharett know, at the time of his forced resignation, that Ben Gurion and Dayan had already decided that war against Egypt was unavoidable, and thus he was destined to be its first victim. Sharett understood this only too late when he laid bare his thoughts in an entry in his diary in Nov. 3 1956: “Who was to know if these plans had not been germinating for a long time, and whether or not they had been part and parcel and the root cause of my dismissal at the time it had occurred?”

And on December 2 he added:


It is possible that from an historical and objective standpoint, the nation was ordered. as it were, to seize upon this course of action of the Sinai Operation, and no other. Who is a prophet to know? But whatever the truth may be, it was evident to all that the operation and the victory involved casualties and losses and new dangers – in all aspects and on all fronts. It was also clear to me that one of the casualties was me. As a statesman I have fallen in the battle, and that loss should be recorded as well.

But was Sharett the man the real victim of this fateful military action – of this first optional war of Israel, called in its annals “The Sinai Campaign”? Or was it his policy of moderation that was annihilated on the battlefield? Sharett the man and statesman was certainly removed from Israel’s political arena. As an individual he forever lost his prestigious position. But looking at it from another angle, with his departure had not Israel lost – and for many years to come – a balancing weight, a force capable of curbing aggressive and expansionist impulses?

The question is easier to ask than to answer. It seems we are confronted here with one of the greatest “ifs” of Israel history. And surely one could also ask whether a moderate, rational statesman, by definition, must always be the weaker party vis-à-vis the self-assured political extremist and rouser of emotions.

Still, the future series of wars and mini-wars and Intifadas which befell Israel ever since the 1956 War seem to indicate that while the man and statesman Moshe Sharett has gone under almost total eclipse, his conceptions of moderation and conflict management are too obstinate to vanish. Indeed, they seem to be ideas and ideals searching for a leadership of integrity, high moral principles, courage and eloquence, around which the people should rally – a leadership which Israel seems painfully unable to produce.

*  A considerable number of historians and observers attribute this term to the 1956 war since that was Israel’s first war of choice and demonstrated a deliberate intention of territorial expansionism.


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