Moshe Sharett: Biography of a Political Moderate

Excerpts from the preface and introduction to the book


GROWING up in the 1950s in a small community in northern Israel which was politically dominated by the Labour movement meant becoming aware at a very early age of the overwhelming importance of politics. It also necessarily meant a quite early awareness of the tremendous politicization of the new society of Israel. Hence following politics was one of the main preoccupations of most youngsters in this community. Heated debates about political goals and means pursued by the various parties and factions were daily preoccupations, affecting everybody in our peer group. Equally, meeting leading Israeli politicians and listening to their usually long and passionate speeches were part of everybody's social and political education. Watching from a close range the revered founding fathers of Israel was a special event for us high-school students. Among those senior leaders who occasionally visited this community, Ben-Gurion occupied a unique place. Since it was a homogeneous workers' community with virtually no supporters of the rightist parties, he was admired by almost everybody there, and even by his more leftist opponents.

Second only to Ben-Gurion in our parents' and in our esteem was Moshe Shertok-Sharett,1 Israel's first minister of foreign affairs and its second prime minister, who was identified with the United Nations partition resolution…. From the first time that I closely watched Moshe Sharett - during a large rally on Israel's Day of Independence in the early 1950s, which Ben-Gurion and Sharett attended together, and clashed - it was clear that, although Sharett was a loyal leader of the same camp and party, his demeanor, views, and politics were different not only from those of Ben-Gurion but also from those of the rest of the Labor movement's tough and ruthless front-line leaders. My early, yet strong, impression of this leader and his aptitudes raised my curiosity about the two founding fathers, their ideas and relations.

Later, in the 1960s, closely following the acrimonious exchanges between the two leaders during one of the stormiest periods in early Israeli domestic politics, the period during which the Lavon Affair was raging and shattering the foundations of the Israeli polity and especially of the Israeli Labour movement, the realization that there was an almost unbridgeable gulf between their positions was confirmed. By then, their different 'political lines' became more apparent. The struggle between the two… became known to the interested public only after the 1956 war in the Sinai and during the later stages of the Lavon Affair. It peaked with Ben-Gurion's resignation as prime minister and his splitting of Mapai, which marked his own political demise. This only enhanced my fascination with the relations between the two men and with their influence on Israeli politics.

My academic interest in the two leaders, among whom Ben-Gurion was undoubtedly the more senior, charismatic, and influential, grew further while writing on British policies towards Palestine. During my research on the Zionist and Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) leaders' reactions to the British government in Palestine, it became clear that Sharett's political positions and evaluations were more acute and realistic than those of his great rival, Ben-Gurion. My decision to study the then more neglected and obscure political figure of the two--Moshe Sharett--was determined more by the wish to understand the deeper roots of these differences and their wider political significance for the early development of the Jewish state as well as for the study of leadership in general, rather than admiration of Sharett, or dislike of Ben-Gurion and what he symbolized.

It was then that I also became interested in the study of the intricate relations between personalities, political ideas, and power. For better or worse, I have decided to explore these relations, as well as the intricacies of making actual political decisions, through a political biography not of the perceived 'winner' but of the one who has been regarded as the 'loser' between these two prominent leaders. Thus, the last part of this biography dwells on the meaning of winning and losing in politics in general and in the Israeli case in particular.

Moreover, the ongoing processes of moderation in the Middle East, which eventually may lead towards greater normality in the relations between Arabs and Jews in this part of the world and probably also to a permanent peace, raise the question of whose political philosophy was more appropriate in the longer term. Indeed, in view of the growing interest in Sharett and his moderate political ideology, it seems that more politicians and members of the politically aware public are tending to view him in a new light, appreciating the multiple differences between him and the more charismatic and activist Ben-Gurion, and recognizing the merits of his legacy.

An understanding of Sharett, his views, and his position in the young Israeli polity…, leads to a re-evaluation of Ben-Gurion's mythical power and influence on everything that happened in the Yishuv and Israel.

My work on this political biography began in the mid-1970s…. This initial work enabled me to publish a monograph and a number of articles, in which I introduced some of my main new ideas about Sharett himself, Ben-Gurion, and the Israeli polity, such as the distinction between Ben-Gurion's 'conflict resolution' and Sharett's 'conflict management' approaches to Israel's most existential problems in the spheres of defense and foreign affairs; Sharett's essential role in shaping Israel's position of non-alignment after its establishment, as well as its attitudes towards Asian countries, and so on; Sharett's and Ben-Gurion's profoundly divergent approaches to the Arab- Israeli confrontation and to Diaspora Jews; the view that essentially the Sinai Campaign was an Israeli 'war of choice' and the fact that the hard-liners' urge to launch such a war had bedevilled Israeli politics since the end of the 1948 war for Jewish independence in part of Palestine.


This political biography…. is 'revisionist' not only because it uses primary sources, but also because it re-evaluates the position and views of one of Israel's foremost founding fathers, who for many years was almost totally forgotten, and sheds light on his relations with the legendary Ben-Gurion, highlights the role of the moderates in Mapai and in the Labor party, reassesses the distribution of power among them and the activists, and thus rethinks the structure and patterns of Israeli politics…. I hope that there is enough to provide an accurate and vivid portrait of this moderate and pragmatic member of what I have called the 'service aristocracy' of the Yishuv and Israel.

Introduction: Sharett's Forgotten Struggles

ALTHOUGH largely forgotten at home and abroad, Moshe Sharett was one of the most prominent and well-known founding fathers of modern Israel. As chairman of the powerful and prestigious Political Department of the Jewish Agency in pre-state Palestine, as Israel's first dominant minister of foreign affairs, and as its second prime minister, he served the Yishuv and the young fledgling Jewish state with inspiration, dedication, and distinction. From the mid-1930s until his death in 1965, he was a renowned and influential member of the small order of visionaries who shaped the main features of Israel.

But, above all, Sharett was one of the most humane, realistic, and moderate political leaders during the Yishuv's period and Israel's first decade of existence. His humanity, moderation, and political chivalry, that were not characteristic of his arch-rival David Ben-Gurion and of most of his contemporaries, motivated this study of the man and his times. His virtues, that paradoxically led to his political demise in the strenuous Israeli polity, prompted the attempt to go beyond a mere political biography of the leader himself. Any penetrating study of such a pragmatic and prescient statesman, who was an eminent figure in the mobilized political élite that dominated the Yishuv and Israel, must delve into the intricate social and political order as well as into the leader's relations with other contemporary Zionist and Israeli politicians, in particular with Ben-Gurion. It must also reconsider the complex patterns according to which members of this closely knit political élite converted their visions into critical decisions.

In its choice of focus on the motivations, decisions, and actions of Sharett and through him of the entire group of talented and strong-willed leaders, who embarked on one of the most daring national adventures in the twentieth century, and succeeded in realizing their collective dream, this is also a revision of the history of the high politics of both the Yishuv and of Israel.

Sharett's many contributions to the spectacular growth of the Yishuv, to the dramatic establishment of the Jewish state, and to Israel's early evolution, as well as to the emergence of a politically moderate school in the Jewish polity, have been almost eradicated over the past quarter- century since Sharett's death in 1965. One of the aims of this biography is therefore to restore Sharett's reputation and contributions, as well as those of the moderate camp, to the Zionist and Israeli political annals. Thus, the purpose is to reassess the qualities of this leader, his philosophy, his own role as well as the role of moderates and moderation in the history of the Jewish state and their relevance to the present peace process and winds of change in the Middle East.

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