Great Opportunities and Grave Dangers:

Moshe Sharett’s Finest Hour


Yechiam Weitz, Haaretz 26/11/13


Moshe Sharett’s writings shed light on the Zionism, pragmatism and statism of the former prime minister, whose legacy is neglected despite his important historical stature. A leader versed in the small details but feeling the flap of the wings of history: this is the voice of Moshe Sharett in his speeches from the first months of the state of Israel.


Moshe Sharett, Speaking Out: Israel Foreign Minister’s Speeches May-December 1948, The Moshe Sharett Heritage Society, 2013, 669 pp.


Moshe Sharett was Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister – after David Ben-Gurion and before him. His term as prime minister was brief (less than two years) but as foreign minister it spanned generations – eight years after the establishment of the state and fifteen years before it, as head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, in effect the Zionist movement’s foreign ministry. His name is linked with a long list of historical enterprises. As foreign minister he established the Israeli foreign service and formulated its nationalist patterns (the first ambassadors were called “Sharett’s Angels” [a play on the Hebrew expression malachey hasharet -“ministering angels”]) and was the main architect of the process of Israel’s joining the UN in 1949. Before that, Sharett (then still named Shertok) was the main figure in the erection of the “Tower and Stockade” settlements and the recruitment of members of the Yishuv into the British Army in the Second World War. He also led the diplomatic struggle that brought about the Partition Plan adopted by the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947.

Despite his historical importance, at present there is no organized system for commemorating his figure and reminding future generations of his great contribution to the State of Israel. There is no institution dealing with his work, no framework for financing the publication of his writings and no “Moshe Sharett Law” requiring the state to care for his legacy. This situation raises questions about discrimination regarding the commemoration of the nation’s leaders. On one hand there are special institutions whose purpose is to disseminate the legacy of leaders, such as the Ben-Gurion Institute in Sde Boker, the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem and the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. Laws have also been passed to commemorate exalted persons, such as the Rehavam Zeevi Law dedicated to dissemination and aggrandizement of the transfer legacy he concocted. On the other hand, the state neglects to commemorate central figures such as Levi Eshkol, the third prime minister, who served during the Six-Day war and whose contribution to the formation of Israeli society was huge. Moshe Sharett’s legacy is also neglected.

The person responsible for commemorating Moshe Sharett is his eldest son, eighty-years-old Yaakov (Kobi) Sharett. In the 1970s he edited the personal diary his father wrote in the years 1953-1957. The Diary, which was published in eight volumes and raised many reverberations, is a historical document whose importance cannot be overemphasized; it describes the internal processes in the high levels of government in a frank and fascinating manner. Ever since then, Yaakov Sharett has dedicated many years to the commemoration of his father. He established the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society – a one-man enterprise – and managed to publish many books relating to his father and his history. Most prominent of them are the three volumes of letters his father wrote during his studies in London in the 1920s, the volume of letters he sent from the Latrun detention camp and the book “The Reparations Controversy” highlighting the bitter debate over the Reparations Agreement with West Germany in 1952. All the books were meticulously edited and the whole project is highly admirable; the work of a son honoring his father in the full meaning of the word.

The Society has now issued a new volume – the first in a series dedicated to Sharett’s words in matters of foreign, security and social policy during the summit of his career: as foreign minister (1948-1956) and prime minister (1954-1955), when “destiny chose him to head the state’s foreign front in its first nine years”. This volume focuses on a short but fateful period: the first few months after the establishment of the state, when the captains of the young nation made huge decisions. They dealt with issues sicu as the very establishment of the state, the question of Jerusalem and its internationalization, the assassination of UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, the need to disband the secessionist undergrounds and the issue of the IZL weapons ship Altalena. Sharett’s positions regarding these issues were clear. He did not try to befog or obfuscate them and they derived from an ordered and crystallized worldview, not from a temporary and passing political viewpoint. Three major and characteristic lines are prevalent in his words: the Zionist line, the pragmatic line, and the national line.

The first, Zionist, line is expressed in the words of Sharett, who was a full and senior partner to Ben-Gurion in the dramatic decision to announce the establishment of the state, in public and closed forums in the days before and immediately after the declaration. In the Mapai Center meeting of 1 May 1948 Sharett described a somber picture. He himself and his colleagues in the Agency Executive in the US were hard-pressed to withstand the pressure applied by the American government to halt the process intended to bring about the establishment of the state. Sharett asked whether the Yishuv had a chance to hold against the invasion of the Arab states’ armies without American support and delivered the words of Secretary of State General George Marshall, who had warned him: “You are taking a very great responsibility. Your war is just beginning, and who knows how it will end? Consider the matter carefully… don’t come to us demanding help, as we have warned you.”

Sharett conclude with a heroic sentence: “The prospects facing us are very grave, very grave. But apparently we have no choice, and we have to go forward.” In a public gathering held on 15 May 1948, one day after the declaration of the state, he expressed his feeling succinctly, almost religiously: “the task is huge and the time is short. Great opportunities stand before us, but we are also faced with grave dangers. We are experiencing a revolutionary period, not by our choosing, but as decreed by fate. We had no option but to accelerate the process. The Holocaust of European Jewry, the World War and the ensuing geopolitical reshuffle, the inevitable end of the British mandate, the political, economic and military coming of age of the Yishuv, the military build-up of the countries around us – all these coming together have brought us to this point and forced us to jump the gun.”

The second, pragmatic line was debated on a most sensitive point – the partition of Jerusalem. In the provisionary government’s meeting on 12 September 1948, Sharett said unequivocally: “I do not flinch from the partition of Jerusalem, in the same way I did not flinch from the partition of Israel.” He explained that it had been said “It is impossible to demand a Jewish sate because that means a partitioned Eretz-Israel” (he referred in fact to people from the Zionist Left, such as Yitzhak Tabenkin). Had this line prevailed a Jewish state would not have risen, and “since this line did not win – this brought about partition and the Jewish state.” This principle applies to Jerusalem too and his words have a contemporary relevance: “To demand the whole of Jerusalem – is grasping too much.” Arab rule in a certain part of the city is acceptable; this is nothing to be happy about “but it is the only solution.”

The third, nationalist line, came up from his words on the Altalena issue in a press conference held in Tel Aviv on 23 June 1948, one day after the bombing and sinking of the ship. Sharett stated that the affair threatened the very authority of the institutions of the newly- established state; the provisional government’s swift decision is to maintain the sovereignty of the State of Israel… the IZL operation has tested our competence and we have withstood the IZL action unflinchingly, and the Israeli government’s authority will be total and absolute. The provisional government will not bear and not accept political and military anarchy ensuing from the continued existence of armed and insubordinate groups.”

Sharett emphasized that great efforts were made to avoid the clash with the IZL people but “there can be no compromise on the basic issues of the authority of the state and military discipline.”

A double picture of Moshe Sharett arises from this volume. On one side, a cautious and level-headed diplomat versed in all the minute details of the international arena within which Israel struggled. On the other, a statesman feeling that he is touching the flap of the wings of history. This volume describes Moshe Sharett’s finest hour.