Now an international airport and a university, as well as any number of boulevards in Israeli cities and towns, David Ben-Gurion — the man — was born in Płońsk, the Russian-ruled part of Poland in 1886. When he read Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, thereby inaugurating the first government of the first Jewish state in two millennia, he was already 62. In the years since, some 150 new states have been established. Most of these were the gift of colonial powers that handed them over to their new rulers as complete packages with everything ready from internationally recognized borders to a ministry of finance and a prison service. That was true of the post-Soviet states as well, except for the democratic bits, which their rulers mostly ignore anyway.
It was entirely different for Ben-Gurion. The state he led from its birth until 1963, with a fateful gap in 1954 and 1955, had to be created from the ground up, and he had to do much of the creating. The British left abruptly without any organized handover, evacuating their camps and abandoning their offices after taking away all removable equipment. To find clerks and office furniture was nowhere near as hard as finding weapons for an army, air force and navy—and double-quick because Arab armies were already advancing. Stringent British and U.S. embargoes in the name of peace (with the already equipped Arab armies, including the British-officered Arab Legion left unmentioned) were meant to ensure the expected outcome. But even that near-insurmountable challenge was overcome under Ben-Gurion’s leadership by a variegated cast of unlikely characters that briefly included Josef Stalin (to hu rt the British), the irrepressible Hank Greenspun of Las Vegas, the frighteningly smart secret agent Ehud Avriel, a British gentile Royal Air Force pilot who could fly any transport any distance, and others worthy of full-scale biographies.
Yet the greatest obstacles to the creation of the Jewish state were the Jews, or rather the Zionist leaders themselves. For all their talents, many were so conditioned by deeply rooted mental habits of dependence that they simply did not understand the absolute imperative of possessing state power. Some, including the religious, could not bring themselves to accept its inevitable military aspect. Guns were for Cossacks, not Jews — an attitude, or mere pose, that long lingered and indeed lingers still in benighted recesses, such as the editorial office of the New York Review of Books.
As late as the Zionist Congress of 1946, held in Basel in the immediate aftermath of the most terrible demonstration of the ultimate survival risk of statelessness, Ben-Gurion met strong resistance when he pressed for a maximum effort to secure an independent state in Palestine. He was the leading Labor Party politician, head of the World Zionist Organization, and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which actually built settlements and funded most Jewish institutions, including the Haganah militia. But in Basel, where everything had to be done democratically, the immensely prestigious Chaim Weizmann, who valued his easy access to the halls of the mighty in Britain as elsewhere, preferred continued British control, even as the British continued to block Jewish immigration into Palestine (nobody was impeding the many Arab migrants). As for the very strong Marxist contingent, newly reinforced by the reflected glory of the victorious Red Army, with its powerful kibbutz movement, and the coolest youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, ennobled by leading the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it wanted an indefinite UN mandate over the whole of Palestine to pursue the bi-nationalism that some still long for. Then there were the non-socialist Zionists, many of whom much preferred caution to action. Outside the Congress, Menachem Begin’s Revisionists were very eager for a state, but only over the whole of Palestine, a non-starter.
For a true leader in a great crisis, the whole world is but a very narrow bridge, and the only important thing is not to be afraid, to reject ignominious retreat and useless face-saving compromises alike. When Ben-Gurion came to the narrow bridge at Basel, it was only his supremely courageous resolve to abandon the Congress and start all over again that won the day.
Ronald Reagan came to his narrow bridge at the very outset of his presidency. European leaders, his own secretary of state, academia and the quality press were all telling him that in the nuclear age there was no alternative to coexistence with the USSR; hence it was imperative to resume talks leading to a summit meeting with Brezhnev. Having campaigned against détente, Reagan was being told to resume it — and quickly. Ignoring the establishment, Reagan flatly refused, embarking instead on a tenacious campaign to delegitimize the Soviet Union. His “evil empire” speech that must now be judged prophetic was universally ridiculed at the time.
President Bill Clinton was famously deft at avoiding narrow bridges, but when he could not he showed the mettle of true leadership, notably by out-staring House Speaker Newt Gingrich and accepting a federal government shutdown in December 1995 rather than unwanted budget cuts. That was the very clear precedent that President Barack Obama chose not to follow this year. He had weighty justification in our time of global fiscal insecurity. But by allowing the Republicans to dictate the outcome of the budget fight, Obama crippled his own leadership, and even a string of foreign policy successes may not repair the damage.
The newly inaugurated Clinton was also forced to choose between the youthful activists on the left of the Democratic Party — many backed by lavishly funded environmentalist lobbies, both of which had done much to elect him — and the dour voices on the right of the party. After 12 years of Republicans in the White House, they wanted more of the same: fiscal prudence and regulatory restraint. Clinton chose the right, broke the tender hearts of the more innocent of his supporters and paved the way for eight years of economic growth and high employment.
Obama once again did not follow Clinton. Having been elected with enthusiastic Wall Street support and funding from top financiers, he could not bring himself to break their tender hearts, or rather their wallets, when their firms were bailed out. With a tough secretary of the treasury — the opposite of his ever-emollient Timothy Geithner, who whines when he attempts to upbraid the Chinese — Obama would not have needed any new laws to force Wall Street firms out of dangerous practices and to stop them from paying spectacularly outrageous bonuses to their failed executives, which rankle still. Instead, at a time when most firms were on federal life support, Geithner feebly said that there was nothing he could do, and Obama allowed himself to be rolled with him.
It was just as well that Ben-Gurion had more than his share of courage because he had to face more than his share of narrow bridges. In June 1948 the first Arab onslaught was being precariously held, with Egyptian tanks some 25 miles from Tel Aviv, when a brief UN ceasefire came into effect. It was then that the Altalena, a ship outfitted by Menachem Begin’s Etzel militia, arrived with desperately needed weapons and some 800 volunteers. Ben-Gurion was concerned by the violation of the UN cease-fire, but very much more by the challenge to the new state’s monopoly of force. He wanted the Etzel dissolved into the newly established Israel Defense Forces, not reinforced with weapons and volunteers that threatened to make Israel into another Lebanon of rival militias. When urgent talks failed, it came to force at Ben-Gurion’s orders, with the 26-year-old Yitzhak Rabin already a brigade commander in charge of the firing that burned the Altalena directly in front of the Tel Aviv beach, a mere 100 meters offshore in full view of the horrified population.
It was outrageous cruelty to fire on Jewish volunteers, but once again Ben-Gurion persuaded all around him that there was no valid alternative to the hardest option, as indeed there was not. Peres was there as an aide, not a soldier, but he had to get hold of a rifle in case the Etzel would attack Ben-Gurion himself. (Begin did not lack courage either: He boarded the ship and was almost the last to jump off with the ammunition already exploding. Then he went onto his radio station to denounce Ben-Gurion, but also to accept the Etzel’s dissolution to avoid civil war.)
Ben-Gurion was active in foreign affairs for decades in one capacity or another (he dealt with Ottoman officials before 1914), but it was only in 1956 that he came to two narrow bridges in a row in foreign policy. The first was the secret negotiation with the British and the French over their concerted 1956 attack on Egypt that preceded Israel’s Sinai campaign. Its swift success in conquering the peninsula eventually led to the second: President Dwight Eisenhower’s ultimatum, demanding Israel’s total withdrawal, but with irreversible gains. Ben-Gurion had met Eisenhower in 1945 when as head of the Jewish Agency he visited Germany’s displaced persons’ camps, and preceding revisionist historians by decades, he saw great wisdom in the man. Once again in the room when it happened, Shimon Peres gives a uniquely intimate account of what ensued in both cases. Of the first bridge, suffice it to say that when Ben-Gurion was asked to open the negotiations, as if he were the one asking for help, he asked only one question of French Prime Minister Guy Mollet: “When did the French stop writing in Latin to switch to French?” (To find out how that made all the difference, one really must read the book.)
Given Obama’s more than adequate record in the hard business of fighting terrorists, and his sound preference for doing less rather than too much in refractory Muslim lands after the huge error of the Afghan troop surge, it is in economic policy that he must stop backing out from narrow bridges. As Israel’s prime minister during the heroic first years of the Israeli economy, when some 800,000 inhabitants fed, housed and assimilated more than a million destitute immigrants with little outside help, Ben-Gurion would have failed totally had he failed economically. His successful calls for austerity — there was very strict food rationing — and solidarity from all, showed classic leadership.
But there was also Ben-Gurion’s willingness to reject conventional wisdom and embrace whatever worked. Instead of expensively educated Geithners who fit their government passages into their personal career plans, he had the likes of Pinchas Sapir, a minister of industry who created out of nothing many of the industries he supervised, and who died almost penniless in a modest apartment in a then very modest Kfar Saba after years of courting the wealthy to invest in Israel, because he was greedy only for the honor of public service. It was by every innovative expedient under the sun, through many a wrong turn, that Sapir, and Israel more broadly, succeeded economically. With many millions of Americans in acute economic distress, Obama should not leave the search for innovative expedients to his Republican opponents, nor should he allow himself to be held back by his advisers who confuse the entire economic system with a handful of the very largest firms that offer the best positions to former U.S. government officials.
Edward N. Luttwak, a military strategist and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the author of “The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.” Reprinted from Tabletmag.com.