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September 1, 2019 6:38 am

Comparing Netanyahu and Ben-Gurion

avatar by Shmuel Sandler


Photograph of President Truman in the Oval Office, evidently receiving a Menorah as a gift from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (center), and Abba Eban, the Ambassador of Israel to the United States. – Comparing any leader, however successful, with a “founding father” inevitably puts that leader at a disadvantage. Founding fathers of David Ben-Gurion’s ilk — such as George Washington, Kamal Atatürk, or Mao Zedong — are generally given a kind of immunity, and harsh criticisms are rare. In addition, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still serving as prime minister, only a limited perspective can be offered.

That said, the most obvious point of similarity between Netanyahu and Ben-Gurion is an almost total devotion to Israel’s security. While the security of the country has been a key factor for all the prime ministers in Israel’s history, for these two leaders it was the ultimate consideration.

And in the same context is the nuclear issue. Ben-Gurion began to deal with the nuclear question as soon the state was established. His realization that in such a hostile environment Israel could not remain viable over time without the ultimate deterrent became a fundamental plank of the country’s national security concept. During Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister, Israel’s nuclear status in the unstable Middle East returned to the top of the pyramid of the country’s security considerations.

Both leaders were prepared to confront US presidents on this issue. Both saw a link between the nuclear threat and the Holocaust, a view that perhaps figured most prominently for Menachem Begin.

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In the domestic arena as well, there are points of similarity. Netanyahu was not the first to harshly berate and frequently attack opposition parties, nor was he the first to hinder the development of future leadership within his own party. Ben-Gurion anticipated him in this regard, as in his motto “without Herut and Maki,” his tensions with Mapam, and his volatile relationships with Moshe Sharett, Pinhas Lavon, and Levi Eshkol.

There are, however, clear points of difference between the two leaders as well.

One of the most familiar is Ben-Gurion’s fear of the “Napoleonchik” phenomenon. In new societies, particularly after a revolution, generals have been known to take control of the political system. That was why Ben-Gurion, a leader who was not young and who lacked military expertise, immersed himself in the study of military theory and took upon himself the role of defense minister. To the IDF’s credit, his fears proved baseless. By the time Netanyahu assumed the post of defense minister, the security elite had in fact become the moderating factor in Israel’s defense policy.

Ben-Gurion arrived at the prime ministerial post after a long journey of public leadership in the Yishuv that was full of challenges. He became prime minister after serving as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Jewish Agency, or “the state in the making,” for 13 years. Netanyahu’s path to the office was shorter, and his previous public roles were not central in the manner of those of Ben-Gurion.

Ben-Gurion’s career developed within the Labor party, and he was nurtured in a socialist worldview. He was a leader of workers before he became a statesman. Netanyahu came from a home that was the diametric opposite, and he has always sought to apply what he considers to be the superior capitalist approach to the Israeli economy.

Finally, whereas Israel’s first prime minister intensely feared an Arab majority in the Land of Israel and hence agreed to a partition of the land, Netanyahu is not eager for a new partition.

From a historical-political perspective, we know David Ben-Gurion did not retire as prime minister at the peak of his powers. Indeed, no Israeli prime ministers have done so — quite the opposite is true. It is not easy to be prime minister of the Jewish state. On that, both Netanyahu and Ben-Gurion would surely agree.

Prof. Shmuel Sandler is president of Emunah-Efrat College in Jerusalem and a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

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