David Ben-Gurion, the State of Israel and the Arab World, 1949-1956
by Zaki Shalom
Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2002. 216 pp. $69.95.
Reviewed by Yoav Gelber
University of Haifa
Middle East Quarterly
Living at Ben-Gurion's kibbutz and working at the Heritage Institute, which focus on researching the history of Zionism and Israel, Shalom has devoted his career to studying the policies of Israel's founding leader, David Ben-Gurion. Here, he examines Ben-Gurion's views on Israeli-Arab relations after the war of independence (when Israelis harbored naïve expectations of a political settlement) until the Sinai war (with its expectations of a "second round").
Shalom argues that Ben-Gurion realized early on that a genuine resolution between Israel and the Arabs was not feasible for the foreseeable future, so he devoted himself to achieving partial palliatives and to mobilizing his country and preparing it for that unavoidable "second round." Shalom devotes much attention to the relations between Ben-Gurion and his foreign minister (and temporary successor), Moshe Sharett, finding that the two differed on matters of defense policy but saw eye-to-eye on Israel's requirements from a political settlement.
Shalom is probably right on this but the real controversy was between Sharett and Moshe Dayan. Sharett saw the armistice lines as the state's final boundaries but Dayan objected, claiming that the Jewish state could not survive within those borders (now known as the 1967 lines). Their disagreement emerged on the eve of the Lausanne conference in 1949 and broke out again in the summer of 1950 and once more in 1954. Ben-Gurion did not take a clear stance on this issue until he returned from his retirement in early 1955, when he increasingly adopted Dayan's approach. As Motti Golani has shown in his study of the Sinai war, Dayan and Shimon Peres eventually convinced him to take a stand in 1956 against Egypt.
This omission may stem from Shalom's methodological approach, which de-emphasizes chronology in favor of elaborating on themes. This might make sense in analyzing the work of a thinker but Ben-Gurion was a politician and his views of the Arab world should be examined in the context of changing circumstances, not as abstractions.
Shalom seems also to find it necessary to refute the now-tattered revisionist claim that Israel missed an opportunity to resolve its conflict with the Arabs in 1949, but this is superfluous. The Arab states were clearly adamant in their demand that Israel must first comply with unrealistic United Nations decisions—181 (partition) and 194 (return of refugees)—before they would negotiate. By contrast, the Arabs retained for themselves full freedom of action. In other words, even after Israel would have made enormous concessions, tantamount to national suicide, the Arab states were not committed to peaceful relations. There was no opportunity, so no one missed it. No explanation need be given, and apologetics are unnecessary.
 Motti Golani, Israel in Search of a War: The Sinai Campaign, 1955-1956 (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1998), 193-6.
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy, History, Israel & Zionism | Yoav Gelber | Spring 2003 MEQ
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