Last month marked the thirtieth year memorial of the death of "the Old Man" David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister and founder. Few today realize Ben-Gurion's impact as a leader and politician, but his influence remains. Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres, the two grand figures of Israeli politics today who each embody their wing of Israel's political spectrum, were in the trusted circle of Ben-Gurion. Both see themselves as continuing his legacy.
Peres was appointed as director-general of the nascent Defense Ministry at the age of 29. Sharon, at age 25 was appointed to lead the Unit 101 commando team that specialized in reciprocity for Arab attacks.
Peres was a consummate politician, who would become a lifelong trusted aide, and was one of the several government officials in 1954 who was working to restore Ben-Gurion to power. Conversely, Sharon was a lifelong soldier. He had joined the Haganah at the age of 14, during the 1948 War of Independence, the same Haganah that Ben-Gurion commanded until he turned it into the IDF. Today, they are political polar opposites. Sharon is Israel's Prime Minister and Peres is the head of the opposition.
Interestingly, both men make good arguments in how they see themselves carrying on Ben-Gurion's legacy. The Likud (under Sharon) prefers to remember Ben-Gurion's aggressive policy towards the Palestinians, and the Old Man's forceful military tactics. Labor (embodied by Peres) prefers to remember Ben-Gurion's vision of sharing territory with the Palestinians, and his agreement to an equitable cease-fire at the end of Israel's War of Independence in 1948. A close analysis, however, reveals that Sharon is more authentically furthering Ben-Gurion's legacy.
It is Ariel Sharon who now emerges as Ben-Gurion's true protégé not only in centralized power – his party holds twice as many seats as the opposition – but Sharon is also a realist, willing to consider the prospect of a two state solution. Ben-Gurion in 1937 did the same when the Peel Commission offered him a tiny state for the Jews.
In February 1955, Ben-Gurion was the defense minister who supported strong reprisals against Egypt after a Jewish cyclist was killed and an Israeli border patrol was ambushed. This resulted in operation "Black Arrow" led by a young, career military man named Ariel Sharon. When Ben-Gurion was asked by Prime Minister Moshe Sharett to comment on the military actions he said, "Our isolation is not a result of [the operation]; it came [about] earlier when we were pure as doves."
In this year's memorial for the late Prime Minister, Sharon's deputy Ehud Olmert delivered a message that was clear. Israel must depend on its own ability to defend itself and not on international support. This accords with Ben-Gurion's vision that the dream must fit the reality we live in. It was Ben-Gurion's belief that a partial Israel under Jewish control is better than a whole Israel with an Arab majority. Olmert highlighted the importance of the land of Israel saying, "a Jewish state without the integrity of the land is better than the integrity of the land without a Jewish state."
Sharon is following in his mentor's footsteps with regard to Israeli foreign policy, and he strongly believes that Israel's strength will determine the reality only if he can ensure a relatively good relationship with Washington. It is through this prism that Sharon views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he wants to create an environment where they can co-exist, but not at the expense of the Jewish polity. "As Prime Minister of Israel, my primary responsibility is to ensure the security of the citizens and State of Israel. There will be no compromise with terror. And Israel, together with the nations of the Free World, will continue fighting terrorism until it is completely defeated. There can be no peace with terrorism!"
Like his mentor, Sharon also sees it probable that the conflict will continue and Israel will have to stand strong. As he stated at the recent Fourth Herzliya Conference "Like all Israeli citizens, I yearn for peace. I attach supreme importance to taking all steps, which will enable progress toward resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. However, in light of the other challenges we are faced with, if the Palestinians do not make a similar effort toward a solution of the conflict I do not intend to wait for them indefinitely." Similarly, in 1938, Ben-Gurion said, "The conflict had lasted 30 years, and is liable to continue for perhaps hundreds more."
Sharon has a strong chance of being perceived as the student who best exemplifies Ben-Gurion's farsightedness, if Israel and America maintain their objectives, especially in the way they view the war on terror as a mutual goal, and if Sharon adheres to his policy of strength. Interestingly, at the present it is Sharon, unlike his fellow classmate, whose policies are supported by the majority of the Israeli public, and is the one they turn to when they seek a sense of security. Since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the Israeli public has shifted to the Right. This fact, attributed to Sharon on the one hand, is also due to the fact that the Israeli Left offers a less coherent, and acceptable message to its constituents.
This suggests that Sharon's leadership is comparable to Ben-Gurion's administration, an administration that governed Israel for almost 30 years. As Michael Bar-Zohar highlights, "For thirty years, from his ‘conquest of the Zionist movement' in 1933 until his resignation in 1963, Ben-Gurion was the leader of the Palestinian Jewish community and the State of Israel." This is the same type of support and stability that is easily seen in Israeli society today.
Moreover, Sharon's ongoing quagmire with the settlements and the Palestinians is similar to the conflict-ridden situation Ben-Gurion faced during the Altalena episode, as Haaretz correspondent Bradley Burston writes, "Should he [Sharon] make good on his hints, the enterprise would be tantamount to Sharon's Altalena, a decision to follow in the path of David Ben-Gurion, the thorny, controversial, knowingly divisive path of the prime minister Sharon first served as a thorny, controversial, knowingly divisive young military commander more than fifty years ago."
Sharon's Ben-Gurionism has become pivotal to Israel's future, since it highlights the need for both a strong and secure Israel, coinciding with a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sharon's stance today proves how much Ben-Gurion influenced him, and the fact that Sharon himself wants to be seen as a Ben-Gurion and not as Ze'ev Jabotinsky shows that the political Left is falling by the wayside.
The Right simply offers a more centered and far-reaching message. As Sharon moves Israel to the center, the Left has nothing left.
Asaf Romirowsky is a research associate at The Middle East Forum.