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In Shimon Peres’ book on Ben-Gurion, a longing for leadership absent in Israel today

JERUSALEM (JTA) – David Ben-Gurion must be spinning in his grave. The handful of haredi Orthodox Jews to whom he gave indemnity from military service has become a million.

Israeli presidents and Cabinet ministers have landed themselves in jail for rape, corruption and nepotism. The Knesset and the Supreme Court are locked in a battle to the death, and the Knesset is winning. We have lost Turkey. And hardly anyone has moved to the Negev. If he were not already dead, Ben-Gurion would resign.

The more I read “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life” by Shimon Peres (Schocken, $25.95), the more I liked to play “What Would the Old Man Do Now?” One thing is for certain: If Israel’s first prime minister held the post today, he would cut an incongruous and confused figure amid all the bling and bang of Israel’s current politicians.

Written “in conversation with” David Landau, a former editor in chief of Haaretz and former correspondent for JTA, the book is the 19th title in the Jewish Encounter series from Schocken and Nextbook Press.

Let us dispense with the platitudes that Peres is usually showered with and cut straight to the chase. An insightful, exhaustive and dispassionate dissection of Israel’s founding father the book is not. In fact, Peres did not actually write it, Landau did.

Peres’ memories inform much of the book, and he edited its final draft. What is unique is that the book is peppered with Peres’ commentary about Ben-Gurion and his milieu at the time of Israel’s creation. With books called “The Unmaking of Israel” making the rounds now, it is a timely text.

In that sense also, you are getting two for the price of one: a subjective historical account of Israel’s founder and first prime minister written by none other than Israel’s current president, who happened to be at Ben-Gurion’s side during much of his career, and an erudite and personal critique about contemporary Israeli politics from the last remaining figure of the Jewish state’s founding generation.

As a biography written collaboratively by two men with opposite goals, it’s a strange book.

Peres seeks to frame Ben-Gurion as the very pinnacle of leadership and moral clarity, defending Ben-Gurion’s political pragmatism as the most necessary characteristic of the man whose sole purpose was to establish the Jewish state from the ashes of the Holocaust.

Landau, on the other hand, comes from a purely journalistic perspective, and his task, which he pursues vigorously, is to highlight the complexities of Ben-Gurion’s political life — to delve into the gray area, antagonizing the memory of Peres sufficiently to get a fuller account of the “Old Man.”

It is in this tension between subjective biographer and critical journalist that the book finds its drama. Perhaps their two missions merge at that point in the text where both Landau and Peres portray the current crop of Israeli leaders as not cut from the same cloth as Ben-Gurion. To Peres’ credit, he does not edit out some of the tougher exchanges with Landau.

In a good example, Landau harangues Peres about Ben-Gurion’s single-minded focus on establishing a state instead of lobbying to save the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust.

Peres is certainly uncomfortable with this line of questioning, as he should be. It takes Landau’s constant, obsessive probing to pry the painful truth from Peres: “We didn’t have that kind of clout,” the president finally admits.

The exchange, between an acerbic and brutally honest journalist and a witness, imbues the book with real drama.

Peres wholeheartedly believes that Ben-Gurion made the right decision by focusing on creating the state, but Landau has to get him to explain why. Peres has no real reason to whitewash Ben-Gurion or defend him against accusations of ignoring the plight of Hitler’s Jewish victims. History will judge Ben-Gurion for the decisions he took and the compromises he made. Peres, for his part, is convinced that it was the right decision, as was the difficult decision to accept the U.N. Partition Plan (“Better a state on part of the land than the whole land and no state.”)

Peres was, and obviously still is, in awe of Ben-Gurion. Here is a good example:

“Landau: Despite your enormous admiration of him, did you ever find yourself, in private, critical of Ben-Gurion’s policies?”

“Peres: No!”

“Landau: That’s almost impossible.”

In his book, Peres tells us a few interesting personal tidbits about Ben-Gurion. The first woman he loved fell in love with another man, and Ben-Gurion kept up a correspondence with her for years after her marriage and his own marriage to his wife, Paula, even extolling the woman to leave her husband and children and come live with him.

Detailing Ben-Gurion’s single-mindedness with establishing the state, Peres relates that Ben-Gurion left his pregnant wife to go off to war and fight for the British.

Ben-Gurion was such a stickler for clean governance that as an official of the Yishuv, he refused to expedite or help in any way with his family’s immigration to Israel from Poland. He refused even though his wife and child were waiting, and his father had supported Ben-Gurion financially during his legal studies in Turkey and during the first lean years in Palestine. That is how much he hated Israel’s culture of “protektsia” – who you know.

Peres’ primary message in the book seems to be that they just don’t make them like Ben-Gurion anymore. He recalls an exchange between President Kennedy and Ben-Gurion.

“Kennedy: I know that I owe my election to your people. How can I repay you for your support?”

“Ben-Gurion: You can repay us by being a great president of the United States.”

Peres has repeated this mantra to President Obama.

“Israel, by virtue of her abiding strategic, political, and democratic quintessence, needs the president of the U.S. to be strong and successful,” Peres writes. “It’s poor politics and the most shortsighted strategy to suggest that Israel can somehow benefit from a confrontational or adversarial relationship with the president of the U.S.” — a thinly veiled reference to the sometimes testy relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama.

With Israel facing challenges on so many fronts, much of them internally, I kept wondering: What would Ben-Gurion do today?

What would he do about rising lawlessness in the West Bank, which according to the book he did not believe Israel should keep? What would he do with the increasing tensions between the secular and haredi Orthodox?

Peres implies in the book that Ben-Gurion took pity on the haredim who had survived the Holocaust and made it to Israel by allowing them to establish yeshivas and not serve in the army. Back then their numbers were negligible. But by the end of the 1960s, certainly toward the end of his second stint as prime minister, didn’t Ben-Gurion notice that their numbers had swelled?

Peres’ book ignores the issue, which recently has risen to the forefront of Israeli public discourse.

In another reference to contemporary Israeli issues, Peres relates a remark Ben-Gurion made to him about why he preferred Lenin over Trotsky.

“You know, Trotsky was no statesman … because of his concept of no war, no peace. That’s not statesmanship. That’s some sort of Jewish invention,” Peres quotes Ben-Gurion as saying. “A statesman must decide, one way or the other: to go for peace and pay the price, or to make war, knowing what the risks and dangers are.”

It’s almost as if Peres is telescoping Ben-Gurion’s ideas on the country’s biggest contemporary problem: the dangerous lack of decisive leadership.

Careful readers will hear the criticism and urgency permeating almost every page of “Ben-Gurion: A political life.”

As president, Peres has to navigate a careful path as a nonpartisan figurehead trying to keep a fractured nation together. But as a writer, Peres clearly longs to see Ben-Gurion types in the men and women of today’s Knesset. It’s clear that for the most part, they’re just not there.

(Amir Mizroch is the editor of the English newsletter edition of Israel Hayom.)