In 2005, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, came in second in a poll in which the Israeli public was asked to identify the 200 greatest Israelis ever. There can be no doubt that he would have replaced the martyred Yitzhak Rabin in the top spot, had the latter not been assassinated during his second term as prime minister in 1995.
The man who rightfully earned the epithet of Founding Father of the State of Israel is the subject of two entirely distinct recently published biographies. The first, by Shimon Peres, the current president of Israel and a lifelong protégé of Ben-Gurion, provides a straightforward yet condensed chronological account of the founder's political life from his leadership of a socialist-Zionist political party in Plonsk, Poland, early in the last century, through his two stints as Israel's prime minister, until the outbreak of the 1967 war. The second, by Shlomo Aronson, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University, offers extensive scholarly explanations for Ben-Gurion's political actions from the 1930s through the 1960s. By doing so, he portrays a unique individual "who combined intellectualism and leadership in a singular way."
Peres's unqualified admiration becomes evident from the very outset of his biography. He depicts his mentor as "an emblem not only of the energy that created the State of Israel, but also of the sort of leadership that the country so desperately needs if it is to find its way to peace and security." Peres is especially impressed by two qualities: the possession of foresight and the ability and willingness to make difficult political decisions.
Peres reveals that Ben-Gurion correctly anticipated as early as 1945 an inevitable armed conflict over Palestine once the British Mandate ended. Thus, in his capacity as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, he met in New York City with several American Jewish leaders, urging them to donate funds for the establishment of a Jewish arms industry in Palestine. Likewise, on May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion successfully resisted demands from members of the provisional government to include the mentioning of specific boundaries for the Jewish state in the declaration of Israeli independence. He accurately anticipated that the precise borders, or actual armistice lines, would emerge only after an inevitable military clash with the Arabs.
Both biographies provide ample evidence of Ben-Gurion's ability to make extremely difficult political decisions. Peres notes that in August 1939, after Great Britain issued a White Paper that limited Jewish immigration into Palestine, Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to cease military actions against the British forces. He believed that "we must help the British in their war [against Hitler] as though there were no White Paper, and we must resist the White Paper as though there were no war." Both authors regard Ben-Gurion's decision to accept the UN partition resolution of November 1947, in the face of strong opposition from both Revisionist and Leftist Zionist parties, as a historic choice and courageous act of leadership. Likewise, on May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion was able to gain a bare majority within the provisional government for the issuance of the declaration of independence.
Additional instances of exemplary acts of political leadership abound throughout the two volumes. During the 1948 war, Ben-Gurion successfully dismantled the autonomous Palmach and Irgun military forces, which were respectively loyal to political organizations on the Left and Right, and compelled them to integrate into the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Concurrently, he decided to exempt full-time yeshiva students from military service, a controversial action that nevertheless enabled his Mapai party to form a coalition government in 1949 with the Zionist-Orthodox Mizrachi party and with the non-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel.
Despite vehement opposition inside the Knesset and violent clashes in the streets of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion was able to win a narrow majority in February 1952 for a reparations agreement with the West German government that provided Israel with more than $700 million worth of goods and services over the next 12 years. This was in addition to $100 million given to Jewish organizations and millions more disbursed in personal reparations to survivors of the Holocaust. According to Aronson, Ben-Gurion agreed to collude with Great Britain and France in late October 1956, launching a war against Egypt primarily to secure French assistance with Israel's nuclear-weapons program. In the same vein, Peres notes that Ben-Gurion managed to secure combat planes, air-to-air missiles and submarines from West Germany in the late 1950s, in addition to a $500 million loan repayable on easy terms.
The major theme that emerges from Aronson's volume is that Ben-Gurion was a product of a particularly significant era in Jewish history. He maintains that, both in his writings and policies, Ben-Gurion invoked the concept of a Zionist Renaissance that encompassed "not just the revival of the Hebrew language, culture and literature, but also the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland, so that Jewry could govern itself as a viable national entity and would be worthy of doing so." From the Bible, Ben-Gurion drew not only love for the ancestral Jewish homeland but also a strong commitment to Socialist Zionism, which embodied the values of social justice initially articulated by the great prophets.
Aronson argues that, throughout his tenure as prime minister, Ben-Gurion carried out a largely failed campaign to reshape the Israeli governmental structure along the British constitutional model. He attempted to establish a politically neutral civil service along British lines, but he was more successful in fashioning the IDF as a professional fighting force subordinate to elected civilian authority. Ben-Gurion rejected a written constitution, fearing that such a document would necessarily need to settle highly controversial issues that divided Jewish society, especially regarding the relationship between the state and religion. His attempt to transform Israel's chaotic multiparty system along the British and American models ended in utter failure.
Both authors attribute Ben-Gurion's loss of standing among the Israeli elites to his strict adherence to the principle of mamlachtiyut, the notion that the national interest must take precedence over narrower partisan political priorities. The long and tortuous chain of events that contributed to Ben-Gurion's eventual resignation as prime minister in June 1963 began with the so-called Lavon Affair, a botched operation undertaken by the Military Intelligence (MI) of the IDF in Egypt in 1954. Following the capture by the Egyptians of the MI cell that carried out attacks against Western targets in Cairo and Alexandria, Minister of Defense Pinchas Lavon was forced to resign. In 1960, after new information emerged implying that MI operatives in Egypt had acted without prior permission from the defense minister, Lavon approached Ben-Gurion and demanded to be absolved of any responsibility for the affair. Ben-Gurion, however, insisted that Lavon could be absolved only as a result of a judicial inquiry. A committee of seven ministers was set up, with Ben-Gurion's reluctant consent, to discuss procedures for further investigation of the Lavon Affair. That committee, however, overstepped its mandate and exonerated Lavon, precipitating Ben-Gurion's political demise.
Both Peres and Aronson also dismiss one of the most damning accusations leveled against Ben-Gurion: that he and the Zionist leadership in Palestine did not do enough to save Jews from Nazi carnage after 1939 due to their exclusive focus on governing the Yishuv (Jewish community) and attaining its political independence in Palestine. Peres regards such charges as "arrant nonsense" and claims that the leadership of the Yishuv was simply unaware of the horrendous scope of the Holocaust in its early stages. Aronson provides evidence that, from 1943 onward, when the dimensions of the Holocaust became more evident, Ben-Gurion and Yishuv leaders did their best to induce the Allies to effect the rescue of European Jews. Such efforts, however, were doomed to fail for several reasons, including the absolute control that the Nazis exercised over the lives of Jews within the Third Reich and the Allies' insistence on unconditional surrender, which eliminated the possibility of fruitful negotiations with the Nazis. With Ben-Gurion at the helm, the Jewish Agency for Palestine also trained parachutists who were deployed in the Germans' rear lines, and it authorized the payment of large sums of ransom for the rescue of Jews. In several instances, however, potential ransom deals were sabotaged by the Allies.
The most glaring weakness in both biographies is their one-sided treatment of Ben-Gurion's attitudes and policies toward Palestinian Arabs. According to Peres, Ben-Gurion maintained that the Arabs of Palestine were entitled to the same right of self-determination as the Jews. He further notes, "I never heard him speak in favor of expelling Arabs from Israel. On the contrary, during the  war I heard him speak in condemnation of the practice." Peres insists that Ben-Gurion never ordered the expulsion of Arabs from Lydda and Ramle in the midst of the first Arab-Israeli war. In the same vein, Aronson argues that Ben-Gurion and the Zionist leadership formulated the notion of "voluntary emigration" of Arabs from the Jewish state of Palestine proposed in 1937 by Lord Peel only in response to British queries, and that this idea was dropped by Ben-Gurion and his comrades shortly thereafter.
The claims of Ben-Gurion's allegedly benevolent attitudes toward the Palestinian Arabs both before and after the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 have been challenged by several Israeli historians whom Peres and Aronson inexplicably ignore. Benny Morris maintains that it was Ben-Gurion and his colleagues who played a critical role in persuading the Peel Commission to adopt the transfer solution and not, as Aronson would have us believe, the other way around. According to Morris, the thrust of Ben-Gurion's thinking favored the forcible removal of Arabs from Palestine to Transjordan. Summing up the discussions that took place in the Jewish Agency Executive in June 1938, Ben-Gurion wrote, "With compulsory transfer we [would] have a vast area [for settlement]....I support compulsory transfer. I don't see anything immoral in it" (Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, p. 144).
According to Avi Shlaim, another Israeli historian, Ben-Gurion approved a Haganah plan (Plan Dalet or D) in March 1948 with the objective of clearing the interior of the country of hostile Arab elements. That plan justified the capture of Arab cities, the destruction of Arab villages, and the forcible expulsion of Arab civilians (The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, p. 31). According to Morris, Ben-Gurion personally authorized the expulsion of thousands of Arab residents of Lydda and Ramle in mid-July 1948, forcing them eastward toward the lines of the Arab Legion (p. 240).
Peres's biography is much more accessible to the general reader. It is devoid of scholarly jargon and provides important details about Ben-Gurion's life in a straightforward chronological order. Aronson's volume, on the other hand, would have greater appeal for scholars and practitioners already familiar with both Zionist and recent Middle East history. Unfortunately, this work would have benefitted from more careful editing; the writing is turgid, meandering and repetitive.
There can be little doubt that David Ben-Gurion was one of the giant political leaders of the tweniteth century. While both Peres and Aronson shed considerable new light on the life of this modern-day Moses, one would hope that future treatments of his life story would be less enamored of their subject and more objective in their approach.