OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

The Ben-Gurion legacy: Independent national security policy

While David Ben-Gurion’s defiance caused occasional short-term tension, which undermined Israel’s popularity, he earned long-term respect for himself and for his country.

1967, Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel. Two days after the city is reunified in the Six-Day War, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion takes in the Western Wall with Maj. Gen. Chaim Herzog, at the time the first governor of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and later Israel's sixth president. Photo: Meir Freundlich.
1967, Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel. Two days after the city is reunified in the Six-Day War, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion takes in the Western Wall with Maj. Gen. Chaim Herzog, at the time the first governor of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and later Israel's sixth president. Photo: Meir Freundlich.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

The legacy of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, contradicts conventional wisdom. It rejects the assumption that a White House “green light” is a prerequisite for the application of Israeli law to the Jordan Valley and the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria.

Ben-Gurion’s May 14, 1948, Declaration of Independence was not preconditioned upon a “green light” from President Truman. Ben-Gurion demonstrated independence of national security action in defiance of the U.S. State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Furthermore, President Truman was irresolute until the day of the declaration, while the U.S. Mission to the United Nations was preoccupied with rounding up votes for a U.N. Trusteeship in Palestine (instead of an independent Jewish state).

Moreover, Ben-Gurion applied Israeli law to areas in the Galilee, coastal plain, the Negev and Jerusalem—which were acquired during Israel’s War of Independence, expanding Israel’s land by 30 percent—in defiance of a glaring “red light” from the White House and the entire foreign policy and national security establishment in Washington, D.C.

According to James McDonald, the first U.S. Ambassador to Israel: “[Ben-Gurion] warned President Truman and the US Department of State that they would be gravely mistaken if they assumed that the threat, or even the use of sanctions, would force Israel to yield on issues considered vital to its independence and security…. Much as Israel desired friendship with the US, there were limits beyond which it could not go. Israel could not yield at any point which, in its judgement, would threaten its independence or its security. The very fact that Israel was a small state made more necessary the scrupulous defense of its own interests; otherwise, it would be lost” (“My Mission in Israel, 1948-1951,” Simon and Schuster, p. 49).

Ambassador McDonald wrote (ibid., p. 84) that Ben-Gurion was facing a powerful antagonistic coalition led by Secretary of State Gen. George Marshall, Defense Secretary James Forrestal and the State Department “wise men,” including Undersecretary Robert Lovett, special counselor Charles Bohlen, Policy Planning Chief George Kennan, former Secretary Dean Acheson, head of the U.N. Division Dean Rusk and head of the Near East and Asia Bureau Loy Henderson.

Initially, they opposed the establishment of the Jewish state, and then called for “a smaller Israel… cutting most of the Negev off from Israel, to be absorbed by Abdullah’s kingdom of Jordan, in exchange for western Galilee (which Israel had already occupied); demilitarization and internationalization of Jerusalem; permission by Israel for the return of Arab refugees and compensation by Israel to them for property loss…. Israel would be brought before the tribunal of the UN as a defendant.”

Ben-Gurion applied Israeli law despite severe U.S. pressure to retreat to the suicidal Nov. 29, 1947, Partition Plan lines. He rejected the immoral formula of “land for peace,” which would reward and fuel Arab aggression (aiming to annihilate the Jewish state) and punish the intended victim.

Ben-Gurion’s response to U.S. pressure was unflinching: “What Israel has won on the battlefield, it is determined not to yield at the council table” (ibid., p. 86).

Notwithstanding the sustained brutal pressure on Israel, Ambassador McDonald noted: “At the spring session of the UN General Assembly in Flushing Meadows, Israel was formally admitted [to the United Nations] – an interesting bit of evidence of the growth of respect for Israel” (ibid., p. 110).

While Ben-Gurion’s defiance caused occasional short-term tension, which undermined Israel’s popularity, he earned long-term respect for himself and for his country, as documented by Ambassador McDonald: “[Ben-Gurion was] small in stature, but big in spirit…. He has unfaltering faith in the future of Israel…. The Prime Minister had no fear.… Ben Gurion had the unusual courage to resist the popular clamor, when he was convinced that the public was mistaken.”

Indeed, Ben-Gurion, in McDonald’s eyes, was one of the “few great statesmen of our day.” The frequent comparisons of the Israeli premier to Winston Churchill “did not exaggerate the Prime Minister’s qualities of leadership,” he wrote.

The Ben-Gurion legacy highlights the realization that:

• There are no free lunches in the pursuit of bolstered national security.

• Experiencing—and defying—brutal pressure is an integral feature of Jewish history.

• The cost of fending off severe pressure is a prerequisite for the fulfillment of a long-term vision.

• Indecisiveness, hesitation and retreat erode one’s posture of deterrence, undermine one’s role as a strategic ally and invite more pressure.

• Defiance of pressure yields strategic respect among allies, while deterring enemies.

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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