‘Prime’ Biographies

‘Prime’ Biographies

The life and times of David Ben-Gurion and Ariel Sharon, two prime ministers who define Israel.

In Jewish publishing, the Year of the Prime Minister continues. On the heels of Yehuda Avner’s exhaustive 2010 “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership” (Toby Press), an insider’s look at the lives and careers of four world-stage Israelis, come two more profiles of Israeli prime ministers by authors who knew them well — in one case, a son; in the other, a longtime adviser and confidante.

Both of the new books — “Sharon: The Life of a Leader” by Gilad Sharon (Harper) and “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life. Shimon Peres in conversation with David Landau” (Nextbook) — share a trenchant, fluid writing style and an eye for the significant detail. And both are unabashedly subjective, in their attitude and their selection of material; though the authors include some illustrative quirks and foibles, they veer toward hagiography instead of dispassionate biography. But both books add to the understanding of the individuals they profile, and the time in which the two men lived.

Peres’ work, part of the Nextbook series of Jewish biographies, is far shorter, barely 200 pages minus its appendix; it’s a series of hand-picked anecdotes — growing out of conversations with veteran Israeli journalist David Landau, some of which are presented verbatim — rather than a fully fleshed-out story of a man whose story has been told countless times by other writers.

Peres speaks with unabashed admiration for Ben-Gurion, a fellow émigré from Eastern Europe, who frequently resigned from influence or threatened to, who gave young Peres responsibilities that may have overwhelmed an older politician-statesman. Ben-Gurion was, according to his onetime protégée, irreplaceable, a Levant Churchill.

Peres starts by calling his former mentor “a mythic figure … a modern-day prophet … visionary and pragmatic, steeped in Jewish history and yet forward looking and unsentimental … our Washington and our Jefferson … an emblem [of] the sort of leadership that the country so desperately needs,” and spends the rest of the book proving that his description is accurate.

Peres makes a good case — even in the milieu of pre-statehood Palestine, when the promise of the Promised Land attracted thousands of young, idealistic, zealous Zionists, Polish-born David Gruen stood out; his charisma and intuition usually outshone his that of his contemporaries.

Ben-Gurion, Peres writes, quickly realized once he arrived in Palestine that far from being an empty country waiting to be populated by diaspora Jewry, the land was shared with Arabs who felt an equal attachment to the territory. “Ben-Gurion … thought long and hard about the ‘Arab problem,’” he writes. “He understood how central it would be in the realization of Zionism’s goals. As early as 1921 he had warned against the illusion prevalent among some Zionists that ‘Eretz Yisrael is an empty country and we can do whatever we wish without taking into account its [extant non-Jewish] inhabitants.’”

In reflecting on Ben-Gurion’s posture toward the forebears of today’s Palestinians, with whom Peres has become a voice for reconciliation and the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, he paints his former boss in decidedly contemporary colors, praising both Ben-Gurion’s and his own political stance. “The Arabs of Palestine had the same right of self-determination as the Jews, Ben-Gurion maintained,” Peres writes. “We do not dream of denying them that right or diminishing it. We demand the same national autonomy for the Arabs as we demand for ourselves. But we do not accept their right to rule over the land … They do not have the right to forbid it being built, to forbid the resurrection of its ruins, the development of its resources, the expansion of its cultivated areas, the advancement of its culture, the increase of its laboring settlements.”

As an advocate of Ben-Gurion, Peres writes dismissively of other Zionist leaders, particularly Chaim Weizmann, eventually the first President of Israel, with whom Ben-Gurion maintained a respectful-but-distant relationship. After Israel’s declaration in 1948, Ben-Gurion proposed Weizmann for the figurehead presidency. “I doubt whether the presidency is necessary to Dr. Weizmann,” Peres records Ben-Gurion as explaining, “but the presidency of Dr. Weizmann is a moral necessity for the State of Israel.”

Peres writes with admiration of Ben-Gurion’s role in establishing the Israel Bonds fund-raising organization, in arranging for restitution payments from West Germany, in dealing with opponents both domestic and foreign.

“It was Ben-Gurion’s genius,” Peres concludes, “to embrace the pragmatic acceptance of the possible, essential for nation building, without ever abandoning the prophetic yearning for moral perfection.”

As Israel’s first prime minister, Ben-Gurion was undeniably a founder of the Jewish state. Ariel Sharon, one of his successors, was a sustainer, and as bullheaded — his admirers and critics will agree — as Ben-Gurion.

Sharon’s son, Gilad, creates a paean, at greater length than Peres for Ben-Gurion, for his father — a man of “sweeping enthusiasm and charisma,” an officer who would obey commanders’ orders but use any opportunity as an opening to chart his own course — who rests in a coma since suffering a debilitating stroke nearly six years ago. Gilad’s book is part family album, part 20th-century Jewish history course, and part military primer. He writes largely uncritically of his father — who was the object of often-venomous domestic criticism during his career — and speaks in the present tense, as if his father is still an active participant in civic life.

“One of my father’s foremost characteristics,” Gilad writes, “is his ability to grasp new developments, to take in the full picture amid the turbulence of complex situations … My father detests improvisation. He is a man of details, of careful and meticulous planning.”

Gilad chronicles the path of his father (born Ariel Scheinermann) from his rise through army ranks, catching the eye of Ben-Gurion, to the highest level of world politics. Sharon’s experience during the War of Independence, as a paratrooper commander who had to leave wounded troops behind, influenced the rest of his life, Gilad writes. “He instilled in his soldiers an ironclad rule: No soldiers could be left in the field.”

Gilad includes an Egyptian Army intelligence report on his father that turned up in Israeli hands after the 1973 Yom Kippur War: “Full bodied, silvery hair, very calm, confident, enamored with the act of self-sacrifice, a talented officer, stubborn, dynamic, brave, in love with the Paratroops and the Special Forces, a believer in the element of surprise, prone toward violence, loves to learn and know.”

“I would sign off on this description of my father,” Gilad writes, “except for ‘prone toward violence.’”

Gilad’s positions on Israeli politics and Israeli politicians are clearly — understandably — his father’s, and his depictions of known Israelis give the sense of settling his father’s old scores.

On Moshe Dayan: He “loved fruit almost as he loved robbing antiquities.”

On Ehud Olmert: “Smug as well as arrogant. He assumed the office of prime minister without the necessary awe and reverence.”

On Ehud Barak: “A man who can disassemble watches and break them down into their smallest components. Perhaps he is even capable of putting some of the parts back. But he can’t tell the time.”

On Yitzchak Shamir: He “did not do much of anything at all, although he was fastidious about his afternoon naps.”

Of major interest, but predictable, is Gilad’s take on Sharon’s role in the 1982 War in Lebanon. Sharon, as Minister of Defense in Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s cabinet, was an architect of the fighting. Sharon, his critics said, misled Begin about the extent of the war, leading the army to fight deeper and harder than originally understood.

Begin, in command of the military situation and aware of his officers’ actions, was not misled by Sharon, Gilad writes. “Not at all. Begin led and presided over his government all the time.”