Ben-Gurion against the Knesset

Giora Goldberg, Ben-Gurion against the Knesset (London: Routledge, 2003). Pp 338. $150.00 cloth.

Ben-Gurion, of course, helped to construct and shape the state of Israel, but his actions in the arena of the Knesset, according to Giora Goldberg, led to unforeseen consequences in later years. In the early years of the state, Ben-Gurion wielded tremendous power in party and government as the architect of Labor Zionism and the decisive founder of Israel. Idiosyncrasies were viewed instead within the realm of enigmatic wisdom. As the author comments, “Not only was Ben-Gurion totally identified with the state he had established, he felt he owned it, and passionately loved it” (p. 312). This paralleled the approach of leaders of other newly emergent nations. The emphasis on statism meant that any expression of independence and individuality on the part of the Knesset members was viewed by Ben-Gurion as divisive and counterproductive in the creation of a cohesive and united society. Israel was different from the developing world, however, as Zionist politics had constructed a model that suggested all wisdom did not reside within the executive arm. The Zionist congresses since 1897 and the Asefat Hanivharim, the assembly of the Jewish settlers in Palestine, provided the background experience for parliamentary opposition.

Ben-Gurion viewed the Knesset, the legislative arm, as a talking shop that should support the government and refrain from criticizing it. Moreover, he preferred to blur the differences between the executive and the legislative. However, when he understood that the Knesset was not content to become a rubber stamp, he began to marginalize its position in political life and to regard it almost as a rival. There was no attempt to achieve a balance of forces between government and the executive, no checks and balances, only an apparent zero sum game approach. Ben-Gurion’s campaign against the Knesset initially rendered it somewhat docile and on the defensive such that not a single private member’s bill was proposed in the first Knesset and only two enacted in the second.

In the early years, the continued existence of Israel was in the balance. Israel was “a mobilized democracy” (p. 317). Its exposition of democratic behavior therefore projected flaws. Israeli Arabs lived under military government, and some political parties, such as the ultraorthodox, were highly selective about which parts of democracy they accepted and which they rejected. In addition, the militant undergrounds of the early 1950s, such as Brit HaCanaim, were quite happy to commit acts of violence against elected representatives. In such circumstances, Ben-Gurion’s approach during these years was more akin to that of a Kenyatta or Nyerere than his Knesset colleagues.

Ben-Gurion’s ardor for government by the executive led to ensuring that the Knesset foreign affairs and security committees were left in the dark regarding decisions and developments on the 1949 armistice agreements. When the Law and Justice Committee wished to meet Ben-Gurion to discuss the Israeli constitution, the prime minister first refused to participate and then cancelled meetings. He took the view that a constitution would ignite a kulturkampf between secular and religious and was thereby detrimental to building a stable state. During his sojourn in Sde Boker, when Moshe Sharett was prime minister, Ben-Gurion neither frequented the Knesset nor refused his salary as an elected member. Goldberg notes that Ben-Gurion was also averse to granting Knesset members a broad immunity from prosecution, as is the case in many other democracies. Goldberg argues that they pushed the immunity bill through because they simply did not trust Ben-Gurion.

Perhaps one of the more interesting sections in this well-researched book is Ben-Gurion’s interventionist approach when it came to his own and other parties. During the first and second Knesset elections, Ben-Gurion was highly influential as to who should be placed on the Mapai list of candidates. In the 1949 election, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was given a high-ranking position; seven seats were reserved for women and six for kibbutzim and moshavim. However, Ben-Gurion rejected a proposal in which lawyers—who knew a little about making laws—would be favored. Goldberg suggests that such a move would have enhanced the legislative ability of the Knesset. Most Mapai members went along with Ben-Gurion, but one member of its central committee commented, “I have seen the Knesset choose a government, but I have never seen the government choose the Knesset” (p. 210). Ben-Gurion was also happy to aid his party’s chances by obtaining information about the preparations for Herut’s first conference from the security services. In addition, members’ correspondence was monitored, and scheduled radio broadcasts were withdrawn. A poem by Natan Alterman lauding the Palmach—the fighting force of the rival Ahdut Haʾavoda—was prevented by the censor from being published in Davar.

Goldberg argues that Ben-Gurion was responsible in part for the unruly style of Knesset debates in that he did not set an example for his colleagues. His provocative language often led to unparliamentary scenes. In the case of Menachem Begin and his followers in Herut, he employed this to good effect with a studied display of bile and sarcasm. Irritated and nonplussed, Begin always responded in kind and thereby propagated the imagery in the public mind of Herut as “extremist.” As Ben-Gurion envisaged, this probably retarded the coalescence of the right in Israeli politics by many years and tarnished Begin’s repeated attempts at respectability.

As Israel’s future became more certain, parliamentarians both inside and outside his party were unwilling to accept Ben-Gurion’s actions in reverential silence. This can be observed by the increase of the number of private members’ bills passed. By 1960, when he declared, “I have dismissed the government,” Ben-Gurion’s rationalized authoritarianism provoked an alliance that cut through party lines.

This interesting book does not explain why Ben-Gurion embarked upon this path and also omits any ideological rationale. Ben-Gurion, the self-assured politician and state builder, was also the arch pragmatist. In this area, he learned much from the operational style of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and opposed Moshe Sneh’s Communists and the ideologically moonstruck pro-Soviet Mapam. Even so, this is an important contribution to comprehending Israel’s first decade.

International Journal of Middle East Studies / Volume 40 / Issue 01 / February 2008

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