NAFTALI BENNETT ON DAVID BEN-GURION
Of all the people to write an appreciation of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, you might think Education Minister and chair of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, Naftali Bennett, would be the last. The two men would seem, on paper, diametrically opposed.
But Bennett sets out his stall immediately, calling Ben-Gurion, a socialist politician to his fingertips, “the greatest leader of the Jewish people since King David”, and, paraphrasing the Rambam, says: “From David to David, there was none like David.”
Bennett praises B-G for the way he set up the army, immersing himself in learning about military strategy because he did not come from a military background.
And he draws a fascinating conclusion about B-G and his legacy, one which the man himself might have disputed: “Ben-Gurion relied on the sources of inspiration of his predecessors: Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. Even though he was completely irreligious, his feet were firmly planted in the Bible. He regarded the state of Israel as the Third Temple – a direct continuation of the First and Second Temples, and therefore brought the Second Temple, Bar Kochba and Masada back to the national ethos.
MICHAEL BAR-ZOHAR ON SHIMON PERES
“Our primary mandate from Ben-Gurion is to make sure that the Third Temple continues forever, with its roots in the Bible, looking many years ahead into the future, and with the courage to make the right decisions, even if they involve risk.”
Michael Bar-Zohar worked for Shimon Peres and eventually became his biographer. He views Peres, the ninth president of Israel, with a cool and clear eye, praising him as a very persuasive operator who achieved great success in the early days of the state, particularly in establishing good relations with France and Germany.
He speaks highly of Peres’ role during the 1976 Entebbe raid. Bar-Zohar says: “He was minister of defence when the airliner was hijacked. The terrorists demanded the release of terrorists in exchange for the hostages, and said that they would begin killing them otherwise. Everyone agreed to negotiations with them, but Peres convened a group of generals, who assembled a unit that kept on planning and planning, until they finally arrived at the operational plan that was executed.”
Nevertheless, says Bar-Zohar, Peres – who held the posts of defence minister,finance minister, foreign minister and prime minister during his long political career – was “a mediocre or worse politician, with a serious credibility problem”.
He writes: “The Oslo Agreement was a half-baked agreement that was not fully thought out. He and Rabin were too enthused that there was an agreement at all, and did not thoroughly examine the security parts, the quid pro quo, and implementation by the other side. Peres was right when he said, ‘Without Arafat, we would not have reached the Oslo Agreement. With Arafat, we cannot realise it.’ Arafat continued inciting and collecting arms. There was a lot of delusion involved.”
YAIR LAPID ON MENACHEM BEGIN
Yair Lapid, chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid party, says the former Likud prime minister was “the most Jewish prime minister in Israel’s history”.
He writes: “If you ask an Israeli whether he is first an Israeli or first a Jew, they often say there is no difference, one is linked to the other. But there is a cause and there is an effect, and the Jew is the cause. That is how Begin was. He put the Jew in the centre of the Israeli argument. This let many people feel comfortable about being Israeli.
“Before Begin, Ben-Gurion’s effort to create a new man – an Israeli who is also a citizen of the world – held sway here. But it could not have been complete had Begin not brought with him the other side of the Israeli identity – the Jewish ethos.”
Lapid adds: “Begin saw Judaism first of all as an identity concept, not a religious practice. On the day he was elected Prime Minister, he went to the Western Wall. It was a clear statement: before he was Prime Minister of Israel, he was prime minister of the Jewish people and of Jewish history.”
MICKEY BERKOWITZ ON TAL BRODY
Mickey Berkowitz and Tal Brody were two towering names of Israeli basketball in the heady days when Maccabi Tel Aviv were European champions, and one of the greatest teams in the world.
The first time Berkowitz saw Brody play, Brody was playing for the US Army against Israel. Brody made aliyah to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv and became Berkowitz’s mentor, teaching him the winning moves of top American players.
Berkowitz writes: “Tal was a role model at the start of my career. He came from the American school, and was a professional. When I was a teenager, he was at his peak, and they marked me as his replacement. He knew that he had to train me to lead the team for 10-15 more years, so became my room-mate. We were together for many years. He guided me with respect and success. Even though we played the same position, he didn’t see me as a competitor; he knew I’d be the leader after him, and wanted to help me and Maccabi.”
The two men later went into business together after Brody retired, marketing sports goods, and Brody became a goodwill ambassador for Israel. His former team-mate says: “Tal was and is a Zionist in his soul.”
LIAD SHOHAM ON AMOS OZ
Crime writer Liad Shoham is one of Israel’s bestselling novelists and regards renowned writer Amos Oz as his hero. He writes: “It turned out that we live in the same neighbourhood. He has sat a few tables away from me in a café more than once. This in itself is awesome; a founding father of Israeli literature living among us and sat next to me.
“You don’t often have the experience of sitting near a literary pioneer who is still living, breathing and writing. I saw him as a quasi-mythical figure. It was interesting to see people’s attitude towards him, seeing a great writer doing humdrum things like drinking coffee, reading a newspaper and talking with his wife.”
Shoham admires Oz, a prize-winning writer, foremost for his “courage… his willingness to expose himself, not hide behind literary characters, it’s very inspiring and something I have not done. I’m not sure that I ever will”.
He adds: “Whether or not I agree with what he writes at the national and political level – and I do not – his leaving the writer’s room, which is private and intimate, with no one in it, for the national sphere to say controversial things, to act as a modern-day prophet and pay the price, that is very impressive. Someone who does this probably loves his country a lot, because otherwise he would not care enough to be controversial and say provocative things.”
RAN COHEN ON SHULAMIT ALONI
Ran Cohen, a former Member of Knesset for the left-wing Meretz Party, knew his fiery party leader, Shulamit Aloni, very well.
Aloni, with her trademark mop of unmanageable curly hair, was a teacher who became education minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s 1992 government.
Cohen says of Aloni: “She may not have been a revolutionary in her daily life, but she brought about a great revolution in Israeli society. Before her, Israeli was a collectivist society. Everything was for the general benefit and the fatherland – in the name of the working class on the left and in the name of the people on the right, sacrificing the individual for the general good. She revolutionised civil rights and women. That was not popular; it was even repugnant.”
Although Aloni clashed many times with the strictly Orthodox, her serious learning won her many fans. “When Shulamit Aloni rose to speak, all the religious and Charedi Knesset members would quickly leave their meals in the cafeteria. When they weren’t shouting at her, they sat there open-mouthed. She would quote the Bible from memory. They were entranced at what she was saying. She was astudent of sages, who outdid her teachers.”
MIRI REGEV ON GOLDA MEIR
It is tempting to imagine what Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only woman prime minister, would have made of her youthful counterpart, Miri Regev, the minister of sport and culture.
On paper, the two women would seem to have little in common – Meir, a raspy-voiced sole woman in the early Labour governments, and Regev, a hardliner in the Likud Party.
But Regev, perhaps surprisingly, is full of admiration for Meir. “She always fascinated me – a woman, in the 50s to the 70s, rising to become prime minister at a time when the image of the handsome curly-haired Palmach soldier was the symbol of Israeli macho, and when the important jobs went to decorated senior army officers.”
She has sympathy for Meir, forced to resign as prime minister in the wake of the disastrous 1973 Yom Kippur War. “As a lone woman at the top of male-dominated leadership, she never got ahead because of her femininity, which may even have been a handicap. They labelled her a tough, even insensitive woman, and called her a failure because of the war.”
Controversially, Regev thinks Ukraine-born Meir, who lived in the US with her family before making aliyah, would be in a different party today. “She would not have joined a party that advocates another Arab country in the heart of the land of Israel and proposes irresponsible policies. Golda fought persistently and fearlessly for Israel’s security interests.”
YOAZ HENDEL ON BENJAMIN NETANYAHU
The prime minister’s former director of communications, Yoaz Hendel, is in no doubt as to his former boss’s legacy, calling him “the most experienced leader in the political arena – not only in Israel, but in the entire Western world”.
Hendel says Netanyahu “has talents almost never seen in other people – the ability to listen and concentrate, to learn and understand, to analyse the strategic aspects of complicated issues fairly quickly and anticipate several moves ahead, and to rapidly deduce constraints and dangers. You usually find this in people with a great deal of experience, but Netanyahu had it from the beginning”.
Hendel says: “His economic planning is successful, and while the widening social gaps are a problem, Israel’s prosperity is unmistakable. His diplomatic approach of digging in and warning the world about what is happening is finally leading to intervention by players who once thought of as uninvolved. Politically, he has the abilities to do whatever he wants.
“His abilities as a leader and his charisma are almost unique in Israel, even compared to Ben-Gurion. No other politician in a democracy, as opposed to a dictatorship, has had such a fan club. He was freely chosen by the people”.
AVSHALOM KOR ON NAOMI SHEMER
Avshalom Kor is an expert on language and the roots of modern Hebrew, and lauds Naomi Shemer, Israel’s first lady of song.
Kor was just 17 when he heard Shemer’s iconic Jerusalem of Gold, for the first time during a song festival on the radio, just after Independence Day in 1967.
“At the end, moderator Yitzhak Shimoni announced they were bringing singer Shuli Natan, who sang the song, back to the stage. I remember hearing the audience roar. After hearing the song for the first time, the entire audience sang it like a prayer.
“On that very night, Egypt moved its army in the Sinai up to the Negev border, and began its preparations, and Jerusalem of Gold was the song of all the soldiers, called to military service before the Six-Day War, which broke out three weeks later.”
Kor says Shemer was Israel’s poet of light and her songs resonate with every citizen.
YIFAT SELA ON ALICE MILLER
Yifat Sela is chief executive of Aluma, which prepares religious women for military service. She is, perhaps, an unlikely choice to highlight Alice Miller’s unique contribution to Israeli society, but gives Miller credit for overturning decades of prejudice in the IDF against women.
Miller took the IDF to the High Court in 1994 because she wanted to do an IDF pilot’s course. It was greeted with derision in Israel – then President Ezer Weizman famously said she would be better off at home, darning socks. But Miller’s action, says Sela, although not successful at the time, paved the way for a revolution in the military.
“Today, over 800 roles are open to women in the IDF. This makes it possible to choose, and since the global situation has changed, with intelligence and technology becoming an important aspect of the battlefield, women can now play a significant role at the forefront of the IDF’s achievement and influence.”
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