What connects Israel’s state founder Ben Gurion with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and what distinguishes them? A conversation with the historian Tom Segev.
Mr Segev, if Israel’s founder David Ben Gurion was still alive, how would he congratulate Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s longest ruling prime minister?
Oh, I can hardly answer that what-if question. But what I can say: Netanyahu is a kind of successor to Ben Gurion. And that in several respects.
What are they?
For example, both are united by the conviction that it is in the historical interest of Zionism to own as much land as possible – and as few Arabs as possible should live there. After the founding of the state in 1948, Ben Gurion had several opportunities to occupy other areas. But he did not do this.
Because the population there was too large. It is similar with Netanyahu. Ministers have repeatedly urged him to conquer the Gaza Strip. But so far the prime minister does not want to know anything about it. In his opinion there are too many Arabs in the coastal strip. That destroys such plans. The effort would be too great. And they have something else in common.
And that would be?
The view that there can be no peace with the Palestinians. Ben Gurion formulated it this way back in 1919: There is a gap between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. And this gap cannot be bridged. This is because it is a national conflict. Because the Palestinians will not renounce their own statehood – just as the Jews will not renounce Israel. That is why the conflict cannot be solved, it can only be managed.
That is Netanyahu’s motto, isn’t it?
Ben Gurion is the inventor of this formula. And Netanyahu follows exactly this principle. The Jewish settlements, by the way, are also a national Zionist project. It began with the kibbutzim in the 1930s and 1940s, continued after the Six-Day War in 1967 and continues to this day.
What else connects Ben Gurion and Netanyahu?
That Israel must be strong. So strong that the Arabs do not come up with the idea of being able to destroy the Jewish state. According to this doctrine, peace is not possible. But the conflict can at least be managed.
And what is the difference between the two Israeli politicians?
Ben Gurion was very popular and still is today. While I was writing my biography about him, four more were published. There was even a film about him in the cinema. There is hardly a day in Israel when he is not mentioned.
How does this attention explain itself?
It is the longing for a personality with integrity and a vision. You can’t say either about Netanyahu with the best will in the world. Ben Gurion was less a politician than a statesman. Netanyahu is primarily concerned with his own career. At the moment he is very anxious not to have to appear in court for corruption. And Ben Gurion was basically modest. He had only one passion: books. He bought thousands, sometimes with money from the treasury. Netanyahu, a wealthy man, has a penchant for expensive cigars, champagne and luxury hotels.
How will Netanyahu’s term be judged later?
He has managed to significantly improve the country’s economic situation for everyone. Never before in Israel’s history have so many people been as well off as they are today. That is certainly his merit. And he has successfully given people the impression that the Palestinian problem is under control. With the exception of Gaza, there is hardly any terrorism. That is an essential reason for citizens to elect him.
In addition: Netanyahu has a good connection to the powerful of this world. No prime minister has yet been able to claim this. At the same time, Netanyahu also shows how fragile Israel’s democracy is. Hatred and racism seem to have become legitimate. His right-wing ministers in particular are betting on this card and poisoning the social climate with it – which the Palestinians, not least, are feeling.