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Monday, October 19, 1998 Published at 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK


Special Report

David Ben Gurion

David Ben Gurion (right) created the Israel Defence Force

By Gerald Butt

David Ben Gurion, who died in 1973 aged 87, is a member of an elite group of world leaders whose names will always be associated with the founding of their countries. Without the dedication and tenacity of Ben Gurion it is unlikely that Israel would have been created as early as it was.

On 14 May 1948, Ben Gurion proclaimed the existence of Israel and became its first prime minister. The end of one struggle meant the start of another.

David Ben Gurion was born in Czarist Poland in 1886. As he grew he became aware of the mood of anti-semitism in Europe and was drawn to the ideals of the fledgling Zionist movement.

In 1906 he emigrated to Ottoman-controlled Palestine and became an agricultural worker, putting into practice the philosophy that was to inspire Zionists over the next four decades. For Ben Gurion, Zionism meant one thing: conquering the land by Jewish labour.

Ben Gurion was expelled from Palestine in 1915 because of his nationalist and socialist activities. In exile in New York he devoted himself to the Zionist cause.


[ image: Ben Gurion on his beloved kibbutz]
Ben Gurion on his beloved kibbutz
Ottoman rule over Palestine ended after the First World war. And it was to British-controlled Palestine that Ben Gurion returned. Maintaining his conviction that Jewish labour would provide the foundation of the Jewish state, he established the General Federation of Labour, the Histradut. This still provided the bastion of Zionist power a decade and more after the creation of the state.

As much as Ben Gurion campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the Zionist cause in Europe and the United States, he also encouraged the development of a military force in Palestine. When World War II broke out he encouraged Jews to fight for the Allies, while organizing an underground agency to smuggle Jews fleeing from Nazi holocausts into Palestine.

After the war, Jewish violence against the British escalated. While Ben Gurion supported the principle of armed struggle, he condemned right-wing extremist groups that carried out acts of terrorism.

After independence had been achieved, Ben Gurion insisted that all armed groups be dissolved and become part of the Israel Defence Force. The new force was soon in action, fighting and defeating Arab armies that tried to over-run the new state.

Ben Gurion also faced other challenges: building state institutions and absorbing the flood of new immigrants. In 1953 he left government for a time, but was back as prime minister two years later - a post he held until 1963.

Ben Gurion finally retired from politics, aged 84, in 1970.

He was a man of prodigious energy - physical and intellectual. "He was a mercurial man," wrote Israeli author Amos Oz, "almost violently vivacious."

Ben Gurion had a vision and saw it realised. But by the time he died he had sensed hints of the internal traumas that were later to beset Israel.

After the 1967 Middle East war, Ben Gurion argued against holding on to Arab territory beyond Jerusalem. The fright that Israel was given in the 1973 war when the Arabs enjoyed success revealed, in Ben Gurion's view, a dangerous sign of arrogance and complacency.

To a man obsessed by the ideal of hard work in the cause of Zionism, these characteristics were abhorrent. Two months after the war, he died.



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