The Shadow of Ben-Gurion

This Op-Ed was originally published on September 19, 1993

The final foundation for the monumental Mideast peace agreement was laid last month in Oslo, when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Israel shook hands with Ahmed Suleiman Khoury, a high official of the Palestine Liberation Organization. As the two men discussed a "Gaza-Jericho" peace plan, the ghost of Mr. Peres's mentor, David Ben-Gurion, was surely present, the familiar leathery lion's face aglow.

In 1933, the future founder of Israel shook hands in Jerusalem with another Palestinian leader, Musa Alami, a relative of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was terrorizing the Jewish community. They also sat down to discuss peace.

Ben-Gurion dreamed of a special kind of peace -- one that would realize the vision of "universal messianic redemption." God, he could not forget, told Moses that the Hebrews must become "am segulah," a unique nation of truth, justice and compassion. An exemplary Jewish state would synthesize the ethical teachings of the prophets and the discoveries of modern science, and this synthesis would be passed on to all peoples. Israel would thus become, as Isaiah prophesied, a "light unto the nations."

This vision reinforced Ben-Gurion's determination to end the decades-old bloody struggle for Palestine. Over tea, the Zionist leader made a novel proposal to Alami. When the British mandate ended, a Jewish state would be formed and would join a regional Arab federation. It was an idea that is being revived today, in modified form, with the Palestinians talking of confederation with Jordan, and Israel likely to be linked economically with such an entity in a kind of Benelux arrangement.

"This came as a bombshell to the Mufti," Ben-Gurion later said. "He had not imagined that there were Jews who sincerely wished an understanding and an agreement with the Arabs." The Mufti heard the plan with great interest, and apparently approved of it.

The Zionist leader was stunned and elated. He still had to win the support of the Syrian leaders, however, and they disdainfully rejected the idea. Ben-Gurion was bitterly disappointed, but he could never have imagined that the failure of this last-stage peace move would assure 60 more years of bloodshed.

In 1948, when the British pulled out of Palestine, Ben-Gurion established a state and became its first Prime Minister, but there would be no peace. Yet he never abandoned his dream. In 1970, three years before he died, he wrote to his secret lifelong sweetheart, Rachel Beit-Halachmi:

"There is hope, dear Rachel, that peace is approaching, not quickly, but slowly, slowly, and . . . it appears to me that by the end of this century, the prophecy of Isaiah will be fulfilled."

Thanks in great measure to his disciple, Foreign Minister Peres, Ben-Gurion may prove to be as prophetic as Isaiah.

Dan Kurzman, author of Ben-Gurion: Prophet of Fire and the forthcoming Left to Die: The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Juneau.