David Ben-Gurion was the first Prime Minister of Israel, and, therefore a leading figure in recent Middle East history. Ben-Gurion was born in 1886 in Plonsk in Russian Poland. He emigrated to what was then known as Palestine in 1906. In Palestine, Ben-Gurion worked in farming settlements and became an enthusiastic supporter of Zionism. Born as David Green, he changed his name to Ben-Gurion and he became a strong believer that Hebrew should be the Jewish national language – hence the change in his surname.
Ben-Gurion studied law at the universities based in Salonika and Constantinople. His support for an Israeli homeland grew as he got older. He got exiled from Turkey because of his growing reputation as a supporter of Zionism and he joined a Jewish battalion in the British Army that fought the Turks in Palestine during World War One.
From 1921 to 1933, he was secretary-general of the Jewish Labour Federation in Palestine and in 1930 he became the leader of the Mapai Party which was the leading socialist group among the Palestinian Zionists. In 1935, he was appointed the chairman of the Jewish Agency – a post he held until 1948. This position gave him the perfect opportunity to develop his organisational and administrative skills. By 1948, Ben-Gurion was effectively the natural choice to run the newly created Israel. He served as Prime Minister for two terms during which Israel was to face two wars. As with most leaders of Israel, he spent his time in office dealing with the threat of attack from the Arab nations that surrounded Israel.
In his writings, Ben-Gurion described Israel as land that was
|“to the north, the Litani river (in southern Lebanon), to the northeast, the Wadi ‘Owja, twenty miles south of Damascus; the southern border will be mobile and pushed into Sinai at least up to Wadi al-‘Arish; and to the east, the Syrian Desert, including the furthest edge of Transjordan.”|
His first term as Prime Minister lasted from 1948 to 1953. In this time a coalition of Arab nations attacked Israel almost immediately after the nation had become a new state in May 1948. In this war, Israel had one stark choice. If they lost the war, Israel would cease to exist. Therefore, the government and the people of the newly created state literally had to fight to survive. The Israelis won the 1948 war. The victory did a great deal to enhance the political stature of Ben-Gurion.
In 1956, the Suez Crisis led to another war in the Middle East. The involvement of Israel is usually overshadowed by the fact that Britain and France attacked Egypt and America failed to give both nations the support they expected from a fellow NATO member (especially as the Cold War was at its height).
When Israel was not at war, Ben-Gurion concentrated his energy on developing the new state’s agricultural and industrial base. Before Israel had become independent, Ben-Gurion had envisaged the new state as one that was barely dependent on any other. He believed that self-sufficiency was the key to Israel’s survival.
Ben-Gurion initially retired from politics in 1963 but he returned to front-line politics in 1965 aged 79 to lead a breakaway group from the Mapai Party who were critical of the leadership provided by Golda Meir. The Rafi included General Moshe Dayan who was to become Israel’s most famous military leader.