Peres book a comment on leadership then and now

David Ben-Gurion must be spinning in his grave. The handful of haredi Orthodox Jews to whom he gave indemnity from military service has become a million.

Israeli presidents and Cabinet ministers have landed themselves in jail for rape, corruption and nepotism. The Knesset and the Supreme Court are locked in a battle to the death, and the Knesset is winning. We have lost Turkey. And hardly anyone has moved to the Negev. If he were not already dead, Ben-Gurion would resign.

The more I read “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life” by Shimon Peres, the more I liked to play “What Would the Old Man Do Now?” One thing is for certain: If Israel’s first prime minister held the post today, he would cut an incongruous and confused figure amid all the bling and bang of Israel’s current politicians.

Written “in conversation with” David Landau, a former editor-in-chief of the daily Haaretz and former correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the book is the 19th title in the Jewish Encounter series from Schocken and Nextbook Press.

Let us dispense with the platitudes that Peres is usually showered with and cut straight to the chase. An insightful, exhaustive and dispassionate dissection of Israel’s founding father the book is not. In fact, Peres did not actually write it, Landau did.

Peres’ memories inform much of the book, and he edited its final draft. What is unique is that the book is peppered with Peres’ commentary about Ben-Gurion and his milieu at the time of Israel’s creation. With books called “The Unmaking of Israel” making the rounds now, it is a timely text.

In that sense also, you are getting two for the price of one: a subjective historical account of Israel’s founder and first prime minister written by none other than Israel’s current president, who happened to be at Ben-Gurion’s side during much of his career, and an erudite and personal critique about contemporary Israeli politics from the last remaining figure of the Jewish state’s founding generation.

As a biography written collaboratively by two men with opposite goals, it’s a strange book.

Peres seeks to frame Ben-Gurion as the very pinnacle of leadership and moral clarity, defending Ben-Gurion’s political pragmatism as the most necessary characteristic of the man whose sole purpose was to establish the Jewish state from the ashes of the Holocaust.

Landau, on the other hand, comes from a purely journalistic perspective, and his task, which he pursues vigorously, is to highlight the complexities of Ben-Gurion’s political life — to delve into the gray area, antagonizing the memory of Peres sufficiently to get a fuller account of the “Old Man.”

It is in this tension between subjective biographer and critical journalist that the book finds its drama. Perhaps their two missions merge at that point in the text where both Landau and Peres portray the current crop of Israeli leaders as not cut from the same cloth as Ben-Gurion. Peres was, and obviously still is, in awe of Ben-Gurion.

Peres’ primary message in the book seems to be that they just don’t make them like Ben-Gurion anymore.

And with Israel facing challenges on so many fronts, much of them internally, I kept wondering: What would Ben-Gurion do today?

In one reference to contemporary Israeli issues, Peres relates a remark Ben-Gurion made to him about why he preferred Lenin over Trotsky.

“You know, Trotsky was no statesman … because of his concept of no war, no peace. That’s not statesmanship. That’s some sort of Jewish invention,” Peres quotes Ben-Gurion as saying. “A statesman must decide, one way or the other: to go for peace and pay the price, or to make war, knowing what the risks and dangers are.”

It’s almost as if Peres is telescoping Ben-Gurion’s ideas on the country’s biggest contemporary problem: the dangerous lack of decisive leadership.

Careful readers will hear the criticism and urgency permeating almost every page of “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life.”

As president, Peres has to navigate a careful path as a nonpartisan figurehead trying to keep a fractured nation together. But as a writer, Peres clearly longs to see Ben-Gurion types in the men and women of today’s Knesset. It’s clear that for the most part, they’re just not there.

“Ben-Gurion: A Political Life” by Shimon Peres (240 pages, Schocken, $25.95)