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A slightly belated commemoration, 50+ years since Sharett’s passing in July 1965

Moshe Sharett and Moderation in Israeli Politics

Ph.D., London School of Economics and Political Science, Member of®
Courtesy of the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society, Tel Aviv*

One of the short-hand ways to sketch out the hawkish-dovish divide in Israeli politics and history is to contrast the approaches, worldviews and personalities of two of the country’s founding politicians: David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett.

As a young Ph.D. candidate in the early 1970s I was first exposed to this dichotomy while studying in London, through a magazine article by McGill University political scientist Michael Brecher, who would soon publish his ground-breaking study, The Foreign Policy System of Israel (London: Oxford University Press, 1972).

Moshe Sharett was born in the Ukraine in 1894, and emigrated with his parents to Ottoman Palestine in 1906. Beginning in the 1930s, Sharett (then known as Shertok) headed the Jewish Agency’s Political Department and, together with Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, formed the leadership triumvirate of the Zionist movement.

After Israel’s creation in 1948, Sharett served as its first Foreign Minister (1948-1956) and second Prime Minister (1954-1955). Hardly reflecting the macho image of the heroic, native-born sabra, Sharett was erudite, multi-lingual and the consummate gentleman-diplomat. His greatest legacy was to have laid the foundations of the diplomacy of the new state during its first decade.

In a 1960 interview with Michael Brecher, the retired Sharett reflected on “a temperamental incompatibility” he had with Ben-Gurion. “I am quiet, reserved, careful,” he said. “Ben Gurion is impulsive, impetuous, and acts on intuition. My capital C is CAUTION, Ben Gurion’s is COURAGE” (The Foreign Policy System of Israel, p.253).

For over two decades, the two men worked closely together, sharing common goals but frequently clashing. In June 1956, under clouded and stressful circumstances, Sharett was pressured to submit his resignation as Foreign Minister, bowing to Prime Minister’s Ben-Gurion’s whispered desire to install the more amenable Golda Meir in his place.

Less than five months later IDF troops invaded Egypt and the Sinai War erupted, effectively putting the last nail in the coffin of Moshe Sharett’s political career. Having lost the battle against “activist-militant” personalities and tendencies in Israeli society, Sharett viewed the post-war mood in Israel from afar while on a tour of Asia, noting bitterly in his diary that he himself and his political career were to be listed among the casualties and losses of that war. For historian Avi Shlaim, Sharett’s “alternative to the hard-line policy of Ben-Gurion … was defeated by the Israeli defense establishment.… Ben-Gurion failed to topple [Egyptian president Gamal ‘Abd al-]Nasser but he succeeded in toppling Sharett” (The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (London: the Penguin Press, 2000), p.185).

For a number of analysts, Sharett’s forced resignation and the Sinai War in 1956 constitute a turning-point in the power struggle between hawks and doves — the moment at which the defeat of the dovish “Sharettist school” in Israeli foreign policy became irreversible.

On Monday April 11, 2016Montrealers heard more on this topic from Yaakov Sharett, son of the late Israeli Foreign Minister and director of the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society in Tel Aviv, who spoke at Concordia University on the topic: "The Rise and Fall of Moshe Sharett: The War that Abruptly Ended the 23-year Coalition between David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett."

The event was co-sponsored by the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University and the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies, Concordia University.

Dr. Neil Caplan holds an Affiliate appointment in the Department of History at Concordia University, and is a Scholar-in-Residence at Vanier College. He is currently preparing for publication (with Yaakov Sharett) an English edition of the Personal Diary of Moshe Sharett. His article, “Why Was Sharett Sacked? Examining the Premature End of a Political Career, 1956,” appears in the spring 2016 issue of the Middle East Journal at

* PM Sharett visiting David Ben-Gurion at Kibbutz Sde Boker, a week before Ben-Gurion's rejoining the Cabinet in February 1955.

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