Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Monday, January 2, 2012

Ranking Israel's Prime Ministers

As an American centrist who in Israel would be considered a leftist (which shows how far to the Right Israel's democracy is), I will now rank Israel's prime ministers. I rank them primarily on their contributions to Israeli security and to peace with Israel's neighbors, but also on their contributions to Israeli democracy. I will not rank those prime ministers whose term in office was less than two years, as less than half a term is too little to fairly judge a prime minister by.

First, David Ben-Gurion (1948-1954, 1955-63)  Ben-Gurion had the historic understanding of his environment, of what history demanded and of timing to build the framework for a state during the 1930s and 1940s as head of the Jewish Agency. He then managed to divorce the Jewish Yishuv from Britain in 1945, without provoking a fatal reaction. He conducted a victorious war strategy in 1948-49 after having wisely accepted the UN partition plan. Later he built an alliance with France to replace the British connection. I could write a column about all of his faults, but in the largest matters he was correct.

Second, Yitzhak Rabin (1974-77, 1992-95) Rabin conceived the strategy of separating Egypt from its Arab allies and thus preventing the Arabs from going to war against Israel. He materialized this strategy through the September 1975 Sinai Agreement, mediated by Henry Kissinger. In his second term he realized that there was no Palestinian or Jordanian alternative to the PLO with whom to make peace. Not really trusting Arafat for good reasons he did his best with the cards dealt to him. Unfortunately for Israel and peace, the religious Right deprived Israel of him before he could see it through.

Third, Menahem Begin (1977-83) Begin made Israel into a real democracy by forming the Likud, under coercion from Sharon and Weizman in 1973, and then leading it to victory in 1977 (in a campaign managed by Weizman).  He devoted his first two years in office to making peace with Egypt and the peace was as much his initiative as Sadat's. But he gave in to Sharon and involved Israel in an unnecessary war with Lebanon, which is why I'm putting him at number 3 rather than number 2.

Fourth, Levy Eshkol (1963-69) Eshkol like Ben-Gurion served as his own defense minister but then in June 1967 gave way to Moshe Dayan. Eshkol built up the defense forces by providing them with the necessary weapons for victory in 1967. He also strengthened the relationship with the United States and won the first major American arms sale in 1963. Had Eshkol served later he would have probably been open to peace with Israel's Arab neighbors.

Fifth, Shimon Peres (1984-86, 1995-96) Peres oversaw the withdrawal from most of Lebanon following the First Lebanon War and brought hyper inflation under control during his first term in office. His second term when he took over from the assassinated Rabin was too short to really accomplish anything. As foreign minister Peres arranged for the Oslo agreement in 1993. 

Sixth, Golda Meir (1969-74) A sentimental favorite with Americans but a bete noir with the Israeli Left, she missed possible opportunities for peace with Egypt in 1971-72 by spurning Sadat's offer of a Sinai deal. But after wisely presiding over a disastrous war that she helped to bring about, Meir traded territory for stability with Egypt and Syria via Kissinger in order to gain the release of Israeli POWs.

Seventh, Ariel Sharon (2001-2006) Sharon unleashed the IDF on Arafat in response to the Al-Aksa Intifada and reconquered the West Bank in March 2002. He built the barrier inside the West Bank to protect Israel and the settlements from Palestinian terror attacks. And then he disengaged from Gaza, but with no coordination with the PA so that Hamas was able to exploit the withdrawal politically.

Eighth, Benjamin Netanyahu (1996-99, 2009-2012) Netanyahu spent his entire first term and his second term to date attempting to avoid hard decisions that would upset his coalition of the Right. He agreed to a territorial withdrawal at Wye in October 1998 but never carried it out. As leader of the opposition in 1995 he presided over protests that created the political climate for Rabin's assassination.

Ninth, Ehud Olmert (2006-2009) Attempted to negotiate a peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. Until more memoirs and minutes of the negotiations emerge it is impossible to assess the blame for the failure of the talks. Due to his political weakness he responded to provocations by Hamas and Hezbollah by twice going to war and presided over indecisive results that hurt Israel's image and hurt many innocent civilians in Lebanon and Gaza. 

Last, Yitzhak Shamir (1983-84, 1986-92) Shamir treaded war while he steadily settled the West Bank and Gaza. Although this settlement was begun under Begin, the latter had more positive accomplishments that earned him a much higher rating. Until 2009 Shamir presided over the most nationalist government in Israel's history from 1990-92. He was dragged kicking and screaming to the Madrid peace conference in 1991. He also presided over Jonathan Pollock's betrayal of the United States.

If I were on the Right, I would probably rank them as follows: 1) Begin; 2) Shamir; 3) Netanyahu; 4) Ben-Gurion; 5) Meir; 6) Sharon; 7) Olmert; 8) Eshkol; 9) Rabin; 10) Peres. Although some on the Right, especially among the settler Right, will rank Sharon dead last as a traitor to their cause.

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