The rivalry between Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the Irgun leader Menachem Begin culminated in 1948, when Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to open fire on an Irgun ship. Thereafter, the animosity between the two men was limited to fiery speeches and tense exchanges on the floor of the Knesset. The tension finally cooled only in 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War. Shlomo Nakdimon tells the story:
Begin, who was then the opposition leader, came to then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and suggested that he invite Begin’s bitter rival, Ben-Gurion, to join his government to serve as his deputy or defense minister. That’s when their relationship took a turn for the better. I witnessed how Ben-Gurion came to the Knesset, entered the buffet, and started looking for Begin. How the Knesset ushers tracked down Begin to tell him Ben-Gurion invited him for a conversation, of which they had many but which unfortunately were never recorded and got lost in history.
One day, in February 1969, at the Knesset buffet, I saw Begin alongside his chief of staff Yeḥiel Kadishai holding a brown envelope with the words “state of Israel” inscribed on it. My curiosity led me to find out the letter’s contents a few days later. It was a copy of a letter addressed to Begin, in which Ben-Gurion slammed Eshkol.
“I opposed your way before the establishment of the country and sometime after that, the same way I opposed Ze’ev Jabotinsky [who was a Russian Jewish Revisionist Zionist leader and Begin’s mentor],” Ben-Gurion wrote to Begin. “But I’ve never had a personal grudge against you and as I got to know you more over the last few years—I’ve learned to cherish you.”
Begin’s reply to Ben-Gurion was quite similar [in tone].
Ben-Gurion, who was undoubtedly always destined for great things, made two mistakes in his life: distancing himself from Jabotinsky and distancing himself from Begin before Israel’s establishment and in its early years. They could have been, perhaps were even meant to be, the best of partners, and it goes without saying who lost out the most.
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