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As Israel fought for independence, David Ben-Gurion turned the military’s guns on Jews. In his new biography, Shimon Peres recalls his mentor’s greatest test.

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The Altalena on fire off the coast of Tel Aviv, June 22, 1948. (Hans Pinn/Government Press Office, State of Israel)
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Father Figure

Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, has written a new Nextbook Press biography of David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minster and his mentor

For Israel, sorely pressed on every front, a four-week truce arranged by the U.N. Security Council, which finally went into effect on June 11, 1948, was a godsend. “I asked the members of the General Staff whether a truce would be to our advantage,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary on May 26. “All of them agreed that it would.” The period of quiet was spent rearming and training. It was a reinvigorated IDF that took to the field when the battle was rejoined on July 8. This was the case in more than just the logistical sense. For while the Arab guns had been silent, Ben-Gurion faced his sternest test—from within his own side.

The Provisional Government had issued an ordinance on May 26 establishing the Israel Defense Forces and prohibiting “the establishment or maintenance of any other armed force.” On June 1, Menachem Begin, the Etzel (also known as the Irgun) leader, signed an agreement with the government whereby Etzel units would join the IDF in battalion formations and take an oath of loyalty. The Etzel’s separate command structure would be disbanded within a month, and the organization would cease buying arms abroad.

Nevertheless, on June 11, the Altalena, a ship that the Etzel had purchased, set sail from southern France with a large quantity of arms and explosives on board as well as some 850 immigrants. As it approached the shores of Israel, Begin informed the government that 20 percent of the arms would be sent to Etzel units in Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was not yet formally under Israel’s jurisdiction, Yisraeli Galili, negotiating for the IDF, agreed. Begin then proposed that the remaining weaponry go first to equip Etzel units within the IDF. Whatever was left could then be allocated to other units. Galili balked. He reported to Ben-Gurion on June 19 that the danger of a “private army” was evolving. Ben-Gurion convened the cabinet. “There are not going to be two states,” he declared, “and there are not going to be two armies. And Mr. Begin will not do what he feels like. … If he does not give in we shall open fire!” The cabinet resolved unanimously to “authorize the defense minister to take action in accordance with the law of the land.”

Ben-Gurion feared that Begin might use the arms aboard the Altalena to equip Etzel units outside the sovereign jurisdiction of the state—thus ostensibly not violating his commitment—in order to extend the war with the Arabs into the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), thereby defying government policy.

The Altalena anchored off Kfar Vitkin, a moshav, or settlement, between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and hopefully far from the prying eyes of U.N. observers, and began off-loading the weapons with the help of hundreds of supporters who had gathered at the site. Galili and Yigael Yadin, chief of operations for the IDF, deployed troops to surround the beach and ordered Begin to surrender. Some of the troops with Etzel sympathies crossed the lines and lined up with the Altalena crew and its enthusiastic sympathizers. The ship, with Begin and other Revisionist leaders now on board, weighed anchor and put out to sea, chased by IDF craft. It sailed south toward Tel Aviv and eventually ran aground close to the shore. At army headquarters in Ramat Gan, I spent that night with a rifle in my hand in Ben-Gurion’s office, in case the headquarters compound was stormed by demonstrators.

Off the Tel Aviv boardwalk, a traumatic scenario unfolded the next day. Etzel soldiers and civilian sympathizers streamed to the site. Some waded into the sea and swam out to the ship. At military headquarters, Ben-Gurion paced back and forth, fuming. Eventually he issued written orders to Yadin to concentrate “troops, fire-power, flame-throwers, and all the other means at our disposal in order to secure the ship’s unconditional surrender.” Yadin was then to await the government’s instructions.

Ben-Gurion then convened the cabinet again. Some colleagues suggested possible compromises, but he was of no mind for any such weakness. “This is an attempt to destroy the army,” he thundered. “This is an attempt to murder the state. In these two matters there can be no compromise.” The cabinet backed him. Small-arms fire broke out between shore and ship. The government evacuated homes and shops in the line of fire. The Palmach commander Yigal Allon, now a senior IDF general, was put in charge of the operation. He ordered a cannon deployed. Yitzhak Rabin was in command of it. The first shell fell wide, but the second struck the vessel. Fire broke out in the hold. Those on board began to abandon ship. (It stood barely one hundred yards from the beach.) But before they could all do so, an explosion tore through the ship, destroying it. Sixteen Etzel men and three IDF soldiers died in the episode; dozens more were wounded.

Begin delivered a two-hour broadcast live on Etzel radio that night, roundly cursing Ben-Gurion who, he claimed, had been out to kill him. For his part, Begin said, he would continue to restrain his men and thus prevent the outbreak of civil war: “We will not open fire. There will be no fraternal strife when the enemy is at the gate.” Ben-Gurion spoke at the People’s Assembly, the transitional parliament. He said that since the arms had not been destined for the IDF, he was glad they had been destroyed. He added a line praising “the blessed cannon” that had fired at the Altalena—a phrase the Revisionist stalwarts never forgot nor forgave.

Excerpted from Ben-Gurion: A Political Life by Shimon Peres in conversation with David Landau. The book, published as part of the Jewish Encounters series from Nextbook Press and Schocken Books, is out this week.

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Nachum says:

“Small-arms fire broke out between shore and ship.”

A sneaky phrase. Ben-Gurion’s forces opened fire; Etzel did not fire back.

With all of Ben-Gurion’s references to himself as “government” and “state”, one may wonder what made him, and not Begin, the legitimate power. Just asking.

My uncle was an immigrant from the US on the Altalena. Fortunately he survived, though some of his friends did not.

Menachem Begin from the beginning made clear that he would not use weapons against Jews. That was true statesmenship. The perfidious behavior by Ben-Gurion, Allon and Rabin resulted in the death of Jews and soldiers who supported the Jewish community, as well as the loss of badly needed weapons and supplies.

In the interest of their particular left-wing party and ideology, Peres and the others would suppress political democracy and support the corrupt intertwining of state government, labor bureaucrats and economic power in Israel for many years.

Some funny bits here. Peres with a rifle in hand? The man never served in the military, during any of his career. Aside from Arabs, just about the only Israeli politician who has not done so.

Afraid Begin would start a revolt and fight against fellow Jews? Impossible. This is the same Mr. Begin who ordered his men not to resist violently even when Ben Gurion’s Haganah men were handing over Irgun people to the British! The claim that Begin would try to destroy the army and the new gov’t was transparently false and a ruse. But it served Ben Gurion’s nefarious purposes.

This version ignores several important elements. Almost all the 950 fighters who arrived on board the Altalena left the ship at Kfar Vitkin for Netanya. You don’t start a putsch that way. Begin had an agrement and B-G broke it, giving him a 10-minute ultimatum. Shots were opened twice at the Irgun forces: at the beach at Kfar Vitkin and at Frishman beach at Tel Aviv. In the 1970s, Peres claimed in an interview that Galili fooled B-G and that set off a great debate.

In any case, since the Irgun had been negotiating for months, why the last-minute disruption? It wasn’t Begin who altered the agreement.

And the order for the canon fire came from B-G who first wanted the ship bombed from the air while it was sailing to Tel Aviv.

Here’s some material:

A definitive lesson on how to create a viable state in the Middle East. No private armies. No private militias. No terrorists organization acting “on behalf of the nation.” Begin made a power play and lost. Israel was born and not still born.

Binyamin in O says:

These same Etzel-niks are the ones bitching most loudly about how the Palestinians cannot get their house in order. How piquant.

VHJM van Neerven says:

It was a sad night on our kibbutz when we heard Begin had won the elections. What came after him was sadder still.

To Binyamin O. – you write: “These same Etzel-niks are the ones bitching most loudly about how the Palestinians cannot get their house in order…” but you are misreading the metaphor’s imagery. Not to mention the reality. Hamas was voted into office, legally (well, as for vote falsification I can’t testify), in Gaza after the disengagement and proceeded to throw Fatah people off roofs or just put bullets in their hedads. In 1948, Israel had not yet had elections but there was a B-G – Begin agreement. So much for the image.

As for the reality, why is it that leftwingers, radicals, kibbutzniks and others will praise B-G for his action against the Altalena but God, sorry, Heaven-forbid that the Pals. would similarly put their house in order. To be fair, we all know that if elections ever do take place in Judea & Samaria (the WB), now about 4+ years overdo, Hamas will win and all the leftwing talk about coexistence, give them a chance or whatever, oh, yes, and peace, will go out the window, if not off the roof. Not for nothing did Rabin say in 1994 – “why doesn’t Arafat do an Altalena on the Hamas”.

Think about that.

Binyamin in O says:

Yisrael, please read the following:

Then, think about it.

Redwod509 says:

Known for richimagination, seldom adhering to facts, Socialist like Shimon peres, is good at positioning th estory to make his boss look good at any given opportunity. On numerous occasions I hear my neighbour in Tel-Aviv, P.M Menahem Begin recount to quantities of bullets that could have liberated jerusalem from the clutches of the Jordanian Legion. The IDF at that time was short on ammunition, any of the veterans could tell how they were counting each round and often were forced to retreat because of lack of ammo. ^ million rounds were stored on board, not to mention, rifles, grenades and assorted war material. Furthermore, he does not admit the fact that his notorious buddy Teddy Kolek, was the one who handed to the British a list of all the active members of the Irgun, who were rounded and deported to concentration camps all over the empire. The sinister betrayal of the Socialists, followers of Ben Gurion and his followers, Rabin, Dayan who were on the balcony of the Mapai headquarters , Hayarkon Street, overlooking the Alatalena, gave the orders to fire and some of the operatives on board were massacred. The pretense that P.M begin wanted to create a condition that could prevent the “Zionists” from taking charge is a pure fraud. They were focused on liberating jerusalem. The entire 1967 war could have been prevented of the IDF could have taken charge of the entire city, thus clearing for Israel the rightful dominion over the holy city. The Peres’s “Socialists”, the pompous and degenarate followers of Joseph Stalin (Mapam, Communist Party), sacrificed Jerusalem for politics. Making sure that the Herut Party will not be abale to claim any military victory nor come near any power for 30 years, left in the back-benches of the opposition, while the Labor moevement consolidated its power and rot simultaneously, to the point where today their existence is purely virtual. There is karma in this world, and the Socialists face it everywhere.

Redwod509 says:

6 million rounds were stored on board the ship!

Binyamin in O says:

Six million rounds for 6 million Arabs, Redwood509.

I wonder if that number has any significance.

Perhaps it is not too late for Bibi, Bogie Yalom and the others to finally use those six million rounds on those pesky Palestinians.

Nachum says:

“Begin made a power play”

Is there a shred of evidence of that?

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As Israel fought for independence, David Ben-Gurion turned the military’s guns on Jews. In his new biography, Shimon Peres recalls his mentor’s greatest test.

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