Ben-Gurion 1886-1973

DAVID BEN-GURION was one of the last of the seemingly larger-than-life national leaders who emerged in the 1930s and 40s. A few of these men--China's Mao, Argentina's Peron, Yugoslavia's Tito--are still at the helm, but almost all of them have been replaced by people like Leonid Brezhnev and President Nixon, uninspiring but still dangerously powerful.

Even more than many of his famous contemporaries, Ben-Gurion seemed to personally represent the history of the people he led. Born in Czarist-ruled Poland, he bacame a Marxist in his teens, and helped found the Workers of Zion party in Palestine. Throughout his life he sought to build a "light to the nations," an Israel that would be a model of social justice and democracy. From the earliest years of his Zionist agitation Ben-Gurion pleaded for agreement between Jews and Arabs, provoking right-wing attacks that called him a doctrinaire socialist and deracinated cosmopolitan. In the last years of his retirement in Sde Boker, a kibbutz collectively engaged in making the Israeli desert bloom, Ben-Gurion still tried to see both sides of every question. If he'd been a young Arab, he remarked privately, he might have joined the fedayeen.

That Ben-Gurion felt this way was a measure of the tragedy of his country's history almost as striking as his failure as Prime Minister to find a way to reconcile Israel with its unremittingly hostile neighbors, or the Palestinian refugees who lost their homes as a result of its establishment. Today, after another bloody war, it seems as though Arabs and Jews--victims of historic developments they didn't initiate or choose--may be a little closer to reconciliation, but only a little.

Ben-Gurion is dead. But in the long run, the dreams he had as a young man--of a Middle East at peace, with justice, freedom and self-determination for all its inhabitants of whatever background and religion--remain the dreams that will have to inspire any lasting Middle Eastern settlement.