Sapir Dominated Israeli Politics and Economics Like a Colossus
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Sapir Dominated Israeli Politics and Economics Like a Colossus

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Pinhas Sapir, strongman of Israeli politics this past decade and architect of Israel’s economy, was born 67 years ago to Mordechai and Malka Kozlowski in the Polish village of Suwalki. He received a mixed Jewish and general basic education, and those who knew him then say he shone even as a youth in his mathematical and organizational abilities. He made aliya to Palestine in 1929 and settled in Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv, where he lived until his death in a modest cottage.

At first, Mr. Sapir worked in the local orange groves, “moonlighting” by helping the growers with their bookkeeping. He soon became active in local labor affairs and was arrested and jailed for joining in riots against the employment of cheap Arab labor by the Jewish orange-growers. Those were the days of the historic struggle by the fledgling labor movements for Jewish labor in the burgeoning economy of the Jewish national homeland. Mr. Sapir was in the forefront of that struggle, alongside such men as David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi.

Mr. Sapir married Shoshana Kirinsky and moved into the orbit of union work in the rapidly expanding framework of the Histadrut. In 1937, at the behest of Levi Eshkol, he joined a Histadrut team working on a huge water project which was later to become “Mekorot,” the government-Histadrut water company.

Mr. Sapir’s organizational prowess came to the notice of Ben Gurion who soon entrusted him with various defense tasks on behalf of the state-in-the-making. After independence was declared in 1948, Mr. Sapir was sent abroad on arms-buying missions. A year later he returned to become the director general of the Defense Ministry. Later he moved to the same post in the Finance Ministry, then headed by Eliezer Kaplan.


In 1953, Mr. Sapir entered the Cabinet–as Minister for Trade and Commerce, with Eshkol his superior as Minister of Finance. The two men worked in tandem for a decade, steering the economy through a period of growth which experts have classified as fantastic. When Eshkol took over the Premiership in 1963 Mr. Sapir was the natural choice to succeed him at the Finance Ministry. He held the post, with one brief intermission, until resigning from office last year when Golda Meir stepped down from the Premiership.

Political pundits were united at that time in their opinion that Mr. Sapir could have had the Premiership for the taking–but he, of his own volition, refused to take it and the full weight of his influence in the Labor Party fell behind Yitzhak Rabin’s candidacy.

With the Jewish Agency chairmanship vacant since Louis Pincus’ death shortly before, Mr. Sapir looked to this task as a new challenge. He circled the world in prodigious fund-raising and aliya-encouragement efforts, finding himself more successful in the former than in the latter.

His wife Shoshana died in 1971–a blow from which Mr. Sapir never fully recovered. Late last year he married Rifka El Natan, a jolly Jerusalem widow in her fifties who had been active in Labor Party politics in the capital. He leaves her widowed again and reportedly unwell, and also a son, Amos, two daughters, and grandchildren whom he dearly loved and spent as much time with as he could.


Mr. Sapir bestrode Israeli politics and economics for two decades, like the Shakespearian colossus. His achievements were legion, some of them breathtaking in their scope and page, confounding the experts.

But this powerhouse of activity, never idle, working 15 hours a day without rest, running the country–so it was widely said–out of his “little black notebook”–generated severe criticism, especially in his later years. The still ongoing campaign in the press and among wide sections of public opinion against corruption in economic affairs and against Tammany Hall-style politics often focused on “Sapirism” as its chief target.

The man himself was spotless in his activities His enemies–and he had many–could never pin a sordid or besmirching accusation upon him. He lived modestly and quietly. But, it was said, the intense concentration of political and economic power in his hands led to a pattern of paternalism in the economy and bossism in the labor movement which grew to unhealthy proportions.

In his heyday Mr. Sapir could seal the fate of multi-million dollar ventures with a word, a command, a recommendation. He attracted many big investors–through the “economic conference” which he established in 1973 and through his diversified contacts throughout the world, but by the same token he came to exercise a powerful measure of control over the direction and placement of investments which, his adversaries said, he used for political ends.


Thus the balance sheet of Mr. Sapir’s contribution to this country has its credit and debit side and only with the passing of time will the dispassionate historian be able to pass judgement. By no means were all the charges levelled against him ever substantiated. It was alleged that he was intimately linked with imprisoned financier Michael Tzur–but he denied all knowledge of Tzur’s crimes–and no links were ever proven.

His “Sapir Fund,” which has already raised $600 million abroad for welfare projects here, was assailed by the press–but no blemish was found on it. Mr. Sapir insisted that it be examined by the most scrupulous means at the disposal of the State Comptroller. Only last week he proudly presented plans for the Fund’s next five years–in which he envisaged another $500 million being allocated for welfare and education of disadvantaged youth–all under the watchful eyes of the State Comptroller and of a special Agency-government committee.


The great riddle of his career was his reluctance to assume the Premiership in 1974. Some said he simply feared the awesome responsibility of war and peace. He felt he was not sufficiently qualified in political and military affairs. Some said he preferred to influence policy from behind the scenes.

But during Mrs. Meir’s Premiership, although his loyalty to her was unswerving, his influence beyond the economic sphere was limited. He headed the doves inside Labor–but the Golda Meir-Moshe Dayan-Israel Galili hawkish line held sway despite Mr. Sapir’s repeated warnings that to retain the occupied West Bank would mean moral disaster for the Jewish State.

To his dying day he never tired of echoing Ben Gurion’s warnings–that the future of Israel would be best protected, best ensured, by a substantial growth, through aliya, of its Jewish population.

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