BEN-GURION: The Burning Ground, 1886-1948 By Shabtai Teveth Houghton Mifflin. 967 pp. $35

THREE JEWISH leaders, more than any others, were instrumental in bringing about the birth of the State of Israel: Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. Seen in retrospect, the role of Herzl, flamboyant propagandist of Zionism and indefatigable negotiator, was the least important: Zionism had existed well before him and all his efforts to get tangible results were in vain. Weizmann's part in obtaining single-handedly in 1917 the Balfour Declaration, which committed Britain to establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine was a historical turning point: It provided the legal and practical base on which immigration into Palestine proceeded between the two world wars. Yet by 1939 Britain had virtually disavowed her commitment of 1917, and Weizmann, a fervent Anglophile, was a deeply disappointed man, politically at the end of his tether.

Thus the role of David Ben-Gurion (1887-1973) was crucial even though he lacked Herzl's grand seigneurial style and Weizmann's charisma. There was an international constellation after World War II that, for the first time, made the creation of a Jewish state possible. True, even then most statesmen from Washington to Moscow were unenthusiastic if not actively hostile, and even most Zionist leaders preferred to wait. We now know that this unique constellation did not last; only one year later it would have been impossible to obtain a majority vote in the United Nations for the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine. No one was more aware of this than David Ben-Gurion and it was mainly owing to his relentless drive that the fateful resolution was passed at Lake Success in November 1947 and statehood declared in Tel Aviv in May 1948.

It is tempting to speculate about the present state of the Middle East but for Ben-Gurion and the birth of the State of Israel: According to the Arabists, a new age of peace and prosperity, of freedom and good will towards the West, would have opened in the Middle East, which would have turned into something akin to Switzerland. Others believe that, given the profound tensions inside the region, Israel merely acted as a catalyst, imposing at least a minimum of solidarity on the neighboring Arab states. But for the existence of the Jewish state, there might have been even more bloodshed and conditions would be now even more chaotic. It is unlikely that the two schools of thought will ever agree.

In view of the weakness of the yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine -- in 1947, a mere 500,000 -- the decision to opt for statehood was a gamble. But Ben-Gurion was not a reckless man, his sense of what could, and what could not, be achieved was unique among his contemporaries. Almost alone among Israeli leaders he had grave misgivings about the war of 1967 which led to the unprecedented victory over Egypt and Syria -- and saddled Israel with the burden of the West Bank and Gaza, leading inevitably to a new war in 1973.

Ben-Gurion was in politics for 66 years; his career began in czarist Russia and ended at the time of Vietnam. Up to age 61, when he became the first prime minister of Israel, his activities were limited to a tiny political stage. For many years he acted as an organizer of a small and impoverished union, a fitting apprenticeship for a machine politican rather than a world statesman with a strong sense of destiny. Later he was secretary of the Palestine Labor party; again, the problems facing him were not of world-shaking importance: Conflicts between agricultural laborers and their employers, and the unending internal Zionist squabbles. Yet Ben-Gurion is an amazing example of a man growing in stature with his increased responsibilities. He had little formal education yet was one of the few true intellectuals in 20th-century politics. When he was in his 50s he taught himself classical Greek and spent many a blackout evening in World War II London studying Greek texts -- Plato, Aristotle, as well as some very obscure authors. Towards the end of his life he immersed himself in Far Eastern religion and philosophy. Once in the 1950s during a reception in his honor in a European capital he took a young man aside to discuss for a long time some recondite problem in historiography, much to the discomfort of the dignitaries waiting in line to shake hands and the embarrassment of the ambassador and his interlocutor alike -- who happened to be the present writer. It was very typical of Ben-Gurion: His sense of priorities was different from those surrounding him; he had no small talk and disdained social graces. He was a single-minded man; it is doubtful whether, on his own free will, he ever entered a museum or listened to a concert. He was a man of firm principles to which he would stick -- sometimes beyond the limits of reason and common sense. He got along better with younger people than with his own contemporaries; with age he became increasingly quarrelsome in personal relations.

HE WAS equally single-minded in politics; Shabtai Teveth's fitting subtitle for his new life is "The Burning Ground." In August 1933 Ben-Gurion bought a copy of Mein Kampf and after reading it told everyone ready to listen that Hitler's rule endangered the whole Jewish people and that the catastrophe was perhaps just four or five years off -- an astonishingly accurate prediction. Hence his readiness -- against the advice of many of his close comrades -- to accept even a mini-state in 1937, which would have permitted the evacuation of at least some hundreds of thousands of Jews from Europe. Yet when the reports about the disaster came, Ben-Gurion hardly ever commented on them. Perhaps it was the horrible feeling of impotence that prevented him from speaking out. Perhaps he did not want it to be true, because his whole vision of a Jewish state was predicated on the millions of Jews of Europe who would build it -- and who never came.

Teveth's volume stops on the day in May 1948 when Ben-Gurion became the first prime minister of the new state. The book is an abridged version of several volumes published in Hebrew. It runs to more than 900 pages but there is hardly a word too much. Though not an historian by training, Teveth bases his book on such a prodigious amount of research that he puts many professional historians to shame. But the biography is not weighted down by factual detail, nor is Teveth an uncritical admirer; the author stops whenever necessary, reflecting upon choices and asking the right questions about alternatives. If the next volume dealing with Ben-Gurion as head of the Israeli government will be of equal excellence, this will be one of the great political biographies of our time. :: Walter Laqueur's most recent book, co-authored with Richard Breitman, is "Breaking the Silence," the story of Edward Schulte, the German who passed on to the outside world the unbelievable news of Hitler's death camps.

CAPTION:David Ben-Gurion with President Truman, President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and then vice president, Richard Nixon