Levi Eshkol, Forgotten Hero

By Michael B. Oren

Israel’s third prime minister offers a different model of Jewish leadership.

Although he had earned himself a public image as a proficient but uninspiring administrator, people who knew him personally would later dwell upon his warm and colorful personality. “Talkative, overflowing with simplicity and humor,” was how Rabin described him, while Ezer Weizman remembered him as “a lovable man, easygoing… open, a grand conversationalist.” Though he dealt with sums of money in the millions, Eshkol cared little for either material possessions or appearances. Aryeh Eliav, a longtime ministerial aid, recalled how “I learned to love the wise, warm-hearted, humorous man of the fields… the wonderful Jew, Eshkol.”9
The rare blend of competence and charm might have propelled Eshkol to greater prominence if not for the overpowering presence of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister throughout most of the state’s first decade and a half. Ben-Gurion the visionary, the fiery orator and charismatic leader, was Eshkol’s opposite in almost every way. For this reason, perhaps, Ben-Gurion selected Eshkol as his successor when, in June 1963, the prime minister abruptly resigned in the midst of an ongoing controversy over an abortive intelligence operation in Egypt nine years earlier.10 Ben-Gurion quit, but was convinced that his judgment would soon be vindicated and his post readily reclaimed—a judgment which proved to be mistaken, as Eshkol began proving himself as prime minister.11
In Eshkol’s first years in office, much of his attention was devoted to the construction of a national water carrier to channel fresh water from the Sea of Galilee southward to irrigate the Negev desert. “The Eshkol years were devoted to the reclamation and endowment of both land and water,” recalled a senior aide from this period, Yossi Sarid. “[They] will always be remembered as the vintage years of the Zionist harvest….” Striving for national reconciliation, Eshkol also dismantled the military administration that had been imposed on Israeli Arabs since 1948, and agreed to repatriate the remains of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist movement, and to rebury them on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. In addition, he instituted regular meetings with the leaders of the opposition, marking an end to the political isolation of the Herut party, led by Menachem Begin.12
Equally impressive was Eshkol’s performance in foreign affairs, an area in which he had little prior expertise. He strengthened Israel’s ties with Africa, established diplomatic relations with West Germany, and worked to ease tensions between Israel and the Soviet Union. To the Arab world, Eshkol proposed a comprehensive peace treaty based on direct negotiations, funds for refugee resettlement, and “full respect for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all the states in the region.”13
But Eshkol’s crowning achievement in foreign policy was his June 1964 visit to the White House—the first by a prime minister of the Jewish state. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, himself a plain-talking ex-farmer, immediately warmed to Eshkol. “The United States is foursquare behind Israel on all matters that affect… their vital security interests,” the president told him: “The prime minister could leave knowing that the U.S. will help Israel in the future, both morally and financially, as much as she can.” Within a year of assuming office, Eshkol had brought Israeli-American relations to unprecedented heights, but he refused to indulge in overconfidence. Presciently, he asked the president:
We are told that there is a United States commitment to Israel…. But… what if one day Nasser… were to attack Israel? Would Israel be strong enough to protect itself? No one could forecast what other problems the U.S. would have at that time.14
Eshkol’s accomplishments as prime minister were indeed prodigious, but no less so than his success as defense minister, the other portfolio he inherited from Ben-Gurion. Though he had never commanded troops, Eshkol possessed a clear sense of the threats facing Israel and of the materiel it required to overcome them. Accordingly, he embarked on an accelerated modernization program that transformed Israel’s air and armored forces into rapidly deployable and potent weapons. Wary of France’s changing Middle East policy, Eshkol reduced Israel’s dependence on French arms by purchasing American-made Patton tanks and Skyhawk fighters.15 He also enhanced Israel’s intelligence-gathering capabilities and reformed the army’s command structure. Under his aegis, some of the IDF’s most capable generals were retained and promoted, among them Yitzhak Rabin, whom Eshkol appointed to a three-year term as chief of staff in January 1964, and whose tenure he extended in late 1966 for an additional year.
The strengthening of the IDF did not, however, allay Eshkol’s concerns for Israel’s security. He closely monitored Arab acquisitions of chemical weapons, heavy bombers, and long-range missiles, aware of the destruction they could wreak on Israeli cities. For him, Israel was shimshon der nebechdiker—Samson the weakling—at once invincible and mortally vulnerable. “Okay, okay,” he responded when, in 1966, intelligence officials assured him that the Arab world was internally divided and incapable of waging war before 1970. “But what if intelligence is wrong?” Learning that the armored corps had ammunition reserves for only three days of fighting, Eshkol had them doubled. In contrast to the complacency exhibited by many of Israel’s political and military leaders in the mid-1960s, Eshkol repeatedly stressed the need to prepare for a simultaneous attack by several Arab countries.16
Determined to preserve Israel’s deterrent power, yet careful not to precipitate a regional conflict, Eshkol maintained a policy of limited retaliation against Arab aggression. Such reprisals became necessary in 1964, when the Syrians tried to undermine the national water carrier project by diverting the Jordan River at its source within Syrian territory, and began firing on Israeli farmers attempting to cultivate demilitarized zones along the northern border. Starting in 1965, Damascus also promoted terrorist attacks on Israel by Yasser Arafat and his Fatah gunmen. Eshkol reacted forcibly, authorizing for the first time the use of Israeli jets against Syrian positions on the Golan Heights and directing the IDF to retaliate against Fatah strongholds in the West Bank. “The notepad is open and the hand is writing,” he declared after a spate of terrorist bombings, intimating that vengeance would soon be exacted. Yet Eshkol refrained from ordering a large-scale attack against Syria. Such an offensive, he feared, could trigger a comprehensive Middle East war in which the Soviet Union would intervene directly, and the United States, already bogged down in Vietnam, could not come to Israel’s defense. Fresh in his mind was the 1956 Suez crisis, in which the Americans, resentful that Israel had launched an offensive against Egypt with the backing of the French and British, joined with the Soviets in forcing the IDF to withdraw from Gaza and Sinai.17
The mounting threats to Israel’s security were exploited by Eshkol’s critics, in particular Ben-Gurion. Despairing of a rapid return to power, the former prime minister had formed his own party—Rafi (Reshimat Po’alei Yisrael—Israel Workers’ List)—along with his younger protégés, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan. Ben-Gurion reproached Eshkol for allegedly neglecting the Franco-Israeli alliance at a time of mounting border friction, and for relying exclusively on the United States.
Such obloquy from a person he had always revered deeply offended Eshkol—“It was like a father throwing him out of Eden,” his wife, Miriam, recalled—yet he resolved to fight back. He allied Mapai with the more left-wing but security-minded Ahdut Ha’avoda (Labor Unity) party, and trounced Rafi in the October 1965 elections. But then Israel’s economy fell into an unprecedented slump, with unemployment reaching 12.4 percent in the first half of 1967 and growth plummeting to a mere 1 percent. Segments of the populace began to doubt Eshkol’s ability to restore security and reverse the economic slowdown.18
Political and economic difficulties did not, however, divert Eshkol from responding forcibly to Arab aggression. Thus, on April 7, 1967, after Syrian guns opened fire on border settlements, Eshkol again ordered in the air force, which shot down six Syrian planes. Damascus retaliated with another wave of terrorist attacks. “We have no choice,” Eshkol told a forum of his Mapai party on May 12. “We may well have to act against the centers of aggression and those who encourage it by means no less serious than those we used on April 7.”19

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