Levi Eshkol, Forgotten Hero

By Michael B. Oren

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


The approaching confrontation with Syria also influenced Eshkol’s decision regarding Israel’s Independence Day parade, to be held in Jerusalem. Washington claimed that a military parade would violate the Israeli-Jordanian armistice agreement. Eshkol took a middle position: IDF troops would march in the parade but without their tanks and artillery. Ben-Gurion lost no time in condemning this decision as “an unforgivable act of surrender,” but Eshkol refused to alienate the Americans at a time when Israel might soon need them. “We are surrounded by a serious encirclement of hostility and that which does not succeed today could well succeed tomorrow or the day after,” he told Mapai leaders on May 13. “We know that the Arab world is now divided… but things can always change.”20
Things were indeed about to change, unbeknownst to Eshkol and the estimated 200,000 spectators who converged on Jerusalem the next day. Not since the War of Independence would the leadership skills of Israel’s prime minister be so thoroughly tested, nor would the country’s survival be so deeply cast in doubt.
On May 14, while attending an Independence Day show in the Hebrew University stadium, Eshkol received word that vast numbers of Egyptian troops were marching into Sinai. The pretext was Soviet charges that Israeli forces had massed on the northern border in preparation for invading Syria. Though he knew these claims to be false, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared his intention to come to Syria’s defense. Rabin immediately recommended the mobilization of all of Israel’s reserves, but Eshkol preferred to proceed cautiously, and to put only the regular army on alert. Through diplomatic channels, meanwhile, Eshkol assured Nasser that Israel had no hostile intentions toward Syria or any Arab state, and no interest in war.21
Throughout the festivities the following day, reports of the Egyptian buildup streamed in. IDF intelligence concluded that Nasser’s move was political in nature, and not meant as the prelude to a military offensive, but Eshkol was beginning to have doubts. Even without an all-out confrontation, Egypt’s action could tie Israel’s hands in its efforts to combat Palestinian terrorism. There was also the danger that Nasser would evict UN peacekeepers stationed in Sinai since the end of the Suez Campaign, or blockade the Straits of Tiran, cutting off Israel’s vital oil shipments through Eilat. When asked by his wife Miriam why he seemed so distracted, Eshkol betrayed his distrust of the intelligence assessments: “Don’t you realize there’s going to be a war?”22
And indeed, war increasingly seemed to be Egypt’s objective. While Nasser clamored for “the final battle in Palestine,” four Egyptian divisions rushed into Sinai. A relative handful of Israeli troops now faced 80,000 men, 550 tanks, and 1,000 guns. The Syrian army was also on the move, Damascus Radio declaring, “The war of liberation will not end except by Israel’s destruction.” By May 16, the IDF had changed its initial assessment, and now warned of a combined Arab offensive. Consequently, Eshkol agreed to a limited call-up of 18,000 reservists. “It was clear to all of us that we had reached the point of no return,” wrote Col. Yisrael Lior, Eshkol’s military secretary. “The die had been cast.”23
Lior’s intuition was confirmed on the night of May 16, when Egypt ousted the UN peacekeeping forces from Sinai, and the following afternoon, when Egyptian fighter planes penetrated Israeli airspace over the Dimona nuclear reactor, the country’s most sensitive site. Thus began the ordeal that Israelis called “the waiting period,” the weeks in which they no longer questioned whether war would break out, but only if Israel would strike first.24
Responding to Nasser’s provocations, Eshkol doubled the number of activated reserves and requested that the IDF beef up its armored forces in the south.25 On his instructions, plans were drawn up for destroying Egyptian airfields in retaliation for any attack on Dimona, and for opening the straits by force. Yet, while preparing Israel militarily, Eshkol continued to explore diplomatic solutions to the crisis. He informed Nasser that Israeli troops had been mobilized for defensive purposes only and that, as long as Egypt refrained from interfering in the straits, Israel would not attack.26
Eshkol also sought to elicit support from Israel’s Western allies, and especially from the United States. On May 18, he wrote Johnson, “With a massive buildup on our southern frontier linked with a terrorist campaign from the north, and Soviet support for the governments responsible for the tension, there is surely an urgent need to reaffirm the American commitment to Israel’s security.” Eshkol was referring to a 1957 pledge in which Washington recognized Israel’s right to resist any attempt to obstruct its shipping through Tiran.27 Eshkol sent similar cables to French President Charles de Gaulle and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, emphasizing that “an open expression of support for Israel’s security and integrity… will be a most important diplomatic and psychological asset in the delicate situation we now find ourselves in.” Finally, he invited the Soviet ambassador to Israel, Dmitri Chuvakhin, to tour the northern border and verify the absence of IDF concentrations.
None of these efforts succeeded in stemming the escalation of hostilities. Johnson, embroiled in Vietnam, advised Israel “to abstain from every step that would increase tension and violence in the area,” while the British and French chose not to respond at all. Chuvakhin rejected Eshkol’s invitation and instead accused Israel of plotting aggression on behalf of the CIA. But Eshkol was far from discouraged. While anxious to avoid war, he was equally committed to laying the groundwork for a successful outcome, if and when war should erupt.28
In the meantime, the Egyptian buildup accelerated, as another two divisions entered Sinai along with bombers capable of decimating Israel’s cities. Cairo Radio taunted, “We are preparing Israel’s graveyard in the Gulf of Aqaba,” and its counterpart in Damascus proclaimed, “The withdrawal of the UN forces… means, ‘Make way, our forces are on their way to battle.’”29
Eshkol had no illusions as to the nature of the threat. “The Egyptians intend to close the straits or to bomb the atomic reactor in Dimona,” he told the cabinet on May 21. “A general attack will follow… [in which] the first five minutes will be decisive. The question is: Who will strike the other’s airfields first?” He was also sensitive to the crippling cost of keeping the country mobilized, and of mounting calls for his resignation as defense minister, to be replaced by Ben-Gurion or Dayan. Yet he refused to sanction a pre-emptive strike until he had convinced the world—and America in particular—that there was no alternative. His message to the Knesset, therefore, was moderate: Israel would defend its right to free passage, “whatever the sacrifice,” but still expressed “reciprocal respect for the sovereignty, integrity, and international rights” of all Middle East nations.30
Nasser’s response came at dawn on May 23, when Lior awakened Eshkol with news that the Egyptians had closed the Straits of Tiran. Israel considered this a casus belli, and IDF generals were united in recommending an immediate military reply. “If Israel takes no action against the blockade, she will lose her credibility and… deterrent power,” insisted army intelligence chief Aharon Yariv. “The Arab states will interpret Israel’s weakness as an excellent opportunity to threaten her security and her very existence.” Ezer Weizman, IDF chief of operations, agreed: “We must strike the enemy now and swiftly… for if we do not, other forces will join him.”31
Eshkol, however, was also focused on the need to secure American backing for Israel’s stance, and to build a consensus in his government for military action. Unlike the general staff, however, the government was deeply split. Ministers Yigal Allon and Yisrael Galili, both of Ahdut Ha’avoda, sided with the IDF, while Education Minister Zalman Aran (Mapai) and Interior Minister Haim Moshe Shapira (National Religious Party) opposed any resort to force. Eshkol listened carefully to both sides of the argument before responding that he was unwilling to undertake a pre-emptive strike so long as the government was divided and diplomatic options remained. This did not mean, however, that Israel would sit passively. “We must show the Arabs that the Jews are not just standing here and bleating,” he told the cabinet. “If the Arabs bomb us—and it doesn’t matter what they bomb—we must respond rapidly and massively.” Eshkol’s answer was to continue mobilizing while investigating all diplomatic possibilities. One such possibility was an American plan, conveyed by Foreign Minister Abba Eban, for assembling an international maritime convoy to challenge the Egyptian blockade. Eshkol backed the idea, and asked the ministers to adopt a “business as usual” attitude while Eban explored it further abroad.32
By overriding the advice of all his generals and many of his most influential ministers, Eshkol had displayed fortitude and independence. Nonetheless, the risks were multiplying, as Israeli intelligence received indications of concrete Egyptian plans to bomb essential Israeli facilities and to conquer the Negev on or around May 27. Equally disconcerting were the initial reports of Eban’s talks overseas. In France, de Gaulle withdrew his government’s support for Israel’s rights in the straits and threatened to cut off military supplies to the Jewish state if the IDF initiated hostilities. In Britain, Eban found Prime Minister Wilson more sympathetic, but reluctant to help Israel without express American backing. “The tension rose and rose and rose,” Lior recounted in describing the events of May 23. “Messages poured in from around the world. Telephones rang incessantly…. The clock raced.”33

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