Levi Eshkol, Forgotten Hero

By Michael B. Oren

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

The following day, May 24, Eshkol continued to hold firm in pursuing diplomatic options and seeking a united cabinet, even as Arab war preparations intensified. “We will turn the Gulf of Aqaba into Israel’s graveyard,” Cairo Radio trumpeted. “For Israel, we hold death in store.” The IDF general staff warned that “every delay is a gamble with Israel’s survival,” and predicted that ten thousand Israeli soldiers would die in the coming conflict. Weizman, filling in temporarily for Rabin, who had been incapacitated for a day by physical and emotional stress, lobbied Eshkol to sanction a pre-emptive strike. But divisions within the Israeli leadership persisted. Zalman Aran spoke of the Soviets’ “cosmic power,” of the “wall of steel and fire” that would decimate Tel Aviv if Israel shot first. Haim Moshe Shapira insisted that Ben-Gurion be returned to power.34
Eshkol’s resolve to continue pursuing a diplomatic solution was further tested later that day, when word came in of yet another penetration by Egyptian MiGs in the skies above Israel’s nuclear reactor. Exasperated, Eshkol scolded Shapira, “Egyptian fighters are flying over Dimona and here we are arguing over Ben-Gurion!” The prime minister had begun to cast doubt on the maritime convoy scheme and instead broached the idea of breaking the blockade with an Israeli ship; if the Egyptians fired on the vessel, the IDF would counterattack in force. Nonetheless, he refrained from pursuing the plan until Eban had completed his most important talks of all, in Washington. The decision again disappointed those ministers in favor of attacking, but won the support of Yitzhak Rabin, who, having recovered from his breakdown, now supported Eshkol’s approach. Thus, Rabin stated, “I want it to be recorded for history that before acting, we did everything we could to find a diplomatic solution.”35
As part of this effort, Rabin proposed that the Israeli government inform the Americans of Egypt’s impending attack and demand that they come out publicly in support of Israel. “We have reached the point of explosion,” the chief of staff explained. “If the Americans declare that any attack on us is tantamount to an attack on the United States, that could be our only reason to wait.” Even if the United States demurred, such a demand might help the Americans understand the desperation of Israel’s position, and increase the pressure on them to proffer more realistic assistance. Eshkol agreed, and instructed Eban to request such a declaration the minute he reached the White House.36
Predictably, the president turned down the request, explaining that American troops could not come to Israel’s defense without the authorization of Congress. Yet Eshkol’s demarche did have at least two far-reaching consequences. Johnson promptly informed Moscow and Cairo of Israel’s claims, and warned them sternly against initiating hostilities. The result was an immediate halt to Egypt’s preparations for invading the Negev. Johnson also offered to expedite the creation of the international convoy, and to take “any and all measures in my power” to reopen the straits.37 These developments formed the background for the next, fateful meeting of Israel’s government, on Saturday evening, May 27.

The atmosphere surrounding the meeting was bleak and volatile. In the street outside the Prime Minister’s Office, the mothers and wives of mobilized soldiers demanded Dayan’s installment as defense minister, while inside, Haim Moshe Shapira threatened to resign unless a coalition of national unity were formed, including both the Rafi party and Menachem Begin’s right-wing Gahal bloc. Cairo’s official radio blared, “We challenge you, Eshkol, to try all your weapons. Put them to the test; they will spell Israel’s death and annihilation.” Rabin had just opened the discussion, declaring, “The noose is closing around our necks,” when a bedraggled Eban arrived from the airport. He reported that Johnson was “firm as a rock” on Israel’s right to free passage through the straits, but just as firmly opposed to an Israeli first strike. He quoted the president as warning, “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.” From every quarter, it seemed, Eshkol was assailed.
The hawks within the cabinet insisted on immediate military action, siding with Yigal Allon, who asked: “Does anyone around this table really think that we should let the enemy strike first just to prove to the world that they started it?” Joining with Allon were Agriculture Minister Haim Givati, who predicted that Israel was becoming little more than an American protectorate, and Yisrael Galili, a minister without portfolio, who warned of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” factor as Nasser exposed Israel’s unwillingness to fight. “Israel can be saved only by destroying Egypt’s power,” maintained Transportation Minister Moshe Carmel. “Anyone who says we can’t stand alone is saying that we can’t exist here.”
Yet, for every official in favor of war, another rose to oppose it. “I have more confidence in the American promises than I do in the IDF’s ability to break the Egyptian army,” declared Haim Moshe Shapira. Zalman Aran spoke of the benefits Israel would reap by trusting Lyndon Johnson, and Tourism Minister Moshe Kol warned of the hazards of alienating him. “It’s hard to create a state but easy to lose one,” observed Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir of Eshkol’s Mapai party, and went on to express his doubt as to whether Israel could sustain as many casualties as the Arabs.
With the cabinet deadlocked, it was up to Eshkol to decide how to proceed. Earlier that day, he had responded enthusiastically to a suggestion by Soviet ambassador Chuvakhin that a resolution to the crisis was still negotiable. Johnson’s convoy idea appeared to be offering that solution, but Eshkol doubted whether the Americans could implement it and distrusted any initiative that might limit Israel’s ability to deal with other threats, such as Palestinian terror. In electing to wait, Eshkol had to weigh the loss of Israel’s deterrent capability against the time he would gain to forge a government consensus in favor of action, to further demonstrate Israel’s non-belligerency, and to prepare the IDF for possible war. The danger of defying the world’s only sympathetic superpower had to be taken into account, as did what Eshkol called “the need to show Johnson we’re the good guys.” After weighing the costs, Eshkol indicated that his own position was that Israel should strike pre-emptively. Nonetheless, he believed that a decision of such magnitude should only be made clear-headedly, and at 4:00 a.m., Eshkol called a recess. “We must decide in whose hands we will place this generation,” he exhorted his ministers, “in fate’s, America’s, or Chuvakhin’s.”38
No sooner had the ministers dispersed than two top-secret telegrams arrived from Washington, both of which demanded that additional time be given for diplomacy. The first cable reconfirmed Johnson’s commitment to the convoy plan and to restoring free passage through the straits, while the second one contained a caveat: “It is essential that Israel not take any pre-emptive military action and thereby make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities.” Johnson also wrote of the danger of direct Soviet intervention in the Middle East. “Pre-emptive action by Israel would make it impossible for the friends of Israel to stand at your side.”39
These communications served to tilt the balance in the cabinet when it reconvened on Sunday afternoon. Instead of the expected majority in favor of striking first, the ministers were now evenly divided, nine against nine. As prime minister, Eshkol could cast an additional, tie-breaking ballot, but chose not to exercise his right. His decision was guided in part by the threat of certain ministers—Abba Eban and Haim Moshe Shapira—to resign if the government voted for war, but also by Eshkol’s conviction that the country could not take such a weighty step on the strength of a one-vote margin.40 Once the fighting began, he believed, unity would be essential to Israel’s survival.
With “the waiting period” again extended, Eshkol resolved to cement Israel’s position with the Americans by affording Johnson additional time to launch the international convoy. In the interim, Israel would redouble its efforts to generate international sympathy, raise funds, and purchase arms. Adjourning, the government issued a terse communique: “Israel views the closure of the Straits of Tiran as an act of belligerency and will defend itself against it at the appropriate time, exercising its rights to self-defense as all states have.”41
The ministers dispersed, but Eshkol’s “longest night,” as Col. Lior called it, had scarcely begun. The government’s decision left Eshkol in the unenviable position of having to explain to a frightened Israeli public, anxious for action, that the government would continue pursuing diplomacy. Thus, from the Prime Minister’s Office he headed to the studios of Israel Radio to deliver a live address. The text he received, however, was crumpled and crisscrossed with editing. Never a great speechmaker, Eshkol stuttered, creating an impression of uncertainty. Israelis were also shocked to learn that their security was to be placed in the hands of a foreign power. “It’s amazing how a people who suffered a Holocaust is willing to believe and endanger itself once again,” wrote Ze’ev Schiff, columnist for the daily Ha’aretz. Soldiers huddled around transistor radios in the Negev were said to have burst into tears.42

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