The year is 1963. A senior civil servant, nervous, leans forward in his padded
chair facing the large desk of the new prime minister and minister of defense,
Levi Eshkol. He was 68, at the height of his powers, and as usual, relaxed and
focused, kindly, wise and funny.
The edgy civil servant: “Eshkol, where
should I start?” Eshkol, in his booming basso profundo voice: “Start from the
end!” All right, PM, I too will start from the end.
David Ben-Gurion was
Israel’s state-builder. Levi Eshkol was the land-builder and people-builder. No
single Israeli had more to do with every aspect of creating a viable country,
people and economy than this seemingly bluff Ukrainian-born pioneer.
Atlas-like strength and his broad shoulders carried a penniless new state,
licking wounds of war and the loss of 10,000 women, men and
Israel did have some surpluses: the bereaved, the Holocaust
survivors, the new immigrants. There was also no shortage of shortages: fuel,
food and housing. Hand-to-mouth, borrowing here and taxing there, getting aid
here and foreign governmental assistance there, taking Appeal money with one
hand and Bond money with the other... somehow he orchestrated it all.
personally led the town-building and the creation of hundred of kibbutzim and
moshavim, began the National Water Carrier, provided power, food, light, to a
burgeoning population and found the finances for the army, fledgling air force
and navy, and the nascent military industries.
Fortunately, Eshkol was
blessed with charm and will, ability and wit, humor and nerves of
Tragically, he was cursed with the inability to project his
personal charisma beyond small meetings and face-to-face negotiations. The twin
facets created his fate and sealed it as well.
Michael Oren, the former
ambassador in Washington and a respected historian, dubbed him “The forgotten
hero.” Here’s a partial “why”: Spring 1967 At a meeting of the General Staff,
according to a highly reliable source, the generals reassured Eshkol that the
Egyptian Army was bogged down in a futile war in Yemen. It was clear: Egypt
simply was unable to mount a war against Israel in the foreseeable
With his healthy skepticism and disarming smile, Eshkol turned to
his chief of intelligence and to all his senior and seasoned generals: “You know
that [Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser] won’t attack.
I know that
Nasser won’t attack. We all know Nasser won’t attack. But...Does Nasser know he
won’t attack?” Of course history is more complex than this totally believable
report. It is reliable because it is vintage Eshkol: that simple but illusive
quality: sechel – straight-thinking common sense. Sechel, the strength to act
responsibly. And the touch of Jewish humor. The iron-clad patience.
the three nerve-racking weeks before the Six Day War, everyone with a drop of
sense knew war was inevitable. The generals fumed every time Eshkol refused to
give them the green light. The battle plans had been honed to perfection. The
senior commanders threatened their PM that if Israel did not strike first, the
There would be tens of thousands of
Emergency graveyards were being consecrated.
general stripped the insignia of rank from his shoulders, and trampled them into
the floor of the ministerial office. The public was panicking, not understanding
the delay. Menachem Begin even proposed that his old nemesis, David Ben- Gurion,
take over the reins. Eshkol’s party colleagues waffled, Ben-Gurion’s
lieutenants, headed by Shimon Peres, orchestrated a powerful PR and political
push and Eshkol’s lack of charisma compounded by a bumbling radio speech led to
the victor’s laurel being snatched from hs head.
Eshkol was forced to
accept Moshe Dayan as his minister of defense. Still, though betrayed by his
colleagues, hemmed in by people he did not want, Eshkol withstood all the public
as well as political pressures. He made sure Israel would not alienate the US as
it had in the Sinai War of 1956. He made sure the fickle “world” was with us.
Only then did he give the green light. Such powerful patience is indeed
Due disclosure: I wrote Eshkol’s English-language and the
occasional Hebrew speech for 10 years, from 1955, when he was minister of
finance until the end of 1965, when, as prime minister, he gave me leave to
study. In the terrifying, heroic period I described I was no longer his
spokesman, speechwriter and contact with the Jewish world.
Since I did
not return to the Prime Minister’s Office until 1968, in a different capacity,
here too I rely on others to credit Eshkol with – arguably – the most important
change in US-Israel relations.
He convinced president Lyndon Johnson to
provide American military aid to Israel.
He and Johnson, who shared many
similar qualities (coming in a later column), had an excellent
Originally the president had read the prime minister the
official American line: “The US does not wish to be a major supplier of arms to
the Middle East.”
Eshkol replied in his deprecating, and somehow sweet if
weak attempt at humor, “Mr. President, you don’t need to be a major
Just a captain supplier.”
His critics accused him of
being a compromiser.
“They are right. I compromise and compromise and
compromise... until I get my way.”
Well, sir, we began almost at the
Next time we’ll start close to the beginning.
son of a prosperous family arrives in Jaffa Port. Lacing his shoes around his
neck, he sets out barefoot to join his fellow pioneers (halutzim) in Petah
Tikva, which in Hosea’s prophesy is “the gateway to hope.
forgot his beginnings. He never lost sight of the end.
served as Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s secretary for public affairs and later as
an adviser to the PM entrusted with the organization of the Jerusalem Economic
Conferences which spearheaded the transition to a more open economy and to
Avi-hai has written non-fiction studies and recently his novel A
Tale of Two Avrahams has appeared on Amazon.com.