Tragedy has seldom been more intense.
Ringed, like Caesar, by friends-turned-stabbers; overshadowed by enemy armies crowding the borders; and deafened by neighboring leaders’ shouts of war and vows of genocide, prime minister Levi Eshkol was forced by a battery of political partners, including lifelong friends, to relinquish the defense ministry to his rival and inversion, Moshe Dayan, the fabled war hero and quintessential Sabra.
The subsequent victory was universally celebrated as Dayan’s, but in fact it was Eshkol’s blend, just like the war’s outbreak was its losers’ brew.
The antihero who hailed from a Ukrainian shtetl, bandied Yiddish jokes, wore thick glasses and dressed like the zeyde he actually was, was also the man who built the army that won the Six Day War.
Having succeeded David Ben-Gurion in 1963, Eshkol spent four years equipping and staffing the army that would deliver one of military history’s most stunning victories.
Even so, Eshkol could not overcome the sense of insult that gripped him until his sudden death 20 months on, and 50 years ago this week.
Now, as the Israeli premiership plunges into the worst crisis in its history, Eshkol looms taller than the 11 politicians who preceded and followed his turn at the helm.
ESHKOL WAS no match for Ben-Gurion’s vision and charisma.
Ben-Gurion’s longtime loyalist and ultimate antichrist might not have had the guts to declare independence in 1948, or to disband the Palmah in 1949, or to normalize relations with the German people, and he might not have conceived Israel’s nuclear program, or an anti-Arab alliance with Turkey, Ethiopia and Iran.
Still, Eshkol brought two other virtues that even Ben-Gurion patently lacked.
The first was a passion for economics. Eshkol did not spend one day in any university, having immigrated to Ottoman Palestine immediately after graduating the Jewish high school in Vilnius. However, what he lacked in formal education he made up as the manager of Kibbutz Deganya Bet’s vegetable farm and as a twenty-something arms importer for the newly established Hagana.
Having gained experience this way managing money and negotiating deals, Eshkol’s economic experience was then redoubled in Nazi-ruled Berlin, where he arrived in 1933 to manage the transfer to British Palestine of German Jews’ money and property. Four years on he proceeded to mega-project management by establishing water company Mekorot, which to this day runs Israel’s water industry.
Eshkol thus oversaw the creation of a water-supply system for 16 communities at the foothills of Mount Carmel, which he fed from the Kishon River, before leading a group of experts that planned and delivered a pipe system that led water from outside Tel Aviv to the northern Negev.
It was all but a prelude to a monumental imprint which, as Ben-Gurion’s finance minister for 11 years, and as prime minister for the following five years, made Eshkol the most central figure in the creation of the Israeli economy.
Yes, many mistakes were made in those years, but under Eshkol’s leadership Israel built from scratch 22 cities, more than 200 farming communities, hundreds of factories and thousands of schools as well as hospitals, universities, roads, seaports, power stations and a national water carrier, all while feeding, housing, employing and schooling more than a million new immigrants.
Only two other Israeli prime ministers were economically effective – Shimon Peres during the great economic stabilization program of 1985, and Benjamin Netanyahu when he led, as finance minister, last decade’s market reforms.
Neither, however, built nearly as much as Eshkol did, and neither they nor the rest of Israel’s prime ministers played the role that is Eshkol’s other claim to greatness: the unifier.
THE POLITICAL gang-up of 1967 that traumatized Eshkol produced Israel’s first-ever unity government.
Eshkol’s admission to the cabinet of opposition leader Menachem Begin inspired the public and helped fuel the enthusiasm with which the IDF fought, and the resilience that the home front displayed.
Yes, the broad government that he delivered was not Eshkol’s idea; it was National Religious Party leader Haim Moshe Shapira’s. However, it was part of the national appeasement Eshkol had cultivated for three years, since his decision to allow the reburial in Israel of the ruling Labor Party’s historic nemesis, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was buried in the US, where he died in 1940.
Ben-Gurion turned down repeated requests to fulfill his arch-rival’s will, to be buried in the future Jewish state at the official order of its government. Ben-Gurion said Israel should focus on the living, not the dead. It was the canting of the man of quarrels that he was, and Eshkol was not.
Eshkol was a man of peace. Eshkol refused to join his colleagues’ unproven charges in 1933 that Jabotinsky’s followers assassinated the Jewish Agency’s de facto foreign minister, Chaim Arlosoroff. In the same spirit, Eshkol gave Yitzhak Rabin the IDF’s command, unlike the paranoid Ben-Gurion who feared Rabin’s close friendship with some of his socialist rivals, like Yigal Allon.
A liberal at heart, Eshkol also parted with Ben-Gurion’s control of Israel Radio, at the time the only broadcaster in the country. Having inherited it as part of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eshkol created an independent broadcast authority modeled on the BBC, and then launched television broadcasts, which Ben-Gurion had banned.
It was this liberal unifier and builder who was also the humanist who waged war only after three weeks of nerve-racking diplomacy failed to prevent it; the zeyde from the shtetl who confronted the Sabra generals who demanded war while calling him behind his back “the Jew”; the reluctant warrior who, after winning the war, introduced the formula of land for peace.
The humane, noble and humble Eshkol’s was the finest hour in the history of the Israeli premiership; the conciliatory aftermath of Ben-Gurion’s acrimony, bickering and vengeance, and the antithesis of that office’s current moment, a nadir of political arrogance, social fractiousness, legal perplexity and moral demise.
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