In our collective memory Levi Eshkol is perceived as a weak, even a vacillating
prime minister. Perhaps this was unjust already back on the eve of the Six Day
War, when his image became thus ingrained in our popular lore. Certainly,
compared to many of his successors in ensuing decades, Eshkol can be portrayed
as a resolute upholder of Israeli national pride – especially when clad in
Merely by refusing to change into proper daytime attire, Eshkol
struck a plucky patriotic pose. In his humble night clothes he evinced more
audacity than most of the wishy-washy variety that followed him in
Eshkol took his steadfast stand in the ungodly hours of May 27,
1967, when Soviet Ambassador Dmitri Chuvakhin arrived on the PM’s doorstep and
demanded to wake him up to deliver an urgent message from Moscow. The envoy
insisted he couldn’t wait till dawn.
Rather than be overawed and
flustered, Eshkol chose to deliberately express his defiance of what was surely
a bullying superpower diktat. He told his bureau chief, veteran diplomat Aviad
Yaffe, that “under no circumstances do I have any intention of getting dressed
for him” [Chuvakhin].
Those were the suffocating super-tense days in
which the Arabs boasted belligerently that they were about to annihilate the
Jewish state, after Egypt had blockaded the Tiran Straits and ignominiously
tossed the UN peacekeepers out of Sinai. *Surrealistically, as the scary siege
against Israel intensified, both the State Department and the White House
“couldn’t find” copies of America’s ten-year-old guarantees to prevent precisely
such a scenario. This was despite the fact that these very much-publicized
guarantees were what swayed Israel, under Washington’s aggressive prodding, to
withdraw from the Sinai in 1957.
Israel seemed alone, callously
abandoned by its allies and coldly intimidated by the Russians. Things looked
grim. How today’s crop of Israeli politicians would have coped with such extreme
challenges is a matter of conjecture. But Eshkol stood his ground in his PJs and
in fluent Russian rejected the stern warnings against a preemptive strike
delivered by the emissary dispatched to harass him in the middle of the
The war, for which Israel is nowadays decried as an imperialist
occupier, broke out soon thereafter and Chuvakhin was recalled by his bosses
after they had resentfully severed diplomatic ties with Israel for disobeying
their harshest admonitions.
Next, the Kremlin warned Israel that if it
didn’t lay off Syria, the USSR would intervene in the fighting. The US was
alarmed enough to deploy the Sixth Fleet to the vicinity of Syria’s
Seemingly, Russian animosity couldn’t have been more
pronounced but there was yet more to come in the shape of shipping game-changing
ground-to-air missiles to Egypt during the War of Attrition. In 1970 SAM-3
missiles were the state of the art and they did effectively erode Israel’s
mastery of the skies. High ranking Israeli motormouths began to irrepressibly
prattle about an impending “electronic showdown” (hi-tech hadn’t yet entered the
Russian hardware was followed by Russian manpower. Thousands
of Soviet military personnel were positioned in Egypt. They operated the SAM
batteries and downed Israeli Phantoms. They flew MiG fighter-jets in dogfights
against Israeli pilots and they filled the airwaves with Russian-language
Israeli leaders – from Prime Minister Golda Meir to Defense
Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief-of-Staff Haim Bar-Lev – all made suitably
intrepid noises. Golda declared unambiguously that “Israel will not shrink back
from taking the Soviets on. If they suffer casualties, it will only be because
their people were in the wrong place.” To be sure, there were Soviet
Unprecedentedly risky as such brinkmanship was, things never
fully came to a head. As usual, it wasn’t the Russians who browbeat Israel but
Israel’s best friend – America. Israel succumbed to US pressure and agreed to
freeze-frame the existing situation on condition that the SAMs won’t be moved
forward to the Suez Canal bank.
Yet again this deal too was backed by
Washington’s purported iron-clad guarantees. Yet again, Washington’s guarantees
weren’t worth the paper they were typed on.
On the very first night that
the agreement was in force, the missiles were moved. This was the first step in
the offensive that would ripen in 1973 into the Yom Kippur War. Yet again,
against its best interests, Israel decided to swallow the bitter pill and
overlook the instant undisguised treachery.
All this is very instructive
and very relevant to the variation-on-the-theme remake of this plotline now
being enacted on the Syrian front. Be they Communist hardliners or nominal
democrats, the powers-that-be in the Kremlin remain serially high-handed and
hostile to Israel. Nothing we see in the present is new. Only superficial
details have changed but the underlying essence never did.
dramas that these days keep us on the edge of our seats are only modified reruns
of past thrillers.
Moscow’s predisposition to supply our most implacable
foes with topnotch missiles and MiGs continues as a constant facet of our
existence, no matter how we dress it up. The transaction to equip Syria’s
beleaguered Assad regime with superior firepower to deter Israel’s air force is
a foremost example.
The anti-aircraft S-300 missiles, currently
earmarked for Syria, are just as cutting-edge and just as dangerous as the SAMs
were 43 years ago. Indeed, the analogy is chilling. Then as now, the cover story
is identical. These missiles, it is argued brazenly, are only defensive and only
geared to prevent attacks on Moscow’s clients.
This of course cynically
ignores the reality that without credible offensive capability, Israel cannot
maintain credible deterrence. Without credible deterrence Israel becomes the
sitting duck that it allowed itself to become after the misguided 1970
It is all too likely that again it won’t be fear of an actual
confrontation with the Russians that will cause Israel to back down. Odds are
that Israel won’t fear destroying whatever sophisticated weaponry Moscow may
ship to Syria. That is probably what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew to
Moscow to impart to President Vladimir Putin.
The Russians are still
antagonistic – even if they are on speaking terms with us and even if they don’t
threaten to outright clobber us. Proletarian warriors or not, they still coddle
their Arab protégés.
It was convenient at the height of the Cold War to
ascribe Moscow’s obstructionism (if not manifest malevolence) solely to
communist machinations. But communism is formally gone while Russia tenaciously
clings to the wrong side of history, as in its obdurate defense of the Damascus
despot and its barefaced assistance in constructing, maintaining and repairing
Iran’s nuclear facilities, to say nothing of its ongoing opposition to stringent
sanctions against Tehran’s ayatollahs.
This calls to mind USSR strategy
before the June 22, 1941 monstrous German double-cross. Until then, the Russians
ensconced themselves firmly on history’s wrong side.
Vyacheslav Molotov applauded the Third Reich’s conquest of Warsaw. The German
invasions of Denmark and Norway caused him to “wish Germany complete success in
these defensive measures." Upon receiving news of the French collapse, Molotov
conveyed “the warmest congratulations of the Soviet Government on the splendid
success of the German Wehrmacht.”
Putin’s Russia, despite its
quasi-democratic façade, seems to harbor the same wrongheaded great-power
aspirations as its Soviet predecessor. These had less to do with exporting
communist ideology than with Russian nationalist ambitions.
for Israel the ultimate danger looms from Washington, not Moscow. We had
faced-off with the Russians before but we had eventually always cowered before
the Americans and always with disastrous consequences.
It is far from
inconceivable that when push comes to shove, the Obama Administration, which had
done nothing about the prolonged Syrian horror flick, will suddenly appear on
the scene to defuse the explosive impasse by bringing excruciating pressure to
bear on… Israel.
A latterday version of the 1970 truce should not be
ruled out. If anyone is liable to curtail Israeli operations in Syria, it is
Barack Obama. It wouldn’t be the first time he has paid the Arabs off with an
This ultimately is what should worry us most – not Putin’s
badass machismo but Obama’s wimpy response to it, coupled with his domineering
arrogance toward Israel. Putin knows this and his contempt for Obama is barely
concealed. Moreover, it’s not altogether unjustified.
Putin has famously stated
that “Russia does not negotiate with terrorists: it destroys them.” In contrast,
Obama has declared the war on terror over because “now that people have come to
see legitimate means of expression, people who once might have gone into al
Qaida see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism.”
That must leave
Putin laughing his head off.
Obama’s sugar-plum vision of foreign policy
acknowledges no strategic enmity. Moreover, his naiveté about the misnamed Arab
Spring doesn’t just elicit Moscow’s derision but also infuriates it. By
betraying Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Obama emboldened Libya’s insurgents and their
success fuelled the uprising in Syria, where Russia has too many
Thus willy-nilly Obama managed to ignite an arms race that was
hardly unavoidable. His knee-jerk method of dealing with the mess he created
wouldn’t be to lean on Putin but to twist Netanyahu’s arms. He’s not likely to
take Putin on but is more than likely to throw his weight around with Bibi. That
would allow Obama to pretend that the crisis has been resolved just as he claims
terrorism had been defeated.
There’s dreadfully little Israel can do
about either Putin or Obama. But there’s plenty Israel can do about how it
responds to either of them.
This is where the image of Eshkol in his
sleep-rumpled pajamas should override all our conventional cerebrations and
What we need most at this juncture is the instinctive
grit with which Eshkol stood up to Moscow’s insolent attempts to push him
around. We now need leadership that would avoid Golda’s subsequent failure to
follow Eshkol’s example when Washington pushed her around.
it was this shortsighted surrender to American pressure that facilitated Russian
designs and in no time literally jeopardized our very
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