The man who 'conquered' the Golan

Former Galilee council head claimed to have persuaded PM Eshkol of importance of capturing Heights.

levi eshkol 88 (photo credit: )
levi eshkol 88
(photo credit: )
The course of history can be changed by the determination of one man who stands up for what he believes in when he is listened to by people who are in a position of power. The initiative to demand that Israel take the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six Day War did not come from real-estate seekers who wanted to move their homes and farms there, nor did it come from people who wanted to fulfill any kind of religious or national vision to settle yet another part of the Land of Israel. Rather, the move to conquer the Golan came from farmers of Upper Galilee, organized by Upper Galilee Regional Council head Ya'acov (Yankele) Eshkoli, who galvanized a delegation of Upper Galilee residents to lobby prime minister Levi Eshkol and the government on the fourth night of the war. Eshkoli's mission was to persuade Eshkol to order the IDF's Northern Command to take the Golan Heights and to remove the Syrian threat, once and for all, from over the heads of the Galilee settlements. Eshkoli was elected regional council head four times and served from 1955 to 1971. He died in 2001 at the age of 90, but is survived by his widow, Yaffa, now 99, and three generations of kibbutz members. Speaking with me on the porch of his home in Kfar Giladi in 1999 with remarkable resilience and a clear memory at 88, Eshkoli, with his then 90-year-old wife, Yaffa, at his side, said with a wink, "Thirteen years ago I had a heart attack and the doctors declared me to be clinically dead. I guess I recovered so that I could tell my story today." Kfar Giladi is one of the oldest Galilee farming communities, located just north of Kiryat Shmona and sandwiched between Lebanon and the Golan Heights. Yankele and Yaffa joined the kibbutz in 1932. As Eshkoli related it, by the fourth day of the war, it was clear that Israel had delivered a solid defeat to Jordan and Egypt. That left Syria, which had been raining a steady stream of rockets into the Hula Valley below, leaving the residents of 31 settlements in the Upper Galilee Regional Council in Eshkoli's jurisdiction to spend those glorious days of 1967 in deep underground bunkers, glued to their transistor radios. Eshkoli recalled how he placed constant calls to deputy prime minister Yigal Allon from his underground bunker to ask to see Levi Eshkol, then prime minister, to demand action on the Syrian front. Allon, the 1948 war hero who had liberated Galilee, promised to do what he could. On the fourth day of the war, he called Eshkoli with the good news that he could meet Eshkol and the cabinet that evening, but warned him that at least one senior minister opposed any move toward the Golan Heights. LEAVING HIS kibbutz in an army jeep and picking up leaders from other settlements in the region, while every kibbutz member was ordered into the shelters because of the continuing Syrian artillery bombardment, Eshkoli remembered that he had the feeling that his Hula Valley was burning while the rest of the country was dancing in the streets. He spoke of descending the steps into the underground government headquarters in Tel Aviv as if it happened the day before. He had tears in his eyes when he described the hug that Levi Eshkol gave him, and he ordered that Eshkoli's full delegation of four be allowed to enter the cabinet meeting. He recalled the Bible upon which he was asked to swear that any security matter he would hear would be kept in strictest confidence. Eshkoli was given five minutes to speak. "The longest five minutes in my life," he remembered. His appeal was simple and clear - he reminded Eshkol that he and every Israeli leader who had ever come to visit him in the Galilee after a Syrian rocket attack had promised them that if there would ever be another war, they would use that opportunity to remove the Syrian threat, once and for all. Eshkoli reported that the one minister who opposed the idea was Moshe Dayan, the former chief of General Staff who had just been appointed defense minister. Dayan had forbidden OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. David "Dado" Elazar to attack Syria on the Golan, "lest this cost us 30,000 dead and risk a war with the Soviet Union," which had just pushed through a cease-fire in the UN Security Council. Dayan, the hero of the 1956 Sinai Campaign with a tremendous popular following, also made a great impression on the cabinet. Eshkoli recalled that he then thought to himself: "Will I be responsible for world war?" and then said that "I could only think of my wife and the children of the kibbutz who at that moment were in the shelters." It was then that Eshkoli made a threat, which he said that he meant with all his heart: If the IDF did not remove the Syrians from the Golan, he would recommend that all the Upper Galilee kibbutzim pack their bags and leave, and that the people of Kiryat Shmona would follow. Silence followed Eshkoli's emotional appeal. As Eshkoli turned to leave the meeting, Eshkol grabbed his hand and proclaimed that "the words of Eshkoli have entered the heart of Levi Eshkol, and they will play a crucial role in what we decide to do on the Golan Heights." Eshkoli could not know when he left the meeting, heading back north, whether he had succeeded in his mission. Would his words hold greater weight than Dayan's? HEADING BACK to Kfar Giladi, Eshkoli stopped off at Northern Command's bunker. By that time it was 5 a.m. Eshkoli saw Elazar slumped over at his desk, next to a half-empty bottle of Scotch. Eshkoli reported what had happened at the cabinet meeting. While they were talking, Elazar received a call from the Defense Ministry. Moshe Dayan's resonant voice was on the line with an order: "Climb the Golan and succeed." The words were repeated on the 6 a.m. Voice of Israel radio news. Elazar loudly said to Eshkoli that he had succeeded with Dayan where he, OC Northern Command, had not. Indeed, Dayan's vote was the only one against the Golan attack. Dayan never forgave Eshkoli for besting him. He showed me a yellowing clipping of a 1976 Yediot Aharonot interview with Dayan, in which he recalled Eshkoli and his delegation with anger and resentment, characterizing them as "Dado's agents," and claiming that "the provocations of the Galilee farmers and fishermen in no-man's-land were the cause of the Syrian shellings." Eshkoli looked at the picture of Dayan and started to yell at him: "Right - all of my 31 communities provoked the Syrians from their shelters. Our provocation against the Syrians is that we live and prosper here in Galilee, which the Syrians see as a province of their country." Asked about the negotiations happening then in 1999 that might bring the Syrians back to the Golan Heights, Eshkoli would only raise a trembling hand and point to the hills and say that to "bring back the Syrians would be suicide for us." However, Eshkoli's successor as regional council head of the Upper Galilee region, fellow Kfar Giladi member Aharon Valenci, said that he would wait to see what the Syrians convey to their own people in their own media, in order to know of their commitment to peace. The writer, author of newly published book Swimming Against the Mainstream, has run the Israel Resource News Agency since 1987.