How it really was: The true test of leadership

Sadat, Rabin and Begin were motivated by a vision of the future in which war would no longer be an option.

The author, Avraham Avi-hai, with then prime minister Levi Eshkol in 1965. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The author, Avraham Avi-hai, with then prime minister Levi Eshkol in 1965.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The New York Times correspondent was on the line. “Will Eshkol be a great prime minister?”
This was in June 1963. The iconic David Ben-Gurion had resigned and Levi Eshkol was about to be sworn in as his heir. If Ben-Gurion can be characterized as a “state-builder,” Eshkol was the “peopleand land-builder.” Ben-Gurion was charismatic, opinionated, farsighted (and sick and tired of coalition politics); Eshkol preferred compromise to conflict, wanted to hear all sides, and knew his tactics and his negotiating abilities. “I compromise and compromise and compromise until I get my way.”
I was Eshkol’s spokesman. I had worked for Ben-Gurion under Teddy Kollek and also had written speeches for Eshkol. In my heart, I did not know ‒ perhaps did not think ‒ that Eshkol would be a “great” leader like Ben-Gurion. After all, Ben-Gurion was the father of his country; without him, there would probably not have been an Israel.
In Ben-Gurion’s shadow, however, Eshkol did not get the credit he deserved. Without him, it is doubtful that a penniless little country, mobilized in war and simultaneously receiving hundreds of thousands of immigrants would survive. Lesser men would have been pulverized by the weight he bore. But he, we all knew, was not a Ben-Gurion.
But I had to answer then and there, and answer honestly. A good spokesman builds credibility through honest replies. The New York Times was the great American paper read by “everyone” who counted in the US; carried influence around the globe and was the newspaper of choice of Jewish leadership in the US.
“I’m not sure that Eshkol will be ‘great,’ I said. “Greatness shows itself in crises or wartime. Eshkol’s greatness would be to defuse crises, to avoid war.”
One of his favorite sayings was in Yiddish, the language he especially used for humor and bon mots. “You know how you clamber up to the roof! But how do you crawl down [ober, viy krikht men arop]?” In straightforward English that means, don’t create a crisis. You never know how it will end!
A prime example of avoiding crisis was the National Water Carrier, which was completed and launched in 1964.
Eshkol was the father of the project designed to pump water from the Kinneret to the country’s center and south. He had founded Mekorot in 1937, the water company that continues today as Israel’s water supplier. His oversight of Mekorot had ensured agricultural and industrial development, and drinking water for the swelling population.
Eshkol deserved the credit for this, we knew how much it meant for him to be present ‒ front and center ‒ at the opening ceremony of every development project. We also knew that making a big public event over the initiation of the National Water Carrier would enrage Syria and create another major problem for Israel at the UN. There was no need for me to raise the issue with the prime minister. The water began to flow. There was no public ceremony.
Yet, despite his desire to avert crises, Eshkol’s tenure was beset with them.
While steadfastly trying to avoid war with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and its Syrian satellite, he made sure the military had all the tools it needed. He stood iron-nerved in the face of the panic that swept the public and immense pressure of IDF leadership to ensure tacit US backing for Israel as it faced war on all fronts.
Obviously, external events can undo the policy of “do not create crises, do not initiate war.” This was the case with the Six Day War in June 1967.
Eshkol’s nemesis was Moshe Dayan, who was inserted into the cabinet a few days before the war, replacing Eshkol as defense minister.
Flamboyant and charismatic, enhanced by the eyepatch he had to wear to cover an empty eye socket, Dayan, too, would make an effort to avoid crises. Despite the reasoned reluctance of those 1967 cabinet ministers who urged Eshkol and Dayan not to involve the Old City of Jerusalem in war, the IDF took the city without damaging any holy sites. They ‒ especially the National Religious Party ministers ‒ were proven right in anticipating the negative reactions of most Christian groups and Islam to Jewish resurgence and control.
As Israeli troops took over the Temple Mount, Mordechai (Motta) Gur, commanding the paratroop battalion that had entered through Lions’ Gate, famously reported, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” Thrilled Israeli soldiers scaled the top of the magnificent Dome of the Rock and affixed an Israeli flag to the Muslim crescent at its peak.
The moment Dayan arrived, he ordered that the flag be removed ‒ the last thing he wanted was for Israel to show itself “above” Islam. He knew how much the symbol of the Dome meant to Islam and how it had been continuously exploited by Arab nationalism as a rallying point against Zionism. Dayan demonstrated his ability to avert that crisis, and knew that he would have full backing from the prime minister and the cabinet.
Yitzhak Rabin was both the victorious chief of staff in 1967 and the “Mr. Clean” who led Labor to victory in 1974, after both Golda Meir and Dayan were swept away in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.
At the time, Israelis were not allowed to have overseas bank accounts. When an enterprising reporter discovered that Rabin’s wife had an illegal bank account of about $20,000 left in Washington from his tenure as ambassador to the US, Rabin resigned. He showed integrity. Rabin was followed by Menachem Begin, who was noted for his modest lifestyle and model probity.
Rabin had been using US secretary of state Henry Kissinger as a conduit to sound out possibilities for peace with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Begin completed the peace process with Egypt, displaying farsighted and responsible leadership in those negotiations, which were kick-started by Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977. Both Rabin and Sadat paid with their lives for their peace efforts.
Sadat, Rabin and Begin were motivated by a vision of the future in which war would no longer be an option. As the star of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanes, and politicians, the press and TV commentators discuss potential candidates to replace him, the crisis-avoidance factor should be a major criterion in that choice. It is the watershed of the transition from politician to statesman. It is the true test of leadership.
Writer’s note
: Thank you, Dr. Meron Medzini for reminding me after my last column that the assassinated King Abdullah was the present King of Jordan’s great-grandfather, and thanks to Dr. Charles Freedman for pointing out that the Dome of the Rock was actually built before al-Aqsa. All comments and corrections are most welcome: 2avihais@
Avraham Avi-hai served as Levi Eshkol’s secretary for public affairs from 1963 to 1965