As chairman of the Settlement Department of the Jewish Agency from 1947, he led the creation of the chain of kibbutzim and moshavim that defined the lines that Israel would hold in the War of Independence. After serving as treasurer in the Hagana high command, with statehood he became director-general of the Defense Ministry under Ben-Gurion.
In the second Knesset, Eshkol became agriculture minister, still keeping the settlement position in the Jewish Agency. His work in agriculture began in 1914 and continued as a member of Kibbutz Deganya Bet, and founder of the Mekorot Water Company, which saw to supplying water throughout the Jewish towns and villages.
This combination of settlement and agriculture essentially made Eshkol the person with overall responsibility for building a new life for the new immigrants who came from so many backgrounds and national cultures.
It bears repetition – the small Jewish population here doubled in the first three-and-a half years of statehood – to about 1,400,000. (My wife and I were among them.) In 1952, Eshkol became finance minister, making him responsible for running a country without resources, and dependent on funds from world Jewry, until reparations from West Germany began to reach the empty treasury in the mid-1950s. During his ministry, Israel’s gross national product increased 10% annually.
In the summer of 1963, Eshkol became prime minister and minister of defense.
BECAUSE I worked with Eshkol for 10 years, and loved every minute of my time with him, I may be biased in assessing his impact. So let me quote Amotz Asa-El’s excellent column in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post (“Israel’s finest premiership: Levi Eshkol”).
“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.”
In addition, Eshkol convinced US president Lyndon Johnson to supply American arms to Israel. The IDF then faced a double-front: the United Arab Republic of Egypt, and Syria, fortified by Russian instructors and massive supplies of Soviet military hardware and aircraft. The change in US policy that Eshkol achieved, plus his iron nerves in the three weeks leading up to the 1967 Six Day War, made Israel’s victory possible.
His brave heart gave out on February 26, 1969. As he was dying, he said to his wife, Miriam, “Now who will bring peace?”
For one whole decade, from 1955 to 1965, I was Eshkol’s English speechwriter. When he was prime minister, in addition to the speech writing, I filled a few other slots under the title “Secretary to the Prime Minister for Public Affairs.” To last that long, and to love every minute, means there was a unique bond between us, and his powerful personality and leadership example fashioned much of my own path later in life. So strong a force was Eshkol in my life that I still dream vividly about him. Lately, I also dream with open eyes. Here is my latest dialogue with this wonderful human being and great prime minister:
Eshkol: How’s the present government working?
I: Not so well.
E: What’s the problem?
I: Well, B-G had you as the internal strong man, and you could control the other ministers, so the cabinet worked more or less together, although of course their party pulls and tugs.
I: The present prime minister has personality problems and real tzuris [Yiddish for ‘bad troubles’].
E: To take a job like that, you can be normal?
I: You were... except you had nerves of steel.
E: Enough. What problems does he have?
I: His name is Netanyahu. One is, he doesn’t trust anybody, and as soon as it looks like another minister or politician is becoming too popular, he castrates him. The other is that he spends too much money on himself and his family, and there are investigations.
E: Well, it is the job of the state comptroller to investigate...
I: No. No. It’s the attorney-general. He has indicted Netanyahu for breach of trust, fraud and bribery. That’s after years of police investigation. He still has the right to a hearing.
E: Hearing-shmearing. Police, government prosecutors, and the attorney-general. Oy! A shande far der medina [Yiddish for ‘a shame for the state’].
I: Also, he’s minister of defense.
E: So was B-G, and so was I until Dayan pulled a bluff. Abu Jilda! [Eshkol’s pet name for Moshe Dayan. Abu Jilda was a famous Arab bandit.]
I: He held a few other ministries. Also foreign minister.
E: And the rest of the cabinet?
I: There are serious police investigations of another couple of ministers. One of them already sat in prison a few years ago.
E: He must like it there. [I make a face.] I know, it’s not funny. But that is how we are. What’s the word? Sardonic? You try living with Russians or Ukrainians in those days when making a pogrom was... well, you know that and you know me.
I: Eshkol, you cannot imagine what it’s been like. Every few years a president or a prime minister has gone to prison.
E: Seriously? A president? A prime minister?
I: Not a sitting prime minister, this young fellow, way after your time, Ehud Olmert. He resigned before the trial.
E: And this one now?
I: Says he won’t.
E: Oyyy.I think I’ll go back.
I: Wait, wait, I miss you. Please stay a while longer.
E: You were always devoted to me.
E: But listen, how about the other ministers, the ones they aren’t investigating.
I: A few examples.
E: Start at the end!
I: It’s beginning to show pre-dawn shimmering in the East. I’ll hurry. The minister of internal security...
E: [In Russian] The Devil take it! What is that name? KGB? OGPU? Shin Bet now has a minister? It’s a ministry?
I: No it’s still the police. But they added the firemen. And they called it Internal Security. That’s how politics goes today.... Anyway, this minister proposed an ex-general for commissioner of police. The committee to ensure proper qualifications for the nominees turned down his choice because the FBI and the Israel Police had been looking into some of his businesses.
I: The minister was furious.
I: I think he said we need to get rid of that appointment approval committee. Who can keep track of it all? They don’t stop talking.
E: I had some like that, too.
I: OK, but I don’t have time to explain about Internet and Facebook and Twitter.
E: And the rest of the cabinet?
I: Well the best one is the minister of transportation, strategic affairs and now also acting foreign minister.
E: What does he do in his spare time?
I: You once said it’s better to have a lazy minister than a pusher.
E: Yes, but only if he was a fool.
I: Well this one isn’t a fool. My problem with him is that he’s not competent, even though everyone thinks he is the most competent.
E: What do you mean?
I: He has built a lot of roads, cut tunnels to shorten routes and so on. But the road faces are not up to European standards, the old and new parts are not smoothly connected.
E: The Ministry of Labor built the roads.
I: Today everything is privatized.
E: That I started, and we had an economic crisis.
I: That economic crisis set us on a good path, and now they call Israel a hi-tech nation. High technology. We laid the foundations for that with the Jerusalem Economic conferences in 1968 and 1969. Anyway, this transportation minister started building a fast rail line from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It has taken him 10 years, and he overspent. Costs are double the projected budget. And the regular railroad – every Monday and Thursday, cars break down or other problems.
E: He wasn’t fired?
I: No, he’s too strong in the party.
E: Which party?
I: Eh... not Labor. But let me give you some good news. Our standard of living is very high. Some statistics show that our average standard of living is higher than the average in Europe.
E: Well, that’s good. But, what’s the catch?
I: The rich get richer, but it’s tough on the middle class. And the poverty line gets pulled down by the haredim and the Arabs. The government has not provided enough school rooms, hospital beds, and pays low social security benefits.
E: The party is not in power. So who is?
I: It is a populist right-wing party that claims to follow Jabotinsky and Begin, but they don’t.
E: If this prime minister and the cabinet are either corrupt or incompetent, they would never get Jabotinsky’s approval. We weren’t in agreement on policy, but he was an honest man. That’s why we brought his bones to be reburied in Jerusalem. Corruption in government!
I: We have an honest legal system, judiciary and a Supreme Court. And we have almost nine million citizens.
E: Nine million. Good standard of living. We did something, yunger-man [Yiddish for ‘young man’]. Foundations. Foundations.
Eshkol slowly disappeared, and I heard, also slowly fading away, “Foundations. Foundations.”
I whispered to myself. “Good foundations. We can fix things... fix things.”
I had tears in my eyes.