Bygone Days: Countdown to the Six Day War

It was the beginning of June 1967 and rabbis were consecrating city parks for cemeteries.

levi eshkol 88 (photo credit: )
levi eshkol 88
(photo credit: )
It was the beginning of June 1967, and with mounting mendacity escalation followed escalation as Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser made common cause with Syria, moving his vast army and air force into the Sinai, ousting the United Nations peacekeeping forces, blockading Israel's Red Sea port, Eilat, and pretentiously signing a war pact with King Hussein that put the Jordanian Army under Egyptian command. Other Arab states quickly adhered to the alliance, which Nasser told cheering Egyptians was designed to "totally annihilate the State of Israel once and for all." The IDF reserves were fully mobilized, bringing normal life to a standstill and transforming usually bustling thoroughfares into eerie war zones. Even before this dire peril, Israel's national mood was in the dumps. The nation was suffering from an unprecedented economic slump that put tens of thousands out of work. Record numbers left the country, and the macabre joke of the day spoke of a sign at Lod (now Ben-Gurion) Airport, reading: "Will the last one to leave please switch off the lights." People spoke in chilling seriousness of annihilation. AS A junior member of prime minister Levi Eshkol's staff, I kept an appointment in Tel Aviv with a group of foreign correspondents at a beachfront hotel. On the way there I caught sight of a hearse pulling up at the gateway of a park, and out of it tumbled half-a-dozen black-caftaned, pie-hatted, bearded members of the hevra kadisha burial society, one of whom, the driver, I recognized from Jerusalem. He stood out because he was older than the rest, was a head taller, had a physique like an ox and skin so weathered it looked like leather. Two of the undertakers began pacing the park's grassy area, calling out distances to a third, who wrote down the measurements in a notebook. The other three began striding around the park's periphery crying out in a whining howl, over and over again, "The spirit of the Almighty is in the secret places of the heavens. The spirit of the Almighty is in the secret places of the heavens." While they were thus engaged, the brawny driver stood leaning against the bonnet of his hearse, twirling his side locks as if this sort of thing was everyday fare. A SUDDEN shock of black premonition shot through me. Anxiously, I asked the driver what it was they were doing; he coolly replied that his Jerusalem hevra kadisha had been instructed to help the Tel Aviv hevra kadisha consecrate city parks for cemeteries. Rabbis all over the country were consecrating parks for cemeteries. He himself had seen a warehouse stockpiled with tons of rolls of plastic sheeting for wrapping bodies. Timber yards had been instructed to ready coffin boards. "We're preparing for 40,000, 50,000 dead," he said in an expressionless voice. "Who knows?" I remonstrated with him not to spread such pernicious rumors, but when I continued on my way, my every nerve leapt and shuddered. At the hotel the journalists smelled a rat immediately. One of them, a woman with an Irish accent, shot me a look that could freeze water, and said, "You're nervous. You really are nervous. Why?" she demanded. "Performance anxiety," I blustered. "I'm new to the job." "So, what do you have to tell us?" asked a paunchy fellow in a baggy linen suit. "Anything happening we don't know about?" I extracted the official briefing paper that had been handed to me that morning, and read it out verbatim: "President Johnson has phoned Prime Minister Eshkol and has promised international action to lift the blockade of Eilat. Foreign Minister Abba Eban is to meet the president in Washington this afternoon, when it is expected he will be given details of the plan to send an international flotilla through the Tiran Straits that lead to Eilat, thus breaking the Egyptian blockade." "That's old hat," snapped an upper-echelon type, contempt in his eyes. "Our own sources have given us that already." "There's not a chance in hell Johnson will be able to put together an international convoy," piped up a small man with a flashy bow tie. "He's asked 18 nations to sign on and only four - Iceland, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands - are on board. It's a non-starter. "Johnson is just one big hulking Texan wishing he could help you out, but can't. He's too bogged down in Vietnam. The whole thing is pie in the sky." Squiggling in my seat, I managed one more sentence: "I'm instructed also to say that Israel has received assurances from the American president that on no account will he compromise Israel's national security." "Bullshit!" snarled one of the journalists. "You've come all the way from Jerusalem just to tell us that?" snapped another. "I'm not authorized to say anything more," I stammered, and made a hurried, graceless exit, leaving my briefing paper behind. A FEW hours later, back at my desk in Jerusalem, still shaken and dismayed, I sat slumped staring out of the window when the intercom rang like an alarm bell. It was the prime minister's secretary telling me Mr. Eshkol wanted to see me. "He wants you to handle the correspondence," said the secretary. "Letters of support are coming in by the sackload." When I walked into the premier's room, his head was bent low over a document, but I could instantly see he looked more wan and sallow than I had ever seen him before. "We're getting lots of letters and telegrams from some very important people," he grunted, hardly looking up. "Go through them and draft replies. Consult Ya'acov if you're not sure what to say." Dr. Ya'acov Herzog was one of Israel's commanding intellects, possessed of a subtle and powerful brain that was equally at home with Bach and the Bible. A devout Jew, he was the son of a former chief rabbi of Israel, the younger brother of a future president, and the prime minister's most trusted foreign policy adviser. Herzog had obtained his early schooling in Dublin, where his father had once officiated, so his Hebrew was brushed with an Irish brogue. This was excessively amplified when he burst into the room and told the premier in a chilling tone: "Field intelligence reports that poison gas equipment has been spotted in Sinai. There is a possibility the Egyptians intend to use it. Nasser used poison gas in the Yemen. And we have no stockpiles of gas masks." "No gas masks?" "Nothing to speak of," confirmed Herzog. THE EFFECT was graveyard. The prime minister turned his head, bit his lips, hid his face in his hands, sat there perfectly still for a moment, and whispered in Yiddish, "Blut vet giessen vee vasser" ("Blood will spill like water"). I, full of foreboding, moved to the door and closed it on them as the two leaned their heads together, speaking secretly. The only words I caught were those of Eshkol, saying to Herzog, "Ich daff reiden mit der gerlenter na'ar" (I must speak to the learned fool), meaning foreign minister Abba Eban. That's how things were between Eshkol and Eban, the South African-born and Cambridge-educated foreign minister. No Israeli was more respected in Western corridors of power and adored by Jewish communities the world over for his Churchillian eloquence, yet to his own down-to-earth, unbuttoned and red-blooded cabinet colleagues Eban seemed something of an incongruous outsider, a pretentious windbag. No one questioned his exceptional diplomatic gifts and powers of oratory, but few trusted his strategic judgment. "Eban never gives the right solution, only the right speech," Eshkol once said of him. "The prime minister must speak to Eban," called Herzog to the secretary, sticking his head around the door. "He's to meet Johnson in a few hours." As I was gathering a carton of letters, I could distinctly hear Levi Eshkol's voice through the half-open door, yelling into the telephone: "You hear me, Eban? That's right - poison gas. Tell Johnson the question is no longer freedom of passage to Eilat, but Israel's existence." Then, absolutely beside himself: "Zug tzu der goy az meer hoben tzu te'en mit chayes. Eer hert - chayes!" (Tell the goy we're dealing with animals. You hear - animals!) I all but dropped the carton in fright as the prime minister slammed down the phone in anxiety. IT HAD been a calamitous day from the start - nerve-racking cabinet consultations, endless phone calls, party politicking, and the IDF general staff straining at the leash like dogs penned up in kennels, wanting to strike before the enemy's build-up became impenetrable. Some commanders even accused Eshkol of cowardice; but he shut his ears to such epithets from impetuous generals who would lead him into war before he had exhausted every possibility of avoiding one, insisting that if the American commitment came to naught, Washington would then have no moral choice but to support Israel in the war thrust upon it. That evening the prime minister addressed the nation over the radio. It was to have been pre-recorded in the sanctuary of his office, but because of his grueling schedule he did not get round to it until very late in the day. Going over the text drafted by Herzog and others, he quickly scribbled changes and, since his secretary had already gone home, Adi Yaffe, his office assistant, sat down to retype the speech with one finger. He had hardly begun when the studio called to say it was too late to make a recording, and that if the prime minister wanted prime time he had no choice but to come immediately to Broadcasting House and deliver the speech live. Fatigued by stress and croaky with an incipient cold, Eshkol entered the broadcasting booth and began reading a text he had not fully checked, crisscrossed with corrections he could not fully decipher. At one point, he signaled to Herzog and Yaffe through the glass booth that he wanted to cut the broadcast short, but they signaled back that he had no choice but to finish. The result was that he repeatedly lost his place, and what listeners heard were grunts of "Er... er," as he struggled in fits and starts to decipher his alterations. And the more he "er, ered," the more indecisive and panic-stricken he sounded, plunging an already frightened nation into despair. News reports told of how enemies rejoiced while Israeli soldiers smashed their transistors and sobbed. MENACHEM BEGIN, who was being vociferously courted by Eshkol to join an emergency government, insisted he hand over his defense portfolio to Moshe Dayan, the legendary one-eyed warrior with the trademark black eye-patch who had shaped the Israel Defense Forces and led the Jewish state from victory to victory. Eshkol succumbed. On Sunday, June 4, the war cabinet passed a resolution to break the stranglehold by carrying out a preemptive strike, and next day, June 5, soldiers in the southern trenches turned their faces skyward in response to a distant hum that quickly grew into the drumming thunder of scores of combat aircraft roaring in tight formations toward the sea. They were flashing by at such low altitudes one could make out the Star of David on their fuselages. A few hours later Begin, now in the cabinet, climbed the stairs to the prime minister's Tel Aviv bureau, where an exuberant Levi Eshkol called out to him: "Mi daf machen shechyanu" (We must recite a thanksgiving blessing) and made him privy to the single most spectacular piece of news he had ever heard in his life: In a surprise attack that morning, the Israeli air force had wiped out the Egyptian air force. The Syrians, Jordanians and Iraqis had all opened fire, and consequently their air forces were being demolished, too. The Six Day War was essentially won in the first few hours. Most commentators were quick to assume that upon relinquishment of the defense ministry in favor of Dayan, Eshkol's premiership was stripped of supremacy. History would quickly debunk this assumption. It was Eshkol who prepared the IDF for the fight of its life, he who reaped for the nation a bountiful political harvest thanks to the seeds he had shrewdly sown in the frightful days leading up to it. On this 41st anniversary of the Six Day War, prime minister Levi Eshkol deserves our salute. The writer served on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Levi Eshkol. [email protected]