The First Word: When a new premier has no clue

'You're the conductor,' Abba Eban explained to Israel's unsure leader

levi eshkol 88 (photo credit: )
levi eshkol 88
(photo credit: )
As polling day draws nigh and then passes, we the people shall watch the victor assume the helm of the Prime Minister's Office, and many of us will ruminate if the man has the spunk to captain our weathered ship of state through the uncharted squalls that lie ahead. Not every new premier has known how to tackle the job. Take Levi Eshkol. When he became prime minister after David Ben-Gurion's abrupt resignation in 1963, he didn't have a clue how to begin. Abba Eban, exemplar par excellence of Israeli diplomacy, master of witty stories, and droll purveyor of salacious gossip, once regaled a circle of admiring guests at a musical evening in London with a tale about how Eshkol had summoned him to the Prime Minister's Office during his first few days in office, to ask him what exactly the premiership entailed. With subtle animation and much self-adulation, the then retired foreign minister impersonated how Eshkol had beckoned him into the prime ministerial suite, made sure the door was properly shut and the telephone off, and then asked him to tell him as clearly as he could what was involved in being prime minister of Israel. In his previous jobs as minister of agriculture and of finance, Eshkol explained, he had dealt with concrete matters for which his responsibilities were clearly defined. But now, he had been sitting at his desk for a couple of days as prime minister and defense minister and was not quite sure what he should be doing. Abba Eban described how he had told Levi Eshkol that, first and foremost, the job of a prime minister was very much like that of a conductor of a symphony orchestra. The conductor does not play an instrument but his will and personality decisively determine the sounds that emerge from the collective whole. "And you, Mr. Eshkol, are our conductor," beamed Eban, impersonating a maestro waving a baton. "Your task is to decide on the score and to persuade the ministers of your cabinet to perform it together in a single, harmonious whole." This simile was particularly apt on that March night in 1986, for as Israel's ambassador to Britain, my wife and I were hosting a musical soiree at the residence in support of the Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, whose chairman Abba Eban was. A goodly sprinkling of socialites, parliamentarians, media elite, academic celebrities and commercial big hitters were gathered in the lounge to hear Daniel Barenboim's rendition of Beethoven piano sonatas, and it was in the glow of the post-recital drinks that Eban told his tale. He ended it off on a most solemn note: "I also advised Mr. Eshkol," he said, "that if Israeli history is anything to go by he would very soon, as prime minister, assuredly find himself fully occupied with tasks that bear upon our nation's survival." And, indeed, he was. Hardly a year went by before prime minister Eshkol found himself confronting a diabolical Syrian design to divert the headwaters of the River Jordan in an effort to dry up Israel's core water lifeline - the National Water Carrier. THE NATIONAL Water Carrier remains the hub of our entire water system to this day. It consists of an immense conduit of canals, tunnels and pipelines - some as wide as a bus - that funnels surplus water resources from the north to the arid south, turning desert verdant. Fed by winter rains and melting snows that annually swell the upper reaches of the River Jordan before cascading into Lake Kinneret, the National Water Carrier pumps this amplified supply southwards, integrating regional water projects along its 130-km. path into a single national water grid. And when it was up and running exactly 40 years ago, the Syrians furiously began to dig canals to divert the tributaries of the upper Jordan flowing through their territory, in an effort to dehydrate the strategically vital system. Fierce cross-border tank duels ensued. With ever-improving marksmanship Israeli armor pounded the tractors, dredgers and earth-moving equipment digging the diversion canals. It was a War for Water that went on for months, eventually sucking in other Arab states in political and financial alliance. Here was a Syrian stratagem that bristled with menace like a floating mine, destined ultimately to detonate the charges that set the Middle East ablaze in the Six Day War. The National Water Carrier was Levi Eshkol's grand vision and, in many ways, his brainchild. Few in Israel knew more about the country's water supply than he. It was his abiding passion. He was familiar with every stretch of every irrigation pipe in the countryside. His thickset body, hefty shoulders, gnarled fingers and the waddle of his walk suggested a time in his life when he had dug a canal, swung a scythe, pushed a plow, heaved a sack, and sweated in dust and heat. This old pioneer was a man of the fields who had, at one time or another, been a kibbutznik, a Labor leader, then a planner of rural reclamation, after that a builder of new towns and factories, and finally, as minister of agriculture and of finance, overseer of the National Water Carrier. No wonder that, to him, the Syrian diversion attempt was such a personal affront. In the controversy which critics and partisans have woven for years about his premiership, everyone has pronounced his own version of what went on in Levi Eshkol's soul during those hazardous times, culminating in the Six Day War. To some he appeared pusillanimous or paralyzed, to others a man soberly navigating his path through a perilous situation. With the passage of time, as more classified documents are opened to public view, the more it is revealed that even while the extremists of the Right and of the Left made the noise, he made the decisions. With nimble instincts and piercing shrewdness, this utterly uncharismatic yet likable man, famed for his Yiddish witticisms and folksy banter, sought with all his might to avoid war. But when the chips were down the IDF he had so methodically nurtured as prime and defense minister fought the fight of its life, won the day, and saw the nation through. This is why the premiership of Levi Eshkol - whose yahrzeit was recently commemorated - is being reconsidered with an ever deepening reverence. One prays that the historian of the future will be able to speak equally well of the new man who, on March 29, 2006, will cross the threshold of the prime minister's office. The writer served on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Levi Eshkol.