The POSTman Knocks Twice: Eshkol and Johnson, Farmer meets farmer

The first state visit by an Israeli PM to the US.

Levi Eshkol 370 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Levi Eshkol 370
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Today, prime ministers seem to drop in to the White House casually, as each side finds convenient.
But in Israel’s early years, not even David Ben-Gurion was able make a state or unofficial visit to Washington.
Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy held “back-door” meetings with Israel’s founding father in New York when they “happened” to be there at the same time. The back door is a polite name for an illicit love tryst in a hotel suite.
Lyndon B. Johnson was the first US president to invite an Israeli prime minister to the White House, with all the protocol and trappings of what diplomacy dubs a state visit, the highest protocol level. Thus, in 1964, Israel was no longer a secret mistress, but an equal, if still needy, member of the so-called community of nations.
In the Prime Minister’s Office we were well aware of the historic breakthrough we were helping to create.
There was no handbook to consult.
Everything we did was a precedent. For my part, we needed to prepare – if memory serves me correctly – 44 speeches and statements. The short ones were halfa- page arrival statements for each of the five airports of call.
The heavy ones ranged from 25-page major addresses to the Council for Foreign Relations, the Washington Press Club and – let’s not forget why we are there – an official speech at the presidential dinner and at state dinners in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
There was keen competition in the Office for the PM’s time.
Whenever I would force my way in to get prime minister Levi Eshkol’s input and language, his chief of bureau, Uri Lubrani, would grab his temples and say, “Oy.”
He, poor fellow, had to coordinate the schedule of meetings, and sit in on the political briefings, help arrange the “shopping list” meetings with the Defense Ministry and the IDF, arrange discussions with cabinet ministers, chiefs of the secret services, etc. Why, Lubrani thought and did not say, why should Eshkol bother with mere speeches? The communications branch of the Foreign Ministry was on overload-in-extremis as changes were made in the itinerary, speeches were ping-ponged back and forth for the ambassador’s input, and the more-than-normal top-secret exchanges: encoded on one end and decoded on the other and so in circles....
“Oy,” indeed.
The entourage accompanying the PM and Mrs.
(Miriam) Eshkol was headed by Teddy Kollek, Shimon Peres and Yaakov Herzog. As its youngest member I was given the jobs no one else wanted. What kind of silver frame should the PM use when exchanging autographed photos with the president? President Zalman Shazar had received a silver framed photo from the pope during his outrageously cold visit through Israel a few months earlier.
(An historical aside: During his 11-hour lope through Israel, Pope Paul VI never once called Israel by name, and went out of his way to avoid using the word “Jews.” To quote the BBC: “In those days, the Vatican saw Israel as a non-country, and its people as a non-nation.”) Against this bleak background we see what a revolutionary precedent the state visit to Washington was.
Yaakov Herzog, the brilliant younger brother of the future president Chaim Herzog, was assigned to work with me on the speeches. He had already been a major adviser to Ben-Gurion and a seasoned diplomat. I assume he was clearing the political line of the speeches, and ensuring I made no diplomatic blunders, He’d come to my small office in the Prime Minister’s Office after a full and exhausting day at the Foreign Ministry, but who thought of hours at that time? We began our collaborative work in March 1964, the visit was scheduled for June, and Passover intervened.
There were Yaakov and I hard at the speeches night after night, leaving me no time to help at home with holiday preparations. Yaakov was a genius, with a photographic memory. (In the office bookshelf, I had a copy of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Philosophy of the Revolution, a short book of perhaps 60 or 70 pages. While I was writing the last few pages we had been discussing, Herzog seemed to flip through the book.
“Don’t tell me you finished it already?” “I have.”
He saw my disbelief.
“Alright,” said he in his Dublin brogue, “Open any page, read me any paragraph, and I’ll continue the line of thought.” And so he did. What a loss his early demise (at age 50, in 1972) was to Israel policy.
There we were writing speech after speech, and somehow I always had to try to win the audience’s attention from sentence one. Eshkol’s accent was good – Miriam Eshkol had been speaking English with him at home for some months to augment his already good command of the language – but his delivery was flat. Often, I would write “Israel has much in common with... ” wherever we happened to be, (Eshkol to me, half-jokingly, “How come we have so much in common with so many places???).
But rather than strain for a similarity for Texas, I wrote in the joke of the Israeli who meets the proud Texan. The Texan: “My state is so big, you can get on a train at one end, and travel all day and all night and travel all the next day. And you’re still in Texas!” The Israeli. “Yes, yes, I know. We have very slow trains in Israel too.”
The line won a laugh, and the PM beamed his way through the speech to the financial and political power elite of the Lone Star State.
I felt it vital to help ensure the PM felt at home with himself in his new rule as the Numero Uno, the primus inter pares. One day, I chanced upon a treasure trove: a short personality piece in The New York Times. I did not tell the PM who was the subject of the article. Skipping that name, I read aloud to the PM words more or less to this effect: “He is a farmer. He is a man who loves the soil and growing things. He feels best when on his own farm, and growing his crops. He likes people and is always straight-forward and hearty, etc. etc.”
“Eshkol, who is this?” “But,” he almost stammered, “But... that’s me!” “No, sir, that is the man you’re going to meet, the president of the United States.”
Farmer, meet farmer!
Avraham Avi-hai worked with Levi Eshkol for a decade when Eshkol was finance minister and from the summer of 1963, when he was prime minister and defense minister.
His novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, is available in Israel at [email protected], as well as on Amazon in Kindle and as a trade paperback.
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