Levi Eshkol: Forgotten hero

David Ben-Gurion was Israel’s state-builder. Levi Eshkol was the land-builder and people-builder.

Levi Eshkol 370 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Levi Eshkol 370
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
The year is 1963. A senior civil servant, nervous, leans forward in his padded chair facing the large desk of the new prime minister and minister of defense, Levi Eshkol. He was 68, at the height of his powers, and as usual, relaxed and focused, kindly, wise and funny.
The edgy civil servant: “Eshkol, where should I start?” Eshkol, in his booming basso profundo voice: “Start from the end!” All right, PM, I too will start from the end.
David Ben-Gurion was Israel’s state-builder. Levi Eshkol was the land-builder and people-builder. No single Israeli had more to do with every aspect of creating a viable country, people and economy than this seemingly bluff Ukrainian-born pioneer.
His Atlas-like strength and his broad shoulders carried a penniless new state, licking wounds of war and the loss of 10,000 women, men and children.
Israel did have some surpluses: the bereaved, the Holocaust survivors, the new immigrants. There was also no shortage of shortages: fuel, food and housing. Hand-to-mouth, borrowing here and taxing there, getting aid here and foreign governmental assistance there, taking Appeal money with one hand and Bond money with the other... somehow he orchestrated it all.
He personally led the town-building and the creation of hundred of kibbutzim and moshavim, began the National Water Carrier, provided power, food, light, to a burgeoning population and found the finances for the army, fledgling air force and navy, and the nascent military industries.
Fortunately, Eshkol was blessed with charm and will, ability and wit, humor and nerves of iron.
Tragically, he was cursed with the inability to project his personal charisma beyond small meetings and face-to-face negotiations. The twin facets created his fate and sealed it as well.
Michael Oren, the former ambassador in Washington and a respected historian, dubbed him “The forgotten hero.” Here’s a partial “why”: Spring 1967 At a meeting of the General Staff, according to a highly reliable source, the generals reassured Eshkol that the Egyptian Army was bogged down in a futile war in Yemen. It was clear: Egypt simply was unable to mount a war against Israel in the foreseeable future.
With his healthy skepticism and disarming smile, Eshkol turned to his chief of intelligence and to all his senior and seasoned generals: “You know that [Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser] won’t attack.
I know that Nasser won’t attack. We all know Nasser won’t attack. But...Does Nasser know he won’t attack?” Of course history is more complex than this totally believable report. It is reliable because it is vintage Eshkol: that simple but illusive quality: sechel – straight-thinking common sense. Sechel, the strength to act responsibly. And the touch of Jewish humor. The iron-clad patience.
In the three nerve-racking weeks before the Six Day War, everyone with a drop of sense knew war was inevitable. The generals fumed every time Eshkol refused to give them the green light. The battle plans had been honed to perfection. The senior commanders threatened their PM that if Israel did not strike first, the Egyptians would.
There would be tens of thousands of casualties.
Emergency graveyards were being consecrated.
One general stripped the insignia of rank from his shoulders, and trampled them into the floor of the ministerial office. The public was panicking, not understanding the delay. Menachem Begin even proposed that his old nemesis, David Ben- Gurion, take over the reins. Eshkol’s party colleagues waffled, Ben-Gurion’s lieutenants, headed by Shimon Peres, orchestrated a powerful PR and political push and Eshkol’s lack of charisma compounded by a bumbling radio speech led to the victor’s laurel being snatched from hs head.
Eshkol was forced to accept Moshe Dayan as his minister of defense. Still, though betrayed by his colleagues, hemmed in by people he did not want, Eshkol withstood all the public as well as political pressures. He made sure Israel would not alienate the US as it had in the Sinai War of 1956. He made sure the fickle “world” was with us. Only then did he give the green light. Such powerful patience is indeed heroic.
Due disclosure: I wrote Eshkol’s English-language and the occasional Hebrew speech for 10 years, from 1955, when he was minister of finance until the end of 1965, when, as prime minister, he gave me leave to study. In the terrifying, heroic period I described I was no longer his spokesman, speechwriter and contact with the Jewish world.
Since I did not return to the Prime Minister’s Office until 1968, in a different capacity, here too I rely on others to credit Eshkol with – arguably – the most important change in US-Israel relations.
He convinced president Lyndon Johnson to provide American military aid to Israel.
He and Johnson, who shared many similar qualities (coming in a later column), had an excellent rapport.
Originally the president had read the prime minister the official American line: “The US does not wish to be a major supplier of arms to the Middle East.”
Eshkol replied in his deprecating, and somehow sweet if weak attempt at humor, “Mr. President, you don’t need to be a major supplier.
Just a captain supplier.”
His critics accused him of being a compromiser.
“They are right. I compromise and compromise and compromise... until I get my way.”
Well, sir, we began almost at the end.
Next time we’ll start close to the beginning.
An 18-year-old son of a prosperous family arrives in Jaffa Port. Lacing his shoes around his neck, he sets out barefoot to join his fellow pioneers (halutzim) in Petah Tikva, which in Hosea’s prophesy is “the gateway to hope.
Eshkol never forgot his beginnings. He never lost sight of the end.
Avraham Avi-hai served as Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s secretary for public affairs and later as an adviser to the PM entrusted with the organization of the Jerusalem Economic Conferences which spearheaded the transition to a more open economy and to hi-tech.
Avi-hai has written non-fiction studies and recently his novel A Tale of Two Avrahams has appeared on Amazon.com.
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