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Levi Eshkol, Forgotten Hero

By Michael B. Oren

Israel’s third prime minister offers a different model of Jewish leadership.



A recent conference held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem examined the question of “Leadership in the Crucible of Decision.” Though the focus was on Israeli prime ministers of the last decade—Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yitzhak Shamir, and Ehud Barak—participating historians referred at length to the earlier models of Menachem Begin, Moshe Sharett, and David Ben-Gurion. The event was followed by a Haifa University symposium devoted to the legacy of another Israeli leader, Moshe Dayan. Conspicuously missing from these colloquia was any mention, much less serious discussion, of a leader whose contributions to the creation of modern Israel were extraordinary, and who guided the country through a desperate crisis to its greatest military triumph. Completely ignored was Israel’s third prime minister, Levi Eshkol.1
To date, not a single scholarly biography of Eshkol has been written, nor has any sustained effort been made to analyze his policies, his leadership style, or his role in Israel’s creation—this in contrast to the many works documenting the lives of other founders and leading figures of the Jewish state.2 Nor is the neglect of Eshkol confined to the academic world. Israeli high-school textbooks scarcely refer to him. The Twentieth Century: On the Brink of Tomorrow, edited by Eyal Naveh, mentions Eshkol solely as the official whom Dayan once replaced as defense minister. Eliezer Dumka’s The World and the Jews in Recent Generations is even less generous, describing Eshkol as an insignificant politician whose “hesitant image” helped lure the Arabs toward war.3 Educational surveys conducted to ascertain whether Israeli students can identify key historical figures such as Theodor Herzl, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and Chaim Weizmann do not even bother to ask, “Who was Levi Eshkol?”
The consignment of Eshkol to historical obscurity is due largely to perceptions of his performance in the period of the Six Day War. With Arab armies amassed on Israel’s border beginning in mid-May of 1967, both the army and the public favored a prompt and devastating strike to pre-empt the Arab attack. Eshkol seemed hesitant, worrying over internal political issues and the possible reaction of world powers. Public opinion at the time held that stronger and more dynamic figures such as Ben-Gurion or Dayan would act at once to ensure Israel’s survival. As a result of that pressure, Eshkol ultimately was forced to step down from his post as defense minister—he remained prime minister—and to appoint Dayan in his stead. When Israel did finally act, many Israelis believed that it was in spite of, rather than thanks to, Eshkol.
Nor did Eshkol’s image help create the impression of a great leader. Not charismatic, neither a seasoned warrior nor a skilled orator, Eshkol cut a bland figure. At 72 years old in 1967, he was well beyond his physical prime, balding and bespectacled and notoriously indifferent to dress. And in contrast to the younger generation of Israelis raised on military service and Hebrew culture, Eshkol was a product of the Yiddish-speaking diaspora. His unassuming demeanor and Old World accent lacked the élan demanded by native-born Israelis, especially in a time of war. Once fighting broke out, Israel’s successes were invariably credited not to Eshkol but to his defense minister and political opponent, Moshe Dayan, who had joined the government only days before the war, or to the generals headed by Yitzhak Rabin, who was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Indeed, when Israelis were surveyed as to who deserved to be “man of the year” for 1967, 42 percent favored Rabin, and 27 percent gave the nod to Dayan, while the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, was chosen by only 10 percent.4
To many Israelis in 1967, then, Eshkol was the wrong leader at the wrong historical moment. The conventional wisdom maintained that if not for his wavering, Israel would have attacked sooner and incurred fewer losses, yet would still have received the full support of the United States. The IDF would still have captured the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, and would have been able to retain them in the aftermath of the war. Subjected to this judgment, overshadowed by his more colorful contemporaries, Eshkol was relegated to the recesses of Israel’s collective memory. In the decades that followed, retrieving him from that obscurity and challenging the preconceptions about him proved to be difficult if not impossible. In his 1979 memoirs, Yitzhak Rabin lamented that the damage done to Eshkol’s reputation “was a great injustice that history may yet address.”5
Today, however, that injustice may finally be addressed and Eshkol restored to his rightful historical place. Archives in Israel, North America, and Great Britain have now completed the declassification of documents from the Six Day War period. These papers, together with published memoirs and oral-history interviews of former senior officials, provide unprecedented insights into Israeli decision-making both before and during the war. They also paint a highly detailed and surprising portrait of Levi Eshkol and the pivotal role he played in winning the Six Day War.
The Eshkol that emerges is complex: Courageous yet wary, flexible but resilient, he combined an engaging personality with an unswerving dedication to his people and homeland. Rather than dictate his positions, Eshkol listened carefully to opponents and allies alike, and worked hard to forge a broad consensus before deciding on fundamental issues. Most importantly, Eshkol is revealed as neither weak nor indecisive, but rather as tenacious and single-minded, especially on matters vital to Israel’s security and its diplomatic standing.
That tenacity and conviction served Eshkol in vastly strengthening Israel’s defense in the years before 1967. He modernized and expanded the IDF, transforming it into a highly mobile army capable of winning a multiple-front war against formidable enemies. Moreover, Eshkol understood far better than other Israeli statesmen the necessity of guaranteeing American support for Israel, and of resisting pressure to initiate military action before that support was secured. Once the Six Day War began, however, he rebuffed international demands to halt Israel’s advance before it had achieved its objectives. Throughout this struggle, Eshkol maintained and even broadened his coalition government, rallying hawks and doves, religious and secular Jews, around his policy. Finally, Eshkol was pivotal in determining the outcome of the two most fateful battles in the war—indeed, in all of Israel’s history—for Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
With the help of newly released documents, the record of Eshkol’s performance in May and June of 1967 can now be reconstructed. It is the story of a man whose personal strength ultimately proved indomitable, and whose unconventional style of leadership was singularly appropriate for its time. 
 
II

Born near Kiev in 1895, the second of ten children, Levi Shkolnik grew up on his family’s prosperous farm, where he was exposed to the influences of Hasidism, Orthodox Judaism, and Zionism. Barred from attending local public schools, he was sent to the Hebrew Gymnasium in Vilna, where he joined the Young Zionist organization and came under the influence of Yosef Sprinzak, the founder of the Hapo’el Hatza’ir socialist pioneer movement. At age 19, he emigrated to Palestine. Declining his parents’ offer of financial support—“only if I come empty-handed will these hands be ready to work,” he explained—he found employment as an itinerant laborer laying pipes, planting trees, and picking the grape clusters whose Hebrew name—eshkol—he soon took as his own.6
Eshkol’s arrival coincided with the end of the Second Aliya and the outbreak of World War I. After a brief stint with the British army in Palestine, Eshkol helped enlist unemployed laborers in new agricultural collectives and established a kibbutz, Degania Bet, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Increasingly active in public affairs, he was among the founders of the Mapai party and the Histadrut labor federation, and went on to fill key positions in the Zionist administration: He headed the Jewish National Fund campaign to purchase arable land and, in 1934, traveled to Germany to supervise the transfer of Jewish capital to Palestine. In 1937 he was responsible for one of Zionism’s greatest prestate achievements: The creation of a national water utility, Mekorot, which, he said, would crisscross the country with pipelines “like the veins of a human body.”7 He served as Mapai party secretary (1942-1945) and chairman of the Tel Aviv Labor Council (1947)—his first political posts—and attended several Zionist Congresses. During the war in 1948, as the first director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, he proved instrumental in transforming the Hagana into the unified Israel Defense Forces, and in obtaining the arms, supplies, and manpower necessary for achieving Israel’s independence.
After the war, Eshkol continued to work at the Jewish Agency, creating 400 settlements over the next three years, and serving as the agency’s treasurer. In the face of unremitting fiscal crises, he mobilized the resources to sustain Israel’s economy and to absorb over 700,000 immigrants, many of them destitute. Eshkol’s success in public affairs led to his election to the Knesset in 1951 and, the following year, to his appointment as minister of finance, a portfolio which took advantage of his outstanding financial and administrative skills. Wrestling with severe shortages of housing, foreign currency, and jobs, he nevertheless managed to stabilize the national budget and institute a viable tax system. Under his management, educational and social programs expanded, and electrical networks and roadways were laid. Eshkol encouraged the establishment of the Bank of Israel and the Ministry of Industry and Trade, though both curtailed his ministerial prerogatives; in spite of his own socialist orientation, he often opposed Histadrut demands for higher wages. By combining rapid industrialization with a flexible fiscal policy, Eshkol brought Israel’s growth rate to 11 percent, exceeded only by Japan’s.8


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