Levi Eshkol was one of the greatest Israeli heroes you never heard of. Eshkol was Israel’s prime minister during the Six Day War, which began 44 years ago this week, on June 5, 1967.
In six days — 132 hours — Israel defeated three major Arab armies. It turned imminent invasion into a rout — by the last day of war, Israel’s largely reservist soldiers had captured territories four times the size of pre-1967 Israel. The war changed the map of the Middle East — of the world — in ways so profound, our president and pundits spent last week arguing over its aftermath.
In the wake of victory, the laurels went to the military. Among other achievements, the Six-Day War redefined the image of the Jew — generals like Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin now symbolized a proud, virile sabra.
Eshkol, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Ukraine, was 72 when war broke out. His thick accent and bookish wit paled beside Dayan’s charisma and ambition. After Israeli forces captured East Jerusalem, Eshkol decided to race to the Western Wall to take part in the momentous occasion. Dayan dissuaded him, lying that it was still too dangerous. Meanwhile, Dayan posed for photos as the great liberator of Jerusalem, pushing Eshkol literally out of the picture.
Not surprisingly, as historian (and now Israel’s ambassador to the United States) Michael Oren wrote in a 2003 essay on Eshkol in the journal Azure, in a 1967 poll for “Man of the Year,” 42 percent of Israelis picked Rabin, 27 percent chose Dayan, and only 10 percent selected Eshkol.
But through the work of Oren, historian Tom Segev and others, Eshkol’s role in securing Israel’s victory has become clear, to the point that it’s possible to say, as Paul Johnson wrote of Winston Churchill, no one else could have done it.
“Courageous yet wary, flexible but resilient, [Eshkol] combined an engaging personality with an unswerving dedication to his people and his homeland,” Oren wrote. “Rather than dictate his positions, Eshkol listened carefully to allies and opponents alike, and worked hard to forge a broad consensus before deciding on fundamental issues.”
In the accounts of the run-up to war, Eshkol is often the voice of both caution and vision.
Israelis were panicked at news of Egypt’s massive army deployed at its southern border. Eshkol faced a war room full of generals who maintained that Israel would pay in lives and territory for every day it waited to strike.
Eshkol saw beyond the immediate to the essential. He knew time was not on his side, but he also knew Israel could not act without at least tacit approval from its most important ally, America.
“Military victory will end nothing,” Eshkol snapped at one cabinet member. “The Arabs are here to stay. So never tell me you don’t give a damn about allies.”
Even the left saw Eshkol’s patience as dithering. Historian Abraham Rabinovich recounted how the editor of the liberal newspaper Davar cornered Eshkol and asked, “What are we waiting for?”
“Blut vet sich giessen vie vasser,” Eshkol replied in Yiddish, his most expressive language — “Blood will run like water.”
Eshkol, historian Segev wrote, emerges in the history of these encounters as a “statesman with nerves of steel.”
The generals got well-deserved credit for daring and successful battles. But it was Eshkol, an expert in irrigation and agriculture, who planted the seeds of victory by methodically building up Israel’s armed forces and defense strategies during the previous five years.
On the eve of war, with every Israeli tuned in to the radio looking for strength and comfort from their leader, Eshkol rambled through an unrehearsed statement. At one point, he mixed up the pages of his address, lost his place, stopped. National morale plummeted. It made “The King’s Speech” look like Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day.
But if Eshkol hedged to avoid isolation and catastrophe, behind the scenes he pushed President Lyndon Johnson hard to understand Israel’s urgent plight.
When Egyptian planes buzzed Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona, Eshkol yelled at Ambassador Abba Eban to call Washington.
“You tell Johnson in 1964 he promised he will always back Israel if attacked. Write it down! Write it down!” Eshkol said, then broke into Yiddish: “Tell that goy we’re dealing with Arabs! Do you hear? Arabs!”
When the battle began, Eshkol pursued total victory. Though Dayan tried to snatch credit, it was Eshkol who made the fateful decisions regarding the capture of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem.
And when it was over, Eshkol, still mindful of Israel’s place in the world, was both generous and forgiving.
“Mr. President,” he addressed Johnson, “I come here with no sense of boastful triumph, nor have I entered the struggle for peace in the role of victor. My feeling is one of relief that we were saved from disaster in June, and for this I thank God. All my thoughts now are turned toward getting peace with our neighbors — a peace of honor between equals.”
Eshkol died two years after the war, of heart failure. Those close to him say he never recovered from the stress and burden of those six days.
It’s tempting to enlist the great man’s legacy to assert a specific course of action for Israel now. But it’s safer to recall the principles he stood for — a clear-eyed awareness of Israel’s place in the world of nations, a belief in the strength of Israel’s democracy, a pragmatic assessment of how far Israel can and must bend, without breaking.
Guided by those qualities, perhaps Israel, and its supporters, can avert yet more disasters in June.
Rob Eshman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.