A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War

Following up on my recent posts on the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, here's a useful piece by an IDF vet in Ha'aretz on rehabilitating the reputation of Levi Eshkol in connection with the preparedness of the IDF for the war.

If you saw any presentations on the anniversary of the war, I'll wager you saw pictures of Moshe Dayan, with his rakish eyepatch, striding in combat gear through St. Stephen's Gate (Lion's Gate) into the Old City. Most likely you saw pictures of Yitzhak Rabin here and there too, but Levi Eshkol?

If you're old enough or have read the more detailed studies of the war from the Israeli side (Michael Oren for the political/military, Tom Segev for the social context), you'll certainly be aware that Eshkol was Prime Minister during the war. But he certainly doesn't play a major role in most people's mental imagery of the narrative of the war. Since by now my regular readers eill be aware that I need to let the latent history professor loose on the blog now and then, this is one of those times.

The writer in Ha'aretz, Eliyahu Sacharov, wants to rectify that, and he's not alone. Many people thought Eshkol received poor treatment from his countrymen at the time, and since. Segev's book 1967 (2005 in Hebrew, 2007 in English) pays attention to Eshkol, and Segev credits long conversations with Miriam Eshkol, the Prime Minister's widow, among his sources.

Eshkol was Israel's third Prime Minister, but like Moshe Sharett before him, he rose to power in the shadow of David Ben-Gurion, and that was a very large shadow indeed. When Ben-Gurion split with Mapai (the core of Labor) and former Rafi in 1965, Eshkol led the new Labor Alignment to victory over Rafi in 1965 elections. Eshkol became Prime Minister; Ben-Gurion his critic from the wings.

As was frequently the case at the time, Eshkol held the Defense portfolio as well as that of Prime Minister. Over several years he presided over the development and professionalization of the IDF, helping to create the instrument that would win the Six-Day War.

As tensions with the Arab world built up in early 1967, Eshkol worked hard to secure Israel's position internationally within the context of the post-Suez settlement, also building a relationship with US President Lyndon Johnson. Although Ben-Gurion criticized Eshkol for weakness and indecisiveness, today his efforts are seen as having strengthened Israel's hand internationally.

Under pressure to create a Government of National Unity, with Rafi and many others calling for the naming of Moshe Dayan as Defense Minister, Eshkol fought to keep the portfolio.) (Dayan, a Rafi ally of Ben-Gurion, had won fame as Chief of Operations in the 1956 Sinai Campaign.) When King Hussein of Jordan flew to Cairo to sign an alliance with Nasser and put Jordanian troops under an Egyptian general, Eshkol ran out of political capital. Eshkol was confronted with a loss of support within his own Cabinet, within the Army, and in public opinion. On the afternoon of June 1, he named Moshe Dayan Defense Minister.

Note: On the afternoon of June 1. Four and a half days later, at a little after 7:00 am on June 5, Israeli aircraft took off for their first wave of strikes against Arab air forces. (Assuming Arab air forces would patrol at dawn expecting an attack, then land to refuel and breakfast, Israel sought to strike in that window.)

Major military operations are not planned in four and a half days; pilots are not trained in four and a half days. Yet in the wake of the victory, Dayan won the accolades and his eleventh-hour appointment was seen as the salvation of the state, though he had been a politician in opposition during the planning stages of the war.

Eshkol had no choice but to name Dayan, and certainly Dayan performed ably, though Chief of Staff Rabin and the IDF Command had their war plan mostly in place already. Dayan took the honors, and Eshkol's role was largely neglected.

Eshkol remained in office, dying of a heart attack in February 1969, less than two years after the war, and thus never wrote a memoir to defend his position, as everyone else did. Eshkol was not forgotten — a national park and the suburb of Ramat Eshkol, the first built over the Green Line, are named for him; he has appeared on both paper notes and coins. But until fairly recently, only his partisans have sought to give him due credit for the war. That does seem to be changing.

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