Herzog and The Under-Appreciated Eshkol

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If you’re following the Israeli elections closely you’re not going to the Times to follow it. Like on every other issue, it’s a generalist’s read. What gets published there is an attempt at the take for the record on developments reported hours or days earlier in more tightly focused publications. But there is a funny, fascinating passage tucked away in last week’s Times article on the burgeoning campaign of Zionist Camp/Labor chief Isaac Herzog. Asked what Prime Minister he would aspire to emulate, Herzog pointed to Levi Eshkol, Prime Minister from 1963 until his death in office in 1969. I am going to make a bet – and I doubt I’d get much disagreement from anywhere on the political spectrum – that this is the first time any aspiring PM has ever done that.

The standard answer goes to men like Ben Gurion, Begin and Rabin – both because these are the men Israeli leaders think of and because of the straightforward optics of invoking these men. In his physical bearing and in much of the country’s historical imagination, Eshkol was, to use the yiddish word, a bit of a nebbish. Bland and physically unassuming in a culture accustomed to warrior leaders and brash, aggressive action, it is hard to imagine Eshkol ever would have become Prime Minister had he not served in an era when Labor Zionists were so dominant that leaders could emerge from within the caucusing and alliances of the highest echelons of party committees rather than the Americanized campaigning we see today.

Eshkol was Prime Minister during the Six Day War, Israel’s most shattering and complete military victory in which the Israel Defense Forces conquered the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. But the victory is generally regarded as something that happened in spite of Eshkol rather than because of him. He was compelled to relinquish the Defense Ministry to Moshe Dayan in the lead up to the war because of a public sense that a true military man, a more audacious figure was required for the role.

When I was much younger and first started studying Israeli history, I realized there was this guy Eshkol whose face I didn’t recognize and who seemed like a blank space in the order of Prime Ministers even though he’d led the country during what it might be argued was its most pivotal era. It wasn’t just me. Though various things are named after him, he’s about as written out of the country’s history as you could imagine.

Two of the best books on the Six Day War are by Tom Segev and Michael Oren (the same Oren who served as Netanyahu’s Ambassador to Washington and is now running for the Knesset on the Kulanu party list). The viewpoints and the frameworks of each book are very different. But they’re great complements to each other. As each recounts, in the war councils leading up to the Israeli first strike, there are these tense, almost frenzied confrontations between the members of the cabinet and top generals demanding Israel stop waiting and attack. There’s one moment (I think in Segev’s book but I’m not certain) where Ezer Weizman almost seems like he is going out of his mind. Then Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, notoriously, did have an emotional breakdown of some sort in the days just before the outbreak of war. In all these unfolding events, as Israelis felt themselves teetering between total destruction and unbridled defense, Eshkol is often portrayed as hesitating, timid, simply not up to the task at hand. And yet, as Michael Oren explains here, the caricature of Eshkol is very, very incomplete. Much more than the hotheaded young generals, Eshkol was cognizant both of the need for tactical surprise and securing at least the tacit support of the United States.

These two paragraphs of Oren’s capture the under-appreciated Eshkol …

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.

Here’s the passage from the Times article

Mr. Herzog said that his role model was Levi Eshkol, who was Israel’s third prime minister, from 1963 until his death in 1969. Though relatively unsung, Mr. Eshkol prepared Israel for its victory in the 1967 war and abolished military law for Israel’s Arab citizens.

“He was a leader who perhaps didn’t have the voice or the looks,” Mr. Herzog said, “but he was a great decision maker. That’s what I want to be.”

No amount of revisionism will ever make Eshkol an inspiring leader. Even Ben Gurion, who was an old by the late 1940s and physically insubstantial throughout life, positively radiated an indomitable nature and defiance. Eshkol did neither. But as Oren notes, a full review of the records and documents now available shows that in many ways Eshkol was an extremely good leader and not simply outside the security realm. He was, as Herzog notes, a “great decision maker.”

So Eshkol is in many ways an admirable standard to emulate. Yet his style of leadership – and certainly the public memory of it – has never been the way Israeli leaders reach high office. Herzog certainly knows this. And yet he says it anyway.

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