The Forgotten Prime Minister – Levi Eshkol

By Gideon

It is hard to understand how the person who was both the prime minister and the defense minister during  the years that preceded Israel’s most successful war, the Six Days war, received so little credit for his contribution as the country’s leader during this period.

The Six days war wasn’t won by a coincidence. It was the result of a very detailed plan, which was practiced for three years and executed to almost perfection. The results far exceeded anyone’s imagination.

Levi Eshkol was Israel’s prime minister from 1963 to 1969. He was also the defense minister from 1963 to 1967, (he reluctantly turned over this office to Moshe Dayan few days before the war began).

In the early 1960s it was clear that the Arab countries will make another attempt to destroy Israel, a country which, at that time, was perceived by the world as a country with a small army that could be defeated. Israel defense leadership knew that it couldn’t face Egypt, Jordan, and Syria simultaneously. For that reason, they crafted a plan to win the war against Egypt (the largest army) first, and then turn their attention to Jordan, followed by addressing the Syrian front.

The Israeli air force practiced the surprise attack on the Egyptian air force for 3 years, aiming to destroy the Egyptian airstrips quickly and keep the larger Egyptian air force on the ground. During this period, Israel also prepared detailed topographic maps of the Sinai desert, which allowed the IDF to go around the Egyptian fortifications through terrain that was considered unfit for motorized vehicles. They upgraded old WWII Sherman tanks that Israel purchased from scrapyards to be compatible with the modern tanks Egypt received from the USSR.

There were many Israelis who contributed to the victory in the Six Days war, yet the person who led this effort is hardly ever mentioned. How can that be?

“…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.”  Michael B. Oren, Azure no. 14, Winter 5763 / 2003

On May 14, 1967, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader ordered the UN to evacuate their positions along the Israeli-Egyptian border. He ordered Egyptian forces into the Sinai desert, which sent a strong message about an upcoming war with Israel. In response to his actions, Israel called up its reserve units and began preparation for a war.

Political pressure mounted on Levi Eshkol, who was perceived as indecisive, first to give up his position as prime minister to David Ben Gurion, and then to give up his position as a defense minister to Moshe Dayan, a popular military leader, who led the IDF to a successful victory over the Egyptians in 1956. Eshkol had his reasons not to like Dayan and pushed back. He finally gave in to the political pressure, and to the demand by many of the Israeli citizens to do so. He finally relinquished the Israeli Defense ministry to Moshe Dayan on June 1, 1967. The Six Day war broke on June 5th. It was over six days later. Dayan basked in the glory and Levy Eshkol was left on the sideline.

Six years later, the Yom Kippur war begun. By this time Moshe Dayan was in his position for six years. His job was to prepare the army for war. In the Yom Kippur war Israel was caught unprepared and suffered heavy casualties.

In historical perspective, it is clear who prepared the army better for the next war. Yet, while everyone knows Moshe Dayan, very few remember today who Levi Eshkol was. I just wonder what would have happened if Eshkol was able to hold on to his position through the Six Days war. Would the Yom Kippur war looked any different?

Click on link to read about the SIX DAY WAR and the YOM KIPPUR WAR


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Eshkol with IDF commanders




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Rabin, Dayan, and Begin in front of Eshkol’s office