On February 26, 1969, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol died, a year and a half after leading Israel to its glorious victory in the Six-Day War.
That war was a great military triumph, something for which Eshkol, who was the defense minister for the four years leading up to the war, deserves much credit (Moshe Dayan only took over the position on the eve of battle).
But Eshkol’s greatest achievement may have been the way he deferred the military solution until he was convinced there was no alternative, even as everyone around him was entreating him to unleash the Israel Defense Forces. Eshkol was certain that if Israel went to war without at least the tacit approval of United States President Lyndon B. Johnson, it would make any victory on the battlefield a pyrrhic one politically. And so he held off, giving himself the reputation – one he has not shaken to this day – of being a ditherer and a weakling, when the very opposite was the case.
Levi Shkolnik was born on October 25, 1895, in the shtetl of Oratov, in czarist Russia, in what today is Ukraine. His mother, the former Dvora Krasnyanskaya, came from a family of Hasidic Jews, while his father, Joseph Shkolnik, was from a “Lithuanian” background, which is to say from the rational branch of Orthodoxy that opposed Hasidism.
Joseph was a prosperous farmer and merchant, whose large estate produced lumber, livestock and fish, in all of which he traded, and who also owned a flour mill. Levi was the second of nine children.
After a traditional Jewish primary education, and after being denied acceptance to the local public high school because of his religion, Levi enrolled at the Hebrew Gymnasium in Vilna. There he also became active in Tze’irei Zion, an early socialist-Zionist youth movement.
From British Army volunteer to Israeli PM
Determined to be a pioneer in Palestine, Shkolnik arrived in Eretz Israel early in 1914. Having refused to take with him any money from his parents – telling them, “only if I come empty-handed will these hands be ready to work” – he quickly went to work as an agricultural laborer, exchanging his family name for the Hebrew “Eshkol,” meaning “cluster,” as in grapes.
In the years 1915-1917, Eshkol was active in the union representing Jewish workers in Palestine, and in 1918, he volunteered for the Jewish Legion of the British Army. Soon after, in 1920, he was among the founders of Kibbutz Degania Bet. He always maintained his connection to the kibbutz, and his identification with the pioneering ethos.
No less than figures like Shimon Peres, Eshkol was an organizer and builder, who stood behind a number of the institutions that allowed Israel to defend itself and grow. In the 1930s, he was a founder of Mekorot, the national water company: It was he who envisioned the construction of a network of pipes bringing water to every part of the country.
In 1934, Eshkol traveled to Nazi Germany to negotiate the Transfer Agreement on behalf of the Jewish Agency. The terms of the agreement allowed some 50,000 German Jews to come to Palestine, with the value of their property being used to purchase German machinery and infrastructure that was then imported to the Jewish community here.
Eshkol was a leading official of the Haganah, the forerunner to the IDF, and was the first director general of the Defense Ministry, in 1948. Before succeeding David Ben-Gurion in 1963 to become Israel’s third prime minister and concurrently as defense minister, he also served as agriculture minister, as head of the Jewish Agency’s settlement division (during a period when it established 400 new communities over three years) and as finance minister.
Though Eshkol possessed vision and an ability to build coalitions and forge compromises, he lacked great charisma. As a consequence, he tends to be largely forgotten in the dramatic narrative of the state’s history. In an alternative history, however, in which Eshkol did not die of a heart attack so soon after the Six-Day War, it’s possible to imagine the practical-minded man finding a way to turn the military victory into a diplomatic one, and using the territories gained in the war as a lever to sue for peace with the Arabs.