Three Sides of the Coin

In a multifaceted, albeit not error-free, biography, the author describes both the positive features and the darker side of Levi Eshkol, Israel's third prime minister.

"Levi Eshkol: Biografia" by Yossi Goldstein, Keter Books, 787 pages, NIS 98

Why does Levi Eshkol deserve a biography? For three reasons. The first is that Eshkol was the prime minister - Israel's third - for almost six years, from June 1963 until his death in February 1969. During his tenure, critically important events took place, among them the Six-Day War, which marked a turning point in Israeli history.

The second reason is that after David Ben-Gurion, Israel's "founding father," Eshkol played the most influential role in establishing the norms of the state in its first two decades of existence. In the senior posts he held before becoming prime minister - chairman of the Jewish Agency Settlement Department and finance minister - he exerted a major influence on two processes that shaped Israel and its map: large-scale settlement in the days of mass immigration, and rapid economic growth that surpassed anything the world had ever known.

The third reason is that he offered a special brand of leadership, different from that of the prime ministers who served before and after him. What came across most clearly was that in his soul, Eshkol was a liberal and a democrat. This had a lot to do with a central feature of his personality: the ability to look at others and himself with irony, and to take a dialectic view of the world; one of his favorite sayings was that a coin had at least three sides. It would be difficult to say the same about some of our other prime ministers - such as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir.

This is how Amos Elon described Eshkol shortly after his death: "He was tolerant. He wanted to govern, but in an atmosphere of consensus. As a result, many believed he would not trample on others. He gave people and political parties the sense that their needs were being considered. He did not have what they call `charisma' - that mysterious magnetism that turns citizens into subjects, that captivates people with personal charm and obscures their power of judgment. But free people do not need charismatic leaders" ("A Certain Panic").

Climb to the summit

Yossi Goldstein has written a massive book. It tells the story of a man who spent 50 years in public life, from his arrival in Palestine in 1914 at the end of the Second Aliyah (wave of immigration), until he died. The list of positions he held and the projects he worked on until 1948 - the year he began his climb to the summit - illustrate the intensity of his involvement: helping to found Deganya Bet in 1920; activity in Hapoel Hatzair and Hever Hakvuzot; work for Va'ad Hahaganah and attempts to purchase arms in Vienna in 1920; traveling to Germany when the Nazi party rose to power, to rescue the property of German Jews; founding the Mekorot water company in 1937 and heading it for many years; serving in the national command of the Haganah; heading the Tel Aviv Workers' Council when the Mapai party was torn by strife; and managing the whole financial side of the Defense Ministry during the War of Independence.

Most interesting to me are the "connecting" years - those in-between times that explain something of the mystery of Eshkol's rise to power. His rapid ascent to the top of the pyramid is an intriguing subject. He was not a member of the first and second Israeli governments. He wasn't even a member of the first Knesset. Younger people than him - Golda Meir and Dov Yosef (who later served as ministers in his government), and Pinhas Lavon - were asked to join, but not Eshkol.

And then, less than three years later, in October 1951, he was made a cabinet member, and eight months after that, in June 1952, he was appointed finance minister, replacing the ailing Eliezer Kaplan. In another year and a half, in late 1953, Ben-Gurion, announcing his decision to retire to Sde Boker, offered Eshkol the prime ministership. Eshkol, no fool, turned him down. "Why should I be the person from whom Ben-Gurion rescues the state?" he asked.

The cardinal reason for Eshkol's meteoric rise was that Ben-Gurion realized he was a "bulldozer," capable of handling the almost impossible missions of the fledging state. In a book Eshkol gave to my late father, Ra'anan Weitz, his right-hand man, Ben-Gurion wrote: "In remembrance of the race after the speeding bullet."

Eshkol's performance as treasurer of the Jewish Agency is a good example. In the summer of 1949, the Jewish Agency was in terrible financial straits. Although the post was normally the preserve of the General Zionists, it was clear to one and all that Eshkol was the right man for the job. His first resolution was to balance the budget.

"The city is burning," he wrote. "The time has come to balance the budget and pay our debts ... Everything must be weighed in practical terms."

To implement this decision, he adopted measures that were strict and unpopular: He cut back on the free food allocation to immigrants, he postponed supply payments for three months, and above all, he demanded a reduction in the immigration quota. On this issue, he quarreled with many, including Ben-Gurion, who insisted, in principle, that there could be no restrictions on the flow of immigrants. At the same time, Eshkol searched for sources of financing to keep the wheels turning - "a little from here and a little from there," as Goldstein puts it. He convinced the government, for example, to guarantee a loan from Bank Leumi.

Despite Eshkol's efforts, the financial plight of the Jewish Agency did not improve, but his work on its behalf attested to his ability to head a complex, multi-task institution. When Ben-Gurion was forced to find a new finance minister, Levi Eshkol was a natural candidate. He considered others for the job, among them Dov Yosef and Giora Josephthal, but "in the end, Ben-Gurion chose Eshkol ... particularly because of his great success as head of the Settlement Department and treasurer of the Jewish Agency."

Another factor was that Eshkol and Ben-Gurion had very similar views. Although Eshkol was a prominent member of Hapoel Hatzair, a small, moderate party founded by Mapai and Ahdut Ha'avoda in 1930, he was very hawkish on defense, much like Golda Meir. After the 22nd Zionist Congress, held in Basel in 1946, when Ben-Gurion was at a political low because of his vote in favor of ousting Chaim Weizmann, he realized that he needed fresh blood at the top in Mapai. That is when he decided to bring in Eshkol.

Strongman of his party

In June 1963, when the "Old Man" announced his second, final resignation, no one challenged his choice of Eshkol as successor. The day after Ben-Gurion stepped down, Eshkol was nominated unanimously as Mapai's candidate for prime minister.

There were several reasons for this. First of all, Eshkol, by this time, had been "No. 2" in the government for many years, especially after Moshe Sharett was forced to step down as foreign minister in June 1956. Yitzhak Ben-Aharon described him as "the prime minister for domestic affairs, enjoying unlimited authority" ("Eye of the Storm"). Goldstein attributes this to the trust that reigned between Ben-Gurion and Eshkol. From the beginning of 1957, after Eshkol's anger at what he considered the shameful treatment of Sharett subsided, an almost idyllic relationship developed between the two. They respected one another, and Eshkol totally effaced himself in Ben-Gurion's company. It was a very convenient arrangement for both of them, and for Eshkol, it fortified his place at the government table.

Eshkol was the "strongman" in his party. He was the one who had the last word on various appointments and conducted negotiations on party matters in Ben- Gurion's name. The Lavon Affair upgraded his standing tremendously: He was the only person who could mediate between the feuding camps and carry out the traumatic decision to dismiss Pinhas Lavon from the secretariat of the Histadrut workers' federation without causing a split in Mapai. He was not called an "angel of deliverance" for nothing.

The Lavon Affair upset Ben-Gurion's alliance with the "younger set" (Dayan, Josephthal and Eban) and paved the road to power for the "old-timers," under the leadership of Eshkol. In forming his government, he bolstered the standing of the old-timers by advancing two central figures in this group: Zalman Aran and Pinhas Sapir.

In the days of the Lavon Affair, Eshkol's relations with Ben-Gurion underwent a sharp reversal. Eshkol threw off his shackles and freed himself from his former dependence on Ben-Gurion. From then on, in fact, it was Ben-Gurion who was dependent on Eshkol. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the new government, inaugurated in the autumn of 1961 following elections for the fifth Knesset, was put together by Eshkol, not Ben-Gurion. "The finance minister, not the prime minister, seems to have been the political strongman in the new government established for his benefit," writes Goldstein.

The public also saw Eshkol as the man most capable of shouldering the heavy burden of running a country. His conduct in the Lavon Affair and the role he played in strengthening the economy created the impression that if there was anyone who could step into Ben-Gurion's gigantic shoes, it was he.

This book is not error-free. David Remez was the head of the moderates and not a hawk, even though his political home was Ahdut Ha'avoda. The agricultural economist Prof. Haim Halperin was not a member of the Min Hayesod faction. Haim Gvati was appointed minister of agriculture in November 1964, after the resignation of Moshe Dayan - not in January 1966, after the elections for the sixth Knesset.

A more serious mistake concerns Lavon on the eve of his appointment as defense minister. Ben-Gurion chose him because he was a former dove who became an impassioned hawk - not because of any personal loyalty displayed by Lavon, despite the fact that he did not agree with the Old Man's opinions.

Another problem in the book is Goldstein's theory about why Eshkol was so opposed to the appointment of an investigating committee to probe the so-called "Esek Bish" Affair ("Rotten Business,"or the Lavon Affair). Goldstein claims that Eshkol was worried that such an investigation might harm him, because he was a member of the "Committee of Five," a group of senior Mapai ministers charged with approving military operations. Not only does this theory not fit the facts, but it portrays Eshkol as a person motivated by narrow personal interests, who would throw public values to the wind to achieve his ends. Eshkol was not that kind of man.

These comments aside, Goldstein's biography is a worthy effort: It is interesting, well-written and richly documented. Beyond that, Levi Eshkol emerges as a fascinating man. Goldstein writes admiringly, even lovingly, about his positive features, but does not ignore his darker side. In so doing, he offers us a multidimensional portrait of a man who contributed enormously to the consolidation and development of the State of Israel.

Prof. Yechiam Weitz's book "From Military Underground to Political Party" was published in Hebrew by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.