Levi Eshkol As a Political Leader
By Dr. Nathan Yanai
Levi Eshkol developed as a "movement-type" leader in the Israeli Labor Party, formerly Mapai. This rare type of leadership in party politics, which was conditioned by both personality and historical circumstance, bore the following characteristics: It originated, during the early era, in the institutions of the Labor Movement (Histadrut, Kibbutz), not only in the political party. It was mandated and viewed in its initial, formative stage as a "mission" rather than as merely a political career. The "movement-type" leader was still able to progress from one leadership position to another without abandoning his initial ties, organizational and personal, or losing the early legitimacy for continued leadership. Originating in a public mission, this type of leadership curtailed for several decades the unavoidable, alienating impacts of leadership.
Eshkol's leadership did not emerge in a dramatic fashion; nor did he ever display an overpowering charismatic style. Its development was a long gradual process, in which he constantly acquired new executive and political responsibilities and skills, and proved his all-round leadership capabilities. Eshkol excelled at first in pioneer work in a kibbutz settlement, Degania B, before being recruited as a Kibbutz and party delegate in successive (mostly, middle level) positions of leadership in the Histadrut, the party, and the Jewish Agency. His major leap forward as a politial leader came in 1952, when Prime Minister Ben-Gurion appointed him Finance Minister, a post he held until he was elevated by his party to the Prime Ministry. It is noteworthy that while accepting politics as a career and life-long commitment, Eshkol continued to maintain his early ties with Kibbutz Degania B, which considered him one of its members. He felt equally at home, however, in an urban labor council, in which he had also served and in an immigrants' cooperative settlement-- a project that he envisioned and nurtured to fruition. Before becoming Prime Minister, Eshkol had already built his reputation as a political leader in four areas: (1) as a prominent "constructive leader" in the development of agricultural settlements and water resources; (2) as the leader of the economy, steering Israel's economic development and shaping its policies and governing economic institutions for years to come; (3) as the trusted leader of party officials and regular activists; and (4) as a persuasive, unifying party leader and manager of political crisis, whether within the party or the coalition government. His accomplishments in these areas, made Eshkol the obvious and consensual candidate to succeed Ben-Gurion upon his retirement in 1963.
Two political crisis, the Lavon Affair and the Six Day War, put Eshkol's leadership to a severe test and forced him to change his style of leadership. From a bridge-builder and consensus seeker, he turned into the leader of a majority-coalition in a state of conflict. At first, he formed such a coalition in his party with Ben-Gurion; later, without him, and finally, striving to head off his challenge, against him. The Lavon Affair, like any other political affair, coalesced personal and political conflicts and brought them to a head. These conflicts were embedded in ongoing debates over party orientation and opposing claims for leadership of the party (Mapai), the labor movement, and the state. Eshkol searched for a political arrangement to put an end to the fast-developing crisis of "The Affair" (1960-61) which was tearing Mapai apart, undermining its ruling legitimacy, and shaking its dominant position in government. He failed to reach a consensual solution or even a compromise, as it was impossible to reconcile two entrenched sharply conflicting positions: Lavon's demand for complete exoneration by the Government from his alleged responsibility for a tragic security mishap in 1954; and Ben-Gurion's objection to any governmental involvement in resolving a judicial-type issue. Supported by most party leaders, officials, and activists, Eshkol then moved to quell the political storm by taking two opposing measures: First, he responded positively to Lavon's demand for an official exoneration, given through the decision of a special ministerial committee ("The Committee of Seven") rather than a judicial committee of inquiry. Lavon's demand had been shared by almost all participating parties in the coalition government and had enjoyed strong and growing public and media support. Second, Eshkol supported a move to dismiss Lavon from his party-sponsored leadership position as Secretary-General of the Histadrut, Mapai's historic power base. This move was intended to appease Ben-Gurion, who had protested and refused to accept the former act; and in order to restore a measure, however limited, of unity and efficacy to the torn leadership of the party. This leadership was not ready yet to give up Ben-Gurion, and refused to forgive Lavon for turning against the party in his quest for exoneration. Both of Eshkol's moves, though sharply criticized by different sections of the party and beyond, were actually complied with at the time. The pro-Lavon side fought and protested his dismissal, but did not bolt the party until 1964; Ben-Gurion attacked the procedures and the ministerial committee's conclusion, but accepted Mapai's decision to remove the Affair from its agenda ("to quit the Affair"). He also acceded to Eshkol's leadership in party affairs, including the formation of a new coalition government following the early election of 1961, which had been imposed on Mapai by its coalition partners because of its refusal to replace Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister. Subsequently, Ben-Gurion proposed Eshkol as his successor (1963) and reassured those who criticized Eshkol for also assuming the office of Defense Minister, as he himself had done. Dayan resented Eshkol's act most, and several months later quit the government for not being consulted on matters of national security. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Eshkol was initially supported by all factions of the party and enjoyed wide popular support. Eshkol and Ben-Gurion's long and close political partnership, which had withstood the test of the first chapter of the Affair (despite Eshkol's leading role in the "Committee of Seven" and his continued support for its decision), turned sour in 1964. By the end of that year there was an irreparable rupture between them. In this crisis, the final chapter of the notorious Affair, Ben-Gurion succeeded Lavon as the chief claimant for governmental intervention in support of his cause. He appealed for the appointment of a committee comprised of Supreme Court judges to review the procedures and the conclusions of the "Committee of Seven" (1960). Ben-Gurion's effort to discredit this committee had gained significant support from the Attorney General's report (1964), but did not stop at that. His move came amidst a new struggle over the direction of the party. Eshkol now found himself in open conflict with Ben-Gurion and the former Prime Minister's supporters.
As the new leader of the party, Eshkol undertook two initiatives, which at first enjoyed almost consensual support in party deliberations, but later contributed (together with Ben-Gurion's demands) to the development of a new party crisis. Eshkol had attempted to heal the open party wound caused by the dismissal of Lavon (1961) and to prevent the secession of Lavon's supporters, who enjoyed appreciable support among both party intellectuals and party activists in the Kibbutz movement. In an open letter to the leaders of this group, Eshkol declared that the party decision to dismiss Lavon had lost meaning and that the door was now open to resume their regular participation in the party and its bodies. Eshkol's move, which met with Ben-Gurion's opposition, failed to achieve its goal. It fell victim to the rapidly evolving party conflict caused by Ben-Gurion's demand to investigate the work of the 1960 ministerial committee (the "Committee of Seven" ), and Eshkol's second leadership initiative, which did materialize, to form an alignment with the more leftist Ahdut Haavoda party (which was staunchly anti-Ben-Gurionist on the matter of the Affair as well as on other historic and ideological issues). Seeking once again a widely acceptable solution to the new crisis, Eshkol was prepared for one short day to accept a draft resolution sponsored by the major group of party activists (known as the Bloc) for deliberations by Mapai's Central Committee. It called for the implementation of the Minister of Justice's recommendation to appoint a judicial committee to examine anew the entire question of responsibility for the 1954 security mishap. Such a move would, on one hand, shun the decision of the "Committee of Seven", but on the other hand, avoid its outright discreditation. Ben-Gurion was also convinced to accept this solution. Unwilling to risk the formation of the prospective Alignment and pressured by other party leaders, Eshkol rescinded his early acceptance of the proposed resolution. The party now moved toward an open showdown between the two camps on both issues of contention -- the Alignment and the Judicial Committee. The final decision on these issues, which was taken by the Mapai Convention in February 1965, favored Eshkol's stand. It was followed by an abortive challenge in the Central Committee to Eshkol's leadership of the party (June 1965). Ben-Gurion refused to abide by the Convention's decisions and split the party by forming a new list (Rafi) for the approaching elections. He was joined by Peres, Dayan, and a majority of the members of the "Youngsters' Club" of the party, as well as by some veteran party leaders. The new Labor Alignment, under Eshkol's leadership, successfully withstood Ben-Gurion's electoral challenge. The Alignment gained 45 Knesset seats; Rafi - 10 seats. In the previous election, Mapai gained only 42 seats. After the election, Eshkol formed a broader coalition government, which enjoyed the support of 75 members of the Knesset (as against 68 who supported the previous Mapai government). Nevertheless, Rafi's secession and its continued challenge to Eshkol's leadership came to haunt him in the next major political crisis, which preceded the Six Day War.
Earlier, Eshkol was forced only to change his style of leadership in order to meet his main political objectives; now, however, he faced a crisis of leadership authority and acceptance for the first time in his long political career. Eshkol's lack of charismatic style and absence of military experience robbed him, at a critical time, of much-needed public and media support for his delay strategy in regard to entry into what was widely viewed at the time as an imminent, and unavoidable, war of survival for Israel. Rafi assumed an active opposition to Eshkol in this crisis. It was led by Mapai's three most reputable leaders in the area of defense (Ben-Gurion, Dayan, and Peres), all of whom still enjoyed public recognition and ruling legitimacy in this area. The search for a more resolute leadership to take Israel into war gave Rafi's leaders the opportunity to participate actively in forming a broad coalition of forces, among both coalition and opposition parties and within Mapai itself. This search finally led to the formation of a Government of National Unity and forced Prime Minister Eshkol to give up the Defense Ministry and to appoint his rival, Moshe Dayan, to succeed him in this office.
Eshkol became resigned to these changes, but not before exhausting, to no avail, all other options, including the abortive appointment of Yigal Allon to replace him as Defense Minister; it was a move that Mapai's Secretariat refused to accept. After the conclusive victory in war, Prime Minister Eshkol gained lavish praise for his pre-war diplomatic efforts, which had guaranteed the support of the United States and gained widespread understanding in the world community for Israel's move. He was also credited, together with the Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, for having prepared the army for a possible war. The outcome of this war as well as the belated praise for Eshkol's formerly much criticized performance, heightened his sense of political and personal betrayal and raised a question as to the future of the Unity Government and Moshe Dayan's continued service in the Defense post. The leaders of Rafi, Peres and Dayan, were again quick and effective in reorienting themselves to the new political conditions. Despite Ben-Gurion's objection, they embarked on a new strategy to merge Rafi with Mapai in order to prevent Dayan's dismissal from Eshkol's government and in order to rejoin pockets of support within Mapai that had been in evidence during the Six Day War crisis. The Secretary-General of Mapai, Golda Meir, adopted with Eshkol's consent another strategy, which was designed to merge first only the two parties of the Alignment, Mapai and Ahdut Haavoda. Rafi's unconditional pro-merger attitude (expressed in these terms by its Secretary-General, Peres, immediately after the war) as well as pressure from within Mapai itself, produced tripartite negotiations which led to the formation of the Israeli Labor Party. This merger, however, did not signify the end of old historic and personal conflicts; it mainly internalized them, now within a single party. It took some time before these conflicts subsided and made room for others; perhaps not until after Labor's first electoral defeat, in 1977, and certainly not before a new threat of a party split (by Dayan's supporters) was averted prior to the 1969 election. Contrary to what he had been used to, Prime Minister Eshkol did not play the major role in the merger negotiations; nor did he prevent its final outcome. Eshkol did consider, however, the removal of Dayan from his government because of their personal feud and policy differences, especially following the latter speech at Rafi's convention (which decided in favor of a merger) in which he declared that his new party was going to unite with Mapai, so that Eshkol would not continue to serve as Prime Minister. Eshkol gave up this intention following a successful mediating effort. Prime Minister Eshkol did not want to feed the political flame of the then-immensely popular Minister of Defense and appear to be acting against a successful conclusion of the party-merger drive.
Subsequently, Eshkol and Dayan worked out a carefully written agreement concerning their mode of cooperation in the Government, especially their respective lines of authority over the territories conquered in the war. Israel's policy toward these territories remained, however, the major issue dividing them. Dayan pressed to expand Jewish settlements in these territories, and to integrate their economy into Israel's in order eventually to share sovereignty over them with their Arab inhabitants. Eshkol did not form a clear-cut policy toward the territories but was clearly reluctant to pursue Dayan's policies.
Prime Minister Eshkol died at the age of 73, in February 1969. About a month beforehand, he had publicly expressed his desire to head the Labor Alignment in the next election and to form its new government. He had regained the confidence of the public, and his veteran associates were prepared to back him again; so were the leaders of Ahdut Haavoda. The renewal of an open leadership struggle with Rafi, headed by Dayan, lurked, however, in the background. It was averted through an agreement reached with Dayan by Eshkol's successor, Golda Meir, prior to the new election.
Eshkol's humor -
During the discussions about the "Scandal", there was a meeting between some of Mapai leading men and Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion said: Three members - Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Zalman Aran - are destroying the party. Golda fainted immediately. Aran turned pale and left the room, but Eshkol said: "Oh well, if three are destroying, it's not that bad, my part in the destruction is only one third..."
"Vegetarians are, sometimes, Cannibals".
When the pamphlet "Eshkol's Jokes" was published with jokes that mostly insulted Eshkol and his government, Eshkol and his wife, Miriam, each purchased the book and tried to hide it from one another. When the two found out that they already read the book, Miriam asked Eshkol: "So, what do you think of the booklets?" Eshkol replied: "I could have come up with better jokes."
"I am not particularly fond of those who like confessing and beating sin on another person's chest."