JERUSALEM (Feb. 26)
Levi Eshkol was one of the last of the members of the Second Aliyah to hold high office in Israel. Of his contemporaries and associates over a half-century, David Ben-Gurion. whom he succeeded as Prime Minister, is in the political background today, and Mrs. Golda Meir, the former Foreign Minister, no longer holds public office although she remains a power in the Israel Labor Party.
A native of the Ukraine, Levi Shkolnik (he changed his name in 1948 when Israel’s Statehood was established) emigrated to Palestine in 1914 and worked as a laborer. When the Jewish Legion was established, he volunteered and saw service along with Mr. Ben-Gurion and the late Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president. As a corporal in the Jewish Legion, he witnessed the dedication of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, and almost 50 years later, as Prime Minister, participated in the rededication of its buildings there after the road to Scopus had been opened up in the Six-Day War.
He was a founder of the colony of Degania Beth, Lake Tiberias, where he maintained a home and was an active member of the Jewish labor movement all his life. His political rise was slow and laborious and his role was overshadowed by the great luminaries of the Zionist labor movement–Mr. Ben-Gurion, the late Chaim Arlosoroff and the late Moshe Sharett. First in the Zionist movement and the Jewish Agency and then in the Israel Government, he proved himself in difficult assignments with the portfolios of agriculture and finance.
Mr. Eshkol became Prime Minister and Minister of Defense on June 26, 1963 when Mr. Ben-Gurion stepped down in his favor and he held both posts until May, 1967 when, on the eve of the Six-Day War, he surrendered the Defense post to Gen. Dayan.
Previously, Mr. Eshkol and Mr. Ben-Gurion had split over the so-called “Lavon Affair” and Mr. Ben-Gurion sought the defeat and removal from the political scene of the man he had designated to succeed himself. In his struggle with Mr. Eshkol over the “Affair,” Mr. Ben-Gurion seceded from the Mapai Party with a group of his followers, among them Gen. Dayan, set up an independent labor party (Rafi) and began to build up Gen. Dayan as a challenger to Mr. Eshkol and as a future Prime Minister.
The major threat to Israel’s existence posed by the Arab states in May, 1967 lead to the establishment of a Government of National Unity and, ultimately, to the return of Rafi to a new, united Israel Labor Party–a step that Mr. Ben-Gurion bitterly opposed and still refuses to accept. Mr. Eshkol displayed superb political skill in creating the new Labor Party and in welding together the dissident elements which had broken away from Mapai over the years. But even his critics conceded that he was more than a politician and was entitled to be called a statesman with a complete grasp of Israel’s domestic and international problems.
Mr. Eshkol professed himself to be a Socialist but of the Fabian brand. He never believed that Socialism in itself would solve the “Jewish problem” and he cooperated with other parties and people of other views. Above all, a practical man, he knew and was prepared to take steps that other Socialists regarded with dismay to attract capital to Israel and to develop the country’s economy.
In his foreign policy. Mr. Eshkol represented the trend in Israel which was prepared to go to great lengths to achieve a stable peace and which considered that a bad peace was preferable to a good war. He was ready to make compromises but he was firm on such issues as the permanent unification of Jerusalem. His personal efforts at diplomacy–his visits to Britain and the United States–were successful and had tangible results but, basically, Mr. Eshkol’s major interests were economic problems and home affairs generally.
Mr. Eshkol was not so preoccupied with the problems of Israel as to forget the Jewish communities overseas. He was deeply interested and concerned in developing as strong ties as possible between the Diaspora and the State and he was deeply concerned over the problems of the Jews abroad–the threat to the Jewish communities in the Soviet Union and Poland, their suffering in the Arab states, the threat of assimilation and alienation in the more prosperous lands. He was also concerned that younger Israelis know more about their Jewish heritage and their kinship with the Jews outside Israel. Mr. Eshkol was married twice. He had four daughters by his first wife, Elisheva. He remarried in 1964 and is survived by his second wife, Mrs. Miriam Eshkol.
‘EMBODIMENT OF ALL THAT IS GOOD IN THE JEWISH CHARACTER’
Amos Ben Vered, JTA’s Jerusalem correspondent, writes: “Levi Eshkol had been considered by all sections of Israel’s population as the embodiment of all that is good in the Jewish character. He was an unbeatable optimist. He had a keen sense of humor and could with perfect timing relieve tense moments with a joke, often in Yiddish. Mr. Eshkol was a father figure, even when he was younger. Often he would address even his elders with the word ‘Kinderlach’ (children). Always bubbling over with good spirits. Mr. Eshkol was the perfect negotiator.
“Mr. Eshkol’s greatest achievements,” writes Mr. Ben Vered, “which may be the ones that will secure his place in history, are the unification of Israel in the face of adversity and the resounding victory over the Arabs during his Premiership. It was under his leadership that a dream as old as Labor Zionism was realized–the formation of an absolute majority in the Parliament.”