Eshkol (Shkolnik), Levi

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ESHKOL (Shkolnik), LEVI

ESHKOL (Shkolnik ), LEVI (1895–1969), Israeli statesman and third prime minister of Israel, member of the Second to Sixth Knessets. Eshkol was born in Oratova, in the Kiev district in the Ukraine, into a prosperous hasidic family. As a child he studied at a ḥeder and with private tutors up to the age of 16, when he entered the Hebrew high school in Vilna. Eshkol joined the Ẓe'irei Zion movement in Vilna. He settled in Ereẓ Israel in 1913 and began his career as an agricultural worker and watchman. He was one of the founders of a workers' commune called Ha-Avodah in Petaḥ Tikvah, which then moved to a plot of land near Kalandia, north of Jerusalem, and from there to Rishon le-Zion. In 1918–20 he served in the *Jewish Legion, and after World War i was one of the founders of kevuẓat *Deganyah Bet, soon becoming its treasurer and economic planner, securing funds for its development from central labor and Zionist institutions. In later years he became active in initiating and managing various institutions within the framework of the *Histadrut. In 1921 he served on the Defense Committee of the Histadrut, and in 1922, while on a mission to Europe to acquire arms, he was arrested and detained for several weeks by the Vienna police for allegedly purchasing arms illegally. Eshkol was one of the first leaders of the yishuv to recognize the importance of securing an adequate supply of water for agricultural development, and was one of the founders of the *Mekorot Water Company, which he directed in the years 1937–51. In 1934 he was also one of the initiators and implementers of the *Haavarah project for transferring Jewish capital from Nazi Germany to Palestine in the form of capital goods and was sent to Berlin to oversee the arrangement. In 1940 he became a member of the National Command of the Haganah, where he was in charge of finances and played a major role in organizing illicit arms manufacturing activities. In 1942–45 Eshkol served as secretary of *Mapai, and in 1944–48 secretary of the Workers' Council of Tel Aviv. In 1947, he was among those in charge of registration in the yishuv for national military service in anticipation of the approaching armed struggle. He was simultaneously a member of the Negev Committee, which prepared the defense of the Negev settlements.

Eshkol was a member of the Jewish Agency Executive, its treasurer in the years 1949–51, and head of the Settlement Department in the years 1948–63, simultaneously holding ministerial posts in the governments of David *Ben-Gurion and Moshe *Sharett. As head of the Settlement Department he oversaw the establishment of 371 new settlements and the expansion of an additional 60.

In 1948–49 Eshkol served as director general of the Ministry of Defense (he was referred to as deputy minister), helping Ben-Gurion set up and organize the ministry. He was elected to the Second Knesset in 1951, serving as minister of agriculture and development in 1951–52. In 1952 he replaced Eliezer *Kaplan, who had passed away, as minister of finance, a position he held until replacing Ben-Gurion as prime minister in 1963, overseeing the implementation of the New Economic Plan introduced by Kaplan and reaping the economic benefits of the Restitution Agreement signed with West Germany in September 1952 – three months after he became minister of finance. Under his direction the Israeli economy entered two decades of rapid economic growth, with gdp rising by an average of 10 percent annually. In 1953–55, Eshkol headed Israel's delegation in negotiations with President Eisenhower's special envoy, Eric Johnston, on the allocation of water resources between Israel and its neighbors. After the Arabs rejected the Johnston Plan that emerged from these negotiations, Israel embarked on the construction of the National Water Carrier, involving the channeling of water from the Jordan River to the Negev, which Eshkol strongly supported. In 1954, when Ben-Gurion temporarily retired to Sedeh Boker, he designated Eshkol as his successor, but the Mapai institutions elected Moshe Sharett, and Eshkol continued to serve as minister of finance.

In 1960 Eshkol was a member of the cabinet committee that exonerated Pinhas *Lavon from responsibility in the Lavon Affair, but several months later he supported Lavon's dismissal from his post as secretary-general of the Histadrut. In the following years Eshkol used all his patience, equanimity, and skill to resolve the crisis as amicably as possible. When in 1963 Ben-Gurion was finally obliged to resign as a result of the crisis, it was Eshkol who was chosen to succeed him as prime minister and minister of defense. Despite pressure by Ben-Gurion, after becoming prime minister Eshkol refused to reopen the Lavon Affair. This refusal, plus Eshkol's success in getting Mapai and *Aḥdut ha-Avodah-Po'alei Zion to form a single list – the Alignment – in the elections to the Sixth Knesset in 1965, finally caused Ben-Gurion and his supporters in Mapai to leave the party and form *Rafi, which ran independently.

Soon after becoming prime minister Eshkol reversed Ben-Gurion's policy and agreed to bring the remains of Ze'ev *Jabotinsky for burial in Israel. Eshkol was the first Israeli prime minister to visit the United States, at the invitation of U.S. president Lyndon *Johnson, and during his premier-ship the U.S. started selling Israel significant quantities of arms, though until the Six-Day War France remained its main source of arms. It was also Eshkol who decided to establish formal diplomatic relations with West Germany in 1965. His attempts to improve relations with the Soviet Union failed, and these relations were broken by the latter in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.

The National Water Carrier was inaugurated about a year after Eshkol became prime minister. The Arabs responded by initiating a project to divert the headwaters of the Jordan and repeatedly shelling settlements in northern Israel. In November 1964, Eshkol approved air operations (for the first time since the *Sinai Campaign) against Syrian artillery positions and the Arab diversion works. In the following two and a half years the security situation became increasingly tense, and the idf undertook numerous operations in reaction to Syrian and Jordanian attacks and to acts of sabotage by infiltrators. A further deterioration took place in May 1967, when President Gamal Abdel *Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to shipping bound for Eilat, called for the withdrawal of un peacekeeping forces from the Gaza Strip, and started to amass troops in the Sinai Peninsula. Eshkol's policy was to try to avert war at any cost, but when all his efforts failed he approved preemptive action by the idf. On the eve of the outbreak of the war, and due to growing public pressure, he invited Rafi and *Gaḥal to join a government of national unity, and handed over the defense portfolio to Moshe *Dayan, even though he had wanted to appoint Yigal *Allon to the post. After the war Eshkol did not object to Israel's returning most captured territories in return for a comprehensive peace, and in December 1967 accepted Security Council Resolution 242, which spoke of Israeli withdrawal from territories in return for recognition of its right to live in peace within secure and recognized borders. However, the Arab Summit at Khartoum in 1968 rejected any prospect of negotiations with Israel. Eshkol paid a second visit to the United States in January 1968 when President Johnson agreed to upgrade U.S. arms sales to Israel.

In the aftermath of the Six-Day War Eshkol actively supported the establishment of the Israel Labor Party, through the merging of Mapai, Ahdut ha-Avodah-Po'alei Zion, and Rafi. The Labor Party was established in January 1968, and Levi Eshkol stood at its head until his sudden death in February 1969.


H. Laufbahn, Levi Eshkol (Heb., 1965); T. Prittie, Eshkol the Man and the Nation (1969); H.M. Christman (ed.), The State Papers of Levi Eshkol (1969); Y. Shapiro, Levi Eshkol: Be-Ma'a lot ha-Sheliḥut (1969); S. Perla, Levi Eshkol: Unifier of a Nation (1970); D. Giladi, Levi EshkolKevarnit ha-Hityashvut ha-Hamonit 19481952 (1993); A. Gluska, Ha-Imut bein ha-Mateh ha-Kelali u-vein Memshelet Eshkol bi-Tekufat ha-Hamtanah (2001); A. Lamfrum and H. Zoref, Levi Eshkol: Rosh ha-Memshalah ha-Shelishi: Mivḥar Te'udot mi-Pirkei Ḥayyav 18951969 (2002); Y. Goldstein, Eshkol: Biografiyah (2003).

[Susan Hattis Rolef (2nd ed.)]