26 Feb February 26, 1969: The Day Israel Lost PM Levi Eshkol
On February 26, 1969, the State of Israel lost Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Eshkol is not only considered one of Israel’s founding fathers but was also instrumental in developing Israel’s National Water Carrier and Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Born in Kiev, Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine), Eshkol grew up in a religious family that was both business and agriculturally oriented. Leaving his family in Kiev to study in Vilnius (present-day Lithuania), later joining a student group known as “Youth of Zion.” Eshkol also became a member of Hapoel Hatzir (“The Young Worker”), an organization that emphasized socialistic values to achieve a Jewish state.
In 1914, Levi Eshkol joined the most successful national liberation in history: Hebrew Liberation. Eshkol moved from Vilnius to Petach Tikvah, Ottoman Empire and began working on irrigation tunnels to advance Jewish communities. As World War I erupted, the future prime minister found himself in Atarot, just north of Jerusalem. Though, due to fears of Arab hostility, he moved back to the Petach Tikvah area. In 1915-1917, Levi Eshkol became a leader of the Labor Zionist movement, leading the Judea Workers’ Union.
The Jewish Legion fought on the side of the Allies during World War I & II, it was the first fighting Jewish force in over 2000 years and was led by Lt.-Col. John Patterson. From 1918-1920, Levi Eshkol joined the Legion’s ranks and later the Haganah – the precursor to today’s Israel Defense Forces. In September of 1920, Eshkol was one of the twenty-five founding member of Kibbutz Degania Bet.
In 1937, Levi Eshkol became the Director of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, a service that Eshkol has been advocating for almost decade. The project was made possible by the Jewish National Fund and the Israeli Labour Federation. Eshkol was involved in the first irrigational expansion into the southern Negev, Israel’s desert.
When the State of Israel was established in 1948, Eshkol was appointed Director General of the Ministry of Defense, working to lay the foundations of the Israel Defense Forces as they battled for the country’s survival in the 1948 War of Independence. Eshkol then served as the Head of the Settlement Department in the Jewish Agency, at a time of mass immigration to the Land of Israel.
In national politics, Eshkol joined the Mapai party. Through the Knesset, Israel’s newly formed parliament he served as Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Finance and Minister of Defense. As Minister of Finance, he made legislation to establish the Bank of Israel in 1954, negotiated reparations between Israel and West Germany in 1952, and introduced many economic plans to strengthen Israel’s economy.
It was in 1961 that David Ben-Gurion requested to resign as prime minister, though the Mapai party refused, he recommended Eshkol as the next leader of the State of Israel. Though, in 1963, Eshkol got his chance.
As Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol was the first Israeli PM invited on an official state-visit to the US in May 1964. In June 1967, the State of Israel faced several Arab armies in the Six-Day War. While previous wars were set by Arab aggression against Israel, 1967 was not different, though, this time, Israel drew first blood. According to Michael Oren, a Minister in Israel’s Knesset and former Ambassador to the US, Levi Eshkol’s resilience in ensuring that Arab aggression against Israel ended before it ever began. While Egypt and Syria were planning to attack Israel by surprise, the Israeli Air Force crushed any opportunity they had with preemptive strikes on targeted military facilities.
In the face of the ultimate consequences as well as loud calls to temporarily replace Eshkol with Ben-Gurion as prime minister, Eshkol established a national unity government with the Herut Party, under Menachem Begin, in addition to giving one of Israel’s greatest generals – Moshe Dayan – the duties of the Defense Ministry. In the end, the State of Israel secured her existence and place in the region as a force to be reckoned with.
On February 3, 1969, Eshkol suffered a heart attack, though it did not stop him, later in the month his flame had passed. He left behind his wife Miriam and four children.
On February 28, 1969, the Prime Minister of Israel passed away and was laid to rest at Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery. He was the first PM to be buried in Mount Herzl’s “Great Leaders of the Nation Plot.”