2 June 1967 – New unity government places more pressure on Eshkol

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War BICOM is taking you back in time with a selection of policy briefings as if they were written 50 years ago to the day. BICOM is tweeting British newspaper reports from 1967 @BritainIsrael and live tweeting Lt. Yael Dayan’s war diary @YaelDayan67 – daughter of the then Israel Defence Minister Moshe Dayan – who fought in the Sinai campaign.

Yesterday at 4.30pm war hero Moshe Dayan was officially sworn in as Israel’s new Defence Minister. Dayan’s appointment is the culmination of four intense days of political bargaining in Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s fractured government and appears to be the final piece in the political jigsaw that could mean Israel is preparing for the worst case scenario with its Arab neighbours.

On 28 May Eshkol and his military staff held a heated exchange in the Pit war room. According to media reports, Eshkol said Israel must refrain from acting against Egypt’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran for at least two weeks, “as it is politically, diplomatically and perhaps even morally logical to start a war”.

However, several military officials refuted their Prime Minister. Yeshayahu Gavish, chief of the Southern Command, told Eshkol that in two weeks Israel will be in a worse position than today and that the Straits will still be closed to Israel shipping. The most intransigent was Ariel Sharon, commander of the best armoured division on the Sinai front. He reportedly said at the meeting: “Today we have removed with our own hand our most powerful weapon – the enemy’s fear of us… the people of Israel are ready to wage a just war, to fight and to pay the price. The question isn’t free passage but the existence of the people of Israel.”

The division between Eshkol and his military staff is the clearest fault-line in Israeli politics at the moment. Eshkol, acting Defence Minister since 1963 following the resignation of David Ben-Gurion, had come under intense pressure from the Knesset, the media and the public in the past few weeks to either form a unity government or resign. Yesterday, the Israeli daily Haaretz was no less forgiving to Eshkol than his generals were: “The government in its present composition cannot lead the nation in its time of danger.”

Yet, trying to put together a unity government is not a straightforward task for Eshkol. The cabinet, before yesterday’s announcement, consisted of Mapai and Ahdut HaAvoda (known as the Alignment), the National Religious Party (NRP), Mapam, the Independent Liberals, Poalei Agudat Yisrael and two Israeli Arab parties associated with the Alignment; Progress and Development and Cooperation and Brotherhood. The NRP wanted a unity government with Dayan as Defence Minister (it appears the dovish NRP want a war hero but not a war), but Rafi and Gahal have refused to join a unity government with Dayan, who is also the public’s clear choice.

It appears that the signing of the Egyptian-Jordanian defence treaty on 30 May was the straw that broke the camel’s back. With a mass rally for a unity government scheduled to take place in Tel Aviv this coming Saturday, and the loss of confidence in the acting defence minister by the cabinet, the Prime Minister has been  forced to do something, and the right-wing parties have been forced to compromise.

Yet, if there is a diplomatic solution to Israel’s existential situation, Eshkol’s job of trying to convince it to his Cabinet and the public is now a lot harder following Dayan’s appointment.

The Israel public is undoubtedly in crisis mode, preparing for the worse. Schools are being refitted into bomb shelters, emergency drills in public spaces are being practised again and again on a daily basis, everywhere you go you see people digging trenches and filling sandbags in case war approaches the doorsteps of their homes. The Red Cross confirmed today that Israel has requested extra surgeons and extra units of plasma.

But Dayan’s appointment has galvanised the Israeli public by giving it a new sense of ‘can-do’ attitude, leading one deputy editor of an Israeli newspaper to run with a by-line to Eshkol, “What are you waiting for?”

Dayan’s tour of the southern front in late May was highly publicised, in which he met senior commanders and discussed his views on military action. Dayan also appeared at a press conference just days ago and declared that “if war breaks out, I know we will win”. David Loshak of the Daily Telegraph writes from Tel Aviv that officers and soldiers have welcomed Dayan’s appointment and the consensus is that “now we may see some action”.

The turnaround in Israel is aided by the fact that the UK might support Israeli action. Last night Prime Minister Harold Wilson wrapped up the Commons debate on the crisis in the Middle East by declaring that “one condition of lasting peace is the recognition that Israel has the right to live”. Moreover, Sir Alec Douglas-Home made it clear that the government would have Opposition support if it took action.

Eshkol has not given up hope in finding another solution than war by ensuring that he will not be outflanked by his defence minister. For instance, Eshkol has placed several restrictions on Dayan, including the requirement of Prime Ministerial approval before ordering any attack, and stipulating that no Arab cities are to be bombed unless Israel cities are bombed. Eshkol has also employed Yigal Yadin, Israel’s second chief of staff, as his special adviser on defence.

Eshkol’s time, however, is running out. By appointing Dayan, Eshkol is inviting not just one but three hawkish ministers (Dayan and two ministers without portfolio, Menachem Begin and Yosef Sapir from Gahal) to his cabinet. It remains to be seen how long Eshkol can hold out now that the cabinet’s balance of hawks and doves is in favour of the former.

Samuel Nurding is Research Analyst at BICOM.