In our collective memory Levi Eshkol is perceived as a weak, even a vacillating prime minister. Perhaps this was unjust already back on the eve of the Six Day War, when his image became thus ingrained in our popular lore. Certainly, compared to many of his successors in ensuing decades, Eshkol can be portrayed as a resolute upholder of Israeli national pride – especially when clad in pajamas.
Merely by refusing to change into proper daytime attire, Eshkol struck a plucky patriotic pose. In his humble night clothes he evinced more audacity than most of the wishy-washy variety that followed him in office.
Eshkol took his steadfast stand in the ungodly hours of May 27, 1967, when Soviet Ambassador Dmitri Chuvakhin arrived on the PM’s doorstep and demanded to wake him up to deliver an urgent message from Moscow. The envoy insisted he couldn’t wait till dawn.
Rather than be overawed and flustered, Eshkol chose to deliberately express his defiance of what was surely a bullying superpower diktat. He told his bureau chief, veteran diplomat Aviad Yaffe, that “under no circumstances do I have any intention of getting dressed for him” [Chuvakhin].
Those were the suffocating super-tense days in which the Arabs boasted belligerently that they were about to annihilate the Jewish state, after Egypt had blockaded the Tiran Straits and ignominiously tossed the UN peacekeepers out of Sinai.
Surrealistically, as the scary siege against Israel intensified, both the State Department and the White House “couldn’t find” copies of America’s ten-year-old guarantees to prevent precisely such a scenario. This was despite the fact that these very much-publicized guarantees were what swayed Israel, under Washington’s aggressive prodding, to withdraw from the Sinai in 1957.
Israel seemed alone, callously abandoned by its allies and coldly intimidated by the Russians. Things looked grim. How today’s crop of Israeli politicians would have coped with such extreme challenges is a matter of conjecture. But Eshkol stood his ground in his PJs and in fluent Russian rejected the stern warnings against a preemptive strike delivered by the emissary dispatched to harass him in the middle of the night.
The war, for which Israel is nowadays decried as an imperialist occupier, broke out soon thereafter and Chuvakhin was recalled by his bosses after they had resentfully severed diplomatic ties with Israel for disobeying their harshest admonitions.
Next, the Kremlin warned Israel that if it didn’t lay off Syria, the USSR would intervene in the fighting. The US was alarmed enough to deploy the Sixth Fleet to the vicinity of Syria’s coastline.
Seemingly, Russian animosity couldn’t have been more pronounced but there was yet more to come in the shape of shipping game-changing ground-to-air missiles to Egypt during the War of Attrition. In 1970 SAM-3 missiles were the state of the art and they did effectively erode Israel’s mastery of the skies. High ranking Israeli motormouths began to irrepressibly prattle about an impending “electronic showdown” (hi-tech hadn’t yet entered the lexicon).
Russian hardware was followed by Russian manpower. Thousands of Soviet military personnel were positioned in Egypt. They operated the SAM batteries and downed Israeli Phantoms. They flew MiG fighter-jets in dogfights against Israeli pilots and they filled the airwaves with Russian-language chatter.
Israeli leaders – from Prime Minister Golda Meir to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief-of-Staff Haim Bar-Lev – all made suitably intrepid noises. Golda declared unambiguously that “Israel will not shrink back from taking the Soviets on. If they suffer casualties, it will only be because their people were in the wrong place.” To be sure, there were Soviet casualties.
Unprecedentedly risky as such brinkmanship was, things never fully came to a head. As usual, it wasn’t the Russians who browbeat Israel but Israel’s best friend – America. Israel succumbed to US pressure and agreed to freeze-frame the existing situation on condition that the SAMs won’t be moved forward to the Suez Canal bank.
Yet again this deal too was backed by Washington’s purported iron-clad guarantees. Yet again, Washington’s guarantees weren’t worth the paper they were typed on.
On the very first night that the agreement was in force, the missiles were moved. This was the first step in the offensive that would ripen in 1973 into the Yom Kippur War. Yet again, against its best interests, Israel decided to swallow the bitter pill and overlook the instant undisguised treachery.
All this is very instructive and very relevant to the variation-on-the-theme remake of this plotline now being enacted on the Syrian front. Be they Communist hardliners or nominal democrats, the powers-that-be in the Kremlin remain serially high-handed and hostile to Israel. Nothing we see in the present is new. Only superficial details have changed but the underlying essence never did.
Nail-biting dramas that these days keep us on the edge of our seats are only modified reruns of past thrillers.
Moscow’s predisposition to supply our most implacable foes with topnotch missiles and MiGs continues as a constant facet of our existence, no matter how we dress it up. The transaction to equip Syria’s beleaguered Assad regime with superior firepower to deter Israel’s air force is a foremost example.
The anti-aircraft S-300 missiles, currently earmarked for Syria, are just as cutting-edge and just as dangerous as the SAMs were 43 years ago. Indeed, the analogy is chilling. Then as now, the cover story is identical. These missiles, it is argued brazenly, are only defensive and only geared to prevent attacks on Moscow’s clients.
This of course cynically ignores the reality that without credible offensive capability, Israel cannot maintain credible deterrence. Without credible deterrence Israel becomes the sitting duck that it allowed itself to become after the misguided 1970 ceasefire.
It is all too likely that again it won’t be fear of an actual confrontation with the Russians that will cause Israel to back down. Odds are that Israel won’t fear destroying whatever sophisticated weaponry Moscow may ship to Syria. That is probably what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to impart to President Vladimir Putin.
The Russians are still antagonistic – even if they are on speaking terms with us and even if they don’t threaten to outright clobber us. Proletarian warriors or not, they still coddle their Arab protégés.
It was convenient at the height of the Cold War to ascribe Moscow’s obstructionism (if not manifest malevolence) solely to communist machinations. But communism is formally gone while Russia tenaciously clings to the wrong side of history, as in its obdurate defense of the Damascus despot and its barefaced assistance in constructing, maintaining and repairing Iran’s nuclear facilities, to say nothing of its ongoing opposition to stringent sanctions against Tehran’s ayatollahs.
This calls to mind USSR strategy before the June 22, 1941 monstrous German double-cross. Until then, the Russians ensconced themselves firmly on history’s wrong side.
Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov applauded the Third Reich’s conquest of Warsaw. The German invasions of Denmark and Norway caused him to “wish Germany complete success in these defensive measures.” Upon receiving news of the French collapse, Molotov conveyed “the warmest congratulations of the Soviet Government on the splendid success of the German Wehrmacht.”
Putin’s Russia, despite its quasi-democratic façade, seems to harbor the same wrongheaded great-power aspirations as its Soviet predecessor. These had less to do with exporting communist ideology than with Russian nationalist ambitions.
That said, for Israel the ultimate danger looms from Washington, not Moscow. We had faced-off with the Russians before but we had eventually always cowered before the Americans and always with disastrous consequences.
It is far from inconceivable that when push comes to shove, the Obama Administration, which had done nothing about the prolonged Syrian horror flick, will suddenly appear on the scene to defuse the explosive impasse by bringing excruciating pressure to bear on… Israel.
A latterday version of the 1970 truce should not be ruled out. If anyone is liable to curtail Israeli operations in Syria, it is Barack Obama. It wouldn’t be the first time he has paid the Arabs off with an Israeli coin.
This ultimately is what should worry us most – not Putin’s badass machismo but Obama’s wimpy response to it, coupled with his domineering arrogance toward Israel. Putin knows this and his contempt for Obama is barely concealed. Moreover, it’s not altogether unjustified.
Putin has famously stated that “Russia does not negotiate with terrorists: it destroys them.” In contrast, Obama has declared the war on terror over because “now that people have come to see legitimate means of expression, people who once might have gone into al Qaida see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism.”
That must leave Putin laughing his head off.
Obama’s sugar-plum vision of foreign policy acknowledges no strategic enmity. Moreover, his naiveté about the misnamed Arab Spring doesn’t just elicit Moscow’s derision but also infuriates it. By betraying Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Obama emboldened Libya’s insurgents and their success fuelled the uprising in Syria, where Russia has too many stakes.
Thus willy-nilly Obama managed to ignite an arms race that was hardly unavoidable. His knee-jerk method of dealing with the mess he created wouldn’t be to lean on Putin but to twist Netanyahu’s arms. He’s not likely to take Putin on but is more than likely to throw his weight around with Bibi. That would allow Obama to pretend that the crisis has been resolved just as he claims terrorism had been defeated.
There’s dreadfully little Israel can do about either Putin or Obama. But there’s plenty Israel can do about how it responds to either of them.
This is where the image of Eshkol in his sleep-rumpled pajamas should override all our conventional cerebrations and apprehensions.
What we need most at this juncture is the instinctive grit with which Eshkol stood up to Moscow’s insolent attempts to push him around. We now need leadership that would avoid Golda’s subsequent failure to follow Eshkol’s example when Washington pushed her around.
Ironically it was this shortsighted surrender to American pressure that facilitated Russian designs and in no time literally jeopardized our very survival.