In 1967, the Israeli society was panicked by the deadly threat posed by the May 30 Egypt-Syria-Jordan anti-Israel military pact, by the brutal pressure of the US, France, Britain and the international community to refrain from a preemptive operation, by the deepening (20%) unemployment, and by escalating pessimism within the political and military leadership.
Prime Minister Levy Eshkol exercised leadership. He was not swept by the weakness of the people, and he did not allow a transient somber reality to erode long term national strategic goals. Instead, he leveraged the crisis as a springboard for a strategic upgrade. He defied US and international pressure, launched the preemptive Six Day War, destroyed the infrastructure of the threatening enemy, rescuing the Jewish State from pending oblivion. Eshkol, therefore, enhanced strategic appreciation of Israel, transforming the Jewish State from a “historical accident” to a factor of regional deterrence and a unique strategic ally of the USA.
In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Eshkol was besieged by Prophets of Demographic Doom, who urged him to withdraw from Gaza, Judea and Samaria, “since there would be an Arab majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean by 1987.” Eshkol ignored the demographic projections, demonstrating that capable leaders would not shape boundaries in accordance with temporary demographic problems (which are impacted by immigration, emigration, modernity, education, war, etc.). Eshkol was a capable leader, and therefore shaped boundaries in accordance with historical and geographic reality (which is carved in stone). Eshkol has been vindicated: Jewish majority in 1987 remained as it was in 1967 and as it is today: some 60%:40% west of the Jordan River and 80%:20% within the Green Line (1949 boundaries). Thus, Eshkol followed in the footsteps of Theodore Herzel and David Ben Gurion, who rejected the demographic projections of the world renowned Jewish historian/demographer Shimon Dubnov (1900) and Israel’s Chief Statistician Prof. Roberto Bachi (1948), who lobbied against the establishment of the Jewish State on demographic grounds. 50,000 Jews resided in the Land of Israel in 1900, 600,000 Jews in 1948, compared with almost 6 million today.
In 1981, Iraq expanded its nuclear capabilities, targeting Israel and other countries. The US, West Europe and the UN pressured Israel against a preventive military operation, “lest it destabilizes the region”. They threatened Israel with diplomatic, military and economic sanctions. Israel’s heads of Mossad and military intelligence opposed a military (air force) operation against Iraq’s nuclear reactor, “lest it unites the Islamic world against Israel, lest it cause an irreparable crisis with the US and lest it fail operationally, with the bodies of Israel’s pilots dragged in the streets of Baghdad.” Moreover, Shimon Peres leaked vital information to the media, in order to abort the operation.
However, Prime Minister Menachem Begin displayed leadership, accepting short term risk, pressure and inconvenience, in order to advance the long term national security of the Jewish State. He ordered the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, thus becoming the subject of a US military embargo and of international sanctions. Nevertheless, a few months later when the international condemnation was gradually dissipating, a new reality was in place: the nuclear threat to the region was demolished, Israel’s strategic profile was enhanced dramatically and therefore the first ever strategic memorandum of understanding was signed (Nov. 1981) between the US and Israel. Begin’s leadership has accorded Israel a substantial line of strategic credit, which is still in force. Begin’s leadership, also, provided the US with the conventional option in the 1991 and 2003 wars against Iraq, sparing the US and the globe horrific human losses and mega-billion dollar expenditures.
In 2004, Israel’s leadership (and not Israel’s public!) displays unprecedented indecisiveness and vacillation in face of exacerbated terrorism, global pressure to refrain from crashing the infrastructure of the Palestinian Terror Authority, intensifying threat of Islamic non-conventional capabilities, domestic economic difficulties and general weakness and skepticism afflicting many top political and security officials. The leadership crisis stands in striking contrast to the unprecedented demographic, military, economic and technological resources at the disposal of the Jewish State. Standing by Israel is the post-9/11 USA , which confronts on a daily basis a mutual threat – Islamic terrorism. The US is led by a friendly President, whose power base supports Israel strategically, religiously, intellectually and politically, and whose Vice President and Secretary of Defense are more hawkish than most Israel’s cabinet members. The US is co-led by a Congress, which is the friendliest to Israel ever since 1948. Never has Israel enjoyed such a large scale support in the US, and never has it failed so much in leveraging that support, in order to advance critical national security goals.
Eshkol and Begin, just like all prime ministers until 1992 – did rarely submit themselves to the burden of pressure, terrorism and demography. They did not ignore the pressure, but they did not allow it to divert themselves away from the national strategic long term goal of the Jewish State. They did not instill weakness in the mind and hearts of their people and their friends abroad. They did not erode the conviction of the People in the justness of their historical cause and in the capabilities of the Jewish military to defeat terrorism. They were not intimidated by domestic and external odds, they did not consider restraint as strength, did not subscribe to protracted wars (which are deadly to democracies and adrenalize the veins of terrorists). They did not offer concessions as a substitute to the crashing of the infrastructure of Arab threat.
The drastic departure from the legacy of Eshkol and Begin (as well as the legacy of Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Shamir) has transformed Israel – since the signing of the Oslo Accord – from a role model of confronting terrorism and pressure to the role model of retreat in face of pressure and violence.