[PREFACE: At a time when talks have been renewed between Syria and Israel, with discussions focusing on the Golan Heights, the reason why the Golan was taken by Israel – to protect the Galilee – is often ignored or not reported at all.]
The course of history can be changed by the determination of one man who stands up for what he believes in when he is listened to by people who are in a position of power.
The initiative to demand that Israel take the Golan Heights did not come from real estate-seekers who wanted to move their homes and farms to the Golan, nor did it come from people who wanted to fulfill any kind of religious or national vision to settle yet another part of the land of Israel.
Rather, the move to conquer the Golan came from resident farmers of the Upper Galilee, organized by the regional Mayor of the Upper Galilee, Yaakov (Yankela) Eshkoli*, the man who galvanized a delegation of Upper Galilee residents to lobby Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and the Israeli government on the fourth night of the Six Day War.
Mr. Eshkoli’s mission: to convince Mr. Eshkol to issue an order to the Israel Defense Forces Northern regional command to take the Golan Heights and to remove the Syrian threat, once and for all, from over the heads of the Galilee settlements.
Mr. Eshkoli was elected four times to be the regional mayor of the Galilee, and served in his position from 1955-1971.
Speaking with this reporter in 1999 at the age of 88 in his home with remarkable resilience and a clear memory after 20 years of severe heart disease, the aging Mr. Eshkoli, with his 90-year-old wife Yaffa at his side, could not keep repeating how pleased he is that he has lived to tell his story, while talks with Syria get under way and while the future of the Golan is indeed on the agenda.
“Thirteen years ago, I had a heart attack, and the doctors declared me to be clinically dead. I guess I recovered so that I could tell my story today,” Mr. Eshkoli said, with a wink and a twinkle in his eye, when I sat with him on his porch, on Kibbutz Kfar Giladi.
Kfar Giladi is one of the oldest Galilee farming communities, located just north of Kiryat Shmoneh and sandwiched in between Lebanon and the Golan Heights, where he and Yaffa, now 90 years old, joined the kibbutz members in 1932.
Mr. Eshkoli said that he was always eager to relate the role that he played in convincing the Israeli government to take the Golan in the midst of the 1967 war.
As Mr. Eshkoli related it, by the fourth day of the 1967 war, it was clear that Israel had delivered a solid defeat to Jordan and Egypt.
That left Syria, which had been raining a steady stream of rockets into the Hula Valley below, leaving the residents of 31 settlements in the Upper Galilee region in Mr. Eshkoli’s jurisdiction to spend those glorious days of 1967 in deep, underground bunkers, glued to their transistor radios.
Mr. Eshkoli recalled how he placed constant calls into Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon from his underground bunker on the kibbutz to ask to see Levi Eshkol, then Israel’s prime minister, to demand action on the Syrian front.
Mr. Allon, the 1948 war hero who liberated the Galilee, promised to get Mr. Eshkol, called him on the fourth day of the war with the good news that he could meet Mr. Eshkol and the Israeli cabinet that evening, warning him that at least one senior Israeli cabinet minister opposed any move toward the Golan Heights….
Leaving his kibbutz in an army jeep, picking up kibbutz leaders from other settlements in the region, while every kibbutz member was ordered into the shelters because of the continuing Syrian artillery bombardment, Mr. Eshkoli remembers that he had the feeling that his Hula Valley was burning while the rest of the country was dancing in the streets.
Mr. Eshkoli spoke of descending the steps into the underground headquarters of the Israeli government in Tel Aviv as if it happened the day before. Mr. Eshkoli had tears in his eyes when he described the hug that Levi Eshkol gave him when he showed up. Mr. Eshkol mandates that Mr. Eshkoli’s full delegation of four be allowed to enter the cabinet meeting, and he recalled the Bible that he was asked to swear on, that any matter of security that he would hear would be kept in strictest confidence.
Mr. Eshkoli was given five minutes to speak. “The longest five minutes in my life,” Mr. Eshkoli remembered. His appeal was simple and clear, when he reminded Mr. Eshkol that he and every Israeli leader who had ever come to visit him in the Galilee after Syrian rocket attacks had promised them that, if there would ever be another war, they would use that opportunity to remove the Syrian threat, once and for all.
Mr. Eshkoli reported that one Israeli minister opposed the idea: Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli commander in chief who had just been appointed to be defense minister. Mr. Dayan had given the veto to his Northern regional commander, “Dado” Elazar, whom he forbade to attack Syria on the Golan, “lest this cost us 30,000 dead and risk a war with the Soviet Union,” which had just pushed through a cease-fire in the U.N. Security Council. Mr. Dayan, the war hero from the 1956 war with tremendous popular following, also made a great impression on the cabinet.
Mr. Eshkoli recalls that he then thought to himself: “Will I be responsible for world war,” and then said that “I could only think of my wife and the children of the kibbutz, who at that moment were in the shelters.” It was then that Mr. Eshkoli made a threat, which he said that he meant with all his heart, which was that if the IDF does not remove the Syrians from the Golan, then he would recommend that all kibbutzim pack their bags and leave, and that the people of Kiryat Shmoneh would follow. Silence followed Mr. Eshkoli’s emotional appeal to the Israeli cabinet.
As Mr. Eshkoli turned and began to leave the meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol grabbed his hand and proclaimed that “The words of Eshkoli have entered the heart of Levi Eshkol, and they will play a crucial role in what we decide to do on the Golan Heights.”
Mr. Eshkoli could not know when he left the government meeting, heading back north, whether he had succeeded in his mission. Would his words hold greater weight than Moshe Dayan?
Heading back to Kfar Giladi, Mr. Eshkoli stopped off at the bunker of the IDF Northern regional command. By that time, it was 5 a.m. Mr. Eshkoli saw “Dado” slumped over at his desk, next to a bottle of half-empty scotch.
Mr. Eshkoli reported to “Dado” what had happened at the government meeting. And while they were talking, “Dado” received a call from the Israel Defense Ministry. Moshe Dayan’s resonant voice was on the line with an order.
“Climb the Golan and Succeed” were Mr. Dayan’s words, and they were repeated on the 6 a.m. Voice of Israel radio newsreel.
“Dado” loudly said to Mr. Eshkoli that he had succeeded with Mr. Dayan where he, the IDF northern regional commander, had not.
Indeed, Mr. Dayan’s vote in the government was the lone voice in the government to vote against the Golan attack….
Mr. Dayan never forgave Mr. Eshkoli for besting him at the government meeting.
Indeed, Mr. Eshkoli showed this reporter a yellowing news interview from 1976 with Moshe Dayan with the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot, where Moshe Dayan could only recall Mr. Eshkoli and his delegation with anger and resentment, characterizing them as “Dado”‘s agents, claiming that, anyway, “the provocations of the Galilee farmers and fishermen in no-man’s land were the cause of the Syrian shellings.”
Mr. Eshkoli looks at the picture of Moshe Dayan and starts to yell at him: “Right – All of my 31 communities provoked the Syrians from their shelters. Our provocation against the Syrians is that we live and prosper here in the Galilee, which the Syrians see as a province of their country.”
Asked about the current negotiations that might bring the Syrians back to the Golan Heights that face down on his kibbutz, Mr. Eshkoli would only raise a trembling hand and point to the hills and say that to “bring back the Syrians would be suicide for us.”
Mr. Eshkoli’s successor as regional mayor of the Upper Galilee region, fellow Kfar Giladi member Aharon Valenci, said that he will wait to see what the Syrians convey to their own people in their own media, in order to know of their commitment for peace.
Another prominent Galilee kibbutz leader, Muki Tzur, from Ein Gev, along the shores of the Sea of the Galilee and two miles from the Golan Heights, the editor of the best-selling book which came out after the Six Day War, known in English as The Seventh Day: Conversations with Fighters from the Six Day War, wrote an article in 1999 in the magazine known as KIBBUTZ, the magazine of the Kibbutz movement, that said “Jewish and Israeli history has taught us that any peace process with Israel’s adversaries will be long, hard and complex, and that no decision can be made under the pressure of an immediate desire for peace. The price of a mistake in the peace process in the North would be guns in place once again on the Golan, trained on the 31 settlements of the Hula Valley in Israel’s lush Upper Galilee region.”
Indeed, that is why the guns in the Golan were removed.
That is why 33 Israeli settlements replaced 15 Syrian army camps on the Golan Heights. All because Yankela Eshkoli stood up to Moshe Dayan.
©The Evening Bulletin 2008
This piece ran on The Philadelphia Bulletin on May 23rd, 2008 at: