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Prime Minister of Israel
Levi Eshkol was born in the Ukrainian village of Oratovo (near Kiev). He had a traditional Jewish upbringing and enrolled in a Hebrew high school in Vilna at the age of 16. While at Vilna he joined the Zionist group Tzeirei Tzion (Youth of Zion). In 1914, he immigrated to Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, where he worked as an agricultural laborer and political activist. During World War I, he served in the Jewish Legion of the British Army. After the war he joined the group which ultimately founded the settlement of Degania Beth.
Early Political Career
Worked in the Histadrut Labor Federation's Agricultural Center.
1937 Participated in the establishment of Mekorot, Israel's water utility. In this role he was instrumental in convincing the government of Nazi Germany to allow Jews emigrating to Palestine to take with them some of their assets, mostly in the form of German-made equipment. As Mekorot's managing director (a position he held until 1951), he introduced a system of countrywide water management which made intensive irrigated farming possible. His work culminated in the National Water Carrier Project, which became operative in 1964.
1940 Became a member of the Haganah high command, in which capacity he engaged in arms acquisition prior to and during the War of Independence.
1947 Organized the recruiting drive for what became the Israeli Defense Forces.
1948 Became the first Director-General of the Ministry of Defense.
1948-1963 Served as Chairman of the World Zionist Organization/Jewish Agency's Settlement Department. In this capacity he was responsible for obtaining funds to develop the country, absorb massive immigration waves, and equip the army.
1950-1951 Served as Director-General of the Ministry of Defense.
1951 Appointed Minister of Agriculture and Development
1952-1963 Served as Minister of Finance. This period of Israeli history was characterized by unprecedented economic growth, despite the financial burden of immigrant absorption and the 1956 Sinai Campaign.
Prime Minister, 1963-1969
When David Ben-Gurion retired from politics, Eshkol succeeded him as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defense.
In 1964, Eshkol made the first state visit of an Israeli Prime Minister to Washington, laying the foundation for a close alliance which has existed between Israel and the United States ever since. In 1966 he visited six African nations. His most significant diplomatic achievement, however, was the establishment of diplomatic relations with West Germany.
In the days prior to the Six-Day War of June 1967, Eshkol established a Government of National Unity, relinquishing the Defense portfolio to Moshe Dayan and bringing Menachem Begin into the Knesset (Cabinet). He also procured military supplies, especially from the United States. Eshkol's efforts played a major part in Israel being able to secure Judea, Samaria, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula, as well as reunite Jerusalem, in just six days.
After the war, Eshkol initiated talks with Palestinian leaders in the newly-secured areas, in an effort to promote a peaceful relationship.
Levi Eshkol died in office of a heart attack, on February 26, 1969.
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This page was last updated on June 14, 2017.