Levi Eshkol Appoints Moshe Dayan as Defense Minister

Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, also the country’s Defense Minister, appoints Moshe Dayan as Defense Minister four days before the Six Day War starts.  The appointment is prompted by growing tension and fears in Israel as the conflict with Egypt escalates.

The move is part of Israel forming its first national unity government.  Alignment (the party created by Eshkol when he merges Mapai and Ahdut Ha’Avoda in 1965) leadership begins discussing the idea of an expanded government including members of the opposition in late May at the suggestion of the National Religious Party.  The motion of many in the opposition parties to restore David Ben-Gurion, still a Member of Knesset, to a prominent security position is vehemently opposed by Eshkol and other Alignment leaders.

On May 27th, Eshkol invites Dayan, Golda Meir, Yosef Sapir and Menachem Begin to join the cabinet as Ministers without Portfolio.  Begin and Sapir are among the leaders of the opposition Gahal (a Hebrew acronym for Bloc of Herut and Liberals), a merger of Herut and the Liberal Party.  Dayan, a former Mapai member and protégé of David Ben-Gurion had left the party together with Ben-Gurion following the 1965 creation of the Alignment, forming the Rafi party (Hebrew acronym for Party of Israel’s Workers) for the Sixth Knesset elections.

Dayan is valued for both his military experience, including serving as Chief of Staff during the successful victory over Egypt in 1956, as well as his ties to Ben-Gurion, whom many Israelis are eager to assume a more active role in the country’s leadership.  Dayan initially turns down Eshkol’s offer as being an “ineffective appointment” and pushes for the Prime Minister to consider him for a more significant role in security.  On May 29, Gahal and Rafi together with the National Religious Party propose the appointment of Dayan as Defense Minister.  After three days of debate, Eshkol agrees to give up the Defense portfolio and appoint Dayan after Yigal Allon withdraws his name from consideration.

Dayan’s qualifications include a very illustrious military career, having served in the Haganah and as military commander of Jewish-controlled Jerusalem in 1948 at the appointment of Ben Gurion. Four days after his appointment to Minister, Dayan launches a preemptive attack on Egypt and Syria, beginning the June 1967 Six-Day War.  Under Dayan’s leadership Israel captures the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Dayan’s popularity increases greatly after the success of the war and in 1968 he merges Rafi into the Alignment.  In 1969, when Levi Eshkol dies and Golda Meir becomes Prime Minister, Dayan continues to serve as Defense Minister. Much of the blame for the disastrous start of the Yom Kippur War is placed on Dayan (famously, Dayan came to PM Meir ready to announce the “downfall of the Third Temple”), for having chosen not to launch a preemptive strike on Egypt or Syria, and for his ineffective handling in the initial response to the surprise attack. His name is officially cleared by the Agranat Commission report, but his reputation continues to diminish. Yitzhak Rabin does not include him in his government when Golda Meir resigns.

In 1977, Dayan is made Foreign Minister under Menachem Begin, and plays an instrumental role in the Camp David Accords negotiations of 1978. Dayan passes away in 1981 from a heart attack, at age 66.

The photo shows Dayan at his inaugural press conference as Defense Minister on June 3, 1967 in Tel-Aviv.  To his left is Army Spokesperson Brigadier General Aryeh Shalev. Photo source: Government Press Office of Israel.