For those who fear that U.S.-Israel relations may be at a low point, or that Mideast peace talks are dead in the water (now that Israel has decided not to extend its moratorium on settlement construction), consider the eternal wisdom contained in King Solomon’s words: “This, too, shall come to pass.”
That ancient reminder could be the recurring theme of Yehuda Avner’s riveting new memoir, “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership” (Toby Press), a thorough account of the dramatic history of Israel told through the very personal and well-placed eyes of a veteran diplomat who was adviser to Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and was especially close to Yitzchak Rabin and Menachem Begin.
On reading this detailed saga, which is as entertaining as it is informative, one comes to realize that Bibi Netanyahu is in good company in feeling the chill of Washington these days.
Indeed, as Avner makes clear, each Israeli prime minister, from David Ben-Gurion on down, has had significant moments of political and diplomatic conflict — including full-blown crises — with the White House. And the strained relations between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama pale in comparison to major flare-ups between Rabin and Henry Kissinger (as stand-in for Gerald Ford), which resulted in a U.S. “reassessment” of its policy in the region in 1975, and between Begin and both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, when the presidents, infuriated by Israeli actions, withheld arms for a time.
Avner, now 82, has seen it all. And he is blessed with the skill, wit, memory and prose to do justice to the remarkable story of Israel’s seemingly endless diplomatic confrontations with Western allies as well as Arab enemies.
The new book was three years in the writing, and weighs in at 702 pages, but you won’t want it to end, relishing the fly-on-the-wall descriptions of meetings between world leaders. The personalities — the charm, bluster and egos — of prime ministers and presidents give color and humanity to the historic record.
Though Avner considers the current diplomatic impasse troublesome, he noted in an interview this week that “basically, many of the problems that the founders of the state confronted are what Bibi is dealing with today. Issues like borders, security, etc. … There were times when it was touch and go. … There are still existential issues that accompany every prime minister. And the main predicament is when to use force. For every prime minister.”
Avner’s personal biography mirrors that of the Zionist state he devoted his life to, arriving alone from his native Manchester, England at 18, in November 1947. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, he went on to a long and proud career, serving as consul in New York, ambassador to Great Britain and Australia, and speechwriter and close personal aide to prime ministers on the left and the right. He was the note-taker in countless meetings between heads of state, and he has dramatized and personalized these experiences in a book whose narrative is at turns heartbreaking and hilarious.
Soon after his arrival in then-Palestine, Avner befriends a young woman several years older, Esther Callingold, who bravely opts to help defend the Old City of Jerusalem in May 1948.
Her poignant letter to her family in London, hand-written shortly before she died of her wounds, embodies the passion and commitment of so many of the early Zionist pioneers.
She urged her family not to be sad but to know she had no regrets, and “to remember that we were soldiers and had the greatest and noblest cause to fight for. God is with us, I know, in His Holy City, and I am proud and ready to pay the price it may cost us to reprieve it.”
She was 22. Her sister Mimi later became Avner’s wife, and her brother Asher one of his best friends.
On a brighter note, Avner describes a visit to President Lyndon Johnson in Texas in early 1968 by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, a soft-spoken, Ukrainian-born man in his 70s.
Picture the slight, stooped Eshkol, homburg in hand, being driven by the ebullient LBJ himself in a station wagon at breakneck speeds on the Johnson ranch, and being introduced to the resident farm hands.
When a stubborn cow would not get out of the way of the car, Johnson explained, “That’s Daisy. She’s as pigheaded as a Texas senator with colic.”
To which Eshkol muttered to his companions, “Vus rett der goy?” — Yiddish for “What’s the goy talking about?”
The authenticity of these exchanges is a result of Avner’s intimate role as confidante to Israeli leaders, and he acknowledges, “I was a naughty boy because I never threw away my scribbles.” It was after finding these notes in a drawer in his Jerusalem apartment that he began writing the book.
Two chapters were expunged by Israel’s military censors, he explained, noting only that they dealt with psychological warfare, military intelligence and Israel’s nuclear capacity.
“Pity,” he said, “because I had quite a lot.” Then adds, “but it’s long enough as it is.”
Avner said he is a storyteller rather than a historian, and that he wanted to bring the historic figures he knew back to life. Some have been long forgotten, like his associate, Yaakov Herzog, a brilliant rabbinic scholar and diplomat, who died tragically at the age of 50.
Avner said he also wanted to give due credit to Yitzchak Rabin for the 1975 interim agreement with Egypt, which included a major Israeli military withdrawal from the Sinai.
“I assert that [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat would not have come to Israel two years later [to launch a peace initiative] had it not been for that agreement,” Avner said. “I wanted to give historic justice to Rabin.”
A series of dramatic confrontations between leaders are the heart of the book, and one is reminded, again and again how dark and dire the circumstances were for Israel. Avner recalls the early days of the Yom Kippur War, when it appeared that Arab armies would destroy the Jewish state before a massive U.S. airlift was secured, and eight years later the world outrage after Menachem Begin ordered the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
The prime minister’s motivation, in part, for the timing of the attack was the upcoming national elections. Not that Begin was seeking votes (as he was accused of), but rather he feared he might lose to Shimon Peres, and he didn’t feel Peres had the guts to do the deed.
“I would never forgive myself for not acting when I could,” Begin told Avner. “The future of our people is at stake. All the responsibility is on our shoulders.”
Of all the statesmen and women he worked with, Begin was Avner’s favorite, a man of ideological, religious and historical principles, infuriating to some in his stubbornness, but whose every action seemed driven by the memory of the Holocaust.
It was Begin who articulated a one-sentence doctrine about protecting Israel that resonates loudly today, as the threat from Iran looms. After the Iraq bombing, the prime minister declared that “under no circumstances shall we permit an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against the people of Israel.”
As for how Begin would deal with the Palestinian negotiations today, Avner speculated that “there were certain red lines he would never cross, and [the status of] Jerusalem was one of them.
“But he was an astute politician. I can imagine him making no statement, one way or the other [about the expiration of the 10-month West Bank moratorium], but restarting construction.
“He would never say anything impinging on the right of settlement,” Avner added, noting that Begin “distinguished between Arab claims and Jewish claims and rights.”
Finally, it should be noted that Begin himself accepted a moratorium on new West Bank construction, during the 1978 negotiations with Egypt and the U.S.
When the agreed-upon three months were over, there was great pressure on Begin to extend the freeze, but he refused.
In the end, the peace agreement with Egypt was signed, but not before there was a great deal of conflict and drama lasting up until the last moment.
Avner cautions, though: “There is no such thing as [a full] peace agreement. A wise man said that ‘the enemy of good is perfection,’ and we shouldn’t delude ourselves about achieving that kind of peace.
“If we can get a step-by-step process, which has already begun economically [on the West Bank], then perhaps in the future there can be a long-term agreement.”
Spoken like a true diplomat.