Four prime ministers and a press aide

Four prime ministers and a press aide

Yehuda Avner's memoir is rich in anecdotes of Israel's top leaders

From left, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin. Each faced nation-threatening challenges.

While Yehuda Avner waited to present his credentials to Queen Elizabeth as Israel’s new ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, he kept mentally rehearsing the protocol: Follow the chamberlain, two steps, a bow, another two steps, another bow, and then instant deference to her Britannic majesty.

It was 1983, and Avner had been named to replace Shlomo Argov, one of the country’s most respected diplomats, who had been gravely wounded during an assassination attempt and returned home in a vegetative state. This violent act and the raging Lebanon war, just the latest in a series of seemingly unending conflicts, were much on Avner’s mind as he steadied himself for the ceremony.

Elizabeth had been through the ritual dozens of times. She opened the conversation by noting that Avner was born in Britain and left for Palestine in late 1947. She then stressed the irony of his being a birthright Englishman and returning as ambassador from another nation.

Avner felt somewhat constricted in his formal diplomatic attire. Even after decades of high government service, which had placed him in the penumbra of four Israeli prime ministers, he rarely had to disport himself in a waistcoat, winged collar, and striped pants.

Yet as uncomfortable as he was sartorially, he did not hesitate to tell the queen that although he might be British by geography, he was an ardent Israeli spiritually, religiously, by patrimony, and with a sense of Yiddishkeit – although not in so many words. Elizabeth immediately switched to tune-out mode and began discussing the weather.

The scene must have been one of complete circularity for Avner. Here he was, the former teen from Manchester who had sailed optimistically to Palestine as part of the Bnei Akiva youth Zionist group on the cusp of Israeli statehood. And now he was back in Britain, in court no less, being ever-so-slyly dissed by the queen.

Did the royal disconnect stir memories of an insulting teacher who kept thrumming about ingrate Jews tormenting their British “protectors”? Was he remembering Harold Wilson ushering Levi Eshkol out of 10 Downing Street without so much as a tank? Or was he recalling Lord Carrington’s demeaning remarks to Menachem Begin during negotiations presided over by Margaret Thatcher, who let Carrington play pit bull to her pussycat?

Avner’s proximity to power during Israel’s most combustible decades forms the beguiling basis for “The Prime Ministers.” Although technically a career civil servant in the Foreign Ministry, he was “borrowed” by four leaders of various shadings and temperaments to serve as speechwriter, press aide, and faithful Boswell. His fluid prose and insider’s perch coalesce snugly in this well-wrought chronicle of a nation’s coming of age, and of the principals who helped make it happen.

In opening this intimate window, Avner avoids the impulse to dish and tell without sacrificing the essentials about Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Begin. While they came to appreciate his speechwriting and talents with the press, he, in turn, derived career nourishment, political wisdom, and the art of absorbing setbacks from each. “The Prime Ministers” actually is gilded by the familiarity factor.

Avner’s putative favorite is Begin, the outlier whose picture looms above the others on the cover. His initial brush with the Irgun leader’s notoriety came after disembarking in Haifa and catching a bus to Jerusalem. While contemplating his new life with exuberance and apprehension, the first image to greet him upon entering the city was a poster of Begin. He was a wanted man; the reward for finding him was 10,000 pounds. Dead or alive.

Avner’s subsequent adventures in the besieged metropolis throb with a Hemingway-esque feel. Training at the Machon (Institute for Overseas Youth Leaders) put him near the center of chaotic events as independence was declared and Arab armies surrounded the city. He and his classmates endured daily artillery barrages and food shortages, tempered by the youthful excitement of knowing they were part of something historic.

When his group made it out by convoy to Tel Aviv, they witnessed the shelling of the Atalena, a ship laden with arms for the Irgun. Begin stood on the deck, preaching calm and compliance with orders to abandon the vessel issued by rival David Ben-Gurion. Overseeing the withering mortar fire leveled at the Atalena was Yitzhak Rabin, a commander of the larger resistance group Hagana.

Avner became privy to a nation’s birth struggle even before arriving at Kibbutz Lavi, west of Tiberias. Once there, his assignment consisted of harvesting rocks and digging latrines. He must have done a creditable job, because in 1949 Bnei Akiva summoned him back to Britain as its general secretary. After several years and a new wife and family, Avner did a second stint at Lavi, then decamped to a Jerusalem apartment where he worked as a writer until a friend called about a government opening created by Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s charm offensive in Africa.

Avner didn’t belong to the omnipotent Mapai or Labor Party, usually a prerequisite for virtually all government appointments. A backer of the left-leaning Zionist Hapoel Mizrach, he was, nonetheless, taken in and further advanced when his benefactor was named director of the prime minister’s bureau. In moving up, Avner became the English speech writer, note-taker and letter responder for the earthy, ebullient Levi Eshkol.

The shtetl Jew from Ukraine, a kibbutz pioneer and water expert, loomed rather small in the shadow of Ben-Gurion. Early on, Eshkol admonished Avner, always referring to him as “boychik,” for trying to embellish his speeches. Later, he professed bafflement when Lyndon Johnson took him on a careening automobile tour of his Texas ranch and used down-home barnyard analogies.

“Vuss rett der goy?” “What’s the gentile talking about?” he asked incredulously.

Yet at this same meeting Eshkol passionately convinced a Vietnam-preoccupied Johnson to replenish the depleted Israeli Air Force after it triumphed in the Six Day War. Colleagues consistently underestimated his abilities. Abba Eban tendentiously lectured Eshkol on prime ministerial duties, comparing them to an orchestra conductor. Menachem Begin implored him, face-to-face, to resign on the eve of the Six Day War. Yet he endured and patiently persuaded Begin to serve in a unity government.

This utterly un-charismatic leader then proceeded to guide the nation to victory, culminating in the dramatic recapture of Jerusalem. He died in 1969, but not before establishing a vital arms link and diplomatic channel with the United States that his successors could build on. His intriguing choice for ambassador to D.C.: Yitzhak Rabin.

When Golda Meir succeeded Eshkol, their only common threads were Ukrainian birth and bedrock socialism. After growing up in Milwaukee, training as a teacher, and marrying Morris Myerson, Mrs. Meir migrated to Palestine and kibbutz life in 1921. Two children later, she separated from her husband and began a whirl of service as ambassador to the Soviet Union, the head of two different ministries, and secretary-general of the Labor Party. Her resume bulged where Eshkol’s seemed thin.

Avner served as head of the foreign press bureau during her tenure. He describes a courageous, steely-minded leader who could lecture Austrian chancellor Bruno Kriesky, also a Jew, for caving to Kremlin pressure and closing a key transit point for Soviet émigrés, or disarm the mercurial journalist Oriana Fallaci with her own self-proclaimed shortcomings as a wife and mother.

Meir’s bete noire was the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. Faulty intelligence left IDF forces reeling in Suez and the Golan Heights. She stoically absorbed the brunt of the criticism – especially withering from Begin in the Knesset. But she also held steady and refused Moshe Dayan’s offer to resign as defense minister, then rallied her diplomats to convince President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that a massive airlift of war materiel would turn the tide, and it did.

Avner movingly recounts her secret visit to the troops on the Golan Heights on Sukkot, as bombardments and tank duels raged. Exhausted but resilient, she stared across the Vale of Tears, smoking a cigarette. Then she moved to a sukkah that had been jury-rigged atop a personnel carrier. Both martial and motherly, she answered questions about the mission, greeted soldiers with chag sameach, and dispensed the kind of encouragement only she could.

Although Labor won the next election with a narrowed majority, Meir made good on a vow to resign. Yitzhak Rabin subsequently edged out Shimon Peres in a vote by party leaders to become the first sabra to occupy the nation’s highest post. A professional soldier who served as chief of staff during the Six Day War, he abruptly shifted gears in 1968, when named ambassador to Washington. Avner rates the rumpled, dour-faced, hard-bargaining Rabin as a quick study and savvy player, who brought a different vibe and skill set to the premiership.

His big challenges were negotiating the Sinai withdrawal and effecting the Entebbe rescue. The first was protracted and tedious; the second was condensed and seat-of-the-pants. In both, he displayed temper, flair, intellect, and forbearance. Sinai consisted of matching wits and stamina with Kissinger; Entebbe entailed overcoming inertia from Defense Minister Peres (who Rabin could hardly abide), followed by a hastily designed operation of pluck and luck.

Rabin helmed the nation until 1977, when a controversy over his wife Leah’s bank account in Washington precipitated his resignation. In 1992 the soldier-statesman returned as prime minister. He served with distinction until he was cut down by a Jewish extremist’s bullet 1995. Avner’s respect for him is evident and abundant. But his next boss, Menachem Begin, a diametric and dramatic opposite, would take the feeling to an even higher plateau.

Begin tested Avner on his first day in office, after the upset 1977 elections in which the Sephardim flexed their new demographic muscle by ousting Labor and ushering in Likud. The courtly, classically versed, Bible-quoting, impeccably groomed Begin, who always had been defined by oppositional counterpoint, suddenly found himself the nation’s linchpin, at the epicenter of power.

But decades in the Irgun underground and political wilderness had seasoned Begin. He told Avner to forget their different party affiliations; he wanted him to become the aide who would “Shakespearize” his grammatically pure but starchy Polish-English. And he wanted it done without Avner “misting” any of his adjectives. He then handed the startled aide a letter from President Jimmy Carter, told him to parse the nuances, explain what he thought it meant in terms of policy, and draft a reply.

Avner survived the quiz, remonstrating with Begin only about addressing the letter to “His Excellency.” The new PM, a formal European at heart despite his family loss in the Shoah and his gulag jailing by the Soviets for Zionist activities, initially resisted but relented on “Dear Mr. President” after consulting his protocol experts.

Begin’s two terms were beyond eventful: Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the Camp David accords facilitated by Carter, the Nobel Peace Prize shared with Sadat, who, as Avner relates, became a fast friend, the rescue of black Jews from Ethiopia, the Israeli air force’s destruction of Iraq’s reactor, the invasion of Lebanon and the resulting massacre at Sabra and Shatila.

For an observant Jew like Avner, Begin seems to have touched a receptor that the deeply ideological Laborites Eshkol, Meir, and Rabin could not. Begin was defined by the Holocaust and his desire to see the Jews of Israel proudly survive and flourish from a position of strength. Yet, collectively, so were the other three prime ministers. With Begin, perhaps, it was more dogmatic, more mystical, more a commandment to Israeli exceptionalism.

Little did the “boychik” from Manchester realize when embarking on his journey just how rich it would be, or how rewarding for us that he chose to share it.

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