This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced one of the toughest decisions of his career.
Should Israel accept a cease-fire with Hamas, with the possibility that the price of quiet in the south would be allowing the terrorist organization that rules Gaza to claim a partial victory?
Or should it send in the tens of thousands of reserve soldiers who mustered outside Gaza in preparation for a ground invasion, with the possibility of causing a measure of defeat to Hamas, but with the certainty of many more Israeli casualties?
Netanyahu spent many hours this week discussing these issues with his advisers and cabinet members.
And while it was unclear at press time on Tuesday afternoon what the final decision would be, Yehuda Avner understood as well as anybody not in the room what was happening where the decisions were being made: He had served as adviser and speech writer to prime ministers Levy Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin, and had been there when those decisions were made.
In fact, Avner, who also served as ambassador to Britain, Ireland, and Australia, was taking notes. Though it wasn’t his intention at the time, those notes became the basis for his 2010 book, “The Prime Ministers.”
Next week, Avner will be speaking at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, in an event co-sponsored by Israel Bonds. (The advertised topic was the decision-making behind Begin’s decision to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, but in an interview Tuesday he allowed that in light of the current events, the actual topic was up in the air.)
One day, Avner said, we’ll learn the details of the closed-door discussions.
“There’s always a written record of everything,” he said. “There’s always somebody who is either taking notes or taking minutes. There’s a difference between notes and minutes: Notes can be one of the participants, or a senior aide. A person who takes minutes is a secretary.”
Now, Avner said, Israel’s decision process will start with Netanyahu, who will begin by consulting his most trusted and senior aides – among them his military secretary, who is his liaison with the military and intelligence agencies.
Then came meetings between Netanyahu and his two senior cabinet members, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. These meetings went on for several hours.
Typically, Avner said, the IDF chief of staff would be in those meetings.
Once the three senior officials have agreed, the decision is taken to “the nine” – a committee of nine senior cabinet members, representing all the parties in the coalition. With 30 members, the full cabinet is “rather unwieldy,” Avner said, though its formal approval is required for some decisions.
Avner’s experience taught him something about military operations: “We know how they begin. We don’t know how they end.” The present conflict with Hamas is not considered to be a war but “an operation. It’s not a war in the fullest sense.”
But, said Avner, when Begin launched the invasion of Lebanon 30 years ago, “it was meant to be an operation. It was meant to be surgical. It was meant to push the PLO terrorists 40 kilometers back from the northern border.”
Instead, “we ended up in the heart of Beirut” and the first Lebanon war.
Four years ago, Avner said, when Israel went back into Gaza with Operation Cast Lead, “among the goals of the operation was rescuing Gilad Shalit and toppling the Hamas regime. We succeeded in doing neither,” though Israel did succeed in weakening Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s ability to continue shelling the south. It created a relative quiet that held until about six months ago.
“This time the aims of the operation are much more modest,” Avner said.
The impact of Cast Lead is heavy on Operation Pillar of Defense.
Avner said that the Goldstone Report – which accused Israel of committing war crimes during the 2008 operation – “is casting a giant shadow over many aspects of our decision-making. We’re very sensitive to the international law aspects of all that we’re doing. We have legal advisers embedded in our larger units. This is a new development.
“Now there is an international law of ‘proportionality of response.’ If he shoots with pea shooters, you can’t respond with atom bombs.
“General Patton would turn in his grave if he heard the word ‘proportionality.’ He was asked by journalists during World War II what he considered to be an appropriate proportion of forces. His answer was, ‘to hell with proportionality; I say use overwhelming force.'”
So far, Avner said, there has been no complaint of disproportionality with Israel’s actions in Gaza. “They are shooting rockets and we are shooting back, mainly with our air force, hitting targets that are plainly defined. Bull’s-eye hits. The casualties among civilians on the other side are low.
“There’s a justified fear that if we were to go in with the full might of our army, civilian casualties would enormously increase, as would an increase of our own casualties. The real hero of this operation is Iron Dome,” he said.
If these are broad parameters by which this week’s decisions are being made, when will we know what went on behind closed doors?
“I reckon you’ll have a quick book out in about six months. An authoritative review of the whole things – that takes quite some while. You’ll read it in Bibi’s memoirs, which he will write after he steps down from office,” he said.
Avner’s book was praised by reviewers for its clear and warm portrayal of Begin – giving voice to a prime minister who never wrote his own memoir about his political career. (Two books Begin wrote in the 1950s focused on the pre-state Irgun underground that he led, and on his time in Soviet prison camps.)
So why didn’t Begin ever write a memoir of his time in power – and his decades before that heading the opposition in the Knesset?
“He had every intention of writing his memoirs,” Avner said. “I heard him say more than once that he was going to write a number of volumes. He even had a title: ‘From Destruction to Redemption.’ It would tell the story of the Holocaust and the struggle for Israel’s independence.
“After he retired, he lived nine years in seclusion. People were urging him – myself included – to get down and write his books. He would always say, ‘od me’at. Presently. Soon, soon.’ He never did.
“I remember when he was prime minister, a Time Magazine correspondent asked him whether he intends to write a book, and his answer was yes. And then the correspondent asked him, ‘How would you like to be remembered in history?’
“On the spot he gave the answer: as a decent man and as a proud Jew,” Avner said.