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Prime Ministers, Personalities, And Other Secrets Of Diplomatic History

Yonoson Rosenblum

Yehuda Avner — who, in one of his last acts working in an official capacity for Israel, attempted to make all the kitchens in Israel’s embassies kosher — advised every Israeli prime minister from Levi Eshkol in 1967 to Begin in 1982, and stood by their side at the nation’s most perilous moments. Yehuda Avner gives an insider’s look at a diplomatic career that spanned most of Israel’s statehood. Despite all of the dangers he has faced along the way, his experiences have only strengthened his emunah.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

I met Ambassador Yehuda Avner for the first time in early June, at a conference on Israel’s minimum security needs sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He handed me his card and invited me to drop by for a chat some time.

I was thrilled, as I had been reading his fascinating pieces on great moments in Israeli diplomatic history in the Jerusalem Post for years, and had even sent him a fan letter at one point. I was eagerly awaiting my mother’s copy of his new book, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Portrait of Israeli Leadership, in which many of the earlier pieces are incorporated.

I told Ambassador Avner at our first encounter that I wanted to push off our meeting until I had finished the book, which, despite its length, took far less time than I anticipated. The Prime Ministers is gripping, and provides Avner’s first-person view of most major developments in Israel’s diplomatic history from 1967 through 1982. He takes us to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s side during the tense weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, during which 10,000 graves were dug in Tel Aviv in anticipation of war dead. And later, we are with Eshkol at President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Texas ranch, when he practically begs Johnson to rearm Israel, in the face of the Soviet Union’s massive build-up of the defeated Arab armies.

As head of the government press office and Golda Meir’s in-house speechwriter, Avner gives us an intimate look at the Yom Kippur War, when Israel’s existence hung by a thread in the early days of the battle; and at the difficult negotiations to end the war, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger forced Israel to release Egypt’s encircled Third Army, thereby denying Israel the fruits of victory.

Serving under Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Avner was at the center of the tense negotiations over an interim Sinai withdrawal agreement, prior to Israel signing the Camp David treaty with Egypt. And he was present as Rabin made the harrowing decision to release large numbers of terrorists in return for Israeli hostages hijacked to Entebbe, if a military rescue option could not be found.

In our first conversation, he showed me the communiqué from Prime Minister Begin to President Jimmy Carter, which Begin dictated to Avner, as they stood on the tarmac bidding farewell to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, after Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem. Avner accompanied Begin to Camp David for the negotiations with Carter and Sadat that resulted in the Camp David accords. Later in Begin’s premiership, the bombing of the Iraq’s nuclear reactor and the second Lebanon War placed Israel and the Reagan administration on a collision course.

In addition to memorable portraits of the four prime ministers under whom Ambassador Avner served, readers are treated to sharply observed descriptions of the main protagonists on the other side of the bargaining table: US presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan; and Kissinger and Sadat. The Prime Ministers is that rare book that actually lives up to the accolades on the back cover.

Little did I dream that the chat Ambassador Avner first proposed would develop into a six-hour conversation over two meetings at Jerusalem’s Wolfson Towers. He turned out to be every bit as good a storyteller in person as in print. Freed from the observer’s role he established for himself in the book, he was able to give greater latitude to his occasionally acerbic wit; to reflect on the meaning of the events and personalities to which he was witness; and to discuss the rest of an illustrious career, not yet complete.

 

Having interviewed hundreds of people over the years on book projects, I’ve noticed that most people tend to thrust themselves to the center of the events being discussed. You managed to maintain the perspective of the proverbial “fly on the wall.” How?

“Well, the government censor made it easier by cutting out entirely the chapters where I figured most prominently. In any event, I never intended to write an autobiography, but rather what the subtitle says: ‘an intimate portrait of Israeli leadership.’ Like most writers, I want to be read, and I’m acutely aware that my readers are far more interested in the major protagonists of the book — the prime ministers — than in Yehuda Avner, of whom they have never heard.”

 

Still, wasn’t it hard never to refer to your own role in the events being described?

“Not really. I spent most of my years in public service in the prime minister’s bureau, where self-effacement is a major part of the job. The prime minister must feel totally comfortable with the people around him and know that they have no personal agendas.”

 

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