Yehuda Avner’s engaging memoir of service to four prime ministers.
The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli
By Yehuda Avner
(The Toby Press, 730 pages, $29.95)
Yehuda Avner is a retired Israeli civil servant who served as an adviser and speechwriter to four prime ministers — Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin — before becoming Israel’s ambassador to Great Britain. Now in his eighties, Avner has produced a splendidly written memoir that succeeds in bringing these Israeli leaders to life. Although not the most scholarly or comprehensive book ever written about Israel, The Prime Ministers is by far the most engaging political history I have ever come across.
Consider Avner’s account of an exchange between Menachem Begin and President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, over the wording of a draft U.S.-Israeli statement to be issued after the conclusion of talks in Washington:
“Totally acceptable except for two sentences,” [Begin declared.]
“And what are they?”
“Please delete ‘The United States affirms Israel’s inherent right to exist.’”
“Because the United States’ affirmation of Israel’s right to exist is not a favor, nor is it a negotiable concession. I shall not negotiate my existence with anybody, and I need nobody’s affirmation of it.”
Brzezinski’s expression was one of surprise. “But to the best of my knowledge every Israeli prime minister has asked for such a pledge.”
“I sincerely appreciate the president’s sentiment,” said Begin, “but our Hebrew Bible made that pledge and established our right over our land millennia ago. Never, throughout the centuries, did we ever abandon or forfeit that right. Therefore, it would be incompatible with my responsibilities as prime minister of Israel were I not to ask you to erase this sentence.” And then, without pause, “Please delete, too, the language regarding the commitment to Israel’s survival.”
“And in what sense do you find that objectionable?”
“In the sense that we, the Jewish people alone, are responsible for our country’s survival, no one else.”
Wordlessly, and seemingly perplexed, the national security adviser deleted the offending sentences, upon which the prime minister expressed himself totally satisfied.
This whole exchange is vintage Begin. A survivor of the Soviet gulag and a former leader in Israel’s pre-state underground, Begin was obsessed with Jewish honor, both personal (“A Jew bows to no one but God,” was one of his favorite maxims) and national. His unyielding insistence upon Israel’s historic rights to biblical Judea and Samaria (a.k.a. the “West Bank”), drove his American interlocutors crazy, but they recognized that once Begin gave his word, he would never go back on it. To do so would be dishonorable.
Golda Meir, though equally devoted to Israel’s security, was a different personality altogether. Her passion was not for Jewish honor, but for social justice — and just as Zionism would bring justice to the Jews, so in her view would socialism bring justice to the world. But Golda’s belief in socialism was shaken to the core during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when her fellow social democrats in Western Europe turned their backs on Israel as it struggled to hold back a massive Soviet-Arab onslaught, and only Richard Nixon — an American president known neither for his philosemitism nor for his commitment to social justice — came to Israel’s rescue. With American weaponry, Israel (at a terribly high cost) eventually won the Yom Kippur War, but an embittered Golda Meir subsequently gave vent to her anger at a meeting of the Socialist International.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?