Yehuda Avner’s engaging memoir of service to four prime ministers.
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“Believe me,” she told the assembled socialist leaders, “I am the last person to belittle the fact that we are only one tiny Jewish state and that there are over 20 Arab states with vast territories, endless oil, and billions of dollars. Of course you have your interests. But what I want to know from you today is whether these things are decisive factors in socialist thinking too?”
When the Israeli prime minister sat down, the chairman asked whether anyone would like the floor. None of Golda’s abashed “comrades” cared to speak up, but from behind her, someone said, “Of course they won’t talk. They can’t talk. Their throats are choked with oil.”
TODAY, OF COURSE, it is the nuclear weapon, rather than the oil weapon, that poses the gravest threat to Israel’s existence, and people all over the world are wondering whether Israel would go to war to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. For any reader of Avner’s book, the answer is obvious. As Begin put it in 1981, after Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, “Let the world know that under no circumstances will Israel ever allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people. If ever such a threat reoccurs we shall take whatever preemptive measures are necessary to defend the citizens of Israel with all the means at our disposal.” One might call this the “Begin Doctrine,” and it is the lodestone of Israel’s policy today, just as it was 30 years ago.
When Begin ordered the bombing of Osirak, however, even Israel’s good friend, President Ronald Reagan, was taken aback. Reagan felt that Begin was seriously remiss in not alerting the United States in advance about Israel’s concerns, and he ordered his ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to join the other members of the Security Council in condemning the Israeli raid. (As it happens, I was a member of Kirkpatrick’s staff at the time, and saw firsthand how, after desperately trying to water down the anti-Israeli resolution, Kirkpatrick reluctantly but dutifully voted for it. I even happened to be present when a surprised Kirkpatrick received a phone call from the UN’s then secretary-general, Kurt Waldheim, congratulating her on her vote. Back then, of course, none of us knew of Waldheim’s Nazi past.) It turned out, however, that Begin actually had expressed Israel’s concerns to Washington but — incredibly — the outgoing Carter administration had failed to pass them on to the incoming Reagan administration. As the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, later told Avner:
“I contacted Washington informally to make sure that a full paper on this subject was prepared by the transition team. The paper was prepared, I was later told, but with such a high classification and such extreme restrictions on its distribution that neither Secretary of State-designate Alexander Haig nor any of the key White House officials ever saw it. That real bureaucratic ‘glitch’ during the change of administration meant that President Reagan apparently had never been properly briefed on the history, and was both astounded and ‘blind-sided’ by the Israeli action.”
Eventually, however, the crisis between Washington and Jerusalem was overcome, and on the 10th anniversary of the Osirak bombing, the then U.S. defense secretary, Richard Cheney, presented a satellite photograph of the destroyed Iraqi reactor to Major General David Ivri, who had commanded the Israeli Air Force during the raid. Cheney’s inscription read: “With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job on the Iraqi nuclear program, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.”
These are only a few of the many revealing stories contained in The Prime Ministers. The overall impression one gets from Yehuda Avner’s book is that while American-Israeli relations have had their ups and downs, the alliance between the two nations remains unshakable. That is a bit of history worth bearing in mind, as the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government head toward yet another clash — over the president’s poorly conceived peace initiative, the future of the Israeli settlements, and the looming confrontation with Iran.
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