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Engaging Israel

Yehuda Avner's engaging memoir of service to four prime ministers.

By From the December 2010 - January 2011 issue

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The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership
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.'"

"Why so?"

"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.

"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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About the Author

Joseph Shattan is the author of Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War.