Israel's Prime Ministers

    August 2010            
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The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership

Book Review by Jay Levinson

The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership

by Yehudah Avner

Jerusalem: Toby Press (2010)

ISBN: 978-159264-308-0

Yehuda Avner, a retired Israel Foreign Ministry official and former native of Manchester, has written a very readable behind-the-scenes account highlighting segments of his career, during which he came into working contact with five Israeli prime ministers and countless senior players in government. The book gives glimpses into the intricate workings of bureaucracy and the people who shaped history.

The book is not an objective analysis of Israeli foreign policy, nor does it purport to be such. Rather, it provides insight into people and how they worked. Ariel Sharon had a keen military mind. Abba Eban was disliked by many and sometimes excluded from the flow of information and the decision-making process. Key documents provided by Israel “fell between the cracks” in the American less-than-amicable transition from the Carter presidency to that of Ronald Reagan. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat had a strong personal liking and trust for each other. Begin preferred to speak extemporaneously; Reagan used cue cards.

There is, of course, considerable material concerning political events. Jimmy Carter put extreme pressure on Israel to accept an international conference to “solve” the problems of the Middle East, a move strongly opposed by the Begin administration. This was a reversal of Henry Kissinger’s approach of an incremental peace stressing confidence-building measures. As pressure mounted and concerns about the Soviet role and PLO representation dominated discourse, the international conference proposed for Geneva became abruptly moot. Anwar Sadat buried the issue with his historic visit to Jerusalem and direct talks with Israel. Not that there were not theoretical concerns, which seem almost bizarre in retrospect. One senior military official contemplated the scenario of an armed attack on the entire Israeli cabinet as Sadat’s plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport. Menachem Begin dismissed the concern, stating emphatically that he trusted Sadat.

Avner makes one memorable remark concerning Begin, of whom it is eminently clear that he had the highest respect. He describes the satisfaction of this former “terrorist” wanted for murder by the British … as he was received in 10 Downing Street. Avner also recounts how Begin lectured Carter that no one ever told the United States where its capital should be. Hence, no one will tell Israel where its capital is. Begin was straight forward to Carter, “Call it Jerusalem, D.C. --- Jerusalem, David’s City.”

To the uninitiated it is almost comical how nuances of diplomatic protocol, down to the menu of a meal, determine the status of a visit. One point is very clear in the book --- Begin kept kosher. So does Avner. Appropriate meals where always provided for those requiring them, be it in London or in Washington. The kosher meals were always of an appearance as close as possible to the non-kosher food to avoid possible embarrassment of discomfort. (This reviewer knew the Orthodox rabbi who was in charge of kashering part of the White House kitchen for a Begin visit.)

There are comments about other world leaders, although they are not the main thrust of the book. Avner was the Ambassador of Israel in London following the attempted assassination of Ambassador Shlomo Argov. At one point Avner sat in conversation with Margaret Thatcher, by then the former British Prime Minister. It was extremely surprising to read Thatcher’s frank admission that she never really understood the death camp at Auschwitz and its atrocities until she was taken to Yad Vashem during an official visit to Israel.

This well-written book is highly recommended. It is an eye-opener to people who made news and shaped world events, authored by someone with undisputed first-hand knowledge. It is by no means just another history book on the shelf.


from the August 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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