The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership
by Yehuda Avner
Published by Toby Press, pp. price £19.99
This is a work of recollections, reminiscences and vignettes. Yehuda Avner’s life spans the lifetime of the state of Israel – and in one sense, he tells the traditional story from his earliest days in Manchester until his retirement in the 1990s. He was in Israel during the war of independence and rightly recalls the story of Esther Cailingold, a now forgotten heroine from the UK who was killed with her comrades in the struggle for the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. She was twenty two. This is a matter of personal poignancy for the author since he knew Cailingold and later married her sister. Avner himself was an adherent of the religious Zionist movement, spent time on its flagship, Kibbutz Lavi and returned to run Bnei Akiva in the UK for several years during the 1950s.
Joining the Foreign Ministry, he found his skills as an English language practitioner, valued by a succession of Israeli Prime Ministers. He served Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin as a wordsmith and Diaspora Affairs advisor. It is, however, the figure of Menachem Begin who looms large and pervades this account. Avner who was close to Rabin in his first tenure as premier was asked to continue by Begin to ‘shakespearise’ his Polish English. It is this ability to write well and to understand the meaning behind words that has allowed Avner to produce a well-crafted popular portrait of these leaders of the Hebrew republic.
Each of the stereotypical images of the Prime Ministers is polished and embellished. A passionate Golda Meir preaching the virtues of socialist Zionism, Eshkol’s yiddishist bonhomie, Rabin’s honesty and painful shyness. Henry Kissinger emerges as a man weighed down by his expulsion from paradise by the Nazis. Someone who repressed his former German self, Heinz to blossom as the all American secretary of state, Henry. As a former schoolmate commented, ‘an insecure and paranoid Jew’.
Yet this is a strangely apolitical book. It is directly aimed at a Diaspora audience and Israel is presented in an uncomplicated national version rather than in a sometimes seedy, but difficult ideological one. Perhaps this is the prerogative of a diplomat. Policies are reflected upon rather than dissected and analysed. Ezer Weizmann resigns due to ‘policy differences’ rather than Begin’s inability to confront the reality of Palestinian nationalism. In an age of cynicism and biting comment, Avner ascribes an unblemished nobility to Israel’s political leaders. The Lubavitcher Rebbe appears as a saintly figure whose great and insightful wisdom leaves Avner quaking as he departs from a meeting with the sage. Yet between the lines there are others – Peres, Eban, Sharon – who have walk-on parts whom Avner thinks less kindly of.
Avner started off as an adherent of Hapoel Hamizrachi, the religious pioneering movement which supported partition in 1947 and he clearly opposed the settlement drive on the West Bank after 1967. Yet under Menachem Begin’s influence, there must have been considerable internal conflict to marry his actual political beliefs with his profound and genuine loyalty to the Likud Prime Minister. Begin appointed him Ambassador to the Court of St. James just a few months before he resigned in 1983. How then did he explain away Begin’s belief in a greater Israel to Mrs Thatcher?
Avner warmed to Begin as ‘the quintessential Jew’, a family man versed in tradition who kept open house on Shabbat, a survivor of the Shoah who was knowledgeable about Jewish history, a Polish Jew who related to the Diaspora. All this appears to submerge Begin’s incisive ability to be divisive, to split the Jewish people – for this is hardly mentioned. This manifests itself in Avner’s rendition of the ill-fated Lebanon war in 1982 when there were escalating protests.
Soldiers demonstrated in their uniforms. Uninformed cabinet members were angry and in turmoil. Colonel Eli Geva refused to fire on West Beirut and asked to be relieved of the command of his brigade. The Energy Minister, Yitzhak Berman tendered his resignation. The head of the IDF College, Amram Mitzna, did likewise. Following the killing of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla by Christian Phalangists while unaware Israeli troops were outside, 400,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv – the equivalent of five or six million in a Hyde Park demonstration. In this country, Jewish organisations maintained a blanket loyalty despite rising protest from newly formed groups such as the British Friends of Peace Now. Sabra and Shatilla was the final straw for even the Jewish leadership and their patience had run out. They too now called for an inquiry.
Little of this is actually documented by Avner who simply repeats Begin’s reposte to Arab distortions of the events in Sabra and Shatilla. There was no sense that Begin actually understood that this was a moral stain, more than ‘goyim killing goyim’, yet Avner does infer that he personally had to cope with a wave of condemnation from Israel’s friends in the Diaspora. The setting up of the Kahan Commission to investigate these events is depicted as more or less pandering to ‘the demonstrators’ clamour’ and a ploy of the opposition Labour party rather than a profound public opposition to the war both in Israel and within the Anglo-Jewish community which deeply resented the misinformation and the duplicity of that tragic episode.
Avner’s book colours in the figures who bestrode the Israeli stage and he certainly brings out both their human qualities and their sense of purpose, given the Jewish past. They understood how 1948 represented a break with Jewish history and how they were now guardians of an uncertain future. It is an ongoing voyage of discovery and therefore all histories should include the bad with the good, the machiavellian with the saintly, if this ship is be guided through hostile waters.
Jewish Renaissance October 2010