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I had just finished reading The Prime Ministers (Toby Press) and enjoyed every one of its 700-plus pages. Yahuda Avner’s “fly on the wall” account spans the governments of Levi Eshkol (Six-Day War), Golda Meir (Yom Kippur War), Yitzhak Rabin (Entebbe, Oslo), and Menachem Begin (peace treaty with Sadat, attack on Iraqi nuclear reactor, Lebanon invasion), describing sensitive, frightening and sometimes hilarious events, mostly of the kind you will never read in a newspaper.
Avner had served in various capacities – adviser, speechwriter, ambassador, consular diplomat – to all of the above-named prime ministers and as such was present at meetings and privy to conversations between Israeli officials and their counterparts around the world.
I thought it would be instructive to speak with Avner; though aware that The Jewish Press had published a lengthy interview with him shortly after the book was published a little more than a year ago, I was curious as to how the book had been received since its publication.
He agreed to set aside some time to meet with me while on a visit to New York. The ambassador is a genteel man. His demeanor is that of an elegant European diplomat, equally comfortable at an official state function and at a humble beis medrash.
Avner disclosed that he was able to remain as the senior Foreign Service officer on “loan” to the Prime Minister’s Office through four administrations because he had become the “institutional memory” of that office. He was always apolitical, walking out whenever the discussion turned to parochial politics. He recorded every conversation using his own shorthand, and after every meeting dictated the minutes of the proceedings for posterity.
When I asked him about the reaction his book had garnered, he told me he was besieged by demands on his time for speaking engagements all over the world, to the extent that he had to hire a publicist who handles his speaking engagements and schedule.
I wondered whether there had been complaints from any of the individuals mentioned and/or quoted in the book.
“To the contrary,” he replied. “I made it a policy that before I published any incident or quoted any person, I would send a draft manuscript to the protagonist for his or her comments, but only as it related to the accuracy of a particular incident or quote.”
Thus, every story and quotation was “vetted” by those involved, and the reaction has been very favorable.
Avner has heard from readers from every part of the globe who have praised him for his candor and his remarkable ability to quote, verbatim, occurrences of a half a century ago.
I asked Avner how he could quote persons on the other side of a phone call while he was present in the room on the Israeli side. He told me a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, who happens to be a good friend, shared with him notes he had sent to the State Department based on conversations on the other side of these phone calls which had became known to him through his own channels.
We discussed the challenge of Avner’s being strictly shomer Shabbos in an environment that, at least until Menachem Begin became prime minister, was not particularly sensitive to “Shabbos” issues. Avner noted with a laugh that he found that most political and governmental crises occurred Erev Shabbos. He cited as an example the time Henry Kissinger and Yitzhak Rabin engaged in a rather stormy meeting in Jerusalem late one Friday afternoon.
Kissinger stormed out, slammed the door to the Prime Minister’s Office, and prepared to complain to the world press about Israel’s obstinacy. Rabin immediately ordered Avner to prepare and distribute a press release relating Israel’s version of the collapsed talks. On the grounds that “a press release was not a vital Israeli security matter but only hasbara” – public relations – Avner said he would not desecrate Shabbos by writing one.
Rabin was furious. Avner left the Prime Minister’s Office and made his way to the “Gra” shul, where he regularly davened, for Kabbalas Shabbos. R Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, zt”l, who presided over the shul, asked him why he seemed so downcast. When Avner told him, R Shlomo Zalman said, “Perhaps you do not know all of the facts.” Avner took this as a heter and returned to Rabin – who was still furious but respected Avner nevertheless.
Avner’s religious observance played a part in an anecdote in the book that had me laughing out loud. The setting was a state dinner at the White House hosted by President Gerald Ford in honor of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Avner, of course, eats only kosher food, so he was served a heaping plate of fresh fruit and vegetables topped with whipped cream and piled so high it “glittered and sparkled like a firework.” The concoction drew the attention of Ford, who whispered into Rabin’s ear. Rabin whispered back. Whereupon, “rising to his full height and grinning ear to ear, the president raised his glass high and called out to me… ‘Happy birthday young fella! Let’s sing a toast to the birthday boy.’ ”
Everyone stood up and began singing “Happy birthday dear Yehuda.” Avner describes himself as having been “mortified.”
When Avner asked Rabin after the dinner why he told Ford it was his birthday – it was not – Rabin answered, “What else should I have told him – the truth? If I did that, tomorrow there’d be a headline in the newspapers that you ate kosher and I didn’t, and the religious parties would bolt the coalition, and I’ll have a government crisis on my hands. Ani meshuga?” Am I crazy?”
Avner devotes more pages of his book to Menachem Begin than to the other prime ministers, and he is not at all reticent about his admiration for Begin. One of the stories Avner relates involves Begin’s attempt to reach out to Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, perceived by some as being cold toward Israel.
Begin had learned that Brzezinski’s father served as a Polish diplomat in Germany between 1931 and 1935 and had been involved in efforts to rescue Jews. Begin publicly presented Brzezinski with a dossier containing documents recently discovered in a Holocaust archive in Jerusalem that detailed the elder Brzezinski’s efforts on behalf of European Jews. Zbigniew Brzezinski was overwhelmed to learn of his father’s heroics.
Avner also related to me the following revealing story about Begin: Shortly after Begin first took office, a call came in from a yeshiva student who wondered whether the prime minister wished to have his mezuzahs checked. Avner initially “pushed him of,” but when he mentioned this to Begin as he wished him a Shabbat Shalom that Friday afternoon, Begin exclaimed “zeh chashuv meod” (“this is very important”). Avner located the yeshiva student and when the young man came to the prime minister’s residence, Begin himself recited the berachot and personally affixed every mezuzah in the house.
There is so much more in The Prime Ministers. Anyone interested in the history of Israel as told by an insider should pick up a copy immediately.
Daniel Retter, Esq., is counsel to the Manhattan law firm of Herrick, Feinstein, LLP, where he practices immigration and international business law. He is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.
About the Author: Daniel Retter, Esq., is the author of the sefer “HaMafteach” (Koren Publishers), an indexed reference guide to Talmud Bavli and the Mishnayos, in Hebrew and English. A frequent contributor of feature articles to The Jewish Press, he practices immigration, real estate, and business law in New York City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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