Political intrigue. Backroom discussions. Revealing portraits. These and more fill the pages of a new memoir by Ambassador Yehuda Avner, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership (Toby Press). Hailed as the “ultimate insider’s account,” this 731-page book reveals hitherto unknown stories based on recollections and notes Avner took while working for four different Israeli prime ministers.
Avner served as an adviser and English speechwriter to Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin, and later as Israel’s ambassador to Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia.
This month he heads to the United States for a book tour.
The Jewish Press: You write in the book that Menachem Begin was “the most exceptional” of the various prime ministers you worked for. How so?
Avner: I’m an observant Jew. Eshkol, Meir, and Rabin were total secularists. So it was tremendously refreshing after 20 years of working with these others to suddenly find myself in the proximity of a man – Begin – who was a quintessential Jew. I don’t say he was totally observant at home, but certainlyb’farhesia, outside, he was very strict, and he understood me and I understood him – it was intuitive.
The first Friday after Begin entered office, I received a phone call from a bachur at the Chevron Yeshiva – his name was Herzog, although I don’t think he was any relation to the famous Herzog family – who said he wanted to come to the prime minister’s residence to check the mezuzot. I, having been almost conditioned by working with the other agnostic prime ministers, was taken by surprise and said I didn’t know whether the prime minister would want someone to check his mezuzot. So I said, “Leave me your telephone number.” Then I went in to say “Shabbat shalom” to Begin and told him [about Herzog's offer]. He said, “Oh, zeh chashuv, it’s important, let him come and check.”
So Herzog came, took off the mezuzah, checked it, and found that it was passul. Begin then took the klaf that Herzog had brought with him and affixed the mezuzah himself, making the berachah, b’shem malchut, by heart. I was looking around for cameras, because politicians do things to make an impression on the public, but [there were none].
Wasn’t Begin the first prime minister who asked for kosher food when traveling?
He was the first to insist that all public dinners abroad be kosher l’mehadrin. At Begin’s first meeting at the White House, Jimmy Carter himself made an announcement and said, “This is a truly historic occasion. For the first time in the history of the White House, a dinner is being served that is totally kosher under the supervision of rabbis.”
What would Begin say concerning Israel’s political situation were he alive today?
He would never say, “two-state solution.” He would say “hamoledet, the homeland, the sacred homeland” – that its territory must be untouched and there can be no compromises. So he would sharply differ with Bibi Netanyahu’s present approach.
But many people blame Begin for being the first to accept the notion of “land for peace,” by signing the Camp David accords in 1978.
I think that is a gross misreading of the truth. The peace treaty with Egypt in Begin’s view was of momentous strategic importance because Egypt is the largest and most powerful and influential of all the Arab countries. There never was a war against us – and I’m quoting Begin now – which Egypt did not launch and there never was a war that ended without Egypt being the first to pull out. In other words, the key to war and peace of all the Arab states against Israel was always Egypt. And he was determined to break that cycle, and the fact is that he did make peace with Egypt and that cycle has been broken.
But “land for peace” is now applied to the West Bank as well.
Begin was an ardent follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his philosophy, and Jabotinsky had too much respect for the Arabs to believe that they would ever accommodate themselves to living in peace with Zionism and a Jewish state. So it was he who conceived the idea of giving autonomy to the Palestinian Arabs.
What to do, though, when those Arabs abuse their autonomy and attempt to eradicate the people who gave it to them?
I cannot answer that question. I’m not indulging it because I don’t know.
Today, “transfer” is a dirty word, but in the first half of the 20th century, transferring Arabs out of Palestine was favored by such personalities as Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Did Begin or any of the other prime ministers you worked for ever consider transferring the Arabs out of the West Bank?
You spend five pages in The Prime Ministers talking about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Why?
Because the Lubavitcher Rebbe was very important to Begin. They were very good friends. Begin was no Lubavitcher – he came from Brisk – but over the years they had established a very close friendship. He had tremendous admiration for the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
I understand that relations between the two cooled after Camp David. Is that true?
There are relations which are eternal and there are opinions which can differ. The Lubavitcher Rebbe considered Camp David a mistake. I sat with him for over five hours going over the material at Begin’s request, document by document. He thought it was a strategic mistake to return the whole Sinai and dismantle the settlements. He was categorical on this, but Begin had a different view and I communicated Begin’s view.
Begin, incidentally, also had a very close relationship with Reb Moshe Feinstein that went back over many years.
Begin resigned as prime minister in 1983 and went into virtual seclusion until his death in 1992. Do you have any insight as to why?
I don’t pretend to have a full answer to that question. I don’t think anybody has a full answer. The closest I can get to it is that he’d lost his life’s partner, his wife, who had been with him through thick and thin. Then there were the casualties of the first Lebanon War which pained him deeply. Then there was the fact that he’d had two heart attacks, a minor stroke, and had broken his hip. He also had differences of opinions with Ronald Reagan when he was president. I think he just got to the end of his strength. His words to the cabinet when he resigned were, “Eini yachol yoteir, I just can’t go on.”
You have an interesting story in the book about eating kosher food at the White House while working for Yitzhak Rabin.
Yes. President Ford made a dinner for Rabin in the White House with about 200 of the Who’s Who of Washington. Because I was in the White House so often, I had gotten to know the White House housekeeper very well. Her name was Mary Lou. She knew about my kosher needs and always made sure I had a vegetarian dish.
On this particular occasion, everybody was eating roast pheasant with roast potatoes and decorative garnished beans while my place setting was empty. They had misspelled my name – instead of “Yehuda Avner,” my place card read “Yeduha Avner” – and I thought that might be the reason I had not yet received my dish. Now, on my right was Barbara Walters and on my left was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Brown. At one point, General Brown leaned over to mark my name and said to me, “Yeduha, you’re not eating with us tonight?”
Whereupon a butler stepped forward and placed before me an extravaganza of color that consisted of a base of lettuce, on top of that a mound of diced fruit, on top of that a blob of cottage cheese, and on top of that a swish of whipped cream, so that the whole thingamajig stood about a foot high. Compared to everybody else’s deep ground roasted pheasant it sparkled like a firework, and Barbara Walters began to applaud. This caught the attention of the president, and he half rose to see what was happening. He then whispered something into Rabin’s ear and Rabin whispered something back into his ear, and then the president stood up and called out to me, “Happy birthday, young fella!” That got the whole hall standing on its feet singing, “Happy birthday, dear Yeduha.”
In the ballroom after dinner I asked Rabin, “Why on earth did you tell the president it was my birthday?” and in all seriousness he shot back and said, “What? I should have told him the truth and tomorrow will be a headline in the Israeli newspapers that you ate kosher and I didn’t and the religious parties will bolt the coalition and I’ll have a government crisis on my hands? Ani meshuga?” Those were his very words.
[Immediately after, Rabin faced a personal crisis as] President Ford swept Leah Rabin onto the brightly lit ballroom floor and waltzed her around to general applause, while First Lady Betty Ford flashed a smile at Rabin, awaiting his invitation to follow suit. With nowhere to run he grimly made his way toward Mrs. Ford and croaked, “Please forgive me, I can’t [dance].”
“Can’t dance?” The woman seemed astounded, as if she had never heard of such a thing. “Not a step,” blushed the prime minister. “I’ll be treading on your toes all the while. I’ve tried it before. I’m no good at it.”
“Have no fear, Mr. Prime Minister,” chortled a buoyant Mrs. Ford, taking him by the hand and leading him onto the ballroom floor. “When I was younger I used to teach dance, and I protected my toes from men far less skillful than you. Now this is how you do it .” and she rotated the crimson-faced premier around and around, he staring fixedly at the first lady’s toes until [Henry] Kissinger tapped him on the shoulder, and said in deadly seriousness, “Yitzhak, give up while you’re ahead. Mrs. Ford, may I have this dance?”
“By all means,” she said, letting go of Rabin, who tottered toward his chuckling staffers, muttering, “If Henry Kissinger does nothing else for Israel but save me from that embarrassment I shall be forever in his debt.”