The Prime Ministers, Yehuda Avner’s riveting chronicle of the country’s diplomacy through the eyes of an aide and adviser to successive leaders, has now become an international bestseller.
Based on the copious notes and records Avner retained from the countless meetings he attended, observing firsthand the momentous events of that period, the book provides an unprecedented and fascinating insight into the thinking of the inner circles of the leaders of the day as they grappled with the burning issues confronting them. It enables a reader to become a fly on the wall, witnessing the most stirring discussions and negotiations related to the crucial decisions made during tumultuous times. The authenticity of the conversations and the prevailing atmosphere conveyed were endorsed by leading Israeli and foreign diplomats who had been participants.
Although it is a massive tome comprising more than 700 pages, Avner’s eloquent style and wry wit to which Jerusalem Post readers have become acquainted through his columns, makes it eminently readable for laymen no less than scholars, who I predict will all read it from cover to cover.
It is not my intention to review the content as this has already been more than adequately covered in a memorable Jerusalem Post review combined with an interview by David Horovitz nine months ago. It also received global accolades from reviewers from all sides of the political spectrum, who describe it as one of the best nonfiction works of the year.
However I will take the opportunity of expressing some personal remarks about the author, who I feel honored to consider one of my close friends, together with observations concerning the lessons to be learned from this fascinating work of living history.
MY FIRST encounter with Avner occurred about half a century ago, when I corresponded with him from Melbourne, Australia, to seek his advice as one of the trailblazers of religious Zionism in the UK from which he had made aliya. During my subsequent frequent visits to Israel, our relationship grew, climaxing when he served as ambassador to Australia. I was then head of the Jewish community and have fond reminiscences of how he and his wife Mimi would often fly from Canberra, the rustic capital, and spend Shabbat at our home in the more cosmopolitan city and thriving Jewish community of Melbourne.
Prior to serving in Australia, following the attempted assassination of ambassador Shlomo Argov, prime minister Menachem Begin appointed Avner to the Court of St. James. In England, he earned the respect and admiration of his community of origin. Many Australian Jews also refer nostalgically and with pride to Avner’s distinguished representation. His record as a diplomat and statesman epitomizes the outstanding quality of Israeli diplomats of that era, the majority of whom were regarded among the most talented envoys in the world. Alas, there is a dearth of diplomats of such caliber in today’s Foreign Ministry.
What distinguished Avner from many of our current government officials was his absolute determination not to engage in partisan politics. He soon established a reputation as a role model for the consummate civil servant. Reading through his memoirs, one admires his modesty and resolve not to permit his ego or personal interests to override his civic responsibilities.
This paved the way for the unprecedented invitations he received from four successive prime ministers to retain his position. Traditionally as soon as a new government is elected, the first people to officially pack their bags are personal advisers.
Yet as soon as they assumed the reins of government, disparate leaders with opposing political outlooks like Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin invited Avner to retain his advisory role despite his association with their defeated political foes, and were willing to share their most intimate thoughts with him.
Indeed, shortly before his assassination, Rabin fondly recalled his admiration for Avner throughout their long association and told me that he had invited him to resume a role as one of his advisers. Alas, this was not to be.
Reading his depiction of the behavior of the country’s leaders at that time, one is impressed with the fact that it was not only Avner the civil servant who prioritized the welfare of the Jewish state above all other issues. Most leaders in those days were motivated by selflessness and a passionate dedication to the welfare of the nation.
Irrespective of whether history would ultimately prove their policies to have been flawed or justified, the principal political leaders were always motivated by the purest intentions. This applied in particular to the two prime ministers Avner most admires – Begin and Rabin.
Alas, in stark contrast, many of their successors became so deeply engrossed in their personal agendas, seeking shortterm political advantage and becoming unduly mesmerized by public opinion polls, that they were not always solely motivated by the national interest.
I also feel impelled to say that when one reads this book and compares the events of that era with the challenges currently confronting us, one feels an element of both déjà vu and reassurance about our contemporary situation. Avner demonstrates that during those times we were confronted with far greater challenges than today and certainly did not have the power to defend ourselves that we possess today.
Our ability to successfully overcome our adversaries when we were much weaker should strengthen our confidence that we will overcome the current threats confronting us.
ADMITTEDLY, THE Obama administration probably represents the most problematic and least friendly US government we have ever encountered. Yet Avner’s memoirs remind us that we should not understate the incredibly ugly confrontations that both Begin and Rabin had with more friendly American presidents and statesmen including Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, not to mention Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush.
It would also be a salutary exercise for members of Obama’s administration and State Department officials engaged in the Middle East peace process to read this book.
It may open their eyes to the fact that they are simply recycling the same flawed policies of former administrations which led to disastrous outcomes.
I would urge those who have not read Avner’s book to do so.
In addition to being an engrossing and gripping read, it provides unique insights to those of us who lived through that era.
For the younger generation, particularly those subjected to the constant demonization and delegitimization of Israel, it will raise their morale and provide a greater understanding of the challenges facing it and the Jewish people.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post