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Manfred Gerstenfeld on The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative on Israeli Leadership, by Yehuda Avner

Filed under: Israel, Peace Process
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)

For most of his career as an Israeli Foreign Ministry staff member, Ambassador (ret.) Yehuda Avner was assigned to the Prime Minister’s Office carrying out sensitive tasks. Avner served as speechwriter and secretary to Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. Later he served as an adviser to Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Shimon Peres. Thereafter Avner represented Israel as ambassador to Great Britain and nonresident ambassador to Ireland, followed by an assignment as ambassador to Australia.

The book’s title, The Prime Ministers, illustrates the most important part of its content. It relates many events that took place in the Prime Minister’s Office and in which Avner participated or observed firsthand. The major added value of this fascinating and heterogeneous book is the author’s insights and personal appreciation of some of the key people who helped shape Israel’s history. Other sections deal with Avner’s own biography and impressions from other vantage points. The author’s observations will remain of great value for those who try to understand Israel’s political history over the past decades. Avner has provided a most valuable first-person source, which offers original information and insights. Like anybody else, the author is entitled to his recollections and opinions. His judgments of people, however, can be subjective, and the reader should take this into account.

Relationship with U.S. Administration

At a time when Israel’s relationship with the Obama administration is rocky, Avner reminds the reader of past problems in Israeli-American relations under different administrations, such as those of Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. When asked in an interview to rank the disagreements between the Netanyahu government and the current U.S. administration, Avner answered that, taken together, they rated 7 on the Richter scale of seismic activity; he had seen worse.

Avner states that he is a great admirer of Begin. This not only involves the way he handled the crucial peace agreement with Egypt but also his overall approach to policymaking in a sovereign Jewish state. Avner stresses Begin’s uniqueness, placing his contributions and decisions in the context of the history of the Jewish people.

Rehabilitating Rabin

The author also introduces arguments aimed at improving the way in which  many in contemporary Israeli society view the late Yitzhak Rabin. Rehabilitating the man is a far more difficult task. Rabin campaigned in the 1992 elections on a platform that eschewed negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Heads of government in many countries have betrayed important election promises shortly after being elected. If, however, such an act results in a major failure, such as the 1993 Oslo Agreements, history’s judgment must be harsh, even if such a person possessed many other virtues. Had Rabin not been murdered – which makes many reluctant to criticize him – his responsibility for the consequences of his actions would have been the subject of closer scrutiny.

One of Rabin’s great successes was his handling of the aftermath of the hijacking of the Air France plane to Entebbe in 1976, which led to the courageous freeing of the Israeli hostages on Ugandan soil. Avner describes then-foreign minister Shimon Peres’s initial ineffectiveness and rhetorical grandstanding (306-11). Indeed, the brief period the author served under Peres was rather an unhappy one.

Socialist Betrayal

A short review cannot do justice to a book with so many important and interesting insights. One can only give a few examples from a rich reservoir of inside knowledge. It is, for instance, the conventional wisdom that the European socialist leaders’ dislike for Israeli governments is linked to the Likud Party’s rise to power. Avner, however, disproves this by recalling how the European socialist governments let Israel down when they refused to permit the refueling of American planes bringing weapons during the Yom Kippur War. Golda Meir of the Labor Party was then Israel’s prime minister.

At the conclusion of the war, Meir asked West German chancellor Willy Brandt to call a meeting of the Socialist International. All socialist leaders, whether in government or in the opposition, attended, and Meir sharply rebuked them. When the chairman of the meeting asked whether anybody wanted the floor, nobody did. Then a voice behind Golda said: “Of course they won’t talk. They can’t talk. Their throats are choked with oil” (255).

Another example of socialist betrayal was that of the Austrian (Jewish) socialist chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who, after Arab terrorist threats, closed the Schoenau transit camp for Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union. The terrorists had captured a train, which had some Jews on it, at the Austrian border; they were given safe passage to Libya (220-21). After she returned to Israel from Austria, Meir’s remarks to the press have become part of history: “I think the best way of summing up the nature of my meeting with Chancellor Kreisky is to say that ‘he didn’t even offer me a glass of water'” (224).

From today’s perspective, the misbehavior of many European socialist politicians toward Israel sometimes crossed the border of anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Israelism. To a certain extent they were part of a reemerging, ideologically criminal current of thought in Europe. The many examples of such behavior include the late Swedish prime minister Olof Palme and the late Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou, the former Danish socialist leader Mogens Lykketoft, Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, and Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

The Value of American Commitments

Avner relates another story that yields insight into today’s situation. During a White House dinner hosted by President Jimmy Carter, Chief Justice Arthur Goldberg took Avner aside. He told him that Carter considered Begin’s “Greater Israel” policies a danger to the United States and that ultimately the powers might try to impose a settlement on Israel. Avner responded that there was a 1975 letter from President Ford assuring Rabin that America would not impose a settlement on Israel. Goldberg said that such letters were not binding commitments. This raises the question of what value any other commitment by a U.S. administration should have or, alternatively, how long it will retain its value (432-33).

On the home scene Avner is sometimes critical of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He describes how little confide