Governing Israel: Ultimate insider's account

As speechwriter to several prime ministers, Yehuda Avner was present at many of the most fateful moments in the leadership of the state.

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yehuda avner begin 311
(photo credit: .)
As speechwriter and more to a succession of Israel’s prime ministers, Yehuda Avner was for decades present at many of the most fateful and intimate moments in the leadership of the state. And he took notes, boxes and boxes of them, which he never threw away, and which he has now compiled into an extraordinary book. We spoke on the eve of its publication.
I  have known Yehuda Avner since he was Israel’s ambassador in London and I was a young correspondent for The Jerusalem Post there in the late 1980s. He was the consummate diplomat, experienced and avuncular, and I liked him from the first.
In the 20-plus years since, I’ve grown only to respect him more – and not just because he writes some of this country’s most graceful, stylish English. His beloved Menachem Begin was not verging far into hyperbole when referring to Avner as “my Shakespeare.”
Now a healthy 81, Avner, the boy from Manchester who arrived here a year before independence, is, in the very best of senses, a figure from a different age – committed, professional and expert, but also deferential and self-effacing in the service of others.
Those others, in an Israeli life and career that span the entire history of the modern state, were predominantly our prime ministers – and especially Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin.
Now, Avner has written what he makes plain in an opening Author’s Note is “not a conventional biography or memoir,” but rather a resurrection of episodes drawn from his decades working alongside Israel’s leaders as adviser, consultant and, most especially, English speechwriter. These episodes, brought gloriously back to life via the notes Avner took of every significant meeting and never threw away, “illustrate their responses in times of stress, recreate some unforgettable intimate moments, and reenact their intertwining relationships and their dealings with presidents, prime ministers and other dignitaries – all ratified, so to speak, by the viewpoint of the proverbial fly on the wall.”
The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership opens with the briefest pen-portraits of the principal characters – a few typically well-chosen words to whet our appetites for the feast of color that follows: Eshkol, the “seemingly lackluster prime minister… who displayed piercing diplomatic shrewdness in his efforts to avert the Six Day War, yet readied the IDF for the fight of its life to win it.” Meir, a prime minister “totally ignorant of things military” who nonetheless “emerged as one of Israel’s greatest war leaders.” Rabin, “a conceptualizer with a highly structured and analytical mind.” And the book’s towering presence, Begin, “Israel’s most extraordinary prime minister, infused with an overwhelming sense of Jewish history, a man of acute integrity, vision and compassion…”
Regular Post readers will be familiar with Avner’s storytelling skills. Often, over the years, he has bequeathed us installments of his elegant prose, first-hand reports from his personal archive set in the Prime Minister’s Office, the White House, Downing Street and other vaunted venues, the discourse of the high and mighty recounted with insight, modesty, delight, Zionist fervor and wry humor.
His book (which he will formally launch with a lecture at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue on Saturday night) brings all those self-contained vignettes and others together into a mature narrative, which adds up to one of the most remarkable accounts we are ever likely to get of how Israel has been governed over the decades. The wisdom, the knowledge, the passion, the tactical and strategic nous of our leaders, or lack thereof, in advancing our interests, in fighting for our survival – all of it is here, laid out in incontrovertible black and white. The intellectual arguments made and those that were not marshalled; the decisions taken and those that were ducked… In its very particular perspective, across 700 compelling pages and more than half a century, it is the ultimate insider’s account.
True to his conception of public service and responsibility, Avner still allows precious few of his own judgments to pepper even this, his own life-defining text. Obviously, he would say; frustratingly, I would counter.
I did try, during a lengthy interview the other day, to prise a little more of the personal out of this very model of a public servant. But Avner, true to form, would say no more than he wanted to say.
Instead, he gently reminisced about a bygone era, a sadly bygone era, of prime ministers with thoughts for little else but the good of this country, and of devoted staffers with the same absolute commitment to the national good. About a bygone era when Yehuda Avner’s task was to find the words to express our prime ministers’ thinking, and when the elevated quality of that thinking merited the very best efforts of a unique servant of the state.
Yehuda, reading your book, I think people will immediately register the sense of wonder you felt in working for these prime ministers – how fulfilling this was for you. Am I right?
It was almost axiomatic. Maybe it had something to do with my English background. I was all of 18 when I came, but my schooling was in England, with its notion of the permanent civil servant.
I did discover in retrospect that while you’re doing the job, whatever the subject matter, there’s no sense of privilege. There’s only a sense of responsibility and pressure. You find yourself dealing with issues of life and death at times; you know the prime minister is waiting for you to finish writing because they’re about to go into a cabinet meeting. And your mind is totally focused on what you’re doing.
Are there cases, crucial points, where you felt, “I really made a difference”?
There are such cases. Very, very few, but I can’t talk about them.
None of the incidents you wrote about in the book? “If I hadn’t been there, I’m not sure this or that would have turned out quite so well”?
In very many ways in this book I try to be the proverbial fly on the wall. But I never had any illusions of being involved in the decision-making process. I was very much a backroom boy, always.
But there were occasions of private discussions, sometimes intimate discussions, both with Rabin and with Begin, invariably nocturnal discussions... The prime minister with his feet up on the desk, or when a prime minister will stroll into your room with a thought he wants to test, to see the reactions. Then you’ll know that what you’re saying is feeding into a mental, intellectual process in the man’s mind which will form a decision eventually.
But you’ll never get any feedback. Nobody will ever say to you, “Thank you for that piece of advice. It helped me to reach decision A, B or C.”
It’s more subtle. When a prime minister makes a decision, there are multiple layers to that decision. There is the issue itself, and the conditions surrounding it – decisions that touch upon the welfare of individuals – very often matters of life and death. Then there are the almost inevitable coalition considerations that have to be taken into account. Always, there’s an enormous amount of lobbying going on behind closed doors, within the bureau of the prime minister.
You know, the Prime Minister’s Office is invariably an odd-job shop for all kinds of smaller offices that don’t quite fit in elsewhere. But then you’ve got the Prime Minister’s Bureau itself. You’ve been inside there. You walk through double doors that take you into a carpeted area and there you smell the inner sanctum. And within that inner sanctum, there is the holy of holies which is the prime minister’s room. There’s always somebody, a head of the bureau, who keeps an eye on the door of that room. And he will decide who will go in and who won’t.
You’ll know that you are in the inner circle of the inner sanctum when you have entree into that room. The wisest piece of advice I ever got from anyone was from a fellow called Adi Yaffe. He was my first boss at the Foreign Ministry in the late 1950s, and when Eshkol became prime minister he was appointed head of his bureau and almost automatically, because of my language skills, I got the phone call from Adi: “Yehuda, come. You’re going to start working with Eshkol.” And the best piece of advice I ever got was from him at my very first meeting, when he said, “Yehuda, if you want to be successful here, don’t go into that room with a problem, only with a solution.”
You worked with five prime ministers...
With Eshkol, I was very junior. I did his English correspondence and English speeches. And then I was sent to the United States and worked with Rabin when he was our ambassador there, beginning in 1968. I came back in 1972 and became head of the Foreign Press Bureau under Golda, and again handled her English correspondence and her speeches. She didn’t need me to write many speeches because her English [was fine], but there were certain formal occasions when one had to read a speech. It was my job to write it.
Then, when Rabin was appointed prime minister, I got the call: Come. I became his wordsmith. I became his adviser on Diaspora affairs. I became his drafter of documents, of everything. He brought me into the intimacies of the various negotiations.
Nobody asked me, but I became the note-taker. Much of my book is based on the fact that I never threw away those notes. I developed my own shorthand. At the end of a meeting I would dictate the notes to my secretary. In the scribble, I began to insert a few descriptive adjectives in brackets – words like “jocularly” or “angrily” or “menacingly.” I never consciously kept these notes, but would toss them into a drawer. Ultimately I had boxes of them. And my book is based upon these actual transcripts.
Anything that had to do with party politics, I kept my distance. And no prime minister I ever worked for ever asked me what party I belong to. Party politics were not discussed in my presence, and if they were I would just get up and walk out.
I’m an observant Jew. Sometimes there were problems. Sometimes a prime minister would ask me to do something, and Shabbat was 10 minutes away and I would say, “Sorry, I can’t do it.” That didn’t help me a great deal.
There was one occasion during the Kissinger shuttle of 1975 – the negotiations on the interim agreement for Sinai: Israel-Egypt, Rabin-Sadat. In March, the negotiations broke down and Kissinger blamed Israel. Rabin asked me to immediately prepare our case.
There was this group known as the “Kissinger 14” – the 14 correspondents who covered the State Department and who sat in the last 14 seats of Kissinger’s plane, and [Rabin knew] he would give his version to those 14 as to why Israel was responsible for the breakdown of the negotiations. I use trite language when I say “the breakdown of negotiations”; this was a momentous crisis with the United States.
It was 10 minutes before Shabbat and Rabin asked me to get out our version of why those negotiations broke down. I said, “Yitzhak, I’m sorry. It’s hasbara (– propaganda/information); it’s not diplomacy [and therefore I can’t break Shabbat to do it].
He gave me a Rabin glare. He said, “I’ll never forget this.”
And if it had been diplomacy and not hasbara, you’d have broken Shabbat?
I got a ruling when I first went into the foreign service, in the late 1950s. I asked Rav Goren, who was the head IDF rabbi, what I should do. He asked for an example [of the dilemma].
I said, “I am on duty on Shabbat. I’m in a junior, junior role [at the Foreign Ministry] and there is something called mivrakei srak (meaningless cables).”
Why meaningless cables? Because if you don’t have them, and then suddenly there’s a steep spike in cable traffic, the enemy will know that something is afoot. So there is always a steady stream of telegrams – and you don’t know which one is meaningless and which not until you decode them. “So,” I asked Rabbi Goren, “yes or no, can I handle them on Shabbat or not?”
The answer he gave me then was that, “Since ‘diplomacy is an extension of war by other means,’ and he cited the source (Clausewitz’s “War is a continuation of politics by other means”), then successful diplomacy will prevent wars. Therefore this is pikuah nefesh“ (a case of saving lives). And he went further: “It’s a mitzva [to break Shabbat in this cause]!”
And after Rabin, came Begin.
I’d been working a long time for Rabin, almost 10 years [in Washington and Jerusalem]. Then in walks this man, Menachem Begin, whom I did not know. When he asked me to stay on I was quite flabbergasted.
The very first Friday morning, I get a phone call from a Hebron yeshiva bocher called Herzog – no relation. He wanted to come and check the mezuzot at the prime minister’s residence. I’d been so conditioned, working for the others, that I thought to myself, “Nu, honestly!” But I took his telephone number.
I go into Begin, and tell him. He says (affects rather good Begin impersonation), “Ohhh! That’s important! He should come!”
I call back Herzog's number, and it’s a public telephone. In those days, Hebron yeshiva had only one phone. Anyway, I found him and told him, “Come right away to the prime minister’s home.”
He comes on that first Friday afternoon with his little bag and his little hammer and he checks the first mezuza on the front door and it’s pasul. And as he’s preparing the new one, Begin says, “Give it to me,” and he starts making a blessing. And I’m looking around for cameras, for a crowd [but of course there were none]. He meant it! He really meant it!
It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. To be working for such a man! I didn’t sleep that night with excitement.
Before Begin, all the meals – official dinners, White House, Downing Street: treif. I had to order a vegetarian dish. Under Begin: kosher. The first time we went to America, in July 1977, he told me to take care of it (for the White House banquet). You have no idea the fights I had among the kosher caterers... in Baltimore, in Washington...
So this was Begin.
But you can’t talk about Begin’s premiership without Yechiel Kadishai. Yechiel Kadishai was his perfect factotum. He knew what Begin was thinking; he knew who he wanted to see and who not to see, what appointments he wanted to make and not to make. Kadishai was one of the most honest men I ever met in my life. He could have had all the trappings of office and he refused them all. He used to take an early bus every morning to Jerusalem and go back by bus. He was part of my life with Begin. I’m still in touch with him.
And finally, there’s Peres.
Why do I have Peres in the book? Because in August 1995, Rabin called me to say he wanted me back. He was now prime minister for the second time. He asked when I was due to return from Australia, where I was serving as ambassador. I told him I would be back in October.
I had been out of the Prime Minister’s Office since 1983, when I left for London as ambassador. Back now in Jerusalem from Australia, I met Rabin on Wednesday, October 1, 1995, just before his assassination. That was when he explained to me at length why he had entered the Oslo process. I have a full record of that conversation in my book.
(In an Endnote, as reported in last Friday’s Post, Avner sets out Rabin’s reasoning, immortalized, as ever, in his precise notes of the meeting: Briefly, the prime minister highlighted his concerns about the “two concentric circles” surrounding Israel – the inner circle being Israel’s immediate neighbors and the outer circle being their neighbors which were largely rogue states, and most especially about the Iranian-inspired Islamic fundamentalism which was destabilizing the region and winning the hearts of the Palestinian population. He spoke of the fundamentalists’ efforts to turn the Israel-Arab conflict into a religious conflict in which there could be no compromise. And he set out his “reluctant” conclusion that Yasser Arafat and the PLO represented “the last vestige of secular Palestinian nationalism.” Rabin had, he explained to Avner, opted for “a long shot for a possible settlement,” because the alternative was “the certainty of no settlement at all at a time when the radicals are going nuclear.” – D.H.)
I wrote down everything he told me. I met him again very briefly on the Friday. I was due to start work on the Sunday. On the Motzei Shabbat he was assassinated.
Automatically I began working with Peres, his successor. Those six months until the election were the most difficult of my career. That’s all I’ll say. (Avner says little more about Peres in his book, although at one point he does acknowledge that Peres’s “propensity for hyperbole, poetry and tautology – the very opposite of Yitzhak Rabin – got under my skin.”)
I think you loved Begin, or did you love them all?
I was an apprentice with Eshkol. I write in my book about the messes I got into learning on the job... Then there was the period leading up to the Six Day War which was shocking, terrifying. My wife Mimi’s sister, Esther, had been killed [in the War of Independence] in 1948 in the Old City, and here was war again.
I was posted to the States during the war and when I came back from Washington, in 1972, I ran the Foreign Press Office under Golda Meir, by which time I had much more self-confidence.
Rabin was still ambassador in Washington when I returned and I had established a strong relationship with him. I worked very closely with him, primarily because his English was rudimentary and I prepared all his talking papers preparatory to his official meetings. I got to know his thinking inside out. If he said to me, “Yehuda, prepare me a speech,” he hardly had to give me the points because I knew his mind.
From him, I learned a tremendous amount. In diplomacy, I learned the crucial importance of credibility. Rabin was a man of intellectual integrity. He would never spin words. He was a gruff, outspoken man. I learned from him an expression I have never forgotten: “A diplomat must never slam a door. He must always keep a door open. Only politicians may slam a door.”
So I owe him a debt; it was a real friendship. Rabin knew nothing about the Galut, about Galut Jews. Even when he thought he did, he didn’t. And he needed me for that as well.
What I loved about Begin was his Jewish passion. Shneynu halachnu yahdav – we walked together. He had the common touch.
And in your world views?
I was never part of his ideological family. I knew my limits. Nevertheless, I could occasionally engage in polemical subjects within that family. I’m talking about settlements and so forth.
Speaking of which, I have in my book something that is amazing. I have a photocopy of Begin’s handwritten paragraph 7 of [the December 1977] “Proposed principles” for autonomy for the Palestinians [in the West Bank and Gaza], in which he actually offers them the right to vote and run for the Knesset. I could never understand it. I still don’t understand it.
For the life of me, to this day, I cannot grasp intellectually how Begin could have conceived of an autonomy plan that would give the Palestinians the eventual choice of becoming citizens of Israel, with the vote and so forth. Here is a case, I think, where he was a prisoner of the Eretz Yisrael ideology... Similarly, I find myself now at total loggerheads with the extremes of what used to be my own ideological movement – Bnei Akiva and Hapoel Hamizrahi [moderate religious Zionism]. I was brought up in these movements. Because of them I came on aliya to a religious kibbutz (Lavi).
I remember distinctly the moment, on December 25, 1977, when Begin quietly explained that unless we plant settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, there would inevitably be a Palestinian state. And throughout my book there is a continuous thread from [all the prime ministers] against a Palestinian state – not always with the same advocacy, but with the same categorical passion, as a mortal threat to Israel. You hear it when Eshkol is speaking to Johnson, when Golda is speaking to Nixon, when Rabin is speaking to Ford, and when Begin is speaking to Jimmy Carter. All of them shared the same security reasons why they feared a future with a Palestinian state. For Begin it was, of course, profoundly ideological.
I have no answers [as to how Israel should proceed now regarding the Palestinians].
The whole matter of the demilitarization [of a Palestinian state] was brought up in Begin’s time. And Begin said to Jimmy Carter, I’m almost quoting verbatim, that “demilitarization is a fantasy. You can hide a howitzer in every garage; you can hide sections of a tank and reassemble them.” And always there was the same argument about the threat from the heights of Judea and Samaria dominating the coastal plain, and Ben-Gurion Airport.
And these are arguments which you still hold to?
I have no answer [not being party to the deliberations].
And as to what we should be doing?
I have no answer.
And none of them had an answer?
Oh, yes: Begin had an answer. It was the Jabotinsky answer of autonomy for the Palestinian Arabs – autonomy for five years after which the situation would be reviewed and finessed: Negotiations were to begin after three years of the autonomy scheme, and whatever final agreements were arrived at [giving the Palestinians the option for Jordanian citizenship, Israeli citizenship, or the maintenance of the status quo] would be implemented after five years. In other words, the negotiation would not be about the territory of Eretz Yisrael but about its inhabitants. Eretz Yisrael itself was sacrosanct. I was living these things at the time but I wasn’t qualified to evaluate their consequences.
And now, in 2010, when you’ve written this vast memoir, in which you’ve scrupulously avoided doing more than faintly implying now and again what your thinking was, what do you say now?
I think about it a lot but I’ve got no ready answer. Because we are peculiar.
Let me tell you about Yaakov Herzog (rabbi, philosopher, statesman, and diplomatic adviser to Eshkol and Meir), who was in many ways my teacher, my mentor. I learned from Yaakov that we are a peculiar people in the family of nations by virtue of our unique origins. Our origins derive from the Exodus from Egypt, when we entered history as a people, and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, when we entered history as a nation-faith. We are the only entity in the world that is at one and the same time both a peoplehood and a religion. This is a synergy that is impossible to separate. When you use the word Jew, it means both.
The result is an endemic peculiarity in our national identity. We are totally alone with that identity. You have got Anglo-Saxon nations, and Francophonic nations and all the different-language nations… but there is only one Jewish state and one Hebrew-speaking state. We’ve got no natural historic grouping, cultural or geographic unity, solidarity or relationship with any sovereign entity in the world. There are momentous diplomatic consequences to this. There is not a single nation or group of nations that stand with us in natural solidarity. Hence we don’t belong to any pact, we have no full membership in any economic bloc, or full membership in any UN regional grouping. Hence we have no real prospect of ever becoming a member of the Security Council. Nobody will have us...
The ultimate irony today is that what was true of the Jew as an individual or as a community is true of the Jewish sovereignty: We are the odd state out in the family of nations.
And therefore, being charged with the well-being of this Jewish entity...
This is my philosophical mechanism for coping.
But what are the practical consequences?
The Zionist founding fathers did not understand the profundity of Jewish history. I wonder if they understood Arab history. They thought that our independence would take the normal European sovereign peaceful route after World War I. How did Chaim Weizmann put it at the time? “A land without a people for a people without a land.”
So what does that obligate the people who lead this country to do?
We talk about this being a historic conflict. Ponder the truth of that word “historic.” Yes – it will go on for generations. Yet look at what we’ve succeeded in doing here. When I first came, there were 600,000 Jews here. Now we are all but six million. Isn’t this amazing?
Now we have Iran threatening our existence. I don’t know how we’ll cope, but I know we’ll cope. Every time we are threatened, and we are bled and we make mistakes. But every time we come through and we are stronger than we were before, and they are weaker.
Because God is on our side?
I believe in Elokei Yisrael (the God of Israel) but after the Holocaust I never delve into theology. I know a lot about history. I know a lot about the truth of our history: The truth of our history is that our enemies try to destroy us in every generation, and that every time it is they who are destroyed.
I think Bibi Netanyahu instinctively sensed this in his Herzliya speech last month – when instead of talking about politics he spoke about educating our children to love Zionism and our Jewish heritage. Of course, our pundits and commentators scoffed at him, expecting to hear what they always hear at Herzliya, not yiddishkeit and tradition, but politics.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered who was prime minister all these years?
Good question! You want me to say that our country enjoys divine protection? That there is shchina in this country? Maybe there is. Maybe there isn’t. I have three grandchildren in the army. All of them combat soldiers. My wife’s sister was killed in 1948. My son was wounded in the Yom Kippur War. My daughter, who was stationed in Buenos Aires, was blown up and severely wounded there in 1992 (in the Iranian-orchestrated bombing of the Israeli Embassy). She’s ok.
But life is good here. I live in the perplexity of the uniqueness ofwho we are. And I thank God I’m not on the decision-making level.
Someone asked me last night: “Will we be here in a decade’s time?” I said, “Yes, we’ll be here forever.” I really believe that.
But the questions that you are asking me now? I am not party to all thenecessary information, so I am not qualified to give you theanswers.