Rewriting history

Matt Rees and the late Yehuda Avner ask the question: What could have happened if Israel was established in 1938?

Matt Rees and Yehuda Avner (photo credit: Courtesy)
Matt Rees and Yehuda Avner
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first time that Jerusalem- based fiction writer Matt Rees sat down with Yehuda Avner to discuss working together on a novel was also the day that the former Israeli ambassador’s doctors told him he had three months to live.
“At first, I think we both were thinking...‘Well, how is this going to work?’” says the 48-year-old Rees in an interview at a Jerusalem café. “But then I said, why not? I could write the book in three months. I was always wondering how long Yehuda’s lucidity would last, and so was he. But he did have incredible determination, and working on the book gave him something to live for.”
Rather than reading like a rush job, the fruits of their time-intensive labor – the alternate- history novel The Ambassador – is a compelling, intricately plotted page-turner that deftly combines well-researched historical detail, Avner’s vast experience in diplomatic circles and Rees’s finely tuned storytelling skills.
The premise is not new, but has never been executed with such flair and authoritative confidence: What would have happened to the Nazi war effort and its program to exterminate the Jews of Europe if Israel had come into existence in 1938 instead of 1948? In Avner’s and Rees’s parallel universe, the Peel Commission’s recommendation to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel is accepted by the British Cabinet in 1937, resulting in the State of Israel declaring its independence in 1938.
The Ambassador is centered around the life and actions of Dan Lavi, a young diplomat whom Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion has sent to serve as Israel’s first ambassador to Berlin. His instructions: Cooperate with Hitler’s henchmen, such as Adolph Eichmann, in order to bring as many Jews as possible to Israel.
Sometimes that stance puts him at odds with his fellow embassy staff, some of whom would be happy to use their special access to eliminate the Nazi upper echelon.
The convincing settings and zesty dialogue are the results of Avner’s decades-long career in closed meetings and diplomatic intrigue, as chronicled in his acclaimed book and subsequent two-part film The Prime Ministers.
“As Yehuda explained it, there was always this real tension in the embassies he served in – the Mossad guy and the ambassador, diplomacy and espionage or whacking people,” says Rees, a former Israel bureau chief for TIME magazine.
“It was very important to the plot to show that’s what our guy was wrestling with. Because while we’re reading it, we have to face that question, too: What would we do? Try to save the Jews or kill as many Nazis as we can?” There are chapters that are chilling, like Hitler’s meeting with Ben-Gurion in Berlin, in which the Fuhrer doesn’t even attempt a diplomatic façade, telling the Israeli leader that “I’ve always said the Jews are the most stupid devils that exist.”
Some of the book’s most gripping passages focus on Lavi’s ongoing meetings with Eichmann to obtain approval on transfer documents for Jews to go to Israel, and bearing witness to how their adversarial relationship develops in a surprising manner.
“One of things we wanted to get across in the book was that if you were the Israeli ambassador to Germany, you’d have to deal with these guys who really hate you,” says Rees. “And that hasn’t changed much today. I’m sure when [US Secretary of State] John Kerry was sitting with the Iranian foreign minister, they were probably thinking about each other: ‘God, I absolutely hate you.’ But that’s the thing, you have to deal with your enemy.”
While the book contains numerous fictional plot twists, they’re based amid historical events and factually accurate dialogue – for instance, the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where Nazi leaders gathered to coordinate the “Final Solution,” and a section in which Eichmann visits Auschwitz for a test run of the gas chambers with Soviet prisoners as the victims.
“That’s all based on Eichmann’s personal description, including how he felt his knees buckle and how his driver had to help him away,” says Rees. “What’s interesting is that he could go back to his office and then ship people there without any qualms. Once he put himself at arm’s length, he was able to do anything.”
One of the book’s main strengths lies in its pacing. A breathless section halfway through culminating in a failed assassination attempt of Hitler would have been the climax of many a thriller, but The Ambassador builds on that point to take the plot to an even higher gear that leads to its unexpected conclusion.
“We thought about whether we should kill Hitler or not, but you know, it’s an alternative history, not a complete rewriting of history. It’s supposed to be something that could have happened,” says Rees.
“There’s one thing in the book that changes history, and that’s the creation of Israel. But after that, there’s not too much crazy nonsense,” he adds, admitting that Avner occasionally rejected some more outlandish plot suggestions with a “No, that’s too James Bond” statement.
“Ultimately it’s truly possible that these things could have happened,” says Rees.
“And I think that’s the message that Yehuda wanted to pass on – if you intervene in history, it can have an effect. One person, or one state, can really change history.”
One thing The Ambassador might also inadvertently do is change the present. In an era when Israel is hardly ever mentioned except in the context of the Palestinian issue, Rees agrees that the book couches the creation of the state in terms of what it was – a homeland and sanctuary for Jews.
“It is a reminder of what Israel is all about.
Bogged down in the day-to-day politics, people have forgotten – or chosen to forget – what really underscores Israel’s existence,” he says.
For the co-author, who recently relocated to Luxembourg after living in Jerusalem for 19 years, that realization was just one of many revelations that emerged from working with Avner during their intense period together.
“We were both having a really good time, actually. I told him, ‘This is your book, I’m not going to fight you over things.’ And once he understood that, he basically let me do what I wanted, as long as he knew that I was listening to him,” says Rees. “Which I guess is how any relationship should work – as long as you hear the other person, they trust you. And we did trust each other a lot with this project.”
Their short relationship proved so fruitful that it spawned an idea for another joint book that Rees is currently finishing up – another alternate history focusing on the Israeli bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981.
“We plotted it out just before he died; he couldn’t even sit up. That’s how important it was for him to be working on something creative,” says Rees. “Yehuda was at [Menachem] Begin’s side during that whole campaign, and it follows on the same theme as The Ambassador – you do something, and it has a profound effect. You don’t do it, and history is totally different.”
(Full disclosure: The writer and Rees have been friends since 1996 and have had a complex musical relationship since 2002.)