Henry Kissinger, fed up with Israeli haggling, flung a pen at a map of the Sinai Desert. Jimmy Carter clenched his teeth. And Gerald Ford sang “Happy Birthday.”
As President Barack Obama labors to keep Mideast peace talks on track, he can take heart in those vignettes of negotiations past, as told in Yehuda Avner’s timely book, “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership.” This vivid memoir shows that friction has always characterized U.S.-Israeli relations.
Avner, 81, is a retired Israeli diplomat who served as a personal aide and speechwriter to five Israeli premiers, including Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. Few people have gotten a closer look at the ups and downs between the two allies.
Writing through the prism of his ardent, at times awestruck, Zionism, Avner supplies an anecdotal narrative of how Israeli leaders traveled to Washington year after year to butt heads with presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan.
Early in the Ford administration, for example, Secretary of State Kissinger lost his cool after hours of bargaining over troop withdrawals with Rabin, Avner recalls. Hurling his pen, Kissinger stormed out of the office and called for a “reassessment” of U.S. relations with Israel.
Three years later, he says, Carter gritted his teeth as Begin belittled Palestinian claims to Israel and the West Bank by citing Mark Twain’s 19th-century observation about the Upper Galilee: “One may ride 10 miles hereabouts and not see 10 human beings.”
Occasionally, Avner himself became the story. At one White House dinner, he asked to eat kosher and was served a meal so extravagant that it drew gasps of admiration. President Ford, wondering what the commotion was about, whispered something into Rabin’s ear. Rabin whispered back that the feast honored his aide’s birthday, prompting Ford to lead his guests in singing “Happy Birthday.”
Avner, bemused, later asked his boss why he had fibbed.
“You ate kosher and I didn’t,” Rabin replied. If that had been reported in Israeli newspapers, he added, his government could have fallen.
Rabin was right to be worried. Two years later, his government collapsed amid recriminations from religious parties because it had taken delivery of four U.S.-made F-15 fighter planes on a Friday after the Sabbath had started.
Avner was born in Manchester, England, and he later returned to the U.K. as ambassador. His memoirs open in 1947, with his arrival in Palestine as a kibbutz pioneer, his service during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and the poignantly told death of a young British woman who volunteered for the Haganah Jewish militia and whose younger sister he later married.
Shakespeare and Nonsense
The ensuing chapters follow Avner’s progression through the political ranks and efforts to adapt himself to the quirks of Israel’s prime ministers. Begin routinely asked Avner to “Shakespearize” his correspondence with foreign leaders. Levi Eshkol, by contrast, tossed aside one London speech after tripping over Avner’s alliterative phrases, which he dismissed in Yiddish as “stam narishkeiten” -- absolute nonsense.
“The Prime Ministers” takes us behind the scenes during the 1967 Six-Day War and into the parliament bomb shelter where an exhausted Prime Minister Eshkol gave commanders the go-ahead to capture Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan.
We also witness the early days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when, as foreign press liaison, Avner took reporters by helicopter to the Golan Heights after Israel suffered devastating losses. Meir, then 75, ignored the journalists’ questions, dragged on a cigarette and rallied the troops to keep fighting. Other moments behind the scenes include Begin’s decision in 1981 to bomb Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.
Clues About Begin
One thread running through the memoir is Avner’s lifelong admiration for Begin, often reviled abroad as a terrorist because he led the Irgun underground that fought the British occupation of Palestine. The book also offers clues about what drove the prime minister to resign in 1983 and live in seclusion until his death nine years later.
Begin suffered from depression on and off throughout his life, he says. As for the timing of his resignation, it may have involved an official visit the next day by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Avner quotes a friend who says Begin didn’t want to toast Germany or stand for the German national anthem.
At 715 pages, the book would have benefited from more aggressive editing, especially when it comes to the lengthy quotations from presidential libraries and other archives available online. Still, Avner usefully reminds us that Israeli statecraft always involves a measure of prickliness with its superpower ally.
“The Prime Ministers” is published by Toby Press (715 pages, $29.95, 19.99 pounds, 129 shekels). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Jonathan Ferziger writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)