Sunday, March 20, 2016

An insider's view of Israel's early political leaders

I have just finished reading Yehuda Avner's The Prime Ministers, all 700 closely printed pages of it. It took me a while, but I found it riveting. It is an insider's account of four of Israel's founding Prime Ministers, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin,  Avner worked with all four as speech writer, secretary, and adviser. Begin used him to Shakespearize his speeches. He got to know all of them well, and attended many of the crucial meetings that shaped the history of Israel, meetings with Henry Kissinger, Presidents Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, and Egyptian Prime Minister, Anwar Sadat. He was particularly close to Menachem Begin, whom Avner, as a religious Zionist, admired for his uncompromising stand on his Biblical vision of Jews, the Jewish people and their destiny. However, reviewing, describing or summing up the book would  do it an injustice. It is vivid anecdotes and personal insights that stay in my mind: Levi Eshkol, an efficient minister of agriculture and economic manager being unsure about his duties as a Prime Minister when the position was suddenly thrust upon him, and his calm stance in face of the threats Israel faced on the eve of the Six Day War; Gold Meir lecturing the Austrian Prime Minister, Bruno Kreisky on his disloyalty to the socialist cause and abandoning Israel, a fellow socialist country, Yitzhak Rabin torn by the choice of negotiating with the hijackers of the Air France plane that was flown to Entebbe, Uganda, or authorizing a risky rescue operation with possibly large number of casualties. But the most memorable account is that of Menachem Begin, about half of of the book,  his meeting with President Reagan, his meeting with Sadat and the personal friendship they forged, his decision to drive the PLO out of Lebanon, the death of his wife, and his ultimate retirement and life in seclusion. Avner's quotes of Begin's speeches are full of Biblical references to Jewish fate and history: Balaam's prophecy, the Jewish people as an  eternally abnormal nation within the family of nations, a people that dwells alone, a concept that flew in the face of the Zionist belief that Jews, with their own land and state, would be like all other nations. It is with this vision in mind thatBegin was not prepared to relinquish any part of the West Bank, Judea and Samaria. 
Avner spent a lifetime writing and editing speeches, writing letters to Presidents and Prime Ministers, expounding government policy. He was a seasoned writer, and his book is a very vivid account of fifty years of Israel's history, so vivid that although you, the reader knows what happened in the end, reading about the Entebbe rescue, about the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the peace treaty with Egypt, or about the war in Lebanon, the book captures the tension, the drama at the time. It is like reading history as it happened.