Sunday, February 13, 2011

Yehuda Avner, The Prime Ministers

If Yehuda Avner's new book The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership isn't yet on your reading list, put it there. If you don't have the time for a 700-page book, even if it's highly readable, stop reading this blog for the duration.

Avner, born in Manchester, came to Jerusalem in 1947 as a 19-year-old and almost immediately was drawn into Israel's War of Independence. His description of the events of 1947-48 is immediate and moving. Shortly thereafter, however, he stops telling about himself, and instead tells about the four Israeli prime ministers he served - Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir as a speech-writer and media aide; Ytzchak Rabin both in Washington (where Rabin was ambassador) and in Jerusalem, during Rabin's first premiership, and most important of all, as a close aide to Menachem Begin. While the book tells about four prime ministers, it is really about Begin, who fascinated Avner from the moment he arrived in Mandatory Palestine, if not earlier.

It's not a history book in the meaning of an attempt to tell a full tale of an event or series of events. Since Begin is the main protagonist and Begin was always a controversial man, the book is a bit odd in not telling us much about those controversies. It tells us Begin's version of the Altalena incident, when in June 1948 Ben Gurion ordered the brand new IDF to shell an Irgun weapons ship by that name on theTel Aviv beach. (I blogged about this event once from a very strange perspective, here). It never mentions Begin's attack on the Knesset of 1952, during the fraught controversy of restitution payments from Germany. It glosses over the anger against Begin during the (1st) Lebanon War of 1982. For that matter,it glosses over the anger against Golda Meir after the Yom Kippur War, and doesn't much explain why Labor and Rabin lost the elections in 1977.

Perhaps more irritating, if you're looking for anything remotely like a comprehensive history of segments of Israel's tale, Avner never addresses the complexities of Israel's positions. He's an old-school Zionist, who knows the Jews needed a state, knows they still need it, and knows lots of people disagree. Hes not out to convince them of anything.

It's a magnificent book if you're interested in coming closer to an understanding of how those four leaders understood the world they were in. How they saw themselves, how they related to interlocutors and adversaries. How Eshkol and Golda instinctively slipped into Yiddish. Begin, too. Rabin, not, being a sabra, yet he shared many of the same basic ideas, about how the Jews must have a state and that this wasn't yet a resolved issue. (Arguably, it still isn't, and I expect present-day Israeli prime ministers share the same set of sentiments, even though the general discourse seems to have moved on, and an Israeli politician using such language abroad will most likely be accused of distracting attention from the plight of the Palestinians).

There's a memorable scene in which Eshkol discusses economic policy with a doorman. Not possible today. Golda talks about the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Not likely today. The chapter on Rabin and the Entebbe operation is riveting.

And Begin. Lecturing to Jimmy Carter, then Sadat, then Reagan, and brushing off Lord Carrington, a British Foreign Secretary of the time. Energizing Jewish leaders, who in those days played a role they seem no longer to play. Engaging ordinary Israelis. Above all, being profoundly Jewish, though not strictly orthodox. Begin's Jewishness shine throughout the book.

Then there are the negotiations, mostly with American leaders, from 1967 onwards. Avner supplies the details of what meetings between leaders look like, who says what, what the body language conveys, what is scripted in advance and what really isn't. It's fascinating.

Also, troubling. Ever since the Six Day War, we learn, American leaders (not to mention all the others) are fixated on this version or that of having Israel hand over the territories it acquired in that war in return for peace. There is never (as told in this book) any discussion of what will keep the peace going once the agreement has been reached. There's this puzzle, and it can be resolved by moving these pieces in these ways... and what happens afterward? Well, there will be peace,of course, and nothing will threaten it ever, so no-one needs to think much about it; it will be gloriously boring. No-one in the book ever brings up the possibility that the conflict can't be resolved by Israel giving back those territories because the conflict was always about much more than them. It's not mentioned, not considered, not part of the discourse. To which one might add that in 1992 the author visited with the retired Margart Thatcher, who admitted that when she met Begin in 1980 (?) she had never given much thought to the Holocaust, and thus didn't know how important it was to Begin and most Jews.

Not only is there abysmal ignorance about those strange Arabs; there's not much thought given to the Jews, either. Merely a mathematical solution for a conflict. Frightening.


Y. Ben-David said...

Don't see what's "funny" about a picture of Jews killing each other.

I have read Avner's columns in the Jerusalem Post. The unbelievably detailed accounts of events from decades ago makes me wonder how reliable his recollections really are.

Silke said...

nobody mentioned funny, except you of course.

Some people keep diaries and store documents in an order that makes them retrievable - I have been told

Anonymous said...

Avner stated quite specifically that he wrote down his notes after his meetings, so they relect his contemporaneous memories.

David Gleicher

Y. Ben-David said...

Didn't you look at Yaacov's hypertext link?

Silke said...

I did now ctrl-F supplies no "funny" (the book had created such a splash on this blog once before that it made it onto my reading list)

BTW on your recommendation I just read two of Avner's JP-pieces - I wish he would tell what of it is fiction and what is grape-vine in there

But as best I know the book is about something different and now I am going to read Yaacov's review

Avigdor said...

He's referring to this link, and how Yaacov named the post. Obviously he didn't mean "ha-ha" funny, YBD, but more "interesting, incidental historical oddity", that perhaps the only surviving picture of the Altalena burning (?) happened to be in a 60 year old shoebox, with the young woman in the picture probably oblivious to the significance of what unfolded behind her.

Silke said...

thanks Victor

even if one knows nothing about the pictured (ship and woman) it is decidedly weird to think that somebody would decorate oneself in front of a burning ship as if it didn't exist or were so normal that it wasn't worth noticing, but W.G. Sebald told in one book I read that unhit citizens of Hamburg were enjoying their afternoon coffee on their balconies in the beautiful weather apparently completely untroubled by what had happened to the next neighbourhood.

And yes in German we quite often use komisch=funny in the sense of weird, strange, needs investigation

Y. Ben-David said...

I am not sure the young lady and whoever photographed her were "oblivious" to what was happening behind her. Much of the Zionist Left (i.e. MAPAI, MAPAM) had a violent hatred of the ETZEL and the Revisionist movement and were quite glad to see them get it. Recall that Ben-Gurion called the gun that shelled the ship "the holy cannon" and he wanted put on permanent display. Don't forget that men from the ship who had surrendered and were floundering in the water were machine-gunned from the shore.
Someone did some research into the Altalena incident and found that most people who participated felt great remorse over it as the years passed, even if they felt it was necessary. A notable exception was Yitzhak Rabin. Moshe Arens, in his memoirs, pointed out that Rabin would brag about his role in it even in the presence of Likud people.

Regarding Yaacov's caption...well, yes, "funny" can mean "bizarre or odd", but someone who is not familiar with the thinking at this site might not interpret it that way.

Zeev, Haifa said...

I too, was fascinated you Yehuda Avner's book.
Here is MY favourite quote from it:
Pres. Johnson to PM Levy Eshkol, in January 1968:
"... I regret that your visit here is so closely tied to this matter of the Phantoms.
Planes won’t radically change your realities. The big problem is how
two-and-a-half million Jews [Israel's population at the time] can live in a sea of Arabs."
(Yehuda Avner: “The Prime Ministers”, page 174)