By Mayer FertigIssue of September 3, 2010/ 24 Elul 5770 History books are usually boring and historical figures are usually dead. "The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership" and its author, Ambassador Yehuda Avner, are neither. Avner, who was a key aide and advisor to five Israeli premiers - Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres - not only had a ringside seat during decades of history, but he also took notes. To read his written words are to hear his voice as he offers a behind-the-scenes, fly-on-the-wall account of Israel's first 50 years.
In an interview on the Jewish Star's Internet radio show (What's Next; Thursdays @ 2p on nachumsegal.com) the ambassador, now 82, told Miriam L. Wallach and me about the night Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, how Menachem Begin grounded El Al on Shabbos, what the censors wouldn't allow him to publish, and which prime minister told which president: 'You are the president of 150 million Americans; I am the prime minister of six million prime ministers'.
"That was Golda Meir to Nixon," said Avner, for the record. "I have it verbatim. If you'll hold on the line for 10 minutes I'll find it."
We took his word for it as he had already explained the secret behind this remarkable first person memoir.
"I was always involved in sensitive meetings, officially scribbling notes, and then I would transcribe those notes for the official record," Avner said. "But then I became a naughty boy. I never destroyed my scribbles ... and I held on to them, so when I retired I realized that I had this treasure trove of unbelievable, authentic, first-hand material."
Avner's book stands out for that reason. Wherever he uses quotations he is offering a direct quote based on his notes rather than relying on the more common technique of memoirists who paraphrase words into their subjects' mouths based on memories from across the years.
"You have to imagine, I'm sitting in my study and I'm surrounded by numbered files, there must be about 300 of them," Avner cheerfully explained in the British accent that has remained with him since making aliyah from Manchester to Jerusalem as a teen-aged Bnei Akiva leader in 1947. "I must be a nutter to keep all this material."
He had "tremendous problems with the censor," he said. An appeal before a committee of cabinet ministers to rescue three chapters was unsuccessful.
"Anything that had to do with psychological warfare, he erased. Anything that had to do with military intelligence, he expunged, and anything that had to do with Israel's nuclear capabilities he wouldn't even allow me to look at, even after I'd written it," Avner disclosed.
Avner held "tremendous affection" for Levi Eshkol, found Golda Meir a "daunting figure," "had a very close relationship" with Yitzhak Rabin, having worked with him for nearly a decade, and called Shimon Peres "an extraordinary, extraordinary individual" and a workaholic.
But Menachem Begin was his favorite.
"It's not so much because of ideological reasons - I was never in Likud," Avner explained, "but because to me he was ... the ultimate Jew, if you like. I am an observant Jew and it was rather lonely on occasions, over the decades in which I worked with these secular prime ministers. Menachem Begin came along, and he knew what Shabbat was, and he insisted that all public engagements be kosher."
Begin instructed Avner to make certain that a state dinner being held in his honor by President Jimmy Carter would be strictly kosher, "and I inadvertently started off a war of kosher caterers," recalled Avner with a laugh. Kosher events at the White House are common today but then it was a first, and a big relief to Avner, who was a veteran of state dinners and of making do, "while everyone else was chomping on their pheasant."
On an earlier occasion, he recalled, "When President Ford was hosting Prime Minister Rabin and everybody had been served their, whatever it was, luscious meaty stuff ... eventually I was served and it looked like fireworks" compared to the non-kosher food served to the other guests.
"I had this base of lettuce as thick as a bible, on top of that was a mound of chopped, diced fruit, on top of that was a blob of cottage cheese, on top of that was a swish of whipped cream. It stood about a foot high and Barbara Walters was sitting next to me and she began to applaud. And the President leaned over to Rabin and whispered something in his ear and Rabin whispered something back into his, whereupon the President stood up, raised his glass and called out to me, 'Happy Birthday, young fella.' With that the whole room stood up and they began to chant 'Happy Birthday.' The problem was that they had misspelled my name card. Instead of Yehuda they'd written 'Yeduha' and everyone was singing 'Happy Birthday dear Yeduha.'"
But the best part of the story occurred later when he asked Rabin what had possessed him to tell President Ford that it was his birthday.
"'What else should I have told him, the truth?' Rabin shot back. 'And tomorrow there would be a headline in the newspapers that you had kosher and I didn't and the religious parties will bolt the cabinet and I'll have a government crisis on my hands! Atah meshugah?!' Are you crazy?"
Years later, when Rabin was elected prime minister for a second time, Avner returned from Australia at Rabin's request to work for him once again but just two days later Rabin was murdered.
"I was at the hospital that night. Need I say it was not only shocking, it was frightening - terribly frightening," Avner recalled somberly. "The mind goes into a certain shock. It's a combination of shock and self-protection. It's an acknowledgement that what has happened is so much beyond belief that it is really beyond belief."
A notable achievement of Begin's, as recounted by Ambassador Avner, was grounding El Al's fleet on Shabbos.
"I can tell you it didn't happen because of coalition considerations, although at the time the Agudah had become a very important part of his coalition. Begin told me weeks beforehand that 'boosha v'cherpa, that it is a shame and a disgrace that El Al is flying on Shabbat.' And I said, 'You're ready to take on the El Al union,' which was one of the strongest of the unions? And he said, 'B'zmano, in the proper time.' And there came the proper time when he made that extraordinary speech in the Knesset, when some of the left wingers were constantly trying to heckle him and he used the expression that, 'It is inconceivable that our blue and white planes should demonstrate chilul Shabbat for all the world to see, Jews and gentiles.' And ever since, El Al has ceased flying on Shabbat."
"The Prime Ministers, An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership" (The Toby Press) is over 700 pages long but you have my word on this: it reads like a novel. Without a doubt this unforgettable book should be required reading in every Yeshiva high school.