Opinion: The pragmatists

Yehuda Avner arrived in Israel in 1947 from his native Manchester, England, as an idealistic religious Zionist. His keen intellect landed him a post in the foreign service, and his English proficiency almost guaranteed that he would be the designated note taker as he traveled with four prime ministers from the earliest days of the State to the aftermath of the Lebanon War. 

He scribbled those notes in an invented shorthand and rounded them out with the occasional observational adjective. And, fortunately for us, he kept those notes. 

The result is “The Prime Ministers,” a 700-plus-page book that you will read in a single gulp. The book, like Israel itself, is a great story.

On Monday morning, I phoned Avner, who will be in Los Angeles shortly to speak publicly about his book. He was at his home in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem. 

His voice, like that of his book, is enthusiastic, engaging and, considering he is closing in on 84, vibrant. It doesn’t hurt that he has a charming British accent: From Abba Eban to Mark Regev, we American Jews are suckers for Israelis who speak British and think Yiddish.  

Avner is quick to set one thing straight: “The Prime Ministers” is not the work of a historian. It is a memoir. But as someone who has stood by the side of four Israeli leaders during times of dire crisis and triumph, Avner has earned the right to offer his perspective.

The heroes in Avner’s telling are not the usual suspects. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, the Yiddish-speaking shtetl Jew who inherited the reins of power after the great David Ben-Gurion, comes across as a leader of pivotal importance for Israelis — and Americans. 

“He was the Harry Truman of Israel,” Avner told me.

In the tense days before the Six-Day War, Eshkol exerted his steel will to resist calls for preemptive military action against the Egyptians, even as his top generals and ministers, and the entire country, lined up against him. In the meantime, he worked to convince President Lyndon Johnson that Israel’s — and America’s — interest would be served by American support for an eventual Israeli attack. When Johnson gave the yellow light, Israel pounced — defeating its enemies while retaining the superpower support Eshkol knew was critical. 

“I saw a situation where persuasion actually worked,” Avner the diplomat told me. “Eshkol got through to Johnson. That relationship marked a major historic turning point between Israel and America.”

Another hero is Menachem Begin. Often caricatured in the West as an irredentist right-winger, the Begin that emerges in Avner’s anecdotes is a man of supreme erudition and deep concern for all Jews, with a willingness to join forces with his ideological opponents for the good of the country.  

As for Yitzhak Rabin, Avner recounts several conversations that show what a concentrated and analytic intellect the general brought to bear on existential issues. 

How, I asked Avner, do today’s leaders compare? 

“They were made of much flintier rock,” he told me of the men and woman he served. “The circumstances forged them in that furnace of Eastern Europe, with its constant state of social and political turbulence. Also, all of them were literate Jews. They took it for granted they would breed a generation of literate Jews. It didn’t work out that way.

Olmert, Barak, Bibi — none of them have been put to the test. When was the last war of survival Israel had to fight? The Yom Kippur War. But maybe it’s Bibi’s turn with Iran.

The private deliberations Avner recounts do shed light on what made the great Israeli leaders great. There is a cocktail of Zionism that has to be mixed with just the right proportion of realism and idealism, of messianic fervor and pragmatic compromise. And these leaders understood that. They were, in Avner’s words, “intensely pragmatic.”

Despite Israel’s longstanding public policy not to negotiate with terrorists, in private Rabin, and even Begin, both were willing to do so to save lives. Rabin also saw how Israel’s long-term security depended not just on winning wars, but also on compromise. 

“You can’t just ignore it,” Avner said about the demographic problem that Rabin understood confronts Israel. “At the end of the day, it is two states for two people.” 

Looking back from his considerable vantage point, Avner marvels at his country’s sweeping progress.

“I can’t recall a time that has been better than it is now,” he said. “There’s no war. The borders are quiet despite some acting up, and the country is flourishing.”

But his optimism is tempered by the awareness that the story of struggle and crisis he so aptly tells is far from over. 

Avner himself was wounded fighting in the siege of Jerusalem in 1948; his son was wounded in the Yom Kippur War, and his daughter was severely injured in the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.

“It has taken quite a lot to defend Israel,” he said. “We actually have fought two Wars of Independence. The first was in 1948, the right to defend ourselves in our own land. The second war is not yet over. We are still surrounded by enemies on every side.”

I asked Avner if during ’48 or ’67, in the years of hardship and fear, he ever envisioned the kind of state Israel would be at 64.

“No, never,” he said. “You live in the present.”

And you take notes.

Yehuda Avner will speak about his book “The Prime Ministers” at Congregation Beth Jacob on May 18 and 19. The public is invited. For details, visit this column at jewishjournal.com.