Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Prime Ministers by Yehuda Avner

For one seeking a probing analysis of the different approaches of being the Prime Minister of Israel, Yehuda Avner paints a detailed picture of Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzchak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres.  Along the way one gains insight into the various international figures that play so prominently in Middle East politics.  This well written mix of memoir and history teaches some important differences and lessons about Israeli leadership and specifically about the often misunderstood giant personality of Menachem Begin.

Avner, raised in Manchester, UK is called in by Levi Eshkol  as an English specialist and becomes his speech writer, and thus begins his civil service experience seeing the intimate side of the office of the Prime Minister.  He starts out as a religious Zionist identifying not necessarily with the ruling party of Labor.  He sees up close the pressure Eshkol was subjected: being asked to step down in favor of Ben Gurion to lead during the crisis that led up to the Six Day War by opposition leader Menachem Begin. Eshkol proves to be smart, enduring and loved as the one to lead the country during such crisis. Eshkol's Yiddishisms make an indelible mark on the author.

He notes that Golda Meir, strong willed is really a faith based personality.  The faith is not the Jewish faith but rather the 'Zionist Labor faith!'  She adamantly claims she was not religious but had she stayed in Moscow as Ambassador, seeing all those underground Jews congregate in the Great Synagogue perhaps she would have been inspired.  Mr. Avner recounts the intimate interview given to Orianna Fallaci, the famous Italian journalist woman to woman.

Nixon and Kissinger are highlighted.  Although Nixon known to despise liberal Jews refers to Kissinger as 'his Jew', nevertheless, it is Nixon who ordered the airlift during the Yom Kippur war to save the Jewish state.  Henry Kissinger is psychoanalyzed.  His Judaism is completely sublimated as a result of his experiences fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938. Kissinger's family immigrates to Washington Height in Manhattan and joins Rabbi Joseph Breuer's congregation. Emotionally, Kissinger buries his Jewish feelings.

He develops a close trusting relationship with the naturally shy Rabin and is taken by his power of analysis and conceptualization, being able to succinctly size up every situation.  He gains an appreciation for Rabin's bluntness.  However, the book is really about Menachem Begin.  At first, Mr. Avner is very apprehensive about working for Mr. Begin because his reputation as the leader of the opposition party preceded him as a terrorist, warmonger, and demagogue.  Rabin convinces Mr. Avner to work for Mr. Begin because his duty as a civil servant demands it.

Mr. Avner is completely surprised at who the real Menachem Begin is.  As a religious Jew, Avner sees the faith of Menachem Begin as a sincere.  He is the first Prime Minister to hold regular Torah Study sessions, inviting the scholarly class of Hebrew University faculty to share Torah.  The likes of Nehama Liebovitz, Ephraim Urbach and Dr. Yosef Burg delight in sharing their Torah exegesis.  Mr. Begin is first to visit Gedolei Yisroel upon his visits to the USA: Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rav Moshe Feinstein are felicitously consulted.

Mr. Begin is different than the rest.  He incorporates traditional Jewish identity to his role as Prime Minister.  He incorporates a understanding of Jewish history as a cycle of suffering and redemption in his political explanations.  The Holocaust plays a profound role in understanding the significance of the State of Israel and the destiny of the Jewish people.  When dealing with the American administrations of Carter and Reagan which comprised of some hostile voices, Mr. Begin is eloquent and forceful in putting forth Israel's positions toward the PLO, toward Iraq's nuclear program and incursions into Lebanon.  He refuses to relinquish Israel's right to defend itself, nevertheless, he shows that the Jewish people of Israel are lovers of peace and at the first opportunity succeeds with Anwar Sadat making an enduring peace treaty.

This well written book is very rich in describing world leaders and how they interact with the State of Israel and highly recommended.

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