Interview: Yehuda Avner
A Manchester-born civil servant served as a close adviser to Israel’s leaders over four decades. Now he’s talking
Yehuda Avner (centre) looks on as Prime Minister Menachem Begin (right) talks with American Secretary of State George Schultz in the early ’80s
Among his many talents, Yehuda Avner was always good at taking notes. As adviser and speech-writer to five Israeli Prime Ministers there was a lot to take down - there were the discussions about policy, meetings with great statesmen and all those jocular off-the-record comments. Manchester-born Avner would dictate all the shorthand notes to his secretary for the official minutes of his meetings and then throw them into the bin - or at least that is what he should have done.
Avner, who settled in what was then Palestine in 1947 and is now an energetic 81, admits that he was "a little bit naughty". By law he should have destroyed the notes but he could not bring himself to do so. "At the back of my mind some instinct said: 'Yehuda, keep this', and I did. By the time I retired I had huge filing cabinets full of notes."
The material now forms the basis of Avner's just-published book which brings back to life the great events he witnessed and provides a unique insight into the minds of Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and the leader he considers the most exceptional of them all, Menachem Begin. And because it all comes directly from the scribbled notebooks, he can state categorically that "anything in inverted commas are the words actually spoken".
He reserves the highest respect and affection for Begin, a politician popularly characterised as a man of the right, but who was much more, he believes. Avner, a career civil servant employed by Israel's Foreign Ministry, had already worked for three Prime Ministers, all Labour. When Israel elected its first Likud Party premier in 1977, he did not expect to be offered a post. "When Begin asked me to stay on I was astonished," he says. "This was the first change of administration in the country's history. I fully expected to return to the Foreign Ministry and be sent to Timbuctoo or wherever.
"It was thrilling to work for Begin because he was the quintessential Jew. He always said that whatever needed to be done to save Jews, he would do. After years of working for diehard socialist, secular Jews, suddenly I was working with a religious man like myself - a man who would say: 'Yehuda, go home, it's almost Shabbat'."
Yitzhak Rabin was Begin's opposite temperamentally but, recalls Avner, the two men had a good deal of time for one another. "It was Rabin of all people who taught me to respect Begin. I had worked with Rabin for many years, first when he was ambassador in Washington and later when he was Prime Minister. I called him up and said: 'Yitzhak, Begin's offered me a job'. He said: 'Take it. Begin's an honest man, a responsible man and he's your kind of Jew'."
During Rabin's second term as Prime Minister he famously conducted peace negotiations with PLO leader Yasir Arafat. Avner asked him: "Why he shook that man's hand?" Rabin explained how with Islamic fundamentalism sweeping through the Middle East, Israel needed to gamble on Arafat's brand of secular Palestinian nationalism.
Ambassador Avner meets Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street
Avner never got the chance to serve as Rabin's adviser during this second term: "I was due to begin working with him on Sunday. On Saturday night he was assassinated."
Still in shock at the death of his life-long friend, Avner took a job with Rabin's successor and long-time rival Shimon Peres - the only one of Avner's Prime Ministers who is still alive today. "He was very difficult. As a president he is excellent. He is highly sophisticated and one of the best-read men I have ever met. But as a politician he had a tendency to hyperbole and poetry. We would be in a meeting and Peres would say: 'I think we should have a world convention on this subject. Yehuda can you arrange it?' Then bye bye, and off he would go."
It was as a much younger man that Avner was drafted in from the Foreign Ministry to write speeches for David Ben-Gurion's successor, Levi Eshkol. Eshkol was a straight talker - Avner still remembers with a shudder the moment Eshkol crossed out an entire passage of a speech Avner had written, describing it in Yiddish as "stam narishkeiten" - "absolute nonsense".
Eshkol's successor, Golda Meir, with her American upbringing, had no need of Avner's English speech-writing skills but he still worked with her closely. She was, he says, "a daunting woman", a politician completely ignorant of military matters who nonetheless became Israel's greatest war leader.
Many British Jews will remember Avner best for his time as ambassador in London, a post he took up in 1983 following the shooting of his predecessor, Shlomo Argov. Despite the honour of returning to the country of his birth as envoy, Avner was not thrilled at the appointment, which he took as a rejection by Begin, for whom he had worked loyally for six years. "I did feel hurt, but Begin said to me: 'There are reasons'. Very soon after, he resigned and went into seclusion."
While in the UK, Avner was able to maintain good relations with a Conservative government which contained an unprecedented number of Jewish cabinet ministers and a leader who was sympathetic to Zionism. "Margaret Thatcher was a good friend of Israel. She asked me what she could do for the country. I informed her that a British Prime Minister had never before visited Israel. She immediately agreed to go. In turn, we accorded her the kind of reception normally reserved for heads of state."
Although he enjoyed his time in the UK, Avner admits to feeling vulnerable, particularly on Shabbat when he would make the 15-minute walk from his ambassadorial residence to St John's Wood Synagogue. Despite the bodyguards and police out-riders he knew he was an easy target.
But there was also a feeling of pride in his achievement. "The day I went to Buckingham Palace to present my credentials to the Queen, my arrival coincided with the changing of the guard, so when they made the salute it was if it was me they were saluting. At that moment I looked upwards and thought: 'Mum and dad, I wish you could see me now'."
Born: Manchester, 1928
Early life: Raised in the Strangeways district of Manchester. As a teenager, he joined Zionist youth groups and travelled to Palestine in 1947, where he fought in the siege of Jerusalem during the War of Independence. He became a founder member of Kibbutz Lavi.
Career: Joined the Foreign Ministry in 1958. Served as speech-writer to Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres. Also served as inspector-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and was ambassador to the UK and Australia.
Family: Married to Mimi - one son, three daughters
'The Prime Ministers' is published by Toby Press at £19.99