on 18 October 2010
Anyone who is interested in the politics and history of Israel will not be able to put this book down. The first half of this book, which deals with the period from the foundation of the State of Israel up to 1977, is gripping enough. But the second half, in which Avner paints his portrait of Menachem Begin, is utterly spellbinding. Begin is revealed as a man of immense integrity and intellect, a politician of rare pedigree who articulated the Zionist idea more passionately and more persuasively than anyone before or since. If it was one of Avner's goals to play a part in elevating Begin from controversial Israeli Prime Minister to one of the great heroes of Jewish history, then I believe he has succeeded.
on 18 December 2011
Born and raised in Manchester, England, Avner emigrated in 1947 to what was then Palestine and shortly became Israel. Because of his natural command of English, Avner served as a nuance-speechwriter for four of the first five Prime Ministers of Israel during the dramatic formative years of the country. During this period he was not only in close and intimate communication with his employers but also with the decision makers with whom they had to deal, sometimes pleasurably, often in conflict but always carefully. Avner paints an intriguing picture of the thought processes and influences that determined the flavour of those meetings.
This is a lengthy book, some 700 pages, and yet you finish it wanting more. Very few punches are pulled as Avner presents the four Prime Ministers he served as human beings with human frailties and needs and not merely the caricatures presented by the Press over the years covered by his book. Indeed, of the four - Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir,Yitzak Rabin and Menachem Begin - it is Begin for whom he has a special regard, respect and fondness. He provides a rare insight of a man driven by a feeling of a religious destiny and one who is usually reviled by the world's press.
It is an immensely readable book.
A blend of selective autobiography and selective history. Avner personally knew four Prime Ministers (Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin) through having worked for them. While he writes warmly and gives excellent portraits of the first three of these, there is no doubt that the last was his particular hero. Not only does Begin tower over the other three on the cover of the book, but 350 pages are given to the 6½ years of his premiership, while the other three, whose combined premiership ran for twice as many years, have 250 pages altogether.
The book opens with a glamorous and justificatory account of Begin's dangerous underground career as leader of the Irgun. Avner (born Haffner in Manchester) was a religious Zionist and already a supporter as a schoolboy. In November 1947, aged 19, he went to Palestine. He took part in the war of 1948, then worked to clear the land for a kibbutz. His account of these years is mainly autobiographical, but Begin again figures extensively (far more than does Prime Minister Ben Gurion), though Avner did not at that time know Begin personally. In 1959 he joined the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and in 1963, at the age of 34, he was appointed speech-writer for Premier Levi Eshkol.
So now, just over 100 pages into the 700 page book, he starts on his intimate involvement with the Prime Ministers of its title. He sees them dealing with the great events of the time, from the Six Day War in 1967 to Begin's resignation in October 1983, just three months after Avner left his personal staff to become ambassador in London.
We see Avner's own development also, from his self-confessed early clumsiness as a speech-writer (with Eshkol being remarkably forbearing to the "boychick"); and it never ceases to be an autobiography as well, recording incidents in his life that are not of any momentous importance (personally delivering a letter of gratitude from Eshkol to ex-President Truman, for example; or witnessing an interview which Golda Meir gave to the Italian journalist Oriana Fallacci); or recording in detail one of the weekly Bible study sessions in Prime Minister Begin's home) - all told with panache. Needless to say also that far more space is given to episodes where Avner was present (for example the 1968 negotiations in Texas when Eshkol was asking President Johnson for 50 Phantom jets) than to episodes where he was not.
A particularly powerful chapter records the 1975 duel between Prime Minister Rabin and Kissinger over disengagement after the 1973 war, with a vivid account of Kissinger's personality. (What the book brings home very strongly is what difficulties every Israeli Prime Minister had with the Americans - and how ready they were, mostly, to defy their mighty ally.)
When the Bible-inspired Begin followed his secular-minded predecessors as Prime Minister in 1977, Avner, an observant Jew, revealingly comments, "Here, at last, was a prime minister after my own heart - the quintessential Jew." (I found those last three words rather shocking: as if Begin's predecessors fell short in their quintessential Jewishness). And of course Avner agreed to Begin's request that he serve him in the same capacity as he had served his Mapai predecessors, as a member of his personal staff. This would of course now involve, as it would for any civil servant, drafting speeches and letters at variance with those he had supported before. (Actually he says that Begin always wrote his own speeches, even those in English, merely asking Avner to "shakespearize" them.) So Avner notes without comment Begin's assertions that Judea and Samaria were not Occupied but Liberated Territories; that he would encourage Jews to settle there; and that under no circumstances would he have any dealings with Arafat. This put him at odds with President Carter: the passionate, history-soaked and rhetorical lecture he delivered to the President on his visit to Washington in 1977 is given at unremitting length. As Secretary of State Cyrus Vance would say ruefully, Begin was not only a man of his word, but a man of many words! And we are given many such throughout the book, including an hour's tirade to the American ambassador, overriding every attempt of the ambassador's to get a word in edgeways, when the US criticized the annexation of the Golan Heights, and an elaborate commentary to the UN General Assembly on a passage in the Book of Isaiah. Sincere though he was, Begin was also a conscious actor, which that ex-thespian President Reagan recognized when he asked him how any persuasive statesman could not be an actor?
Avner tells us in his Author's Note that he has taken some liberties when recreating some speeches and dialogues, but trusts they capture the spirit of what was said. He often resorts to clichés ("he huffed", "she hissed" etc. He even tells us that Secretary of State Haig's "sharp eyes narrowed" when speaking at a meeting with Reagan at which Avner was not present). But, that apart, the book is always lively, at times riveting, at others moving. And there are many gems: among them, to name just a few, a touching meeting between crippled Israeli and Egyptian veterans; descriptions of antisemites and philosemites among the British upper class; a graphic one of what it is like to be inside a tank; and many amusing ones.
So the book is a superb read. Begin was a doughty, charismatic and remarkable man; the portrait Avner gives of him is many-sided and memorable. He clearly worshipped him, and that is his good right; but I did not take to his consistently adulatory tone about him.