I recently finished reading Yehuda Avner's memoir, The Prime Ministers, which was published last year to some positive reviews. It is a hefty volume of 703 pages not including notes and index. Avner was a British Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1947 and after the 1948 War of Independence worked briefly on a religious kibbutz in the Galilee before he joined the Israeli foreign service. Eventually, because of his native English, he ended up serving as a wordsmith to four Israeli prime ministers from 1963 to 1983 before he finally became Israel's ambassador to his native country. The years covered in this book were important ones in Israeli history: they included four major wars (1967, 1969-70, 1973, 1982), the peace process between Israel and Egypt in the 1970s and the change in alliance by Israel from France to the United States.
Clearly the peace process was not a theme that Avner considered important. He has a chapter on it in his section on Rabin (which only covers Rabin's first term as prime minister from 1974 to 1977) and a couple of chapters on it in the half of the book that he devotes to Menahem Begin. The book's major themes are the relationship with Washington and the individual personalities of the prime ministers. Whereas I felt that I did learn something about Levi Eshkol, the first prime minister to follow David Ben-Gurion in 1963 and about whom little has been written, I cannot say the same about Golda Meir. A long chapter is devoted to an interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. Yet of President Sadat's peace initiative of February 1971 that Meir abruptly rejected we hear nothing. So we have no way of knowing whether or not it was genuine in his opinion. Likewise, Henry Kissinger's separation-of-forces agreements of 1974 are just mentioned in a single sentence in passing.
The real revelation in the book is the story of a meeting between Avner and a childhood friend of Kissinger's who became a noted psycho-analyst. The latter diagnosed Kissinger as suffering from severe problems from his abrupt exile from Germany at age 15 during the Nazi period. Avner illustrates this with an incident where the man calls out to Kissinger using his original German name Heinz. Kissinger pretends to ignore him but with a look of disgust on his face--for the painful memories that the name has dredged up. The psycho-analyst tells Avner that Kissinger is ashamed of his Jewish background and will compensate for it in his shuttle diplomacy by bending over backwards to appease Israel's enemies. Avner advised Rabin of this diagnosis. But it never affected Rabin's personal friendship with Kissinger and Rabin continued to visit him every time he visited Washington. And the two were quite friendly during the signing ceremony for the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty at the White House in March 1979.
Fully half the book is devoted to Begin's premiership. Avner relates many telling incidents of Begin's personality that paints the man as friendly with traditional Jews but prickly with both foreign Jews and some secular Israeli Jews. Avner relates several incidents of Begin telling of figures whose government's are sympathetic to Israel such as Margaret Thatcher and her foreign minister, Lord Carrington, as well as Ronald Reagan and Casper Weinberger. Nothing here is really new--there is little of real novelty to reveal about Begin after the wave of biographies that appeared in the late 1970s, after he was elected, and after 1983, when he resigned from office in a severe depression.
Avner relates in great detail the ceremonies that accompanied the start of Sadat's 1977 peace initiative from his reception in Jerusalem to the breakdown of talks in Tel Aviv in January. But then he just relates that the talks broke down and he doesn't take up the story again until the ceremony on the White House lawn in late March 1979. He skips over the trip to Ismailiya in December 1977, the Leeds Castle talks in July 1978 and the Camp David Summit in September 1978 as well as Carter's summit diplomacy in March 1979.
The only topic that is really adequately covered is the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. But the treatment is again not analytical but rather personal and anecdotal. He relates a summit at Johnson's Texas ranch in early 1968, a White House dinner for Rabin in September 1974 when Rabin told a white lie about it being Avner's birthday to cover up the fact that the dinner wasn't kosher (in accordance with Jewish dietary laws).
One gets the feeling that if Avner's career been a couple of decades later he could have happily related the exploits of Shamir, Netanyahu, Barak, and Sharon. But the book would have been much longer because he would have been writing about three Likud premiers and only one Labor premier. It's a pity--Shamir still lacks a biography in either English or Hebrew. Today Netanyahu allows his foreign minister to do his insulting for him. Begin and Meir did it themselves.
If Avner's publisher had possibly been willing, he could have fleshed out the section on Meir and released the book in two volumes about six months or a year apart. But usually authors are the servants of publishers, not the other way around. This book is recommended for Americans who want anecdotes about the Israeli premiers of this period, but not for Americans interested in the peace process.