There are usually two types of books when the main topic is Israel: the more didactic history books, infused with geopolitics and war tactics, or the live biographies and war stories, filled with emotional beliefs and personal anecdotes. The Prime Ministers is the only book I have read so far, concerning Israel, that is able to blend both types in the most dynamic and lively style.
The author, Yehuda Avner, who died this year, left us the most beautiful, exciting, fast paced and sentimental account of a very important slice of Israel´s history. Through his exceptional writing skills, and through his own eyes and personal experiences, he gives the reader the unique opportunity to live, feel and go deep into the thoughts and deeds of Israel’s most respected leaders. I was hypnotized by the book from the moment I started reading it. From everything I have read so far, about everything imaginable concerning Israel, The Prime Ministers is incomparable.
Yehuda Avner served as a speechwriter, advisor and diplomat for several of Israel´s prime ministers. He is not affiliated to any political party, which in turn served him right, for he stayed connected to the inner circles of Israeli politics during both left and right wing tenures. His book is basically divided in four parts, each part dealing with a specific prime minister he worked with: Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Ytzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin.
As I mentioned, the book is a mix of history and anecdotes. Each event is described with the background of how it came to be; what was the thinking process or the story behind it. Each event or anecdote is written with the perfect amount of detail, and you get to feel a real connection to what is happening. In Israel´s history, not everything is logical or rational, events are shaped by personal beliefs, and each leader’s persona is truly felt and understood among the pages. It is as interesting to read about a walk with Harry Truman or a kosher dinner at the White House, as it is to read about the cabinet meeting prior to entering Old Jerusalem during the Six Day War or the state of mind of Golda Meir and her generals at Yom Kippur War.
Even though Avner is not a member of any political party, he does not hide his political views or preferences throughout the whole book. I find that aspect added a great deal to the book. Avner was there, seeing with his own eyes history being shaped, listening to the prime ministers´ rationale or feeling their emotions at sorrowful as well as joyful times. In view of that, I believe it´s a privilege to read about Avner biased opinions. Everyone has their own political and personal views, and although it´s not fair to say this, some are more entitled than others speak them aloud. In the case of Avner, he´s a full right wing supporter, and Menachem Begin was his personification of the perfect blend between decisiveness, humility, ethics and religious observance.
One my favorite chapters in the book deals with the bombing of nuclear reactor Osirak in Iraq, ordered by Menachem Begin in 1981. Avner described wholeheartedly the decision facing Begin among the tensions and pressured of those times. Bombing Osirak could cause a major war in the Middle East to break out, and not bombing it would create a major nuclear threat to the State of Israel and its democratic allies in the world. The United States, Israel’s principal ally, was demanding restraint and the Labor Party was urging Begin to wait and see. If the attack went wrong it would be used against Begin in the next elections, and if it were successful they would say Begin did it only to win the elections. Besides all those issues, there wereintelligence matters still to be answered: In how long will the reactor be ready? Is now the right moment to attack? Is Saddam capable of launching it? If we attack, how should we go about it? What are the political backfalls of such a decision? And on it goes. At the end, Begin’s decision was a product of his whole life. Being a survivor of the prisons of Russia and witness to the Holocaust, a point came when there was no doubt in his mind that a second Holocaust, a nuclear one, will not happen under his leadership or in the future, only because he failed to act when he had the chance. The chapter ends with the prime minister blessing the pilots who fulfilled the mission successfully and flawlessly.
There is no book that can describe historic events like The Prime Ministers. History is made by people, by leaders, who have their own views, which were shaped by their own unique past. And Avner is able to describe each event with the full spectrum of the serving prime minister’s personality and perspective. Avner gives us the most valuable and amazing insights to the events and the commanders in chief that determined some of Israel’s major decision points, literally making history alive.