When Ambassador Yehuda Avner entered the Israeli Foreign Service in the 60s, he was quickly summoned to the prime ministers bureau because of his language skills.
"I became the official note taker, or the unofficial note taker," Avner said. "Because I was in charge of English language drafting and note taking and correspondence and speechwriting, I kind of became the collective memory…from one prime minister to the next."
And indeed he did go from one prime minister to the next. For the next 25 years, he worked for five Israeli prime ministers: as speechwriter and secretary to Prime MinistersLevi Eshkol and Golda Meir, and as advisor to Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Shimon Peres.
He took so many notes that he developed his own shorthand, and he never threw away those pages of what he calls "shorthand scribble." Files of notes turned into drawers which turned into boxes. Eventually he had enough material for a 700 plus page book.
His book, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership (The Toby Press, LLC), Avner offers an inside look at the first 50 years of Israel's political history from the founding of the Jewish State to the near-present day. The book, written in 2010, has become a bestseller, was named a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and will soon be made into two motion pictures: a dramatic adaptation, and a documentary by Academy Award-winning Moriah Films.
"It was only when I had finished the book that I realized that I had written the first 50 years of Israel's history," Avner said. "I intended to try and bring back to life episodes…to tell the story of the history rather than the history itself."
Avner considers himself a storyteller rather than a historian, reenacting episodes in which various prime ministers faced stressful situations.
"One night in the middle of the night I suddenly woke up with the thought, 'hey, I've got a book here,'" he said.
During his lengthy and impressive career, Avner was a first-hand witness to major events in Israel's history and worked with many of what he calls the "larger-than-life champions of the Jewish people." To him, one in particular stands out among the rest: "For reasons which the reader will discover as the story unfolds, the most exceptional among them, in my eyes, was Menachem Begin," he wrote in his Author's Note.
So what does someone like Avner, having been such an integral part of Israeli politics and history, hope for Israel's future?
"My hope is for peace," he said, "and I shall tell you when peace will happen. When our Palestinian neighbors unite, and there won't be a Hamas, there won't be a Fatah, there will just be a single entity and they will declare to their own people in Arabic that Israel is the legitimate nation state of the Jewish people. In other words they will recognize not only our existence, but our legitimacy. When that will happen? I don't know if it will be in my lifetime, I'm in my 80s, but it will happen one day."
Born in Manchester, England in 1928, Avner arrived in British Mandatory Palestine in 1947. He fought in the Siege of Jerusalem in the War of Independence, and was among the founders of Kibbutz Lavi in the Galilee. He moved to Jerusalem in 1956 and joined the Israeli Foreign Service in 1958.
During his lengthy diplomatic career, he also served in positions at the Israeli Consulate in New York and the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. In 1983, he was appointed Israeli Ambassador to Britain, and from 1992 to 1995, served as Israeli Ambassador to Australia.
On Tuesday, May. 15, Ambassador Yehuda Avner will speak to the King David Society at a program for people who give a minimum gift of $25,000 to JUF's Annual Campaign. The registration deadline is Monday, May 7.
To learn more about the event or the JUF's King David Society in general, contact Patti Frazin at (312) 357-4878 or PattiFrazin@juf.org.