With a parliamentary system marred by a series of fractious political parties and beset by conflicting forces within and without, the tiny country of Israel is difficult ship for any prime minister to steer.

Offering a behind-the-scenes look at that history and a national narrative marked by international struggles and American pressure, a new book by veteran diplomat Yehuda Avner reveals key hurdles faced by four Israeli leaders over the course of three decades.

From the onset, Avner – whose dealings on behalf of Jerusalem brought him into frequent contact with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – makes very clear his reverence for one of the most contentious of Israeli leaders, Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In The Prime Ministers, an Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership, Avner tells of the red graffiti sprawled across a synagogue wall in Manchester, England, during the struggles before the establishment of Israel, when the English ruled the territory known then as Palestine and the future prime minister Begin was denounced by the British. Soon afterward, Avner decided to move to the Holy Land.

Over the course of more than 700 pages, Avner’s story weaves through the corridors of Israeli and international politics, beginning with the 1968 visit of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol with U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson at his Texas ranch. Avner, whose diplomatic career saw him carry the titles of prime ministerial speech writer, adviser, and Israeli ambassador to the Court of S. James and Australia, candidly describes not only that meeting, but the minutest details of off-the-record conversations and later encounters in the West Wing of the White House.

Avner, who served Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, kept a detailed diary and archived papers from all of his dealings, including a note written by Johnson to Secretary of State Dean Rusk during that 1968 meeting. The crumpled note dealt with America’s decision, despite Soviet ammunitions being sent to Arab countries, to not supply Israel with arms following the Six Day War in 1967.

“Dean, Go slow on this thing, L.,” was all the note contained, but it offered the Israelis a slight peek into internal discussions in Washington. By the end of the meeting, the Americans agreed to assist the Israelis.

Throughout Avner’s career, the Rebbe was intimately involved in Israeli political and social issues, and revealed to the diplomat his knowledge of Israeli military and educational affairs. Separately, the Rebbe kept up correspondence with a broad spectrum of Israeli officials.

Looking back at his meetings and correspondence with the Rebbe, Avner writes in his book that the Jewish leader’s commitment to Israel was an extension of his love of the Jewish people.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a theologian,” writes Avner regarding the Rebbe’s well-known non-Zionistic approach to Israel, “not a political Zionist.”

But if “Zionism is an unconditional, passionate devotion to the Land of Israel and to its security and welfare,” he continues, “then Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was a fanatical Zionist.”

Avner, left, served as an adviser and representative to four prime ministers, including Yitzhak Rabin.
Avner, left, served as an adviser and representative to four prime ministers, including Yitzhak Rabin.

In the book, Avner touches on just one private audience he had with the Rebbe, coming just after Begin’s visit to President Jimmy Carter. As Begin’s personal representative, Avner briefed the Rebbe on all that took place in Washington.

“My presentation, his interrogation, and his further clarification took close to three hours,” writes Avner. “By the time we finished it was nearly two in the morning. I was utterly exhausted, but not the Rebbe, he was full of vim and vigor.”

The Rebbe instructed Avner to relay to Begin that “by maintaining [his] firm stand on [the Land of Israel] in the White House, [he had] given strength to the whole of the Jewish people.”

“You have succeeded in safeguarding the integrity of [the Land of Israel] while avoiding a confrontation with the United States,” the Rebbe told Begin by way of Avner. “That is true Jewish statesmanship: forthright, bold, without pretense or apology. Continue to be strong and of good courage.”

In an interview, Avner said that the Rebbe harbored no political ambitions.

“If by political ambition, you mean to go into politics, he was above it all,” said Avner. “The Rebbe would not know what those two words meant. All the Rebbe was about was education, and we did speak a lot about education.”

Click here to read a chapter from Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers. And here for an exclusive interview with the veteran Israeli diplomat.