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The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner

A groundbreaking insider account of Israeli politics from the founding of the Jewish State to the near-present day, told by a former adviser to a succession of Israeli heads of state. The book reveals stunning details of historic life-and-death decisions and brings readers into the orbits of legendary figures such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana and the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner
The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner

The Presidential Encounter

 

The prime minister’s motorcade made its way to Blair House, the official guest residence across the street from the White House, escorted by police outriders through streets bedecked with Israeli flags. The next morning, at 10:30 prompt, to the martial salute of an army, navy and air force guard of honor, Prime Minister and Mrs. Begin were driven at a stately pace to the South Lawn of the White House, there to be greeted by the President and Mrs. Carter amid pageantry so grand as to make the send-off at Ben-Gurion airport appear provincial.

The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner
The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner

Under a cloudless sky, the Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps paraded across the flag-bedecked South Lawn, to the delight of over two hundred guests. Led by a standard-bearer carrying the troupe’s tasseled colors, to the trill of tiny flutes and the staccato beat of the drummers, the white-liveried Corps drilled in flawless formation, drawing up before the presidential platform for review as a nineteen-gun salute thudded imperiously through the air, commanding everyone’s silence.

The president delivered his welcoming remarks with perfectly chosen words, going out of his way to praise Menachem Begin: “To me, having read the writings and the biography of our distinguished visitor, there is a great parallel between what Israel is and what it stands for, and what Prime Minister Begin is and what he stands for. He is a man who has demonstrated a willingness to suffer for principle, a man who has shown superlative personal courage in the face of trial, challenge, and disappointment, but who has ultimately prevailed because of the depth of his commitment and his own personal characteristics.”

Then he singled out for acclaim Begin’s “deep and unswerving religious commitment. This,” he said with surprising familiarity, “has always been a guiding factor in his consciousness and in his pursuit of unswerving goals. There is a quietness about him, which goes with determination and a fiery spirit in his expressions of his beliefs to the public. And that is how it should be.”

So moved was Begin by the conviviality of the welcome that he declaimed the opening words of his response in an impromptu and lyrical Hebrew, saying, “Mr. President, I have come from the Land of Zion and Jerusalem as the spokesman of an ancient people and a young nation. God’s blessings on America, the hope of the human race.”

Yechiel Kadishai, next to whom I was placed in the line-up, gave my arm a monstrous pinch of satisfaction, and Ambassador Sam Lewis, three or four paces away, threw me a huge wink and made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, as if to signal, ‘Right on the ball!’ Perhaps Lewis had had a hand in the composition of the speech. Certainly, the whole reception reflected his attitude; that honey will go a lot further than vinegar.

The prime minister stood on the platform in pleased surprise. Such praise! Such honor! So unexpected! So moved was Begin by the conviviality of the welcome that he declaimed the opening words of his response in an impromptu and lyrical Hebrew, saying, “Mr. President, I have come from the Land of Zion and Jerusalem as the spokesman of an ancient people and a young nation. God’s blessings on America, the hope of the human race. Peace unto your great nation.”

He then continued by extemporizing in English with equal zest about how “we, in Israel, see in you, Mr. President, not only the first citizen of your great and mighty country, but also the leader and defender of the whole free world.” He dwelt much on Israel’s struggle for peace, and how the free world was shrinking in the face of the Soviet threat. “Democracies can be likened in our time to an island battered by bitter winds, by stormy seas, by high waves,” he surged. “Therefore, all free men and women should stand together to persevere in the struggle for human rights, to preserve human liberty, to make sure that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Yehuda Avner. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Yehuda Avner. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Eager applause was subsumed in the sustained beat of the drums, and not a person stirred as the marine band, their instruments, buckles, straps, and insignia glistening brilliantly in the sunshine, struck up “Hatikva” and then the “Star Spangled Banner.” Whereupon, the president took Begin lightly by the elbow and said, “Come, let us start our talks.” The rest of us fell into step, and followed them at a respectful distance into the White House. An easy smile played at the corners of President Carter’s mouth as he opened the talks by saying, “Mr. Prime Minister, we are all pleased and honored that you are with us. And, as you know, there is a great deal of excitement and anticipation to see how well you and I get along together. There are dire predictions.”

The smile widened into a considerable grin.

“Oh yes, our newspapers back home are predicting big fireworks today,” laughed Mr. Begin, humor glinting in his eyes.

“Fireworks? This is July the nineteenth, not the fourth. No firework displays today,” said the president.

The laughter around the grand oak conference table was genuine. Coffee was served and the president and the prime minister sipped for a moment in silence. We were sitting in the Cabinet Room, an austere, colonial-style oblong chamber with off-white walls, one of which bore a life-size portrait of Harry S. Truman hanging over a mantelpiece. The only real splashes of color in the room were the golden drapes of the windows and the presidential banners standing in a corner, suspended from silver standards. The hush in the old room was magnified by the clinking of the china, the discreet chitchat of the officials and the muffled drone of a plane overhead.

Leaning forward in his chair and bringing his charm to bear, Carter resumed his words of welcome: “I am delighted that tonight we shall be having supper together. We have invited fifty-nine people. That’s the largest dinner we’ve had since I took office. So many Americans want to meet you. And I have asked the prime minister” – this to his aides – “to give me some more of his time after supper, so that we can have a private chat, to get to know each other a little more.”

“It will be my honor,” said Begin, bowing his head to his host.

The president peered at his notes and speaking forcefully now, said, “So now I shall begin.”

The Middle East, he explained, was a very high priority of his administration, and if a settlement could not be accomplished in 1977 it would be more difficult to attain after that. America wanted to be an intermediary who would win the trust of all parties, Israel and the Arabs alike. Therefore, whatever he was sharing with the prime minister today he had already conveyed in exactly the same terms and with exactly the same connotations to the Arab leaders whom he had met earlier – Sadat of Egypt, Hussein of Jordan, and Assad of Syria.

He emphasized that his administration was abandoning the strategy of his predecessor, President Gerald Ford, and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, whose policy had been to try and achieve a slow, incremental, step-by-step process toward peace. Now the time was ripe for a comprehensive peace settlement, a complete solution of the Israel-Arab conflict. With this as the goal, a conference of all the parties should be convened as soon as possible at Geneva. And for this to take place there was a need for a general agreement by all the parties on a few basic principles. These, he had already aired with the Arab leaders.

First and foremost, he said, was the principle of the acceptance of the 1967 UN Security Council Resolution 242 as the legal basis of the conference. However, he, President Carter, had decided to expand upon that Resolution and to take it a step further. In its original version it merely called for “an end of the state of belligerency” as the object of an Arab-Israel negotiation. This was insufficient. Now, he was widening its connotation to mean a full-blown peace settlement. In other words, the object of the Geneva talks would be a genuine and comprehensive peace.

“And how did the Arab leaders respond to that?” asked Begin.

“It is a difficult concept for them to accept,” replied Carter candidly, “but they did not disavow it.”

As if reading his mind, the president ran his eyes down his notes and said almost casually that on the territorial issue, Israel, clearly, would have to withdraw from occupied territories to new borders, which would be secure and mutually recognized.

The prime minister could not resist an enigmatic smile, and he leaned back with excessive nonchalance. This was good news! No American president had ever defined 242 this way before; none had envisaged an Israel- Arab peace settlement as categorical as this. But Begin kept his counsel. He wanted to hear more. He wanted to know what the president had to say on the other two issues which preyed heavily on his mind – the land issue, meaning the territorial integrity of Eretz Yisrael, and the issue of the Palestinian representation at Geneva, meaning the exclusion of Arafat’s PLO.

As if reading his mind, the president ran his eyes down his notes and said almost casually that on the territorial issue, Israel, clearly, would have to withdraw from occupied territories to new borders, which would be secure and mutually recognized. On the future of the Palestinians, the Arab leaders had told him they should be treated as a separate nation. His position, however, was that they should have a ‘homeland’ tied to Jordan, not an independent state. But there was no actual concrete plan. And as for the procedural question of the Palestinian representation at Geneva, the Arab leaders themselves were not of one mind. Egypt and Jordan thought the Palestinians could be part of the Jordanian delegation, while Syria preferred a single Arab delegation negotiating as a single body.

At this point President Carter leaned forward and examined the faces of his colleagues. “Anybody else have anything to add?” he asked.

“It seems not, Mr. President,” said Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, speaking on behalf of them all. He squeezed his long, tired face into something resembling a smile of approval, and confirmed, “You’ve summarized it all very accurately.”

The president turned back to Begin with eyes which seemed to express more challenge than curiosity, and said, “The floor is yours, Mr. Prime Minister. We are eager to hear your concepts. What role do you want us to play? What ideas do you have about Geneva? What’s your thinking on the question of Arab good faith – and your good faith, for that matter? What can your government do to encourage the Arabs to place their trust in you?” And then, in a rarefied southern way, “And, oh yes, I have to add that not everybody really trusts America either, do they?” suggesting vaguely that Begin was one of them. “But I can promise you one thing, Mr. Prime Minister, with all my heart” – his eyebrows had risen with his avowal of sincerity – “we shall try, we shall honestly and truly try, to act as best we can for the sake of peace. Hence, we are keen to hear your feelings and your thinking.”

With deference, Menachem Begin expressed his gratitude for the president’s reception, and then, drawing his lips in thoughtfully, stated, “Before I address myself to the important issues you raise, I have something significant to say about Ethiopia.”

All the Americans looked up sharply. Carter drew a breath. His mouth seemed suddenly thinner, his lips tighter. “Ethiopia?” he said.

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