‘Ours is a merciless and unforgiving neighborhood’

‘Ours is a merciless and unforgiving neighborhood’

Questions for… Yehuda Avner

An adviser to five prime ministers, Ambassador Yehuda Avner will bring a lifetime of insights about Israel with him when he speaks at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston on Tuesday, Nov. 27.

A native of Manchester, England, Avner moved to Palestine in 1947 and fought in Israel’s War of Independence a year later.

He has been Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Ireland, and Australia and served as a speechwriter and consultant to Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Shimon Peres.

Avner is also the author of two books, The Young Inheritors: A Portrait of Israel’s Children (1984) and The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership (2010).

The latter book is now the basis for two movies — a documentary that will be released in the spring of 2013 under the aegis of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a feature film being produced by Crystal City Entertainment that will make its debut in 2014.

The Kushner program is sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Avner spoke with NJ Jewish News from his office at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

NJJN: How has the role of prime minister changed since the days you worked for Eshkol, Meir, et al?

Avner: Compared to the present generation, those in the past were tried and tested with tremendous challenges, sometimes life-and-death challenges such as the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. The state’s existence was being challenged. The new generation — Ehud Olmert, Bibi Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni — none of them had that kind of an experience. They came of age after the Holocaust and World War II and the state was established by the time they had matured. They are far better educated than their predecessors, but, like the rest of the world, they are far more materialistic. All of their predecessors, with the exception of Begin, were socialists. We are now in a period when socialism has been totally sidelined.

NJJN: Given the disaffection between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, did you as an adviser to five prime ministers observe similar tensions between them and previous American presidents?

Avner: Time and again. I can go back to when Golda Meir rejected a peace plan by then Secretary of State William Rogers. We had our differences with Henry Kissinger when he was secretary of state.

When Gerald Ford was president he virtually threatened Prime Minister Rabin with sanctions. Virtually every president and prime minister have had differences of opinion at one time or another.

NJJN: Do you think that President Obama will be able to reinvigorate the peace process in his second term?

Avner: To what extent in Obama’s second term will the Israel-Arab issue be high on his agenda? My gut instinct is that it won’t be. I wish someone would whisper in Obama’s ear, ‘Come to Israel and seek to persuade our Palestinian neighbors to recognize Israel’s legitimacy’ — kind of the equivalent of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat coming to Jerusalem to make peace with Prime Minister Begin. But it would be wrong to heighten expectations.

NJJN: Do you see the possibility of peace with the Palestinians?

Avner: No. The Palestinians have to say 10 words that will change the course of history: “Israel is the legitimate nation-state of the Jewish people.” Until they recognize us as a legitimate nation-state with our culture and our history and our roots, the notion of peace — like the Canadian-American border — is a total eccentricity here in the Middle East.

NJJN: How would you describe the challenges Israel faces now?

Avner: We live in a very merciless and unforgiving neighborhood which is in total tumult at the moment. We are living in the long shadow of Islamic fundamentalism, which has totally doused the hopes of an Arab Spring and the idealistic voices of Tahrir Square [in Cairo].

The Muslim Brotherhood has come into power [in Egypt], so wherever you look, from the Khyber Pass in Pakistan to the Straits of Gibraltar, you see these convulsions.

NJJN: Do you see a likelihood of a military engagement with Iran?

Avner: I am neither qualified nor authorized to express an opinion. It is a delicate matter.

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