Saturday 3 December 2016

Yehuda Avner

Israeli ambassador to Ireland and Britain who also advised Begin, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

NFLUENCE: Yehuda Avner in London in 1983
NFLUENCE: Yehuda Avner in London in 1983

Yehuda Avner, who has died aged 86, worked as an adviser to five Israeli prime ministers and served as Israel's ambassador to Ireland and Britain from 1983 to 1988.

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In 2010 he published a memoir, The Prime Ministers, detailing his experiences at the heart of Israeli policymaking and bringing to life the personalities with whom he worked and the world events he witnessed.

These, naturally, included Margaret Thatcher whom he got to know well after taking up his post in London after the attempted assassination of his predecessor Schlomo Argov by members of Abu Nidal's Palestine splinter organisation. At the same time he was appointed non-resident ambassador to Ireland.

Noting that Thatcher's government contained an unprecedented number of Jewish cabinet members, Avner found the prime minister to be a good friend to Israel and at their first meeting she readily agreed to pay an official visit to his country in 1986 - the first ever made by a serving British prime minister. "In turn, we accorded her the kind of reception normally reserved for heads of state," he observed.

In an article in the Jewish Chronicle in 2007 Avner recalled a lunch at 10 Downing Street which he had attended with Israel's prime minister Menachem Begin, shortly after the 1979 election, at which Mrs Thatcher had confided to Begin the reasons for her admiration of Jewish people.

"It has to do with my Methodist upbringing," she told Begin. "Methodism, you see, means method. It means ­sticking to your guns, dedication, determination, reverence for education - the very qualities you Jews have always cherished." Mrs Thatcher's eyes, Avner reported, were "ablaze with enthusiasm".

She went on: "Your marvellous Chief Rabbi here, Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, recently said that the term 'an illiterate Jew' is an oxymoron. How right he is. He has such a high moral stature, such an inspiring commitment to the old-fashioned virtues, like community self-help, individual responsibility, personal accountability - all the things I deeply believe in."

Then, "with sudden exasperation", Mrs Thatcher exclaimed: "Oh, how I wish our own church leaders would take a leaf out of [the Chief Rabbi's] book. Do you know, in all the many years I've represented Finchley, my parliamentary constituency, which, as you know has a high proportion of Jewish residents, I have never once had a Jew come to me in poverty. They are always so well looked after by their own. And that is absolutely splendid!"

In fact, Avner already knew Britain well, having been born and brought up in working-class Manchester. He was born Gubbi Haffner into an Orthodox Jewish family in the Strangeways district of Manchester on December 30, 1928, changing his name to the Hebrew Yehuda Avner after emigrating to Jerusalem in 1947. While attending Manchester High School and the London School of Journalism, he joined Zionist youth groups and, after travelling to Palestine, he fought in the siege of Jerusalem during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War following the establishment of Israel.

He joined the Israeli civil service and in 1958 was appointed to Israel's foreign ministry. After an early posting in Washington, in 1966 he became a personal adviser and speech-writer to David Ben-Gurion's successor, Levi Eshkol, a straight talker who once crossed out an entire section of a speech Avner had written, describing it in Yiddish as "stam narishkeiten" - "absolute nonsense". Avner went on to work in a similar capacity for Eshkol's successor Golda Meir, whom he recalled as "a daunting woman" who, despite her ignorance of military matters, became Israel's greatest war leader.

He got on well with Golda Meir's successor Yitzhak Rabin, with whom he had already worked when Rabin was ambassador to Washington. It was Rabin who, when Israel elected its first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, in 1977, urged him to accept an offer of a job with Begin. "He said: 'Take it. Begin's an honest man, a responsible man and he's your kind of Jew'," Avner recalled.

Rabin was right and Avner found it thrilling to work with Begin, "because he was the quintessential Jew… After years of working for diehard socialist, secular Jews, suddenly I was working with a religious man like myself - a man who would say: 'Yehuda, go home, it's almost Shabbat'."

Avner returned to Israel in 1988 and, under Yitzhak Rabin's second ­administration, from 1992 to 1995, he served as Israel's ambassador to Australia. Rabin had been re-elected as prime minister on a platform embracing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He had famously shaken hands with the PLO leader Yasser Arafat, explaining to Avner, when he asked, that with Islamic fundamentalism sweeping through the Middle East, he felt Israel had little option but to gamble on Arafat's brand of secular Palestinian nationalism.

After his tour of Australia, Avner was expecting to return to Rabin's office as his adviser: "I was due to begin working with him on Sunday," he recalled. "On Saturday night he was assassinated."

Avner's final job was with Rabin's successor and long-time rival Shimon Peres, whom he found difficult to work for: "We would be in a meeting and Peres would say: 'I think we should have a world convention on this subject. Yehuda can you arrange it?' Then bye-bye, and off he would go."

In 1953 Avner married Mimi Cailingold, who survives him with their son and three daughters. He died on March 24.

Sunday Independent

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