Water for Israel tops former ambassadors agenda

The former Israeli ambassador to England and Australia believes water is the key to self-reliance, peace and stability in the Middle East.

With that in mind, Yehuda Avner, a winner of the Israel Prize, stopped in San Francisco at the end of a recent whirlwind U.S. tour to raise money for his thirsty homeland.

The adviser to four prime ministers was stumping on behalf of Israel Bonds for a desalination project. Now in his 70s, Avner, who appears much younger, shows no sign of slowing down.

"I'm hyper," he said cheerfully, minutes after landing in San Francisco.

This tour was all about water for a parched land, and that fires him up. "It begins with our own domestic needs, the past five years of partial and full drought," he said. "But I predict if we do not resolve the problem of water on a regional basis, we will never see stability."

Avner was only 17 when he emigrated from his native England to the Jewish homeland in 1947, the year before statehood.

Years later, he stood by his friend, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the infancy of the peace process. His career as a diplomat saw him defending Israel during its most delicate and vulnerable times.

He was working in London when the Sunday Times reported eight forged British passports intended for Mossad secret service hit men had been discovered in West Germany.

Foreign Office Minister Timothy Renton protested to Avner and secured an apology, with assurances that such a debacle would never occur again. "That was the worst," he said, shaking his head.

"Then there was [Israeli nuclear technician and whistle-blower] Mordechai Vanunu — a guy who gave me many interesting moments."

In 1986, Vanunu told the London Times that Israel was secretly stockpiling nuclear weapons. Vanunu was kidnapped and taken back to Israel, getting 18 years for treason.

But Avner is not about to discuss his celebrated diplomatic skills — or the moments that have taxed them. Push him, and he attacks with a mute smile that grows ever steelier as the silent seconds pass.

Avner, who was also an unofficial liaison between the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and the Israeli government, would rather talk about the prime ministers he has served.

Levi Eshkol, prime minister from 1963 until his death in Jerusalem in 1969, "was the unspoken hero of the Six-Day War," Avner said. Eshkol, "a real Yiddishist," matched military support with liberal policies. "The defense forces were the child of that man."

Then came Golda Meir, who held the post until 1978.

"With Golda, what you saw was absolutely what you got," he said. Yet, "she was riddled with contradictions. She was a loving bubbe, filled with compassion. But she was the only man in the government. Ruthless. Universally Jewish, but a fierce socialist."

At her request, he accompanied her to the Golan Heights, witnessing the "terrible casualties" that ensued from the 1973 Yom Kippur War — the beginning of her political undoing.

"The carnage was unbelievable," he recalled. "Five kids, white from top to bottom, were preparing their tank. The most disturbing thing about them was their red eyes. A boy said, 'Is it all worth while?' I never saw a sadder face on a person. She said, 'If it's only for us, I'm not sure. For the Jewish people, yes.'"

Rabin, "the first sabra prime minister we ever had," was a longtime friend of Avner's.

"Rabin was an introvert, shy, analytical. He could not tell a lie," he said. "An army man, he learned about public life in America as an ambassador to Washington [from 1968 to 1973]. No small talk. A man of few words, but an extraordinary gift for conceptualizing."

But Menachem Begin was "the very opposite of Rabin in every way," Avner said. "Outgoing, passionate, loquacious."

Avner fully expected to be dismissed by Begin.

"As a career diplomat, I am a civil servant," Avner said. "But Begin had lost every election he ran in for 30 years. I thought he would clean house, put in all his own people."

In addition, Avner and Begin had belonged to rival army factions in pre-statehood days. Avner fought in the Haganah. Begin headed a fierce offshoot called the Irgun, which took reprisals on Arabs and Brits, and blew up British government offices, military installations and police stations.

"There was no love lost between the two [organizations]," Avner said. "I was brought up with an absolute distrust of Begin." Yet he appreciated Begin's faith in his skills, and found his tenure with him "exciting."

Returning to the topic of the desalination project, he said support in the Golden State is as lush as a lagoon, particularly since Israel has numerous trade and scientific agreements as well as high-tech partnerships with California.

Avner "just knows everyone," said Ricki Nickel of Israel Bonds.

During his visit, he lunched with Israeli Consul General Daniel Shek, and shared insights with p50Rabbi Brian Lurie, president of the Jewish Museum San Francisco, about President Clinton's meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Avner acknowledges support for Israel here. Yet he reluctantly admits there are some things Americans can't appreciate about daily life in Israel, including the stresses. With a grandson stationed in southern Lebanon, and a daughter who was in Buenos Aires when the Israeli embassy was blown up, he knows those stresses well. "You don't know what it is to listen to that radio every hour on the hour, waiting for some news," he said.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.