Oscar-winning filmmaker Richard Trank helmed this documentary, which is the first of a two-part production focusing on the complex individuals that ran the Israeli government following its creation in 1948. Yehuda Avner, a British-born Israeli diplomat, serves as the on-screen narrator and offers a unique insider view of how Israel maneuvered its way through the regional conflicts in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Strangely, the film offers relatively little in-depth consideration of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Instead, its focus begins with the tumultuous administration of Levi Eshkol, who led the nation during the 1967 Six-Day War. Avner provides an amusing recollection of how Eshkol traveled to Texas to meet with Lyndon B. Johnson at the president’s ranch in order to discuss military equipment sales – Eshkol, who had worked on a kibbutz, showed his familiarity with cattle ranching to the surprised Johnson, and the men quickly bonded to the point that Johnson hushed Secretary of State Dean Rusk and negotiated unilaterally with the Israeli leader.
Avner offers generous praise on Eshkol’s successor, Golda Meir, who led the nation through a period of terrorist reprisals and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Although many Israelis questioned Meir’s leadership in that difficult era, Avner points out that Meir often faced a hostile world that was unwilling to assist Israel. Indeed, when President Richard Nixon agreed to fly military equipment to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, no European nation would allow the American flights to land for refueling.
The film offers clues of the nasty in-fighting between various leaders within the Israeli government, most notably with longtime Foreign Minister Abba Eban receiving the brunt of rude criticism from Yitzhak Rabin, the military leader who became Ambassador to the U.S. However, Avner is not shy about acknowledging that Rabin’s English skills were initially weak when he arrived in Washington, thus creating some hiccups in diplomatic communications.
One quibble with the film comes in the slightly distracting use of highly recognizable Hollywood voices echoing the words (but not the distinctive cadences) of the Israeli leadership: Leonard Nimoy as Eshkol, Sandra Bullock as Meir, Michael Douglas as Rabin and Christoph Waltz as Menachem Begin. But beyond that, “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers” offers a fascinating and wholly original view of Israeli history.