Yehuda Avner, diplomat and aide to Israeli prime ministers, dies at 86

Yehuda Avner, a former Israeli diplomat and aide to a string of prime ministers who turned his insider stories about the country's leaders into a best-selling memoir, has died.

Avner, who was 86, died Tuesday after a battle with cancer, his family said.

The British-born Avner immigrated to Israel when he was 17. He later joined the Foreign Ministry and was assigned to the prime minister's office.

He served as an adviser and speechwriter to the country's leaders for some three decades beginning with Levi Eshkol in the 1960s through Shimon Peres in the early 1990s, said David Sable, his son-in-law. During that period, he also served as Israel's ambassador to Britain and Australia.

"Everybody he spoke to walked away and felt they were his friend," Sable said. "He had this ability to connect with you, whether it was the queen of England, the prime minister of Australia or the guy who cleaned the pews in the synagogue. He had an incredible connective ability. That's what made him such a good diplomat."

In 2010, Avner published his book, "The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership," in which he shared stories of working alongside major Israeli leaders like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin as well as world figures like Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Margaret Thatcher and the legendary rabbi of the Chabad movement, Menachem Mendel Schneersen.

Perhaps his favorite story, Sable said, was attending a dinner at the White House with President Gerald Ford and Rabin. Avner, who was an observant Jew, received a special kosher meal that attracted so much attention that Rabin told the president it was Avner's birthday. Ford then led the room in a rendition of "Happy Birthday Yeduha," using a misspelled version of his name on his dinner-table place card.

After the meal, Avner told Rabin that it wasn't his birthday. Rabin told him he had made up the story because he did not want the Israeli public to learn he had eaten a non-kosher meal.

In a 2010 interview with the online Jewish magazine Tablet, Avner said he put the book together based on handwritten notes he had scribbled during the many meetings he had attended. Avner said the notes were meant to be used for the official records of these meetings. "However, I never threw away those scribbles. I confess I was naughty," he said.

The book was a surprise success and made Avner a popular figure on the lecture circuit late in life, Sable said.

Avner leaves his wife and four children — a son and three daughters.