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Abba Eban and Diplomacy

21 November 2002

By Yisrael Ne’eman

One of Israel’s foremost diplomats, Abba Eban, died this week.  Eban was a master of oratory, a successful author and foreign minister from 1966 – 74.  Politically he was on the left wing of Labor and despite his great popularity among Diaspora Jews he was not particularly loved in Israel.  Quite the intellectual he was often accused of speaking above the average Israeli and beyond his comprehension.  Eban spoke ten languages but as one observer wise cracked “He speaks them all at once.” 

A colleague of his recounts the story of the two of them walking up several flights of stairs to meet with a certain VIP when Eban asked what language he was to address the dignitary.  “Italian,” responded the colleague.  “But I don’t know Italian,” responded Eban.  “Abba, you still have time to learn, there are another four flights until we arrive,” he shot back.

Eban had a dry sense of humor and often chided Israel’s leadership for not having a sense of humor at all.  He was of the opinion that a revolution (including Zionism) has not succeeded until the leadership can laugh at themselves, their heroes and the everyday complex situations of nation building.  He had a point as he lived through many a period when Israelis woke up in the morning and turned on the news to find out if we were all still here.  This is the only country in the world where people constantly ask themselves whether the state will survive.  He saw nothing unusual about poking fun at Jewish idiosyncrasies.

But most of all he was a diplomat.  As ambassador to the UN in 1956 he made one of the most brilliant, convincing speeches in favor of Israel’s actions against Egypt during the Sinai campaign.  Speaking with PM Ben Gurion later he related his personal protests and objections to the government actions taken against Egypt.  “I had my doubts as well,” related Ben Gurion, “until I heard your speech.”  Apparently the humorless Ben Gurion could also manage a quip.

His appearances at the UN during the 1967 Six Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War were memorable especially when confronted by extreme Arab and Russian hostility.  Today he is best remembered for his intensive diplomacy before the 1967 conflict where he met with western leaders in a desperate attempt to avoid a conflict.  He was optimistic and believed US President Johnson along with the French and British would break the oil blockade on Eilat, force an Egyptian withdrawal from Sinai and put a halt to Syrian shellings.  He truly trusted the West and international diplomacy.

When western promises proved empty Israel struck depending only on itself, destroying the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armed forces.  Eban took up the battle in the UN and around the world on Israel’s behalf after having been let down by the West. 

There has got to be a lesson in here someplace.