The Triumph and Tragedy of Abba Eban

Seventy-three years ago this week, Israel appointed a thirty-three-year-old former professor as its UN representative. The rest is history—and bears a lesson for today.

Abba Eban at a press conference in September 1970. Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images.

Abba Eban at a press conference in September 1970. Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images.

Observation
May 20 2021
About the author

Rick Richman is a resident scholar at American Jewish University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic. He is the author of Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler (Encounter Books, 2018).

On May 21, 1948—a week after its Declaration of Independence, as it fought an invasion from five Arab armies—Israel designated a thirty-three-year-old scholar of Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian literature named Aubrey (“Abba”) Eban as its UN representative. He was the youngest representative there.

Five days after his appointment, Eban appeared before the UN Security Council, responding to the Arab rejection of the UN’s cease-fire resolution. His words were historic: “The sovereignty regained by an ancient people, after its long march through the dark night of exile,” he said, will not be “surrendered at pistol point.” And therefore:

It becomes my duty to make our attitude clear, beyond ambiguity or doubt. If the Arab states want peace with Israel, they can have it. If they want war, they can have that too. But whether they want peace or war, they can have it only with the state of Israel.

By the fall of 1948, the Jewish Chronicle in London was reporting that Eban had impressed “friend and foe alike with his quiet and able marshalling of Israel’s case” and Commentary that he had “won respect in all quarters for his intellectual ability, the cogency and precession of his advocacy.” Then on May 5, 1949, when he addressed the General Assembly on Israel’s application for admission in the UN, his presentation, as the Guardian later noted, “had journalists and commentators reaching for superlatives” and made him “a world figure overnight.”

The Security Council had endorsed Israel’s admission application with a nine-to-one majority (Britain abstaining). But before the General Assembly’s confirming vote, the seven Arab UN members succeeded in having the issue delegated to an ad-hoc committee, where they could continue to fight diplomatically what they had lost militarily the previous year. In his autobiography, Eban described the burden that had suddenly fallen on his shoulders:

I was now personally directing a political operation that had no precedent in international history. No other state had ever been called upon to secure its membership in the international community through a process of cross-examination, advocacy, and rebuttals.

In front of the committee, under television klieg lights, Eban expressed his anger at the spectacle of the Arabs sitting in judgment of the state they had sought to destroy, after it had established itself under the UN’s 1947 two-state resolution:

We are as one who, having been attacked in a dark street by seven men with heavy bludgeons, finds himself dragged into court only to see his assailants sitting on the bench with an air of solemn virtue, delivering homilies on the duties of a peaceful citizen. Here sit representatives of the only states which have deliberately used force against a General Assembly resolution . . . posing as the disinterested judges of their own intended victim.

It is a cynical maneuver. In the name of those who have been killed, maimed, blinded, exiled, or bereaved by that cynicism, I express our most passionate resentment at this insincerity.

Eban laid the burden of the war directly on the shoulders of the Arab nations who had decided to wage it: they were, he said, “responsible for every death, for all the bereavement and for all the panic and exile which has resulted from that futile and unnecessary conflict.” He sat at the table for a total of nine hours. At the conclusion of his presentation, he declared that Israel’s UN application was a world-historical moment, as ancient Israel had contributed fundamental values to civilization, and now:

A great wheel of history comes full circle today as Israel, renewed and established, offers itself, with all its imperfections but perhaps with some virtues, to the defense of the human spirit against nihilism, conflict, and despair.

The speech generated applause at the UN and electrified public opinion in Israel. A week later, Israel became the 59th member of the UN, by a vote of 37-12. For the next decade Eban served simultaneously as the new country’s UN ambassador in New York and its U.S. ambassador in Washington (1950-1959). Then he was Israel’s education minister for three years (1960-1963), deputy prime minister for three years (1963-1966), and finally foreign minister for nearly a decade (1966-1974).

Eban’s UN speeches—from the 1949 address on Israel’s UN admission to his address after the 1973 Yom Kippur War—spanned 25 years and have an eloquence unequalled by any diplomat during that period. The historian Conor Cruise O’Brien, who sat next to him in the General Assembly representing Ireland, called Eban “the most brilliant diplomatist of the second half of the 20th century.” And Alfred Friendly wrote in the Washington Post in 1977 that no one in Israel’s history “ever projected to the world its essence and its anguish, its vision and its spirit, in nobler and more exalted terms.”

But shortly after his Yom Kippur War address, Eban lost his ministerial position in Yitzḥak Rabin’s new government, and he never again held an influential post. He served in the Knesset, chairing its foreign-affairs committee, but that position had no real power. By 1988, he was so low on the Labor-party slate that he was not re-elected. Humiliated, he retired from political life, relocated to New York, and devoted himself to teaching, writing, and speaking.

His meteoric rise and dramatic fall presaged a tragedy that extended beyond his personal political career, and it holds a lesson for today.

 

On May 10, 1951, along with David Ben-Gurion, Eban spoke at a Madison Square Garden rally for Israel Independence Bonds. The event drew an audience of 20,000 people, with thousands in the overflow crowd outside. Eban titled his presentation “The Voice of the Trumpet Exceeding Loud,” a phrase from Exodus 19:19 describing the Lord’s appearance in Sinai. In a single paragraph, he summarized what had happened in the preceding three years:

Here is a people which defended its life, its home, and its open gates against the fury of a powerful foe; set up an oasis of democracy, liberty, and progress in a wilderness of despotism and squalor; . . . received into its shelter 600,000 of its kinsmen coming out of the depth of insecurity and want; . . . began to explore and uncover the hidden resources of its soil which had lain neglected for long centuries past; caused water to gush forth in the most primeval wilderness of recorded time; extended the foundations of its industrial progress; embarked upon one of the great cultural adventures of history, to create out of diverse and remote citizens a unified society in the tongue and the spirit of Israel’s past; established its banner in the family of nations and gave utterance to Israel’s immemorial yearning for world peace.

Eban’s extraordinary eloquence and intelligence were evident not only in his prepared presentations, but also in his extemporaneous appearances. On April 12, 1958, Mike Wallace interviewed him for nearly half an hour on primetime television. He introduced Eban as “a scholar, a linguist, . . . and a veteran statesman at the age of forty-three” and then proceeded, in the prosecutorial style he later perfected on 60 Minutes, to ask a series of increasingly pointed questions:

Wallace: Mr. Ambassador, in its ten years as a nation, Israel has been involved in repeated violence—major border incidents, two open wars with the Arabs, the first in ’48, the last in ’56. What do you foresee for the next ten years: do you foresee continuing violence?

Eban: Well, Mr. Wallace, the last ten years have not only been years of violence; they have been incomparable years of joyous creation; of sovereignty restored; of the people gathered in; of the land revived; of democracy established. But there has also been violence imposed by the hostility of our neighbors. For our second decade, we devoutly hope . . . that we and our kindred neighboring people will devote all our efforts to the development of our respective countries and of our common region.

Wallace suggested that peace required the resolution of the underlying issues with the Arabs, starting with the refugees:

Wallace: An estimated 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were left homeless during the Arab-Israeli war of ’48. Israel refuses to re-admit them. They live in bitterness, and such men as historian Arnold Toynbee has said this: “the evil deeds committed by the Zionist Jews against the Arabs are comparable to crimes committed against the Jews by the Nazis.” How do you feel about that?

Eban: [I]t is a monstrous blasphemy. Here he takes the massacre of millions of our men, women, and children and he compares it to the plight of Arab refugees [who are] alive, on their kindred soil—suffering certain anguish but of course possessed of the supreme gift of life. . . . The refugee problem, Mr. Wallace, is not the cause of tension. The refugee problem is the result of an Arab policy . . . which created the problem by the invasion of Israel, which perpetuates it by refusing to accommodate [the refugees] into their expanding labor market, and which refuses to solve a problem which they have the full capacity to solve, . . . once the will to relieve it existed.

Eban’s next great moment came with the 1967 Six-Day War. On the second day of fighting, he gave an address to the UN that has been called one of the great diplomatic speeches of all time. The war broke out when Israel finally acted to escape the Arab military encirclement that had begun in mid-May, with open Arab declarations of an imminent campaign to destroy the Jewish state, and had become increasingly ominous. Eban left Jerusalem the day the war began—June 5, 1967—and spoke to the UN Security Council in New York the next day, with the speech carried live on TV.

Eban began by evoking “the point at which our fortunes stood” the day before, when a huge army had massed on Israel’s southern frontier. He told the UN:

Nasser had provocatively brought five infantry divisions and two armored divisions up to our very gates; 80,000 men and 900 tanks were poised to move. . . . An international route across the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba had been suddenly and arbitrarily choked. Israel was and is breathing only with a single lung.

Every house and street in Jerusalem . . . came into the range of fire. . . . [S]o also did the crowded and pathetically narrow coastal strip in which so much of Israel’s life and population is concentrated. Iraqi troops reinforced Jordanian units in areas immediately facing vital and vulnerable Israel communication centers. Expeditionary forces from Algeria and Kuwait had reached Egyptian territory. . . . Syrian units, including artillery, overlooked the Israeli villages in the Jordan Valley. . . . In short, there was peril for Israel wherever it looked.

Eban described the “apocalyptic air” in Israel as it watched its total encirclement, without any significant response from the international community, and hearing with his own ears Nasser’s May 26 speech: “We intend to open a general assault against Israel. This will be total war. Our basic aim will be to destroy Israel.” Citing Israel’s inherent right of self-defense under the UN Charter, Eban said that “[n]ever in the history of nations has armed force been used in a more righteous or compelling cause” than in Israel’s action in response.

Eban added that he would be “less than frank” if he were “to conceal the fact that the government and people of Israel have been disconcerted” by the UN role and “traumatically affected by this experience,” particularly the sudden withdrawal of the UN Emergency Force in the Sinai without consulting Israel—which enabled the Egyptian attack. “What is the use of a United Nations presence,” he asked, “if it is in effect an umbrella which is taken away as soon as it begins to rain?”

Eban also argued that Jordan, backed by the Soviet Union, had no standing to demand that Israel return to the pre-war boundaries, because Jordan “gambled with destiny, [and thus] incurred the full responsibility of unprovoked war.” But there was an even more compelling reason to reject such a return, because it would be a withdrawal to “the same situation out of which the conflict arose”:

the same frontiers, and therefore the same insecurity, the same blockade of waterways, the same belligerent doctrine, the same divided city, the same choked access on vital roads, the same confrontation of unseparated armies, the same guns on Syrian hills threatening settlements in the valley, the same arms race and, above all, the same absence of peace treaties. . . . Such proposals . . . are prescriptions for renewal of conflict.

As for what should happen after the war, Eban noted that “we hear many formulas”—“back to 1956, back to 1948,” and that “our neighbors would wish to turn the clock back to 1947.” But the clock of Middle East peace, he said, should move “not backward to belligerency, but forward to peace.”

Britain’s Jewish Chronicle published a tribute to Eban’s UN performance, writing that his diplomatic effort had been as important as Israel’s military one: “Israel’s victory in the Middle East war was applauded by a great part of the free world, not merely because she had performed an astonishing feat of arms but primarily because [through Eban] she had established the justice of her cause.”

The New York Times profiled Eban two weeks after the speech, with an extended excerpt from another address he had given the day before, and compared him to the most consequential orator of the century:

More than one observer, peering down at [Eban and] the proceedings in the tall Assembly chamber, thought of the comparison to Winston Churchill sending the English language to war in 1940.

In 1973, the Yom Kippur War began with a massive unprovoked attack by Egypt and Syria on Saturday, October 6, 1973—which was both Shabbat and Yom Kippur. In Washington, Eban received a telegram at 6:20 a.m. from Jerusalem, telling him Israel had learned that the Egyptians and Syrians would launch an attack within hours. Eban’s close working relationship with Henry Kissinger is apparent from the four telephone conversations the two of them had that day.

Kissinger later published the transcripts in his 2003 book, Crisis. The first call was at 8:25 a.m., ten minutes after Egypt’s foreign minister had called Kissinger to assert that Israel had attacked Egypt in a naval action in the Suez. Eban told Kissinger he knew of no Israeli attack on any Egyptian forces. They spoke again 25 minutes later, and then, in their third call in an hour, Eban definitively denied the Egyptian story. He told Kissinger:

The PM [Golda Meir] asked me to tell you that the story of naval action by us at the Gulf of Suez is false. Her Hebrew vocabulary is very rich and she poured it out.

In their fourth conversation that day, Eban called Kissinger to say he had a report on Syria’s actions, and Kissinger told him to “get it to me as soon as possible”—because “[i]f you give it to our people” there would be copies “in Damascus before I see it.”

By 10 a.m. the next morning, Eban and Kissinger were discussing a joint strategy for proceedings before the UN Security Council. During the day, Egypt moved across the Suez Canal; Israel suffered heavy losses of aircraft and tanks; Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told colleagues he thought Israel was about to be destroyed. At the UN, Eban indicted Egypt and Syria’s morality, legal position, and their fake cover story for their new war:

The premeditated and unprovoked assault . . . on the Day of Atonement . . . will surely rank . . . as one of the basest and most odious acts for which Governments have ever been responsible. [The 1967 cease-fire] is an international agreement . . . accepted by Egypt, Syria, and Israel, in response to a decision of the Security Council . . . Egypt first invented an imaginary sea battle with imaginary Israeli ships, at an imaginary place, at an imaginary time: the most dramatic nonexistent battle in the history of war.

Eban then explained that what was “deeply impressed on our minds,” and would be “engraved in our memories,” was the “kind of adversaries we face,” who would attack an enemy on the holiest day of its year. And for precisely this reason, he continued, “no security concern can be exaggerated.” Moreover, it was “vital that Egyptian and Syrian forces shall not be allowed to remain anywhere beyond the [1967] cease-fire lines,” because they could only be modified “by negotiation and peace.” He drew a lesson from the war that is still instructive:

Imagine that in a mood of suicidal stupidity we had gone back to the previous armistice lines; . . . then the attacks of October 6 . . . would have done such destruction to our vital security that perhaps Israel and all its people, and all the memories, hopes, and visions which have moved our history, might now all be lost. . . . How right we were to insist on negotiating with the utmost precision the boundaries of a peace settlement! How wrong were those who counseled us otherwise!

Eban’s speech articulated the principles that would guide Israel for the next half-century: (1) there could be no retreat to what he had previously termed the pre-1967 “Auschwitz” borders; (2) statements of Arab hostility would henceforth be taken at face value; and (3) peace could be achieved only in direct negotiations between the parties, resulting in new, agreed-upon boundaries.

In April 1974, after the Yom Kippur War and an official report that harshly criticized the government’s failure to anticipate it, Golda Meir announced her resignation as prime minister. Eban—uncriticized in the report and having a record spanning two-and-a-half decades of public service at the highest levels—believed he was the one best suited to succeed her. He had achieved an extraordinary international reputation; he had more diplomatic experience than any other potential successor; he was brilliant and accomplished, fluent in Arabic (as well as Farsi, French, German, and several other languages), and only fifty-nine years old.

But the very qualities that led to his success in the diplomatic arena—his British background, his elegant speeches in refined English, his stately bearing, his long periods of residence in the United States—were political liabilities in Israel. For many Israelis, he was virtually a foreigner, a long-winded orator, fluent in perfectly punctuated but non-colloquial Hebrew; his Labor colleagues denigrated him as pompous and pretentious. As Meir’s successor, the party chose not an eloquent, foreign-born, distinguished diplomat, but rather almost the exact opposite: a Jerusalem-born sabra who silently projected strength, a military hero from the 1967 war: Yitzḥak Rabin.

After the 1974 election, Rabin formed a government with nineteen ministers in his cabinet—and pointedly excluded Eban. It was a humiliating dismissal, delivered in an insulting way: he first heard about it on the radio.

In his farewell speech at the Foreign Ministry, Eban said it “matters very much, not only what Israel’s policies are, but how they are expressed.” Policies presented without “moral incisiveness and intellectual elevation,” he continued, would not succeed. Then he left the building—and it would be “over two years before I was emotionally capable of entering [it] again.”

In the years after 1974, he held various visiting professorships, wrote books and articles, and worked from 1979 to 1984 on a nine-part public television series, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, which he both wrote and narrated, accompanied by a book of the same name. He wrote essays and op-eds in which he criticized Israel’s course in the Lebanon war, and consistently urged Israel to take a conciliatory stance toward the Palestinians.

By 2000, at age eighty-four, Eban was suffering from both Parkinson’s disease and severe aphasia, a horrific condition that prevented him from communicating. In the following two years before his death, he was unable to leave his home. He received the Israel Prize, the state’s highest honor, in 2001—27 years after leaving the Foreign Ministry. But he was too ill to attend the ceremony, much less to write or deliver an acceptance speech, and his wife Suzy accepted the prize on his behalf.

 

Eban was, in the words of his biographer, Asaf Siniver, “one of the greatest communicators of his century.” In 1979, Kissinger wrote in the first volume of his memoirs that:

I have never encountered anyone who matched his command of the English language. Sentences poured forth in mellifluous constructions complicated enough to test the listener’s intelligence and simultaneously leave him transfixed by the speaker’s virtuosity.

Eban’s eloquence . . . was allied to a first-class intelligence and fully professional grasp of diplomacy. He was always well prepared; he knew what he wanted. He practiced to the full his maxim that anything less than 100-percent agreement with Israel’s point of view demonstrated lack of objectivity.

After losing re-election to the Knesset in 1988, Eban retired from public life and left the country. In an interview with an Israeli journalist, Eban recounted that:

The party retired me against my wishes, and I found it mentally difficult to be there with no reason to wake up in the morning. Nothing was offered to me. They thought that I should retire, and that’s it. I had nothing to contribute, and nobody asked me to, either. . . . If I had stayed there, I have no doubt that I would have suffered, mentally and physically. It was a tragic situation.

Eban died a poor man, assisted financially in his last years by a small group of generous admirers; his extraordinary diplomatic accomplishments—as important to Israel as its military ones—were recognized with a prize awarded so belatedly that he had to receive it in total silence. His political tragedy was that the same talents that led to his diplomatic success contributed to his political failure at home. But his tragedy extends beyond his personal one. It reaches into the center of Middle East history.

In September 1948, during his first year as Israel’s UN representative, Eban published an essay in Commentary entitled “The Future of Arab-Jewish Relations: The Key is the Cooperation of Equal and Separate States.” In it, he contended that the 1948 war had demonstrated that “Arabs and Jews need each other for any progress or any escape from deadlock,” and he set forth the intellectual basis for the partition of Palestine into two states: “there are two peoples in Palestine, each with separate national aspirations.”

The fact, Eban continued, that partition “offered something infinitely precious to the Jews” should not obscure the huge “gifts which it bestowed upon the Arabs”—ones that could have been obtained without a war:

Nine hundred thousand [Palestinian] Arabs . . . were offered the chance of living in a purely Arab state. Two purely Arab states—Transjordan and Arab Palestine—were to be established on seven-eighths of the territory originally set aside [for] a Jewish national home. . . . [M]any a Palestine Arab may come to compare this prospect, which was peacefully available, with the results of the “holy war.” These results include the invasion and decimation of Arab Palestine; the panic-stricken flight of its population with its leaders in the van; occupation by rival Arab armies with frank aims of annexation; social and economic disintegration; and the collapse of all corporate Arab life. In this manner have Palestine Arabs been saved by their Arab “friends” from their Jewish “enemies.”

Eban concluded that anyone who, in the future, helped the Arabs recognize Israel’s permanence would be deemed “in the historic sense, a friend of the Arabs”—because such recognition would free the Arabs to live in their own state and concentrate on their own welfare.

Three decades and three wars later, with his career in the Foreign Ministry over, Eban published a 628-page memoir, in which he claimed that the Palestinian issue was the key to solving the Arab-Israeli dispute, and that it could be resolved, he thought, by a withdrawal from the disputed territories: “The territories are Judea and Samaria,” he wrote, “but this does not make the Arab inhabitants Samaritans or Judeans.”

He thus became an outspoken advocate of the “peace process,” pushing Israel to start it and pushing it once it did. In 1998, in his last book, Diplomacy for the Next Century, he asserted that “the Middle East had been irreversibly transformed” by the process, since it now enabled the Palestinians to “take possession of their destiny and go forward in peace and hope.”

Given his medical condition in 2000 and his death two years later, we do not know what Eban would have said about Yasir Arafat’s rejection of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000, and the launching of a second intifada instead; or Arafat’s rejection of the Clinton Parameters in 2001; or the Palestinian failure to implement even the first phase of the 2003 “Road Map”; or the repeated rocket wars from Gaza after Israel disengaged in 2005; or the rejection of the Israeli offer of a state at the end of the Annapolis Process in 2008; or Mahmoud Abbas’s repeated vows, during the eight Obama years, “never” to recognize a Jewish state; or the sight-unseen rejection of any Trump administration’s peace plan; or the failure to establish any of the institutions necessary for a peaceful state, or even to hold an election in the last decade and a half; or the current barbaric barrage of rockets on civilians in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other Israeli cities.

But in considering these things, perhaps Eban would have recalled his 1947 conversation with Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, which he had recounted in his Commentary article. Regarding a Jewish state in a portion of Palestine, Pasha had told him:

“By the logic of our history we shall fight it. . . . We once had Spain and Persia. If anyone had come . . . and asked us to surrender Spain or Persia he would have received the same negative response as I now give you.” In a later moment [Pasha] confessed that the Arabs had become used to not having Spain and Persia. They might, he said, become used to not having part of Palestine—or else they might attempt a century-old irredentism and work up a crusade.

The hundred-year battle that Pasha foresaw has lasted three-quarters of a century so far. For the Palestinians, the goal of the “peace process” was never “two states for two peoples,” a formulation they repeatedly rejected, since they refused to endorse the idea that Jews were a “people” entitled to a state. The Palestinian formulation of the goal was “ending the occupation that began in 1967”—a phrase intended to distinguish the other “occupation,” which they believed began in 1948.

From the Palestinian standpoint, it was a “Pasha process”—an attempt to return to 1947 by pressing two interconnected demands to which they adhered throughout: (1) an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines (to reverse the 1967 war), and (2) an asserted “right of return” to Israel (to reverse the 1948 one). They sought to turn history back to a world before Israel existed, not forward to one with two states.

Eban’s most famous observation—that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity—thus missed the point: a Palestinian state in a portion of the Land was not the opportunity their leaders sought. They viewed the creation of Israel, pursuant to a 1947 UN resolution that recommended both a Jewish and an Arab state, as their continuing catastrophe (nakba)—not their missed opportunity to create their own state, at the same time, pursuant to the same resolution.

One of Eban’s insights in his 1977 memoir explains the peace accords that four Arab countries—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco—signed in 2020 with Israel, bringing the number (with Egypt and Jordan) to six, with three more—Oman, Qatar, and Mauritania—on the brink, and with normalization with Saudi Arabia in sight: just shy of a majority of all the Arab states in the world. As Eban noted in his memoir, those countries have no national interests of their own in Palestine—certainly not ones that dwarf their national-security needs, given the hegemonic threat of Iran; nor more important than their substantial commercial interests, given the benefits of aligning with Israel’s extraordinarily successful economy.

Eban’s ultimate tragedy—and that of the 24,000 Jews and 91,000 Arabs killed in war after war after war—was that while Eban spoke eloquently about peace in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, he had no one to talk to on the other side. A Palestinian counterpart never emerged who shared the vision he laid out 73 years ago, during his first year at the UN. Perhaps during the coming 27 years, if diplomatic recognition of Israel continues, and a century of self-defeating Palestinian irredentism comes to an end, the Palestinians will produce an Eban of their own, willing to endorse his 1948 vision, and to do so in three languages—speaking the same words to the Palestinians, the Israelis, and the world.

Then the Pasha process can be replaced by a peace process; the peace that Eban sought so articulately in his exceptional 26-year diplomatic career may become possible; and the tragedy of Abba Eban can begin to end.

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More about: Abba Eban, Israel & Zionism